As the last 2019 Penfolds reds were put to bed in the cellar post harvest, I was fortunate to get the very first look at the soon-to-be-released Penfolds Champagne project with chief winemaker Peter Gago. “Over the years we’ve poured thousands of bottles of Champagne at dinners and we’ll finally be pouring our own,” Gago laughs peeling away the inaugural foil on the first bottle, “it’s always been part of what we do, but sparkling production was discontinued and moved east to Great Western in 1993. Now we are back!”
Initial announcements of this project were discreet ahead of the global launch staged in Paris early May and pre-release tastings like mine bordered on secretive. But having decided to make the move, Penfolds acted quickly and enlisted a collaborative partner in this pursuit, Champagne Thiénot, to get to market in good time and to hit the right apex of quality and style.
A relatively young house based in Reims, Thiénot was already well-versed in the trade of Champagne before they established as a producer in 1985. “The collaboration with Thiénot is very easy,” Gago says, “I didn’t have to talk anyone into anything.” Having spent time at this house tasting with Stanislas Thiénot I’ve seen firsthand they are experienced in the idea of collaboration and have a truly global and enterprising approach to their business.
Gago points out that the other alternative to collaboration was to get back into domestic (Australian) sparkling in a serious way, remembering his first four years working with the Penfolds group was in sparkling wine production alongside the legendary Ed (Carr). “But being a Champagne addict,” Gago professes, “and having a choice to go there, there, there or Champagne – there was no choice really. It had to be Champagne!”
Gago maintains the move to France is certainly not being un-Australian. “It’s just being a wine geeky, wine-loving company and it times well aligning with the company’s 175th year anniversary,” he explains. When quizzed on the launch in Paris? “Where else would you launch a Champagne?” he asks in rhetorical mode. “We’re fairly confident the French wine media will get behind this and not look upon it as a threat,” he adds. Sacré Rouge!
He also cites this global approach as the same drive behind their ambition to do amazing things in California. "That’s a 30-year project that started back in 1988,” Gago points out, “when we sent cuttings over from Kalimna and Magill in the ’90s. We made wine there, bottled it and we weren’t allowed to release it. We are now proactively pursuing that with (CEO and Managing Director) Michael Clarke. Then there’s the Bordeaux experience – watch this space!”
There are three cuvées in the initial offering of Champagnes and they are co-branded to represent the collaboration between Thiénot and Penfolds. Gago first selected a tranche of tiraged stock in the Champagne Thiénot cellar to work with and has then been included in all subsequent stages of the process and he clearly has a sense of proprietorship over this first release.
All three cuvées are from the harvest of 2012, a vintage that Gago likes for the potential longevity in the cellar. Penfolds is certainly playing the long game with this foray into Champagne, a stance in keeping with its established brand values built on their mainly red wine focus. “That propensity to age is important,” Gago states, these aren’t meant to be bought today and drunk tomorrow. We have magnums and jeroboams in play, all sorts of things, these are wines we are hoping will be put away in cellars.”
Only the vintage 2012 Chardonnay Pinot Noir Cuvée is released following the launch in Paris and it was the only cuvée disgorged at the time of tasting and writing this piece, with the Blanc de Blancs and Blanc de Noirs slated for a release next year. “It’s as much an ambition to begin with,” Gago reflects, “where do you really start a project? We’ve made the style and set a course and there is room for more.”
Vintage Champagnes represent a tiny slice of the market in every area of the globe and the fact that Penfolds has delved into exclusively vintage Champagne for their initial release says they are serious about playing in the upper echelons of the category. Few brands rely solely on vintage releases, brands like Salon or Dom Pérignon spring to mind.
“One of the things we’ll be investigating, I obviously love the Krug and Bollinger styles,” Gago adds, “and whilst these initial wines are the antithesis of those styles at the moment, that’s not to say there won’t be a fourth cuvée with barrel ferments and oak maturation, reserve wines and so on.” Again, watch this space, as Gago also tells me Yattarna barrels have been sent to France. This sounds more and more like very serious business!
2012 Chardonnay Pinot Noir Cuvée
A rich and assertive style with a complex edge to the nose. This has depth and plushness with a fine texture and a long stream of grapefruit and lemon citrus. Excellent acidity with a wealth of fresh flavoursome kick at the finish with vanilla, almond, light spiced bread notes, nougat and a toasty almond finish. A blend of 50% chardonnay from the villages of Vertus, Mesnil-sur-Oger, Cramant) and 50% pinot noir from the villages of Verzenay, Tauxieres, Aÿ, Cumières, Avenay Val d’Or. Vineyard sourcing is Vertus (25%), Verzenay (15%), Mesnil-sur-Oger (15%), Tauxieres (15%), Aÿ (10%), Cramant (10%), Cumières (5%) and Avenay Val d’Or (5%). RRP $280
2012 Blanc de Blancs (Grand Cru)
Very fragrant with dried flowers and chalky notes on show here. There’s a lot of toast, white strawberry and a hint of dried lemon and grapefruit with clotted cream – complex and alluring style. The palate has finesse and intensity and has an elegant, spicy and precise feel at the finish that should develop well in bottle. A single plot of 0.4 hectare in Avize, this bottle was specially disgorged for media tastings.
2012 Blanc de Noirs (Grand Cru)
A majestic and intense Champagne with a lot of supple and silky texture and abundant dried red fruit aromas. There’s a sense of both depth and prettiness to the nose and palate. Quite elegant and plush, long and fluid with good volume and a suave finish. This will cellar very well. A single plot of 1 hectare in Aÿ (Chambre aux Loups), this bottle was specially disgorged for media tastings.