Home on the Grange

H122PG0152_PETER GAGO_A5 - Lunchmag

Mark Eggleton

Let’s not beat around the bush. Australia is the Middle East of rocks. Australians dig stuff up and sell it to other countries and they then make stuff we buy back. The number of truly international Australian industries which actually start with local raw materials, then continue along the chain of production, distribution and finally sales hovers comfortably around zero.

There is one standout though – the nation’s wine industry.

It really does deliver on all levels. As Penfolds chief winemaker, Peter Gago says there’s “a real creation aspect to it”. 

And unlike the mining industry for example, “We do everything,” Gago says. “People forget to remember that we till the earth; we establish the vines; we tend the vines and then we pick the grapes, make the wine, bottle it, ship it and then finally sell it.”

Gago was speaking on the release of Penfolds annual release of its icon wines and was chatting about his love for the industry. It’s an industry where he has one of the world’s most sought-after gigs because he is the custodian of Australia’s iconic Grange.

In a wide-ranging chat with Lunch Magazine, Gago shared his views on the latest line-up of Penfolds annual all-stars as well as his wine philosophy.

To start, his philosophy is pretty simple – wine is there to be enjoyed. It shouldn’t be elitist and in the last few years Gago has been trying to bring wine back to its roots and has proactively tried to make it more approachable and mainstream.

Sure the top end of the market such as a $600 outlay for a bottle of Grange probably shoves it into the elite class but to Gago, every bottle has a story, a personal story and that’s the beauty of wine.

Maybe that story involved a hangover but there is still a story.

Interestingly, Gago’s own story is not one of a man destined for the wine industry. For starters, he was born in England. What’s more: he didn’t actually discover wine until he was at university and even then it may have been because there was no beer in the fridge.

Yet that initial discovery led him from being a high school maths and science teacher to Roseworthy College where he was dux and then onto Penfolds where he has been since 1989. He ascended to the top job in 2002.

As for this year’s releases, they actually span four vintages from 2006 to 2009. The 2006 Grange is already earning plenty of plaudits while a number of Penfolds’ other heavyweights are not far behind.

Most of this year’s releases such as the Yattarna Chardonnay, Magill Estate, RWT and Bin 707 do come from 2008 while the St Henri comes from 2007 and the Reserve Bin Chardonnay comes from 2009. It’s a cracking line-up. What makes it even better is 2008 was the year of a rather nasty heatwave at vintage in South Australia but because of the Penfolds older low-yielding vines most of the crop was picked before the heatwave arrived.

While some people might suggest Penfolds “would say that” as they have to move their product, Gago says people should taste the wines and make up their own minds.

With the St Henri, 2007 wasn’t a good year but St Henri does have form in outperforming everyone else in a poor year – the 1974 vintage remains a standout in a generally bad year in South Australia.

As for the wines themselves:

The whites:
The Reserve Bin 09A is sourced from the Adelaide Hills and it’s pretty spectacular. It’s a wild ferment which has spent nine months in a mix of old and new French oak, it pops with fruit flavours. Moreover, it’s already cleaning up at wine shows although that’s not necessarily a ringing endorsement. What is though is the fact the last three vintages (including this one) have picked up a whopping 28 trophies at capital city wine shows – there must be something there. It’s well worth seeking out.

2008 Yattarna Chardonnay is a more genteel creature. Again it has spent nine months in French Oak but this one is truly a multi-regional blend although 89 per cent of the fruit comes from Tasmania. Yattarna is now in its 14th year as Grange’s white sister and it’s now really hitting its straps with gorgeous creamy late summer fruit flavours.

The reds:
2007 St Henri arrives as a full-throated shiraz unlike in previous years where a little bit of cabernet has crept into the mix. It’s not a cracker like the 2004 (sell a minor relative to get your hands on some) but it’s a straight up shiraz with lots of berry fruits on the nose although it’s a bit punchy on the palate. No oak to speak of because as usual it was matured in venerable 50-year-old wine vats. It will age well and for me, remains my favourite Penfolds wine over time. Gago says the world loves the St Henri style and old bottles compete with Grange at auction.

2008 Magill Estate is a single estate shiraz from Penfolds’ Adelaide home. Picked very early because the grapes decided it was time, some of the grapes wouldn’t have travelled more than 30m from the vine to the crusher. Twelve months in 95 per cent new French and American oak, it’s straight from the top drawer.

2008 RWT Barossa Valley Shiraz spreads its wings a little wider and draws its fruit from a single region. Lots of new French oak in its 14 months in the hogsheads and it’s a big’un. It’s pretty dark … as black as midnight on a starless night. As such it manages to draw out rich berry chocolate and coffee flavours … yum.

2008 Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon would be my pick of the bunch. Gago says it’s the best 707 since 1998 and could be better than the legendary 1990. Matured in 100 per cent American oak, I simply loved it and will hunt it down for years to come.

2006 Grange is getting some pretty solid raps from around the world. It’s surprisingly easy on the palate for wine made for an extended slumber. Smooth and velvety in the mouth and as Gago says, “it’s deceptive, it really seduces you until about the third or fourth mouthful.” If you can afford it, get some. If not, save up for the 2008 because if its stable mates are any indication, it will be a magnificent wine.

Interestingly, Gago says the 2010 might be the real champion of the decade. Reason being is he was at Penfolds during the great 1990 vintage.

“At the time it didn’t seem that special but when we looked back we realised nothing went wrong. Everything ran smoothly, there was a natural order of things. Conversely, in 2010, we knew we had something fairly special at the fermenter stage. Then again, it’s still all in barrels so you never know,” he says.

As for my suggestion that winemakers continually call every couple of vintages classics just to flog more product, Gago says I’m a little wide of the mark. It would seem it’s mostly luck.

“It’s mostly climate and a little bit of science. As someone once said ‘You can’t put in what God left out’. The climate has to be perfect, then comes the winemaking and then there’s a little bit of luck,” he says.

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