Gago keeps the Penfolds flame burning

Peter Gago presented the soon-to-be-released Grange 2004 and other top-end Penfolds wines in Canberra recently. What a contrast I noted between these confident, beautiful, unique, world-class wines and the dour attitude of Foster’s (Penfolds’ parent company) towards its suffering wine division.

The survival of the Penfolds culture across decades of rationalisation, culminating in Foster’s disastrous acquisition of Southcorp (previous owner of Penfolds), seems to be a result largely of the tenacity of winemakers and grape growers behind the wines.

What Gago and his team have achieved is remarkable. It’s hard to over estimate just how profoundly good these top end wines are and how important they are to Australia’s export push into the future.

The ‘halo’ effect created by Penfolds wines now extends well beyond Grange as critics and some consumers in our major export markets realise the depth of what Max Schubert created and his successors, Don Ditter, John Duval and Peter Gago, extended. Much of the mystique rests on the outstanding cellaring capacity of the wines, with vintages back to the fifties and sixties periodically bowling the critics over.

The historic cellar at Magill, in urban Adelaide, is now a hub of innovation – where Gago and the team continue to fine-tune the traditional styles and develop new ones. They make many of the top wines, including Grange, in the same old open concrete fermenters that Max used back in the early fifties.

The traditional wines evolved over the last decade or so, maintaining their robust structure, but becoming perhaps a little brighter and purer in fruit expression with finer tannin structure. The new 2004 Grange is an extraordinary example of this subtle shift. It’s a powerful expression of warm-climate shiraz, still vibrant and crimson coloured at five years, with deep layers of fruit and tannin. Gago sees it as the ‘best in the last 25 years’, comparing it stylistically to the 1990 and 1996. But in true Grange fashion, it won’t begin to reveal its best for another decade.

Some of the zealots now spruiking our elegant cool-climates shiraz and pooh-poohing traditional styles might have a rethink when they taste 2004 Grange – or its robust but graceful and elegant cellar mate RWT Barossa Valley Shiraz 2006. This is as good as Barossa shiraz gets.

The third shiraz among the new releases, St Henri 2005, sits apart stylistically from Grange. It’s a taut, elegant style aged in very old, large oak casks. These provide maturation but not oak flavour – an inherent component, in different ways, of both Grange (100% new American oak) and RWT (French oak barrels, 70% new).

From experience, St Henri, despite its lighter body, needs time to reveal its best – perhaps from about ten years’ age, although good vintages like the 1983 and 1971 still drink beautifully.

The only single-vineyard red among the upcoming releases is the Magill Estate Shiraz 2006, matured, for the first time since 1998 in all new oak – 71% French, 29% American. It’s a fuller style than St Henri, but still fine boned and needing another four or of five years to reveal its best.

Bin 707 2006, the cabernet equivalent of Grange, is a multi-region blend matured in all new American oak. Current orthodoxy says that cabernet should be in French oak. But American oak works for modern Bin 707, principally because it’s such fine oak, but also because the fruit has the power to support it. Gago accurately describes 707 and Grange as being like wound-up springs, needing time to uncoil. This gels with my own experience as we are currently drinking the 1986 vintage at Chateau Shanahan and see no need to rush the last few precious bottles.

Gago says that from the 2008 vintage there’ll be an upmarket cabernet to accompany Bin 707. He believes that just as the fragrant, French-oak-matured RWT Barossa Shiraz protects the powerful American-oak-matured Grange style from change, the new French-oak-matured Coonawarra Cabernet (yet to be named) ought to protect the Bin 707 style.

And for visitors to the cellar door and restaurant at Magill, Gago offers several ‘Cellar Reserve’ wines made and matured on the estate.

The opulent, ripe, French-oak-matured, Cellar Reserve Barossa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 comes from very old vineyards, including Penfolds Kalimna vineyard in the northern Barossa. This one could be cellared, but it’s succulent and lovely to enjoy now, too.

Cellar Reserve Adelaide Hills Pinot Noir has been on the menu for many years, but the 2007, to me is outstanding. It’s in the deeply layered Penfolds style, with silky, deep tannins and a spectrum of very complex varietal flavours. This should evolve well for a decade or more.

The first release of a Cellar Reserve McLaren Vale Tempranillo (2007 vintage) follows several earlier trials with the variety. It’s from the Oliver vineyard, McLaren Vale, and goes straight to the top of the class for this variety in Australia.

Even more accomplished is the Cellar Reserve Barossa Valley Sangiovese 2007, sourced from vines planted on the Kalimna Vineyard in the early eighties and the ten-year-old Georgiadis Vineyard at nearby Marananga.

I’ve not tasted another Australian sangiovese that comes near this for quality. It has richness, purity of varietal flavour, complexity and the loveliest ripe-tannin structure imaginable. This is a masterpiece.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2009

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