Anybody wondering why Penfolds has taken the daring and controversial step of making wine in Champagne could start by looking at the career of its chief winemaker Peter Gago. Long before he became custodian of Grange in 2002, his first job with the company was to make bubbly.
“I’ve had a lifelong addiction to Champagne. It’s a passion, or an obsession, it’s hard to know where you draw the line,” Peter Gago admits.
That was already evident in his student days at Roseworthy College – his thesis was on ‘Acidity Factors Affecting Champagne Character’, which led to his debut at Penfolds in 1989, working with legendary sparkling winemaker Ed Carr (now of Arras fame).
“We made a wide range of sparkling including Penfolds Minchinbury and Kaiser Stuhl in pressure tanks, plus higher quality methode champenoise wines under the Seaview and Killawarra labels, which won many trophies at wine shows,” says Gago.
When the sparkling operations were relocated (and Penfolds stopped making fizz in 1993) Gago moved across to red winemaking. But he never abandoned the dream of restoring sparkling wine to the Penfolds line-up. “It’s been a gap in our portfolio for years. At dinners we’d always be pouring somebody else’s bubbles. Why not our own?”
Now that gap has been filled – not with an Australian sparkler, but three wines from the Champagne region itself, in partnership with the house of Thiénot. It’s a bold move – a first for a foreign winemaker in Champagne – and it’s raised eyebrows among some critics and consumers.
“Of course we thought about Australian locations, especially Tasmania, but that’s well-trodden territory. If we were going to get back into sparkling, why not something really new and exciting?”
One site considered was the south of England, where quality sparklers are being produced on the same chalk seam that helps give Champagne its distinctive terroir. It also would have been a nod to the company’s English founder, Dr Christopher Rawson Penfold.
“But we thought, Champagne is the absolute benchmark for all the world’s sparkling wines, why not go to the source?” says Gago. “It’s a brave venture I suppose, because you never know how the wines will be received. But it’s well in keeping with Penfolds’ history – Dr Penfold sailed all the way from England to Adelaide and planted vines in the 1840s, and a century later Max Schubert visited France and got the inspiration to make Grange. Also, making wine overseas offers insurance against the effects of climate change.”
So about three years ago, Gago raised the idea of an alliance with Penfolds’ French distributor, Champagne Thiénot. “The idea unfolded very naturally. The Thiénot family company is very forward thinking, very entrepreneurial, and they see things in a world context.” (Thiénot also owns the Champagne houses of Canard-Duchêne and Joseph Perrier, and properties in Bordeaux and California.)
Managing Director Stanislas Thiénot says that for him and the winemaking team, the first reaction was surprise. “The Champagne region has never had an overseas winemaker come here and want to put its name on the bottle. But as we got talking, I could see Peter’s genuine passion for Champagne and his desire to make the very best wine possible. When you add in Penfolds’ standing in the world of wine, I couldn’t say no. And we’re an adventurous firm – my father Alain took a big risk in founding the house in 1985, with no guarantee it would succeed. So the idea of another adventure appealed to us.”
Gago is at pains to point out that the new venture in no way detracts from Penfolds’ core operations in Australia. “It’s very selective, we’re only expanding in a way that lets us keep all our winemaking at the top level. Our Australian labels remain our soul, and this is just a small extra step.”
By joining forces with an established Champagne house, Penfolds has the advantage of ‘boarding a moving train’, with the vineyards, infrastructure and wine stocks already in place. Beginning from scratch would have taken a decade or more, but Gago immediately was given full access to Thiénot’s existing stocks to begin crafting the first joint release.
“We looked at many, many wines together in the cellars,” recalls Thiénot Chef de Cave Nicolas Uriel. “Peter was very keen to look at wines from 2008, a vintage with a great reputation. But he fell in love with the 2012s, and we agreed – we think it’s a better vintage.”
The 2012s had already undergone their second fermentation in bottle, so Gago’s input for the first release was restricted to helping decide the styles of cuvées to release, when to disgorge them and how much dosage (the sweet liqueur added to round out the wines) to add before release. The result is the first three Champagnes under the Thiénot x Penfolds label; Chardonnay Pinot Noir Cuvée (available now); Blanc de Blancs from a single chardonnay vineyard in Avize; and Blanc de Noirs from a single pinot plot in Aÿ – all from the 2012 vintage. The latter two wines will be available in 2020. According to Gago, the wines are not only true to the Thiénot style but also fit the Penfolds ethos – combining finesse and power, approachable young but with the ability to age. “And while each of the three is distinct, there’s a unity of style,” Gago adds.
Gago feels that although he missed the blending and bottling stages in making the 2012s, he’s still had some meaningful input. “Dosage is very important, and the team adopted my preference for a lower dosage – around 2-4 grams per litre for the three wines, compared with the usual house style of about 5-7 grams. And nobody said, ‘Oh, we can’t do that’, so that gave me some confidence that we’d work well as a team.” Penfolds also sent over some used Yattarna chardonnay barrels to store the dosage liqueur and yet they wanted to go further, suggesting that a drop or two of Yattarna or St. Henri be added to the dosage liqueur. But French appellation law prevents this.
Gago admits to being a little apprehensive at first, coming onto somebody else’s patch where the tradition stretches back centuries. “We would never want to come in and question the expertise and experience of a top Champagne house, or try to change their house style. I add my own suggestions and preferences, but it’s an alliance. I’ll be learning quite a deal from them about blending, for example how does a waxy character in a young chardonnay manifest itself over four or five years? I know that in an Australian context, but not yet in Champagne. So my first question is always, ‘What do you think?’”
The multi-national team is now mulling possible future releases from the 2014 and 2016 vintages, both also in bottle already. But going forward, Penfolds’ input will increase substantially – an example was a recent joint tasting of still wines from the heralded 2018 vintage, to which Gourmet Traveller WINE was granted exclusive access. Gago tasted about 20 vins clairs – still wines from different chardonnay and pinot villages – alongside Uriel, Stanislas Thiénot, and former Thiénot Chef de Cave Laurent Fédou (now at Canard-Duchêne but still an important part of the new project).
The 2018 vintage gives Gago his first chance to be part of the blending decisions, before the wine is bottled. The quartet spent a whole morning tasting and discussing how the parts might affect the sum – one wine is judged to have a trace of bitterness, the next is very fruit forward, another is high in acid. Not great wines in themselves perhaps, nor meant to be, but all with a potential role to play in the final ensemble. Gago found one chardonnay to be ‘more husk than fruit’, but volunteered that it would help the overall structure.
“Peter brings a different point of view to our tastings,” says Uriel. “He’s very precise in describing each wine, he used the description ‘saffron’ for one, which I hadn’t heard before. It’s interesting for us to listen to a new perspective.”
In future vintages, Gago looks forward to being part of the entire process, making it a true joint venture. “Starting with the next vintage, I can be in the vineyard to discuss when to pick and how that will affect the style we might want. The vineyards of the world are being affected by climate change, and there are a few tricks we’ve learned in Australia that might be useful here.
“In the winery, too, there are techniques I’ve used in making sparkling wine in Australia, such as when to take the base wine off lees, that we haven’t even discussed yet. Those interchanges might be interesting.
“Down the track we might even consider additional styles, like a chardonnay cuvée using oak, and perhaps a rosé Champagne. This is shaping up to be a long and exciting journey.”