Penfolds seek ‘white Grange’

Last week, internationally circulated United States magazine, ‘Wine Spectator’, named Penfold Grange 1990 as wine of the year. Editor Marvin Shanken wrote, “Grange earned its No. 1 spot on the annual Top 100 because of its impeccable quality. Of special note is the unique structure and flavor profile that comes from this unusual grape variety. Grange clearly demonstrates how great an Australian wine can be. … this our eighth wine of the year and the first one that’s not from France or California… ”

By chance, a group of writers was at Magill Estate, birthplace of Grange, as the news broke. Ironically, we were tasting whites — not reds — with John Duval, maker of the now famous 1990 Grange. The bustle of a camera crew seeking a comment from John barely distracted our assessment of Penfolds search for the definitive Australian white wine — dubbed the “white Grange” project by the press.

Penfolds dislikes that term. But they see a need for Australia to make a white to be held in the same reverence as Grange. They are not alone in the belief nor in the search. Len Evans, patriarch of the modern Australian wine industry frequently laments the quality lag between our whites and reds and sends strong messages to wine makers to lift our game. “The overseas writers get tired of writing about Bin 65” he quipped recently, referring to the need to excite the opinion makers in our major export markets.

During his spell as Chairman of Canberra’s wine show, Evans was a strong supporter of the Farmer Bros Trophy (now the James Busby Trophy, sponsored by Liquorland). The trophy encourages makers of rich, highly complex oak-matured chardonnays capable of extended cellaring — wines that might become flagships for Australian whites at home and overseas. What Evans and others perceive is that if our best wines have a mystique to them, there is a rub for Australian wine at the business end of the trade — something the French understand and have exploited for centuries.

Hundreds of Australian wineries, each in its own way, strives to make the definitve Australian white. Most are confined by what their own small vineyard holdings produce and constrained by the quality nature delivers each vintage.

But some truly wonderful wines have emerged over the years. Leeuwin Estate‘s Margaret River Chardonnay, for example, may not have the same cache as Grange, but it fetches $50 a bottle, cellars well and trades solidly through the auction system — a truly objective measure of perceived quality.

As well, we see wonderful Rieslings emerging from Mount Barker, the Clare, Eden and Goulburn Valleys and quite powerful chardonnays from across the continent, with highlights throughout the Mount Lofty Ranges, Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula, Pemberton, Margaret River and Tasmania. Hunter semillon deserves a guernsey, too, but has been around for so long we should heed the lesson and leave it for the converted.

Southcorp Wines, owners of Penfolds, has greater scope for experimentation than its tiny colleagues. It owns over 5,000 hectares of vineyards, with very large concentrations in key areas and, as well, sources grapes widely from contract growers.

It employs some of Australia’s best wine makers and has the capital to fund experimentation on a large scale. Finally, it has an outlet for experimental wines through blending into commercial releases after appraisal, or bottling for separate release where the quality warrants it.

For its ‘premium white’ project, Penfolds conducts numerous trials each year, chiefly at its Great Western Winery, Victoria, under Ian McKenzie and at Nuriootpa Winery, Barossa Valley, under John Duval. Separate wines are made using high quality grape batches (both chardonnay and semillon) from across Southern Australia and involve every possible combination and permutation of wine making technique and maturation — including the use of a wide variety of oak barrels for both fermentation and maturation.

Despite being several years into the project, John Duval says his team is still open minded on the subject of grape variety and districts of origin. When the right wine comes along, as well as being of exceptional quality and capable of improving with extended cellaring, it has to be a commercial prospect. And that means having the capacity to make a saleable volume to the right standard every year.

Next week we’ll look at progress and see what a startling effect all this has on the quality of commercial wines.

December 24th, 1995

If we look to the past in quest of Australia’s definitive white wine, riesling and semillon appear hot prospects. Both have some claim to being at the point of the quality pyramid. And semillon, especially as produced from time to time in the lower Hunter Valley, adds a strong note of individuality.

But when it comes to whites, the past, great guide as it was in recognising shiraz as the source of definitive Australian reds, ignores the late arrival and glorious blossoming of chardonnay. It may seem hard to believe, especially for younger people now discovering wine, but the chardonnay grape — arguably the greatest white wine variety — didn’t rate a menion in the 1980 Australian Bureau of Statistics figures. But in 1996 it looks set to pass the 105,000 tonne mark (7 million dozen bottles) — putting it way ahead of any other table wine variety except for the ubiquitous sultana grape (154,000 tonnnes), backbone of our cask wine industry.

Shiraz, cabernet sauvignon, semillon and riesling have been left in chardonnay’s wake, with anticipated 1996 weigh ins of 84,000; 74,000; 55,000; and 52,000 tonnes respectively.

Sheer volume, of course is no proof of the supremacy of a variety. We have only to taste sultana wine for proof of that. But amongst the huge volume of chardonnays now being made in Australia there are some real gems, suggesting that this is where we will find our national showpiece.

Despite the strong case for chardonnay — from both quality and commercial perspectives — Penfold quest for its great white remains “open minded as to source of grapes, grape variety, style and age at release”, in the words of Chief Wine Maker, John Duval. “But when we find it, it will be a wine that repays cellaring and it must be something we can make every year.”

The search focuses mostly on semillon and chardonnay, varieties compatible with the aromas and flavours that come from new oak barrels. And when it comes to oak, Penfolds mastered its use with red wines decades ago. Indeed, the mother company, Southcorp Wines, claims to be one of the biggest, perhaps the biggest, purchaser of new oak barrels in the world. There’ s no boasting in that — just a belief that quality finally wins the consumer.

Integration of fruit and oak flavours has been a distinguishing feature of Penfolds red wines since Max Schubert developed Grange in the 1950s. Grange was just the first and now a whole family of Penfolds reds bears the indelible thumbprint of that great wine making genius.

Duval sees a similar process now bringing fruit and oak flavours together in Penfolds whites as his team searches for the ultimate in quality. The search starts, of course, in the vineyard. But the last few vintages has seen a refinement of wine making techniques —including 100 per cent barrel fermentation; complete malo-lactic fermentation (a secondary fermentation that converts harsh malic acid to softer lactic acid); and extended wine contact with dead yeast cells (lees) — producing beautifully balanced, richly fruity wines with a good balance of oak.

There’s nothing startlingly new in all that as many wine makers have been working along similar lines for years. What‘s different about the Penfolds effort is the sheer scale of the operation and the wide range of variables, including different oak trials and widely varied grape sourcing that can be tested every year.

Put to the taste test, there has been, quite simply, a phenomenal lift in the quality of Penfolds commercial whites wines in just three years as a direct result of the search for the great Australian white. What’s learned in the trials has an immediate trickle down effect.

The wines show a strong family resemblance — just as the reds do. The challenge for both wine makers and marketers now is to differentiate the various wines in the collection — a process that may partly look after itself with widely varied grape sourcing.

Amongst the purely experimental blends, drawn from casks for a recent tasting, it was clear that Duval and his team are working with a tremendously varied palate of flavours ranging from the most pungent Adelaide Hills semillon; to gloriously fat, peachy McLaren Vale chardonnay, to intensely flavoured but steely austere Tumbarumba Chardonnay.

I suspect, though, that chardonnay, not semillon, will ultimately assert itself as the great white and, in the tradition of many Penfolds red wines, might be a multi-regional blend, probably from cooler southern and high altitude vineyards