I met Peter Gago, British born Australian winemaker of Penfolds in the deliciously cool, candlelit cellars of Mayfair’s Stafford Hotel. Despite the intercontinental loss of his luggage, including specimen of flagship, Grange ’53, Gago appeared calm in hastily bought, but well-fitting clothes. His goal, which overlapped a good, but wine unfriendly lunch: to parade the vault of journalists through his ambitiously titled, ‘icon and luxury release’ portfolio. With the patience and clarity of a former high school teacher, he achieved this admirably, explaining that whilst the range delineates a more ambitious tier than the PLC’s everyday selection, he hopes to see Penfolds become ‘Australia’s largest boutique winery.’

We begun with the variety not long ago ‘seen as a weed’ in Australia – Chardonnay. There it seems the golden grape became famous then notorious in a remarkably short time. Indeed, the first example was the 1971 Vat 47 by Tyrell’s. In Gago’s hands, it’s now contributing clean, crystalline wines. His careful handling was evident in both the cordite and citrus scented wild yeast, barrel fermented ’08 Reserve Bin 08A from Adelaide Hills, and supple, tangerine and sherbet stained ’07 Yattarna. The latter is most definitely a ‘cooler clime wine’ blended from fruit from no fewer than three states (half Tasmania; the balance Adelaide Hills and Henty). Ironically, Gago admitted to being Yattarna’s biggest critic before ’05. He said: ‘We were trying to play with the whole orchestra, leading to a big wine with custard apple and bacon fat. But now we’re playing fewer instruments and it’s more delineated.’

Continuing the inter-state blending, a very young Penfolds Grange (’05) looked so densely vivid at the rim that it might break the glass. From Barossa, McLaren Vale and Coonawarra fruit, selected blind from Penfolds own fruit and well-paid growers, this bulky Shiraz (tempered by 4p/c Cabernet Sauvignon) united plum, dark liquer chocolate, just polished, just laid oak floor, turned scorched earth and pancetta, with plentiful soft tannins. First made ‘underground’ in two senses in ’51 – cellared away secretly to avoid the wrath of the Penfolds family – this is arguably Australia’s most ‘iconic’ ‘luxury release’ and also its longest-lived red. Indeed, according to Gago, who refuses to print his own style on the wine, complete vertical tastings back to its beginning are still not only possible, but desirable.

Put Another Cork in It

Although the practice is not without fierce critics, I was intrigued to hear of Penfolds’ re-corking ‘roadshows’ which offer a complimentary service to owners of Grange’s backstories. A 15ml sample is assessed and those that are in good condition are topped with the current release, re-corked then re-capsuled. Conversely, those rare counterfeit bottles, and ones out of condition are re-corked, minus the capsule, and marked with an indicting white dot. Not only does this serve to reassure potential buyers, meaning a more buoyant market, but in some cases, ‘liberate’ owners who could ‘afford to buy the wine, but not drink it.’ A white dot denotes that it is time to drink it or bin it. Since ’91, 90,000 bottles have been given treated.

Now 1/6th of the price, it is intriguing to note that for 30 years, only $1 separated Penfolds St. Henri Shiraz and Grange. Again largely Shiraz, this it the ‘alter ego’ of Grange. Matured in large vats that are over half a century old, a swirl of the glass yielded gutsy aromas of peppered blueberry compote and Quink ink in clay, with an energetic, soft, suprisingly delicate palate. Like those waiting to drink it, this will ‘fatten-out in bottle given time’ according to Gago.

Rather upstaging our salmon and trout tartare then awkwardly autumnal lamb rump with Port sauce, the suggested heaven or hell matches on Magill Estate’s restaurant’s current menu utterly intrigued me. These included, with the Reserve Bin 08A Chardonnay, Bresaola, raw vegetables, seaweed consommé, marron and fermented black garlic. In a similarly brave manner, with the lush, cocoa scented Magill Estate Shiraz ’07 was the suggestion of ‘lamb, goat’s milk fromage, textured carrot, capers, sesame seeds and potato custard’. But most provocatively, with the smoky, almost cordial-concentrated, capsicum scented and slightly under-ripe RWT Shiraz ’07, was ‘duck, red curry ‘ice cream’, split rice porridge, lychee, tamarind and pineapple.’

Gago was due to travel to Bordeaux’s ultra formal, cholestosauri laden Fête le vin the day after we met. It being a black tie affair, this would mean more calls to lost luggage later in the afternoon…

Gago, who laments having to buy bottles of the wine he makes, has written three books to be able to raise enough dollars to afford it. His most recent collaboration is ‘Australian Wine: Styles and Tastes’.

Penfolds is owned and distributed by Foster’s EMEA.