Will Foster’s support revolutionary new seal for Penfolds Grange?

If winemaker Peter Gago’s vision is realised, future vintages of Penfolds Grange will be sealed with a unique glass-to-glass closure, developed in-house and now being trialled on the 2006 vintage. Adoption of the closure could create for Foster’s new chief executive, Ian Johnstone, an opportunity to shake the wine world with a powerful assertion of Aussie wine quality. Penfolds, the greatest blue chip of Foster’s wine brands, could rightly claim to have closed the final link in the quality-control chain. The long-term benefit for Grange, indeed for Penfolds reds in general, would be huge.

But despite the successful trial, adoption of the closure is not a fait accompli. Given the harsh economic environment, and with Foster’s reviewing its poorly-performing international wine business, the glass-seal project could easily be swept aside. But it would be short sighted to do so.

Grange is our greatest international wine icon. It’s been around since 1951 and, like the great wines of France, its custodians must view its future in centuries, not in the fleeting blip of even the nastiest recession.

What makes these wines hold their allure across the centuries? In a nutshell it’s the perception – by thousands of people over great spans of time – of unique style and superior quality sustained. This judgment is expressed in the premium that people are prepared to pay. Indeed this was the basis of Bordeaux’s classification of its great wines in 1855.

Peter Gago’s glass-seal project recognises that in this elite world, where a bottle might cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars, quality control isn’t limited to grape growing, winemaking, maturation and bottling – especially when there’s an assumption of longevity, where individual vintages may be enjoyed for many decades, sometimes a century or more. For wines of this calibre the winemaker must do everything possible to deliver every bottle in pristine condition.

And, so, we arrive at the pointy end of the Grange bottle and what to put in it – or over it. At present you’ll find an A-grade cork, says Gago, ‘but we are perpetually unimpressed by it’, largely because of cork taint – a musty taste caused by cork-borne trichcloroanisole (TCA). If there’s TCA in a cork, it’ll taint the wine immediately and forever. There’s no going back. And in the case of Grange, that could be goodbye $500.

Why not screw cap? Two thirds of Aussie wines now have one, Penfolds offers all of its wines, except Grange, under screw cap and it’s now known that cap-sealed whites and reds mature normally.

But Peter Gago says that while we know for sure that there are no problems with white wine stored under screw cap for forty years, we don’t have certainty beyond a decade or two for reds. He says that white and red wine chemistry is different and we simply don’t understand enough about how red might react in the very long term with the wads that form the seal inside screw caps.

He believes it’s an important area for the Australian Wine Research Institute to investigate. But meanwhile, given Grange’s multi-decade cellaring capacity, he initiated the glass-to-glass concept, reported here in May 2007.

Subsequently, Peter’s team developed two prototypes – a spring loaded device and a ‘pseudo screw cap’ – in time to test on the 2006 vintage. He says that they’re now ready to take it to the next level. But that requires money, and that’s very tight in the current environment.

Nevertheless it presents a golden opportunity for Foster’s to take a global lead – and seize a competitive advantage. And if they don’t, such a good idea’s sure to attract support from a savvy entrepreneur or, at worst, from a competitor ready to embrace the new technology.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2009

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