To recognise its 175th anniversary, Penfolds is celebrating with two significant releases: its first series of sparkling wines in more than 25 years and a limited-edition tribute range to honour the company’s founders and innovators.
Back in the dim-darks, Peter Gago was in charge of sparkling wine production at Nuriootpa for Penfolds at the time the parent company pulled the pin; from 1993, the operation was consigned over the border to Seppelts at Great Western. So, there’s a certain sort of symmetry about Gago being at the helm as chief winemaker as Penfolds releases its first sparkling wines of the 21st century.
Not that the new products – and there are three of them – bear much resemblance to the sparkling whites and reds that were bottled in the big Barossa shed. Penfolds’ latest releases are all authentic, thoroughbred French Champagnes: a Chardonnay-Pinot Noir, a Blanc de Blanc (made from straight Chardonnay) and a Blanc de Noir (made only from Pinot Noir). All three wines come from the 2012 vintage, a year hailed as the best of the century so far, along with 2008. The so-called Thienes x Penfolds trio had its official launch in Paris on May 9 and will go on sale this month as part of celebrations for Penfolds’ 175th anniversary.
The wines are the result of a collaboration – Gago also dubs it a liaison or a union – between Penfolds and Champagne house Thiénot. Founded in 1985 by former wine merchant Alan Thiénot, the family company is a highly regarded producer, possessing extensive grand cru and other vineyards across some 15 villages in the Champagne region.
Gago, who has worked closely with managing director Stanislas Thiénot on the Penfolds project, says they are good people to set out on an adventure with.
“Thiénot are an incredibly entrepreneurial family – they have several Bordeaux chateaux and three Champagne houses. They are very worldly in their thinking process, and very engaging,” he says.
Gago says there is a sliver – or a soupcon – of Australian influence in each bottle of the new Champagne. Barriques that had previously held Yattarna, Penfold’s top-drawer Chardonnay, were shipped to France, where the Champagne makers used them to house the liqueur d’expedition, the reserve wine that is mixed with sugar in a dose to “prime” a base Champagne before it is recorked for the last time. A more substantial contribution in terms of Australian content was originally proposed, but was scotched by the strict regulatory regime that controls all aspects of Champagne manufacture.
Gago says that to avoid the long lead times intrinsic to such a project, the first release enlists base wines that had already been made. As time goes on, Penfolds winemakers will increase their involvement. This year, they are participating with Thiénot in putting the blends together for base wines from the current vintage.
Re-engaging with fizz has clearly been enjoyable for Gago, who originally came to Penfolds to make sparkling wine with the legendary Ed Carr. “For my first four years here, it was just purely sparkling,” he says. “So, if you remember all the Killawarras, all the Seaview Pinot- Chardonnays, the Edmond Mazures, that was what we were doing with the methode champenoise at Nuri.”
Gago says that while the nature of the venture is novel, so far as Penfolds is concerned it builds on a long history. “Yes, this is the first time we’ve ever made Champagne, but we have made sparkling since the 1800s,” he says.
While immensely proud of the quality of the initial release, Gago says the characters of the Thiénot x Penfolds Champagnes are by no means fixed, and that some evolution is inevitable. For example, Gago says he’d like to see “a lot more phenolics in the Pinot Noir; real grip, real attack”.
“But again, you’ve got to crawl before you walk,” he says. “So, watch this space with all of these as we get more adventurous. I’m not saying these wines are ‘safe’, but we’ve cottoned on to the start, and we’ll start going tangentially to other boundaries over time.”
Although each of the trio will carry a retail price of $280, it seems unlikely the Champagnes will struggle for sales after their release in June: Gago says putative buyers are already “queuing up”.
Speaking from a more commercial viewpoint, Gago says that the new Champagnes are an experiment that aims to capitalise on Penfolds’ growing identity as international brand: “We’re dipping our toe in the water,” he says.
Some toe. Some water.