“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”


DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)


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10 March 2009

PENFOLDS KICKS FOSTERS HUGE ARSE

PENFOLDS' CHIEF WINEMAKER PETER GAGO

















Fosters Aside, Penfolds Has Never Looked Better
Gago's Golden Boys Press On Regardless

by PHILIP WHITE - A SHORTER VERSION OF THIS WAS PUBLISHED IN THE INDEPENDENT WEEKLY ON 06 MAR 09

Of all the wry ironies of agriculture, the weirdest lies right now in that gargantuan stack of contradictions we politely call Fosters.

Fosters, of course, is a monstrous secondary and tertiary industrial body, but it depends completely upon humble primary producers: barley and hop growers, and grape farmers.

So now that it’s decided that it wants to be in the wine industry, again, why would it simultæneously decide to shop its own incredible library of vineyards, and chase profit by ensuring its huge Bilyara wine refinery at Nuriootpa works at full capacity, twelve months of the year? This, surely, is a straightforward application of beer-brewing mentality to winemaking, the precise antithesis of what Peter Gago and his team do at Penfolds, which must be Fosters’ most profitable brand. It is certainly its most revered.

The purchase-amalagamate-and-shrink dogma imposed by determined, Thatcherite wine economic rationalists, like Randolph Bowen, is nearing the end of another cycle in the homogenisation of the Fosters portfolio. Bowen was part of the team that hired an oil refinery engineer to design the Bilyara refinery, years after I’d got constant flack from Southcorp and Fosters for calling their big wineries refineries. His entry in the last Wine Industry Directory to list him before his departure two years back, says “Beringer Blass Wine Estates t/a Foster’s Wine Estates and Southcorp Wines t/a Foster’s Wine Estates VIC”. I think he was really called Vice President Global Supply Chain.

I spent a morning tasting at the original suburban Penfolds winery at Magill with Peter Gago recently, and at its conclusion, was delighted to announce that of every grand tasting I’d ever had at any grand winery, from the first growths of Bordeaux, through the hallowed halls of Burgundy and Champagne, to the full breadth of Australia, none could match Peter’s Penfolds for quality, amazing range, and sheer shimmering gastronomic brilliance.

How he’s managed to do it in that vicious melee beats me. But that’s not all he’s done. He’s managed to improve it, to add to its incredible brocade of luxury product, and make the whole damn thing more distinctive in itself, whilst rendering its products even more accurate reflections of their many diverse sources. And he’s done all that whilst bringing the most sacred chalices back to the styles of their traditions.

Speaking of chalices, Peter’s even conspired with Jamie Sach, who’s mysteriously called Penfolds Ambassador, to renovate the neat little pressed tin-lined private tasting room that had fallen to bits outside Jeffrey Penfold Hyland’s office. Without any budget from Fosters, They paid for the significant renovation from their own pockets, although Jamie’s Dad, Randall, a glass-blower who does a spot of plastic surgery to help pay for his hobby, contributed the spittoons, which look like they’ve been blown by René Lalique.

ONE OF RANDALL SACH'S BEAUTIFUL MOUTH-BLOWN GLASS SPITTOONS IN THE NEW PENFOLD'S TASTING ROOM. THAT'S ONE OF JOHN BIRD'S RETIREMENT WATCHES ON THE LEFT.

Even the lowly Koonunga Hill has had a lurch toward gastronomy. Peter has released two wines of this brand bearing their original labels from the early ’seventies. These are for sale at cellar door ($17 and $18), in restaurants and duty free stores only, and are exquisite. The white, called Autumn Riesling after Max Schubert’s 1971 Riesling Traminer, and the trophy-winning red, called Seventy Six, after the vintage of Don Ditter’s first red from what was then a new vineyard, are spectacular value for money, and a serious improvement on the standard bottle-o Koonunga wines which are made in much larger volumes. I can see Peter drawing these divergencies together, increasing the quality of the standard lines.

The lower-end numbered bin wines, too, are looking better than ever. The Bin 51 Eden Valley Riesling (92+++), from vineyards either side of the High Eden Ridge, is a beautifully balanced measure of Germanic austerity and refinement; the Bin 311 Tumbarumba Chardonnay (92+++) a similar exercise in the same mood, but Chablisienne. This latter wine is a brilliant entry to the two higher tiers of chardonnay, the Trophy winning 07A from the Adelaide Hills, and the royal Yattarna, both of which will be released and reviewed on May 1.

The entry-level numbered bin reds are also improving apace. From the classic Barossa chocolate of the 2007 Bin 138 GMS (reviewed last week; 93+++), through the tight sandy sparsity of the 2006 Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz (94+++), and the lighter, more twee 2007 Bin 128 Coonawarra Shiraz (88++) to the incredible perfume of the 2006 Bin 407 Cabernet blend (93+++), these wines are almost disgustingly good value at their recommended prices, which are generally discounted so brutally by the trade that it’s not worth mentioning the numbers on the official Penfolds cellar door list.

Then comes what some naively used to call The Baby Grange: the 2006 Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz (92+++), to whose score I’d like to add another couple of pluses, but that would set a silly precedent. These symbols are indicators of how many more points the wine may score if properly cellared, and this most Australian wonder, painstakingly assembled from fruit from Barossa, Langhorne, Coonawarra, McLaren Vale, Robe and Clare, had me scribbling “Jesus! Penfolds gets a facial!” This wine’s stunning freshness and intensity somehow sees it brazenly walking the tightwire between the past and future of Penfolds. Rarely have I seen such a brew of modern and ancient. It would make Max giggle, and then go on to grow for thirty years in the dungeon.

Honourably, Peter declined to tell me which of these source vineyards would now be mothballed or sold.

Then, the obvious exclusions aside – I swear to an embargo at this annual tasting, promising not to publish reviews of the next Grange et al until they’re made available for select public tasting late in April – there were many incredible trial wines and barrel samples that I’d be stupid not to report.

Prominent among these were wines from vintage 2008, which, as we all know, included the longest hottest spell on record until 2009.

There was, for example, a pinot noir that was picked in the first week of that heat, in the Adelaide Hills. It looked like Sandro Mosel had been invited to sculpt Miss Piggy from pinot. But given the Gago team and its nous, this wine will end up with the Penfolds’ mark all over it.

I saw two McLaren Vale tempranillos from Don Oliver’s vineyard that are sure to change Australia’s ranking of its temps extant. The 07 smelled like Charlotte Rampling in a bloke’s tux, soused with Deprez Bal à Versailles; the 08 better: no Charlotte; no Zorro; all bull. “But Señor, sometimes ze bull wins!”

McLAREN VALE, NEAR OLIVER'S TEMPRANILLO VINEYARD. THE VALES ARE RIFE WITH RUMOURS OF THE POSSIBLE CLOSURE OF FOSTER'S LOCAL REFINERY, ROSEMOUNT. PHOTO BY MILTON WORDLEY (CLICK FOR GALLERY)

The 08 sangiovese, mainly from the Georgiadis family’s vineyard at Marananga, Barossa, looks even better – more vibrant and intense - than the stunning 2006 (reviewed in DRANKSTER).

There were two breathtaking old vine Barossa cabernets, 06 and 08, which were made completely in French oak, putting them in the cabernet side of the RWT slot, but apparently they’ll cost more than 707. And so they should: they have French oak, which is much better.

To balance the mighty ship of state – SA has no other – there’s a Marananga shiraz which echoes the drift of all big companies to get vineyards closer to Greenock Creek, and when you taste it you can see why; and, yes, a 2008 Bin 620 Coonawarra cabernet shiraz, which was good enough to have me scribbling: “50 years under screw – a condescending dream of a wine”.

“So”, I asked. “What? No 2008 60A?”

“Oh”, said Gago. “We do have a Cellar Reserve”.

I felt like asking what his name was.

But, fair dinkum, Penfolds has never looked better. The bewildering muckabouts of Fosters aside, the Penfolds team has slaved away beneath the haphazard influences of decades of the selfish ignorant foolishness of top management, and are now running an incredible tight ship of utter dream wines.

Just for the record, they are Peter Gago (twenty years with Penfolds), Steve Lienert (31 years), John Bird (50 years), Andrew Baldwin (24 years), Kym Schroeter (23 years) and Tom Riley (two years).

They might look desperate, but they still look like they’re having fun.

I tell you, I certainly have fun when I make my annual visit. And I'm desperate.

GO TO DRANKSTER FOR MORE PENFOLDS REVIEWS

3 comments:

Andrew Graham said...

It always amazes me how smartly (and autonomously) run Penfolds is compared to the lurching mess that is the Fosters wine division.

Jealous Big Company Dude said...

Yay Andrew. Penfolds is an island that proves passion and intelligence and amazing persistence can outlast the machine of standardisation!

Tony. said...

If Fosters didnt exist, white would run out of material in a day.
Get over it.