Penfolds' Peter Gago Talks Blending California and Australia

The veteran chief winemaker discusses the new California wine project and what the Aussie icon hopes to accomplish in similar global projects

Penfolds' Peter Gago Talks Blending California and Australia
Peter Gago believes the new Penfolds California wines combine Aussie know-how with California terroir. (Courtesy Penfolds)
Feb 22, 2021

The most famous Down Under winery has gone Up Above. Australia's Penfolds recently unveiled its latest endeavor, a lineup of four California-based wines from vineyards in Napa, Sonoma and Paso Robles. The move came as the company decided to combine the Penfolds know-how with the vineyards its corporate parent, Treasury Wine Estates, has accumulated around the globe.

These four new wines, with prices ranging from $50 to $700, expand the portfolio of wines Penfolds makes outside of Australia, which includes a venture in Champagne that debuted in 2019; the company is also exploring a possible upcoming collaboration in Bordeaux. Chief winemaker Peter Gago chatted with senior editor MaryAnn Worobiec about bringing an Australian approach (and even some blending wine) to the States and about how the California wines took shape.

Wine Spectator: How did the California wines come about?
Peter Gago: This is a project that started one third of a century ago, back in 1988, when the original Penfolds Wine Group bought half a share in Geyser Peak. Our American endeavors accelerated back in 1997, when we bought land near Paso Robles, what we call Camatta Hills. We planted it with Shiraz cuttings from the Kalimna and Magill Estate Vineyards in Australia.

We made some wine out of the 2006 vintage and 2007 that we actually bottled. But the then-CEO said no [to a release]. It was really Michael Clarke [the CEO who retired in 2020] who reinitiated the program. What never stopped were the vines at Camatta Hills and the aspiration to do something very strongly Penfolds in California.

Another catalyst in all of this was the Beringer Blass amalgamation back in 2005—not just Beringer, not just Etude's vineyards, but the acquisition of some Diageo properties more recently, some of the best vineyards in Napa. So we thought, Hang on, why should Penfolds start looking to buy and acquire more land, and plant more land and wait another 20 years in Napa when we have vineyards [in our company]?

So we've gone to our colleagues: "Look can we have ten rows of that, and can we have a block of that?" We've been able to assemble already mature fruit at the highest of levels all over Napa. The best of the best. Because, of course, part of the Penfolds philosophy is you don't just release any old wine. You start at the top, and it's a top down approach.

WS: Can you walk us through the different bottlings, and what defines them?
PG: The Bin 600 Cabernet Shiraz California is always Cabernet dominant. The 2018 is 78 percent Cabernet and 22 percent Shiraz. We're looking at 40 percent new American oak. There are grapes in there from Napa, Sonoma and Paso Robles. The tannins are a little bit different than the Australian version of this wine, 389.

The Bin 704 Cabernet Sauvignon is from Napa, and we're looking at a huge array of fruits right across the AVA. This will draw people in who are familiar with the Napa style, but it's through a Penfolds prism. This is all French oak.

[We named the Bin 149 Cabernet] because it ended up being 14.9 percent Australian Cabernet. We're looking at grapes from Rutherford, Calistoga, Oakville, and 14.9 percent is the highest quality Cabernet from Australia.

For the Quantum Bin 98 bottling [the top-priced wine, a Napa Cabernet], we use 80 percent new American and 20 percent French, 100 percent new oak. Quite a bit of this fruit comes from Oakville, a significant amount comes from Diamond Mountain and 13 percent from Australia.

WS: Can you explain what the top-down approach means to you?
PG: Even with our Champagne, we didn't start off without a non-vintage rosé, which you will see in 2021. We started off at the top, and now we're going to release something people can buy by the case. But we started at the top.

In the modern era of Penfolds, it's been exactly the same. Grange came first in 1951. Bin 707 didn't start until 1964. Koonunga Hill didn't start until 1976, Bin 389 didn't start until 1960. It's a top-down approach. So what were able to do here in America straightaway is boom, straight to Quantum, and then work our way down.

But we've accelerated the program somewhat, because we know the vineyards; we've got the expertise and the two winemakers on the ground. Having Andrew Baldwin (we call him Baldy) and Stephanie Dutton on the ground, we've been able to use equipment specifically targeted to making Penfolds styles.

The lovely thing about this project is we're not saying, "Hang on, we're marching into California and we're going to show those people how to make red wine." That's not what this project is about at all. This is making red wine out of California through a Penfolds lens. So we have tried and proven techniques to make wines to the house style of Quantum, or the house style of Bin 149.

WS: How do you see these new wines fitting into the vision of Penfolds?
PG: This is no more different to what we've been doing over 176 years at Penfolds. When we started in 1844 at the Magill Estate, we could have stayed there. Fortunately our forbearers went out—not just in the region but even out of the state to make wines. Yattarna, our flagship Chardonnay, is now blended across four states of Australia. I joke we left the vineyard, we left the viticultural region, we left the domain, we left the state. And now the next extension is we've left the country.

We create house blends of Penfolds. The throwaway line that I came up with within 10 seconds of the whole project starting years ago was: Californian sun above, Californian soil below, but everything in between is Penfolds. Even the barrels. We send the barrels over, from our tried and proven coopers in the Barossa Valley.

WS: When you applied the Penfolds method to this new raw material in California, did the results surprise you?
PG: They actually exceeded what we thought. One thing that guarantees the style of these new wines is that when we classify wines, we do so organoleptic and blind. For the 2018s, I was sitting in Napa doing exactly what we do at a Barossa classification: The wines come coded, we taste the wine and we put contenders together.

But the magic of what happened in 2018—and I use the term magic deliberately—I actually brought across some Grange and 707 components as a benchmarking exercise. I took those wines across to compare quality levels. We put the Quantum blend together, we put the Bin 149 blend together and compared them to A1 grade Australian wines. Then we thought, why don't we just try a little bit of this wine in the other wine? Not just taste them side by side. And then something happened.

I've still got my original tasting notes; I said this Bin 149 blend is lovely but it's all arms and legs. We put in about 15 percent A1 grade Cabernet from Australia and something happened. Blending is all about synergy. I use the analogy that artists blend two colors together and get an altogether different color. That 149 blend, the addition of this other material took it to another space. It was almost like a glue that brought arms and legs together.

A lot of people will interpret this as being not necessarily gimmicky, but are you just trying to make these wines different? That's not what this is about. Those two blends needed those two additions to take them to another level.

The last thing we want to do is lose Australian wine. These were contenders for our two top wines. The local winemakers were, "What are you doing? You can't send that over!" Well, we did.

WS: We've seen other projects where wines from different regions were intentionally blended together, but you're saying this just organically happened?
PG: They would have been lovely blends without that inclusion, but they were all the much better and you know, why not? I got into a lot of trouble with G3 and G4—you can't do that, you can't do that. Originally the Grange was provocative. This is our flag to try different things to get out of the comfort zone.

WS: Since your bottlings start at the top, does that mean there might be other bottlings planned for the future?
PG: I think at this stage I can honestly say no. It's going to be difficult to fulfill, especially out of 2020 [which was a small harvest]. Would we take something out of Quantum to make something else in a difficult year? We've never missed a vintage of Grange, but the volume of Grange varies accordingly depending upon the vintage to maintain a quality level.

I would think with four wines, we've got enough on our plate at the moment—bearing in mind we have a Bordeaux project happening and the Champagne project. We've got to crawl before we walk.

WS: One Penfolds trademark are the bin numbers and the wine names, and how they've come to define the wines. Do you feel like you've locked into those definitions with these four bottlings or are you still playing around with what a "Bin 600" means?
PG: Bin 600 will forever be like our Bin 389, forever Cabernet-Shiraz. Like with 389, it can be as little as 51 percent and some years it has been above 85 percent, but it will always predominantly Cabernet. The Shiraz will always come from Camatta Hills. But now we have people coming to us and saying we can plant some Shiraz for you in cooler areas. So that's where this is going to change over time. Maybe it will be an example of not how you can stretch a blend, but how you can grow a blend organically and subtly improve quality over time.

Most wineries don't do that. They get a mandate from head office or a boardroom that says, "That's successful, make more." And the quality drops.

WS: Penfolds has a global fan base. Was part of the move here to the States because you wanted to have a better relationship with American wine consumers?
PG: Yeah, that's a very fair statement. I think we can kill many birds with the same stone here. Anything that gets us closer to the people who drink red, white, fortified and sparkling wine. But that wasn't the primary driver.

WS: As news gets out, are you getting some backlash from people suggesting these new wines are a marketing stunt?
PG: The only people that have seen this so far are wine writers in Australia. I was wondering if they were going to ask why are you leaving Australia? Everyone in Australia feels as if they own Penfolds. People love to knock Penfolds—you know, big is bad. We're not that big, I remind people. They love Penfolds, they hate Penfolds, but they begrudgingly respect Penfolds.

I am prepared to hear, "Oh, Australia's not good enough for you?" You know, I faced the same thing when we launched our Champagnes. I mean, I started off as an Australian sparkling winemaker. But what we've done in Champagne and [with] the people we're working with in California, you don't need a script. You don't have to remember what you have to say because we've been working on this now for decades.

WS: Do you feel that, when a smaller or mid-sized winery does something innovative, it's rewarded, but when a big company does, it's frowned upon?
PG: I've got reasonably thick skin. But wines like Grange have put Australian wine in so many global markets, and that's where the respect comes.

We will cop some flack over this project because some people will say, why did you ever leave Magill? You know, the purists. But in the real world, we do have to think about the next one- and three-quarter centuries. They say if you stand still, you're going backwards in a river, you know, the current gets stronger. If we stand where we are, we go back.

Grange was universally panned in the 1950s. There was flack over the G series, but now there's a rumor that a true Grange collection soon will not be a true Grange collection unless it contains G3, G4 and yet to be released G5.

WS: Releasing new wines in these days probably comes with more trepidation than in a less-eventful year. Did that alter your plans?
PG: I was one of the proponents to sort of move the launch day. Not because I thought the wines needed more time, but in my instance, it was more selfish. I wanted to be in America when these wines were launched. This virtual thing is lovely, but it is a compromise.

But I'm so glad we didn't postpone because we might not be able to get to America until 2022 with the way things are going. There's quite a bit of courage required in this day and age to do anything.

We will get a little bit of, you know, angst about pricing. How dare you come in at this price. But we benchmarked it. When G3 came out at $3,200 a bottle, there was outrage. We sold out of G3 globally in four calendar days.

In context of COVID, in the context of [trade relations with] China, and in the context of uncertainty, these wines are not a reaction to that. This was always going to happen. It started a long time ago.

WS: I want to circle back to the project in Bordeaux you mentioned. Is that part of the bigger picture of what Penfolds is doing, as with the California project?
PG: Some of our projects will work, some may not. We don't just continue adding to the portfolio. So in Bordeaux, it's a toe in the water. That project is a long way behind the Californian project. The Californian project started decades ago; this Bordeaux project only started a few years back.

WS: Back to Napa, even though blending plays to your strengths, might you expand to single-vineyard bottlings?
PG: Absolutely. That would be a natural evolution. With the 2020 vintage, there's a very good vineyard with a name and the discussion of a single-vineyard bottling came up in classification.

People out there are looking for different things. This might really spark up some new conversation in Napa or Paso Robles. We're offering choice and we're offering diversity.

Cabernet Sauvignon Syrah / Shiraz Australia California United States 2018 News Collecting Economy

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