In a locked wine cabinet in Penfolds’ Shanghai office there’s a precious bottle of Grange from the 1953 vintage, the year President Xi Jinping was born. “It was intended as a gift for the President last year,” says Penfolds’ chief winemaker, Peter Gago.
That didn’t happen, of course: Shanghai is one of many global cities the famously jet-setting Gago was unable to travel to in 2020. Following China’s punitive trade action on Australian wine in November – with Penfolds by far the most important brand affected in that $1 billion export market – the opportunity of presenting the birth-year bottle receded even further.
But just imagine, says Gago with a twinkle: if he was able to share that rare ’53 Grange, President Xi might respond favourably to the fine wine diplomacy and relax the tariffs. “Those sorts of things are what we have to be doing,” says Gago. “Not letting government people antagonise each other.”
Gago says he shouldn’t be talking about China. We are, after all, at a preview tasting of Penfolds’ new collection of premium wines from California: four reds, ranging from a $90 shiraz cabernet blend (not reviewed here) to the ambitious Quantum, with its Grange-like $950 price tag.
For most of the tasting Gago manages to stay on-message, spruiking the Californian story. But we keep glancing over at the 200-per-cent-tariff-shaped elephant in the room. Which could explain why Gago seems unusually defensive about the timing of this new release being a distraction from the company’s China woes.
“A lot of people are saying, ‘Oh that’s very convenient’. But it’s not gimmickry, it’s not ‘Wave a magic wand, what do we do now we don’t have China?’ This is something a long time in the making.”
Penfolds – or rather its parent company, now known as Treasury Wine Estates – has been involved in the Californian wine industry for, as Gago puts it, “a third of a century”, when the Australian wine business took a 50 per cent stake in Sonoma winery, Geyser Peak.
“In 1997, we also bought land at Camatta Hills, east of Paso Robles,” says Gago. “We planted 200 acres in 1998 and another 200-plus the following year, including one block using cuttings taken from our vineyards at Magill, and at Kalimna in the Barossa.”
Thanks to a succession of mergers and acquisitions, Gago and his team of winemakers have, since 2005, also been able to access parcels of fruit from a growing number of the Napa Valley’s most prestigious vineyard areas. There were plans, he says, to launch a Penfolds Californian range in the mid-2000s but it didn’t eventuate; now, with four reds from the 2018 vintage being released in March, Gago’s long-time dream has become reality.
It’s not the first or only international Penfolds winemaking venture. In 2019 the company released a joint venture champagne brand with Thienot, a champagne house near Reims. In the same year, Treasury Wine Estates also bought a chateau in Bordeaux, with plans to release Penfolds-branded wines made there by 2023.
Towards the end of the tasting of the California Collection, the new wines have been well received, and any expected controversy hasn’t eventuated. But still Gago is pre-empting criticism, making the case for how these new international developments are very much in keeping with a long Penfolds tradition – how the brand itself, for example, was founded in 1844 by someone who travelled 12,000 miles (19,000 kilometres) from England to the other side of the world.
So, is Penfolds making wine in California being un-Australian? “No,” says Gago. “We are playing in many continents continually. This is our world now. From an Australian perspective, this could be a wonderful thing.”
2018 Penfolds Bin 704
Napa Valley $120
Peter Gago calls this a “hemispherical mirror image” of Penfolds Bin 407 Australian cabernet sauvignon: it’s inky, blackcurranty and intense, with grippy tannins, great focus and length.
2018 Penfolds Bin 149
Napa Valley/South Australia $220
Cabernet from some top Napa vineyards blended with just under 15 per cent South Australian cabernet: voluminous, expressive purple fruit perfume, leading to a bear-hug of oak and tannin.
2018 Penfolds Quantum
Napa Valley/South Australia $950
Top Napa cabernet blended with 13 per cent Australian shiraz: dense and closed right now, you glimpse the layers of complexity – coffee, roasted meats, cigar, blackberry – that’ll unfurl over time.