European winemakers who come to the United States will tell you they are not trying to make burgundy in Oregon or replicate bordeaux in Napa Valley. Rather, they aim to craft world-class pinot noir from the best sites in the Dundee Hills or exemplary cabernet sauvignon from Rutherford. Their focus is the vineyard. Their region, to a large extent, defines their brand, and its value must not be diluted. Location, location, location.
Not so for Peter Gago, chief winemaker for Penfolds, Australia’s iconic winery. When Gago brought his team to the United States to create a new series of wines, they weren’t just making California vino. They unabashedly set out to make Penfolds wines in California.
“California sun above, and California soil below,” Gago explained in a recent Zoom chat. “But everything in between is Penfolds.”
Founded in 1844, Penfolds has always blended wines from various vineyards and even regions to achieve a consistent house style and expression. The strategy has been successful in creating a large line of wines with high quality up and down the price range. Penfolds Grange, widely considered one of the world’s finest wines, sells for $850 a bottle. The current release, 2016, should begin reaching peak maturity in another 25 years. Meanwhile, the Koonunga Hill line is priced for everyday drinking at $14.
The Penfolds California Collection, released in early March, follows this model: Four wines from the 2018 vintage that are essentially Penfolds but with an American accent. “They have the Penfolds stamp, applied to raw material over there,” Gago said. And yet there’s a twist to this plotline that epitomizes the “no boundaries” Penfolds approach. Two of the wines include a significant proportion of Australian fruit.
Even some of the raw material has an Australian pedigree. Penfolds purchased land in Paso Robles, Calif., in 1998 and planted vineyards using vine cuttings from the company’s two most-prized vineyards, Magill Estate and Kalimna, in Barossa. Gago and his team were also able to use fruit from several vineyards in Napa Valley owned by Treasury Wine Estates, Penfolds’ parent company. Treasury’s Napa brands include Beringer, Beaulieu Vineyard, Sterling, Provenance and Stags’ Leap Winery.
The first wine, called Bin 600, is a blend of cabernet sauvignon from Napa and shiraz (syrah) from Paso Robles. The cabernet-shiraz blend is a Penfolds signature, as is the use of American oak barrels. “We have extolled the virtues of American oak more than Americans have,” Gago says. He uses combinations of French and American oak, with varying proportions of new and used barrels, to differentiate wines in the Penfolds lineup.
The Bin 704 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, is aged in French oak. Like the Bin 600, only 40 percent of the barrels were new. Older barrels add less wood tannin, leaving the wine softer and easier to drink at a young age.
For Bin 149, Gago wanted to make a higher-end, age-worthy Napa cabernet using fruit from Rutherford, Calistoga and Oakville aged in all new barrels, mostly French. But the blending trials weren’t going well until he decided to add a little top-quality cabernet from Australia that the team had on hand for comparison. The final blend is about 15 percent Australian fruit, and features what the winery calls “brazen Penfolds markers” of “mocha and kirsch.”
Quantum Bin 98 was intended to be the top of the California Collection, but blending wasn’t going well there, either, Gago said. Adding the same Aussie cabernet didn’t help, but some Grange-quality shiraz worked. So Quantum, aged in all new, mostly American oak barrels, is 87 percent Napa cabernet from Oakville and Diamond Mountain District, plus 13 percent South Australian shiraz.
The Bin 149 and the Quantum are labeled “Wine of the World” to showcase their trans-Pacific origins. “We didn’t go to Napa to create this,” Gago says. “It came out organically during blending.”
Combining juice from two countries is not unprecedented, but it is unusual. It may happen more often than we realize with lower-end bulk wines. But it fits perfectly with Penfolds’ no-borders, house-style philosophy.
And the wines work. The Bin 600 costs $50, and the Bin 704 is $70 — not inexpensive, but in line for price and quality with a lot of Napa Valley wines. The Bin 149 is more ambitious at $149, and the Quantum costs a whopping $700. That’s Grange pricing, so maybe it will appeal to Grange collectors who don’t want to wait two decades. Quantum is opulent, jammy and velvety — the vinous equivalent of that joy you feel when picking berries and stuffing more in your mouth than in your basket.
Will these wines be sustainable? The 2019 wines are already in bottle, but the 2020 vintage in Napa was heavily affected by wildfires, so quality fruit is scarce.
As for “wines of the world,” Gago hinted at Penfolds projects underway in Bordeaux and Champagne, so stay tuned.
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