As Chief Winemaker of Penfolds, Peter Gago is an iconic figure in the Australian wine industry, orchestrating the creation of some of Australia’s finest wines. Gago oversees the production of Grange, Bin 389 and Yattarna Chardonnay. Just last year, Gago was named as the recipient of the Winemakers’ Winemaker Award presented by the Institute of Masters of Wine and international trade publication, The Drinks Business.
Gago was born in England, where he lived until the age of six before moving to Australia, settling in Melbourne. Wine was not his first professional endeavor. After graduating from University of Melbourne with a Bachelor of Science degree in early 80’s, he became a high school teacher of mathematics and chemistry. Then at the age of 29, he went back to school at Roseworthy College and obtained a Bachelor of Applied Science (Oenology) degree. He graduated as Dux and officially launched his wine career at Penfolds in 1989. The rest is history.
Asian Palate talks to Peter Gago about his career at Penfolds, the challenges of his job and his plans in the near future.
AP: Asian Palate PG: Peter Gago
AP: As the 4th custodian of Grange and the chief winemaker of Penfolds for 11 years, how do you feel your winemaking philosophy has evolved over the years?
PG: The evolution of Grange is all about ongoing refinements and tweaking. No major stylistic-template changes and no reactionary response to the winemaking fashion of the day.
The entity that is the Penfolds Winemaking Team offers the skills, quality awareness and attention to detail across the entire grape-growing and winemaking continuum – affording an enduring safety net, a respectful connection with the past, and an enlightened view to the future. The wine always comes first. My role or philosophy is to ensure this continues.
As of 2013 our Penfolds Winemaking Team’s tribal elders include: Steve Lienert, Senior Red Winemaker (35 Penfolds vintages); Andrew Baldwin, Red Winemaker (28 vintages) and Kym Schroeter, Senior White Winemaker (27 vintages). Not to forget John Bird, now ‘semi-retired’, a former Magill Estate Manager & former Penfolds Senior Winemaker (53 vintages) – a direct winemaking working/cerebral link to the creator of Grange, Max Schubert.
AP: What are the greatest challenges to your job?
PG: Firstly, mother nature – no need to elaborate, I’m sure all understand! Secondly, time. In Australia we converted from £’s, shillings and pence to decimal currency on February 14th 1966. When will we convert to the 10-day week, or the 100-week year? Only joking!
Another challenge would be geography. The state of South Australia is a long way away from many global markets. Although, to more than compensate, in South Australia there’s no Phylloxera, the environment is clean and green. It’s independent.
AP: You are probably one of the most well travelled winemakers in the world, how much of the time are you traveling and what are the periods during the year that you feel is essential to being in the vineyard and winery?
PG: I won’t numerate, however, it would be fair to say that outside of the critical vintage period, inclusive of vineyard assessment prior and Classification tastings to follow, I can be travelling anytime anywhere across the months of May to December.
Harvest vineyard and winery tasks are well shared across our expert Viticultural & Winemaking Teams. But you have to be on the ground, you have to be part of it, you have to be there! Outside of vintage, most other duties can be planned or scheduled. The most critical period thereafter is that of the Classification tastings – when we formulate blends, relegate barrels/ferments from single-vineyard wines and choose what vineyards are to be selected to best represent our single-region styles.
Later, bottling-date decisions, barrel and benchmarking tastings, tasting-note preparation – all can be diarized in conjunction with the Qantas Flight Schedule!
AP: Tell us about the ampoule and the special 10-acre Block 42 found in this wine. How did Penfolds decide on launching this concept? Why this block & not others?
PG: When do you forecast this wine to peak? As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words – the following video conveys a wonderful overview: “The Making of the Penfolds Ampoule”
The main objectives of the ampoule is to create a true vinous time capsule and a stunning, yet real work of vinous art that is innovative, courageous, aesthetically pleasing to all senses.
We harness Australia’s finest artisans and secure the world’s oldest continuously producing Cabernet Sauvignon vines from the Penfolds Kalimna Block 42 vineyard planted in the mid-1880s – a pure, single-vineyard, single-varietal expression. Modeled on the legendary 1953 Grange Cabernet, a ‘53 Kalimna Block 42 Cabernet still drinking superbly in its 60th year.
For the 750ml format, it can be cellared for approximately at least 60 years – longer in magnums, and for the Ampoule, at least a century…or two.
AP: Any other special projects or announcements you can share with us?
PG: A re-corking clinic is coming up on October 22nd at the Berkeley Hotel in Knightsbridge.
The Rewards of Patience Edition VII will be launched. Importantly and symbolically this definitive tome on all matters and wines of Penfolds has also been published in Mandarin. Panels of expert judges from around the globe have been engaged to assess hundreds of Penfolds wines drawn from its Museum cellar. For this completely re-written edition, tastings were held globally, such as in Beijing, New York, Berlin and Australia. The masterful pen of Andrew Caillard MW has again been engaged. This is a unique text. No other winery on the planet offers access and independent assessment of its entire cellar, past and present. Drinking windows, history, critiques and honesty.
There’s also the Penfolds Magill Estate Restaurant, which was just re-opened. An easy 15-minute drive out of the City-Centre of Adelaide, in the grounds of the spiritual home of Penfolds, abutting a working winery dating back to 1844, and overlooking the 12.5-acre Magill Estate Vineyard, where the World’s finest Penfolds wine-list rests. Any vintage of Grange, from 1951 to 2008, rare and perfectly intact Penfolds Special Bins dating back well over half a century. The restaurant also offers a selection of the finest and freshest produce you can find in South Australia such as King George whiting, lobster, marron, oysters, kingfish, Wagyu – all sensitively prepared by our new Executive Chef, Scott Huggins, and his expert culinary team.
Next year in January, Penfolds will introduce a new member to its Fortified family. Special touches from gifted hands – from both fortified winemakers and local artisans alike – have transformed a very special aged Tawny into a rare masterpiece. Only 330 bottles will be released globally.
Then in May of 2014, there will be celebration for 170 Years of winemaking. Penfolds will be releasing a one-off commemorative wine as part of its Icon and Luxury Collection. This extremely limited single-block, single vineyard wine from the Barossa Valley will provide collectors and custodians around the globe with a unique part of Penfolds history.