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    The High-Pressure Life Of A Famous Winemaker And His Wine: Peter Gago And Penfolds Grange

    Regarded as one of the world’s finest wines, Penfolds Bin 95 Grange also serves as the iconic wine of Australia. Collectors pay impressive sums (upwards of $850 for a recent vintage) for this exquisite Australian Shiraz. However, unlike most of the world’s ultra-premium wine labels that only change hands in the rarified air of the one percent, Penfolds also makes pop and pour entry-level wines to be enjoyed every day. Indeed, the winery produces roughly 40 different wines annually which gives you a sense of the impressive amount of work for their Chief Winemaker Peter Gago and his team. Whether you are spending $12 or $450 on a bottle, you are opening a wine from a winery with a deep bench of serious winemaking talent and more than 170 years of winemaking heritage. Consider this: Bin 95 Grange is a heritage wine protected by the National Trust of South Australia; it’s practically a national treasure. Given Penfolds’ storied history, global stature and worldwide acclaim, it’s easy to appreciate the cummulative sum of pressures that Mr. Gago feels each year.

     

    Certainly the steady stream of award-winning, high-point-scoring wines has earned him the right to walk with some swagger. Yet, he’s the most humble of winemakers. When I met up with him at a recent tasting event I had to navigate capacity crowds of collectors and enthusiasts all wanting a chance to talk about wine with him. Compact and fit, with a head of dark curly hair and an engaging manner, Gago is humble and self-effacing, quick to share all of the credit and quick to own his shortcomings—I liked him instantly.

    We were one stop on his 30-day tour of the world–literally hopping from city to city, across scores of time zones. During our chat he confessed to terrible jet lag and pointed to a spot where he’d cut himself shaving, noting with a laugh that he was busy “worrying about the wines.” We discussed everything from his wife’s pioneering political role as the first female Leader of the S.A. Upper House to one of his favorite American cities (Nashville). Jumping from topic to topic with ease, he opened up about what it’s really like to make one of the world’s most sought-after wines.

     

    Does the pressure ever get to be too much making a wine such as Grange? Yes and no. Our winery history goes back to 1844; only eight years after the colony of Australia began.  Hence, we have a seriously firm safety net and generations of support because of that. There is a culture of succession as well—you’ll notice, there is not a signature on the bottle. That is intentional; it is very much a team effort. Essentially, having all this structure in place is awfully reassuring; it lessens the pressure on me.

    Are there sleeper vintages we should know about?  The 1999 Penfolds Grange is a sleeper vintage– everyone talks about the 1998 vintage, and the prices reflect that, but both of those vintages are lovely. Look at the 1971 Grange—everyone talks about it, everyone wants it, and poor St Henri, that wine is equally gorgeous. Who knows why one wine took off and the other did not, both are exquisite to my mind. Our St Henri wines can last almost as long as Grange, but that label flies under the radar while Grange gets all of the love.

     

     

    What do you do with a poor harvest?  If you make a bad wine it stays with you to the grave. We can’t afford a bad wine. If the quality isn’t there, we don’t make the wine.

    How do you select the next generation of winemaker?  It becomes self-evident, we have both school-trained and cellar-trained individuals and after time it is clear who is a good fit for our team. We don’t lean towards the individuals who talk about “their goals” but more towards the team player. Right now we have a team composed of winemakers (one with 37 vintages under his belt).

    Talk about the experimental Cellar Reserve wines: We can be clever with things but in the end we still need to make wine. Sangiovese is one of our ongoing successful experiments. Some of these wines are rarer than Grange. We are deemed a traditional wine house but there is always a spirit of innovation. We encourage it; you must make mistakes to make progress. Either way you are increasing your knowledge base. The cellar reserve is a playground; it is the one place there are no rules,  but you have to have accountability.

     

    What have been some of your favorite Cellar Reserve wines? The Grenache was one of my favorite wines from that line; the Tempranillo and Sangiovese as well.

    What is the book The Rewards of Patience About? The book is a detailed account of Penfolds’ wines, vintage by vintage. We are in our 7th edition of that book. It has been going on for a long time. No one else in the world publishes such a thing–we give a select tasting panel full access to our museum of wines and they assess where they are in the aging process.

    What are you reading now? Right now I am reading Freakonomics—when I have a spare minute, which is not often.

    What cities have you most enjoyed visiting in America? Nashville was one of my favorite stops. I love that part of the world.

     

     

     

     

     

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    My Today

    The sixth Grange across six decades to weigh in at 100% Shiraz.”  - Penfolds Grange 2011

    With above-average winter rainfalls and cool conditions that followed during the spring period, South Australian regions generally experienced a later budburst and viticultural pressures impacted to varying degrees across the state.

     

    Meticulous vineyard management was critical. Spring soil moisture levels resulted in healthy shoot growth and early canopy development. Healthy vegetative growth continued during the cooler spring months and delayed veraison and berry development in the New Year. A few warm days at the end of January guaranteed the completion of veraison and commencement of the ripening season. Careful canopy management across vineyards including Magill Estate ensured good light penetration into the fruit zone. With a focus on warmer regions, McLaren Vale and Barossa Valley fruit sourcing prevailed. Whilst rain events are documented, they were often isolated, and attention to detail was required with selective harvesting of pristine fruit.

     

    Instantly Grange – aromatically heralded from glass to nose via trademark formic and barrel ferment markers. Majestic.
    Arguably a less-regal unfolding of sarsaparilla, creamy soda/cola-root beer nuances (how can this be?!), synergised with black (not red) liquorice and soy. 

    A 17 month sojourn in 100% new oak is certainly well-hidden – more than a disguise, complete concealment.
    Archetypal North Barossa fruits extolling every varietal Shiraz variant!
    Ten minutes later... 

    Revealingly, what initially appear to be reticent repressed fruits...soon overtly ascend – blackberry blackcurrant, fig, rhubarb, quince.
    A follow-up emission of black olive, shaved truffle, vanillin, boot polish, cola, ristretto coffee...with oak all but soaked up. 

    Proper, pronounced and peripheral grippy tannins input texturally, endorsing what is already a formidable structure, with impressive length, depth and weight.
    Lively, assured...not trying too hard to be something it isn’t. 

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    My Yesterday

    PETER Gago’s first sip of Grange was not, as it is for so many other devotees, an epiphany. In fact, he hardly recalls the moment.

    It was during his university days. “There was no ceremony ... It was all a bit of a blur,” he says. Instead, Gago’s appreciation of the drop evolved “as a gradual realisation … Grange became something that just made sense to me. It’s like death in a way, in the manner that you don’t know how to deal with it [Grange] at the time. It only hits you later — the realisation of what you’ve missed when you go back to a bottle and see what you lost. You think, ‘that is profoundly wow’.”

    It wasn’t until later when Gago, who graduated from university to become a high-school teacher of chemistry, science and maths, began to develop a passion for Grange. “All my mates were buying cars and I was buying Grange,” he says.

    He moved from Melbourne to Adelaide, did a bachelor of applied science (oenology). He was hired by Penfolds in 1989. He is now chief winemaker, and custodian to Grange, arguably the nation’s greatest ever wine.

     

    Tasked with overseeing not just Grange but the entire Penfolds collection — conceived by Grange creator and former Penfolds Chief Winemaker Max Schubert to be a “family” of wines — he still has the bounce and jaunt of a man unburdened by the weight of history and expectation. His winemaking nous is a given — the perfect and near-perfect scores Penfolds Grange has received during his watch, the 100-point 2008 Grange being a highlight, speak to that.

    Gago acknowledged over dinner that his role of Penfolds Chief Winemaker, working with a team of six other Penfolds winemakers, is multifaceted. “I must admit, as you get into wine and winemaking, you realise it’s not just making wine. It has so many interfaces,” he said. “We have one foot in the vineyard — we’re pseudo farmers. We come into the winery and we’re making things — we’re pseudo part-time manufacturers. We make it, bottle it and then tell the world about it — in some ways we’re salesmen and women. There are so many elements to the whole thing. But … I’m just so lucky that I work here.”

    Jonathan Lobban was granted rare access to the team behind Australia’s most prestigious wine. Read his full feature in WISH magazine, free with metro editions of The Australian tomorrow.

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    Me

    Born in Newcastle, England, Peter Gago and his family moved to Australia when he was six, settling in the cosmopolitan city of Melbourne, Victoria. After completing a Bachelor of Science from the University of Melbourne, Peter launched his career as a chemistry and mathematics teacher before succumbing to a long held interest in wine, often referred to as ‘the grip of the grape’ which saw Peter relocate to Adelaide and complete a Bachelor of Applied Science (Oenology) at Roseworthy College.

     

    After graduating as dux, Peter joined the winemaking team at Penfolds in 1989, initially in the craftsmanship of sparkling wines, before moving on to reds where he entered the role of Penfolds Red Wine Oneologist. With a natural affinity and passion for winemaking, Peter quickly became an integral part of the winemaking team and in 2002 he succeeded John Duval as Penfolds Chief Winemaker.

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Wine Moments

Here you can see wine moments from tastingbook users. or to see wine moments from your world.

Peter Gago / Penfolds, Wine Maker (Australia)  had a tasting of  11 Wines  from  1 Producers 

After a dry South Australian 2013 winter reminiscent of 2006, vines were in water de cit at the beginning of spring and became accustomed to dry conditions quite early. Early budburst was a consistent theme across all regions within South Australia. Spring started with cool temperatures in the south east. The Barossa Valley enjoyed some warmer days, dispersed throughout October and November. Whilst canopies were small to moderate, they were healthy and balanced and contributed to even veraison and consequent ripening. Warmer temperatures were observed after the New Year and persisted throughout most of January, contributing to an early start to the 2013 harvest and a short, condensed vintage. Dry and warm conditions, coupled with lower than average yields in most regions resulted in Shiraz showing strong, structural tannins, wines of great intensity and intense avour.

Magenta. Purple core.

Instantly, a distillation of all that is St Henri.
A heightened ethereal/subliminal fruit lift... hovering above, cleverly propelled by just the right amount of formics and V.A.
Black jelly-bean and star anise notes arise, augmented by g paste, dried herbs and spice – cinnamon and thyme.
With air, scents of freshly-cured corned beef with a carpaccio-like freshness, replete with capers/ vinegar/brine.

Youthful. Structurally expansive – large-framed/amply-dimensioned!
St Henri aims to please - pickled beetroot for the vegetarians; gamey venison and the blackened crust of roast beef for the carnivores.
Wild blackberry and a dark-fruited compote benevolently offer a generosity of fruit sweetness. An almost silky tarriness coupled with mouth-watering acidity create a texturally appealing and integrated mouthfeel.

4m 11d ago

Peter Gago / Penfolds, Wine Maker (Australia)  had a tasting of  3 Wines  from  1 Producers 

"The 2009 vintage had a near-optimum rainfall over winter, followed by dry, mild conditions over spring provided a good environment for budburst and an ideal start to the growing season with canopies developing well. Climatic conditions favoured flowering and set with mild and calm weather, however there was some shatter in Shiraz across parts of the state resulting in small crops for many regions. Some early to mid-December summer rainfall was followed by conditions drying up very quickly and continuing until the end of February. Summer was hot with some extreme heat but cool conditions returned in February and March, allowing the fruit to ripen across a long harvest with balanced acidities and excellent tannin ripeness. An elegant, yet still powerful follow up to the conditions brought about in the preceding 2008 vintage."

1y 6m ago

Peter Gago / Penfolds, Wine Maker (Australia)  had a tasting of  4 Wines  from  1 Producers 

"Penfolds Grange 2004 / Enticingly fragrant, yet at once 'Grange' - elements of cola, bay-leaf, malt, Indian spices & nougat. An ethereal oriental lift of glazed Peking Duck is interspersed with fermented black Chinese tea. Oak at one with the wine, other aromatics unite to create a continuum of spice & fruit. Impressive. Seamless redefined. Classic Grange structure - tight, defined & balanced, with 'slatey' / sandy tannins. Saturated fruits - blackberry and concentrated Satsuma plum skin. A darkened flavour theme of chocolate, liquorice and fermented black Chinese tea mask any overt presence of new oak, courting a long, effortless finish. Intense, powerful vs. composed, polished - an enviable counter-balance."

1y 7m ago

Peter Gago / Penfolds, Wine Maker (Australia)  had a tasting of  3 Wines  from  1 Producers 

"Classic St Henri, 2010 Classic year. Drink now, or in half a century. Comparison? 1996 immediately comes to mind; What did the legendary 1971 St Henri release look like as a four year-old?
NOTE: Purple rim, black core. Blackness prevails... black pudding, black shoe polish (and tanned leather), black liquorice, black olive, black jelly-beans?
Scents of liqueured cherry, saturated dark plum, beetroot and
a cooling humbug peppermint impression.
From beneath, a waft of dark paste – quince/mocha/praline/coffee grind... ristretto (double!)
How much space do we have ? A complex/kaleidoscopic flavour mosaic presides. These flavours appear turbo-charged – liqueured fruits, elderberry, wild raspberry, pomegranate, praline, almond. Full-bodied – rich, dark and concentrated, and yet still chewy, fresh and youthful– potently geared/tuned.
Excellent length – driven by waves of intense fruits, a well of unbridled fine tannins, and a wash of awakening acidity."

1y 7m ago

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