In this episode of the Drinks Adventures podcast I explore the changing face of Australia’s most iconic winery, Penfolds Wines.
Penfolds Wines has today – Thursday October 18th, 2018 – officially launched The Penfolds Collection, its family of top wines led as always by Grange.
It’s been a massive few months for Penfolds, which in July announced the somewhat surprising plans to begin making wine offshore, being Penfolds-branded champagne in France and also wines in California’s Napa Valley region.
The other big announcement on the same day was the launch of Penfolds Special Bottlings, a new series of limited edition, unique products inspired by the pioneering nature of founders Dr. Christopher and Mary Penfold.
Now the first two releases are not table wine, or even wine – at least as you or I know it. They are Lot 1990 – a single batch brandy that was distilled and put into barrels in 1990, and Lot 518 – a Shiraz-based wine fortified with the Chinese spirit baijiu.
It’s a fascinating chat about fortifieds, which accounted for the vast majority of wine produced in Australia up until the 1960s. While they may be somewhat out of fashion, they remain among the greatest wines produced in Australia today.
But first, we’re talking table wine, and not just any table wine. That’s a very common and offhand way to refer to The Penfolds Collection – 21 extremely high quality wines that start at $40 and range up to the 2014 Grange, which is now an incredible $900 on release.
Penfolds held a pre-release tasting of these wines in late August, which I attended along with wine writer Jeni Port, who has been tasting and critiquing Penfolds Wines for many years.
I caught up with Jeni for a chat about The Penfolds Collection 2018 this week, just a few days before she was announced as the 2018 WCA Legend of the Vine in Victoria. Congratulations Jeni!
The Penfolds Collection 2018 with wine writer Jeni Port – Interview transcript
JAMES ATKINSON: Well, Jeni Port, thanks so much for joining me for a chat.
JENI PORT: Pleasure, James.
JAMES ATKINSON: And I should also thank the ABC and OzPod 2018 for having us use their facilities for this chat. So the Penfolds Collection tasting, back in late August – this obviously wasn’t your first time at this event. What’s been your history of attending those Penfolds tastings?
JENI PORT: Well, it goes back to the beginning, I think, although I can’t confirm it with Penfolds because they’re not terribly sure when it started when I asked them. It has to go back to the ‘90s to John Duval and he was the chief winemaker back then. And I wouldn’t say a huge number of wine writers but a number of wine writers would be invited to Adelaide. We’d go up to Magill and we’d have a bit of a tasting of these wines. Sometimes it was in the city too. I remember going to the Universal Wine Bar one year. And John Duval and now Peter Gago would get up and they would introduce each wine which is a slightly bit different in the last couple of years. They’ve been changing it a lot. But we’d have maps everywhere because these are multi-district blends, so we’d have to know which districts they were talking about, the percentages. We’d talk about oak. There would be a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between wine writers and Penfolds winemakers. And as you saw this year, it’s almost none of that. They give you the wines. You taste the wines in silence. You don’t ask any questions. And off you go. Which I find as a wine writer a little bit hard. Well, as a journalist, I should say, a little bit hard because I love to ask Peter Gago questions. But I think it was taking too long so that’s why they’ve changed the whole format.
JAMES ATKINSON: And it sounds like it was much more intimate back then as well. I mean, there would have probably been 30 people at this year’s tasting it looked like.
JENI PORT: Well, gee, at the start maybe ten. And there weren’t a lot of wine writers back then. And there were no bloggers back then. And there were no overseas connections. Some years, in recent years we’ve had a number of Asian wine writers attend. So it’s global now. It’s a whole new ballgame.
JAMES ATKINSON: Do you get the same level of information now that you did back then as to the individual vineyards that fruit is being sourced from for each wine and that sort of thing?
JENI PORT: You do because you get that most fantastic publication that they give you with all the details that they think that you need to know. And for the most part, it is. It’s about the make-up of what grapes went into it and what areas they were sourced from and the vintage at the time. And it’s good. But Peter Gago is such a mine, a huge, deep mine of information. So generally, I’ll have a chat with him at some further stage afterward just to get my feel from the whole experience. Because I’m basically — well, I am a journalist and I like the meat in the story as much as the wines and how they taste.
JAMES ATKINSON: And what about the collection itself? 21 wines this year. How would that have compared to back in the ‘90s?
JENI PORT: Gee, back in the ‘90s you would have had, I hate to think, maybe six or seven. These have been added to over the years. And I remember RWT, when that was launched back in the ‘90s, that was huge. That was, my goodness, what are you doing? A very different expression to the Penfold — what we had come to expect of Penfolds. And it’s changed from there on in. Those Red Wine Trials, RWTs are what we are now tasting today. And each year they introduce another one. The Marananga Shiraz, that caused a huge stir because that was previously fruit that was going into another bin number and they decided to keep that separate. And I think that’s just been a stunning wine. So yeah, they see things that they like over the years, they keep it separate, and eventually, they’ll release it.
JAMES ATKINSON: Stylistically, what do you think would be the main difference? If you’re going to draw generalisations across the style of red wines that Penfolds was making back then versus now, what would be the biggest contrast that we’d see?
JENI PORT: Oh, the sourcing, has to be the sourcing. For some of these blends these days they go into eight regions. Tasmania. Tasmania wasn’t on the horizon even back then. Tumbarumba, Chardonnay from Tumbarumba. Adelaide Hills. You weren’t seeing those kinds of sourcings for their wine. Wrattonbully. Wrattonbully was still probably part of Coonawarra back then. Yeah, you’ve got Port Lincoln this year. What else have you got? There’s a whole heap of them that suddenly are now source material which weren’t back then. And many cooler climate, I’ve got to say.
JAMES ATKINSON: Now Grange has come out at a cool $900 a bottle this year. Bin 707, $600. It’s always a bit of a trite thing to compare prices now to back then, but it’s still fun. So what would those prices have looked like then?
JENI PORT: Much more reasonable. But Penfolds wasn’t a global name back then. Penfolds was an Australian company and it was bought by Australian wine drinkers. And it depended on the owner, too. If you go back to the mid-’70s, the owner at that time got rid of a lot of Grange, got rid of a lot of Penfolds at a fire sale. So I think you always have to keep in mind the period in which you are talking about a company like Penfolds. It’s had a lot of owners, a lot of different directions, and now it’s global. So these prices reflect a global market and a global buyer. And now, of course, we’re talking about buyers, especially in Asia, that are willing to pay those kinds of prices and have shown that. So if I was Penfolds, I’d probably be doing that too.
JAMES ATKINSON: Do the wines maintain their relevance, do you think, for Australian wine lovers now as they had back then?
JENI PORT: Yes. The wines that we’ve always been buying, the Bin 389s, especially the St. Henri, there is a huge emotional attachment there. They are also very good wines. But you can’t underestimate the attachment that a lot of Australian drinkers have to Penfolds. And yes, so these wines are still very relevant to us. I was buying 389 not that long ago at $45 a bottle. I think it’s not that much more expensive now. In the realm of things, it’s always the most consistent Penfolds red release. Year in, year out, they do not have a dud. They do not have inconsistencies. So that’s what I’m paying for as well. I know when I’m paying my $95 or whatever it is now, that I’m getting a wine that I know will taste damn good.
JAMES ATKINSON: And any other picks from this year that you thought — obviously the collection starts at $50 a bottle and goes up from there. Were there any others from this year that really stood out to you as representing good value?
JENI PORT: Well, the collection starts at $30 and it starts with the best value wine, and it’s Eden Valley Riesling. I got it for about $30 from 2018, the Bin 51.
JAMES ATKINSON: I’ve got it for $40 actually, on my list.
JENI PORT: Oh no. It’s still good value. And the Riesling is something that no one talks about. They want to talk about the Chardonnay, all the Chardonnays, and then they want to move on to the reds. But the Riesling year in, year out is one of the most consistent wines. $40, okay. I’ll take it at $40. That Bin 311 Chardonnay, 2017 — still around $45 or $50 I hope. That’s always pretty good value too. And Chardonnay is coming back. People are getting back on board with Chardonnay. So from that point of view, there is a lot of Chardonnays out at that price and I think that wine stands up. Kalimna Bin 28, a bit of a favourite with a lot of people, a lot of people. And although the 2016 Vintage, and I’m sorry that we really didn’t get to talk to Peter Gago about the Vintage conditions. It’s a highly compressed Vintage. Everything went through very, very fast and you’re seeing, on the whole, some slight forwardness to a lot of 2016 reds coming from South Australia. And I thought with the Kalimna and with the Bin 38, I think he did a pretty good job with the ‘16 Vintage. And I think they will have a lot of legs on them so ageing would be good. So, they’re both 2016s. And then the St. Henri 2015 just hits you, doesn’t it? It is so individual. It cannot be any other wine. There’s no other wine like it. I just adore it.
JAMES ATKINSON: What is it about St. Henri that you think is so unique?
JENI PORT: It’s like an old friend. It’s like a cosy leather couch. And, in fact, often you get that those leathery notes coming through. It is just so friendly and approachable and drinkable and balanced. And it’s gorgeous. And it’s old, it’s old oak. And everyone keeps raving on about American oak and, you know, it is part of the feature of Penfolds Reds. But that old oak, it just gives that wine life. It gives the fruit in the wine life, I should say.
JAMES ATKINSON: Fantastic. And obviously, Penfolds has had a crazy year really with the announcement of it’s going to make some wine in Napa Valley, it’s going to make champagne, this baijiu —
JENI PORT: Fortified.
JAMES ATKINSON: — fortified, baijiu fortified. What do you make of all that? We’ve talked about how much Penfolds has changed since the ‘90s. How comfortable are you with the direction that the company is heading?
JENI PORT: I love it. I know there has been criticism that they’re diluting the black brand, but first of all, things about those winemakers that have been there for years, for decades. This is stimulation. You talk to the fortified winemakers about that special bottling fortified and this is something that just blew them away and suddenly they got a new life and they’re fresh and their mind is opening up to new ideas. And it’s the same with California. And I think people are quick to criticise, but Penfolds has had a connection with California since 1988 under a different owner, Southcorp. But they were connected with Geyser Peak for a while. They have vineyards there. They have planted Shiraz from Penfolds vineyards in South Australia in California. And they are going to make a Shiraz Cabernet. A distinctly Australian style of wine using Californian fruit. And it will be made in a Penfolds style. They made one last year. The Cabernet, by the way, is from growers, but the Shiraz will be from the vineyards that they own and that have been planted to Shiraz. They made one last year but sadly smoke taint affected that Vintage. They’ve made one again this Vintage using Penfolds winemakers. There are two of them there on the ground. We’ll see if that one makes the cut. Again, there was a bit of smoke taint around this year. I love it. You’ve got a global brand now making a distinctly Australian Shiraz Cabernet blend in a region in which they have been connected to for 30 years. And the champagne one is fascinating because I was talking to Peter Gago who can’t talk too much about it. They would like a joint venture with a champagne producer. The CIVC is blocking it at this stage so they’re in limbo a bit. But again, they’ve got a 175th Anniversary coming up next year. They’re a global company, as I keep saying. They want to make a celebratory wine that has a connection. It has a connection to Peter Gago. He started his wine career as a sparkling winemaker. He worked beside Ed Carr at Seaview. He has a real connection to and passion for sparkling wine, champagne in particular, as you would have seen after the collection tasting. There was always champagne for tasting or to cleanse the palette after the collection is launched. I have no qualms at all. And if I was a winemaker, I would be excited. It would just refresh and reboot and give you this new outlook. I can’t complain at all about it.
JAMES ATKINSON: Well, Jeni, thanks so much for joining me on the Drinks Adventures podcast. And thanks once again to ABC and OzPod 2018 for hosting us. I’m going to throw now to the interview I recorded earlier this year with James Godfrey, Penfolds fortified winemaker. Cool, fantastic. Thank you.
Penfolds Global Fortified and Spirit Winemaker James Godfrey – Interview transcript
JAMES GODFREY: I’m the Penfolds Global Fortified and Spirit Winemaker. I have been making fortifieds for 40 years and intimately associated with Penfolds since 1990, so 28 years.
JAMES ATKINSON: You would have seen a lot of changes in the wine industry in that 40 years; how has the fortified sector changed since you’ve been making those wines?
JAMES GODFREY: So, I think fortifieds in Australia, if you go back to the 1940’s maybe very early 50’s, 85 per cent of Australia’s consumption would have been fortified.
JAMES ATKINSON: It’s probably hard for people who drink table wine today to even think of a time when fortifieds were the dominant style?
JAMES GODFREY: Yeah, I think we’ve probably had one or two generations now where they haven’t been exposed to fortifieds in any great way. It’s all been about table wines and the diversity of table wines that we’ve had. Two generations probably really haven’t experiences fortifieds.
JAMES ATKINSON: What’s that been for you working in that important role in fortifieds while the likes of Grange takes all the glory?
JAMES GODFREY: I had this saying that I was always born a few generations too late, so I could actually be there through the real heyday, but I’ve been very fortunate working with some of the great companies and Penfolds is one of certainly the greats, in that I’ve had the ability to deal with these great fortifieds, nurture them, look after them, be part of them and I sort of have been isolated from the fact that they’re in decline a bit because I’m working with these wonderful wines and wonderful company that’s developed all these, so in some instances, I really haven’t felt that.
JAMES ATKINSON: Going back to the beginning for people who really don’t understand the category that well, maybe you could just talk through how you actually make these wines? What’s involved?
JAMES GODFREY: So, fortifieds, I describe fortified winemaking as the winemaker’s dream because it deals with every single aspect of winemaking. It deals with spirit production. It deals with grape selection and vineyard selection. It deals with fermentation techniques. It deals with maturation in oak for a long period of time. It deals with bottle maturation in terms of vintage styles. It deals with secondary fermentations if you look at floor production and yeast on the wines to produce our wonderful dry aperas, and then right through muscats and topaques which are very eccentric wines that are very fruit-driven that are highly concentrated in the vineyard, so you have this huge gamut of winemaking knowledge that you need to understand. You sort of need to understand a little bit about a very wide range of areas in winemaking. To say exactly how you make them, it’s not a singular thing, there are so many different things. In essence, sherry production is very similar to our white wine production in that you really nurture and look after your fruit and your juices and your wines. In tawny production, vintage production is very much like red wine production but it has obviously all those other little quirky things of spirit being added and oak and bottle maturation and everything else that goes with it, so it’s a wonderful area to be in.
JAMES ATKINSON: But that step of adding the spirit is pretty important? What is that spirit that you’re adding? Is that the same across the whole portfolio of Penfolds Fortifieds?
JAMES GODFREY: Yes, so the spirit we use for Penfolds red production or the tawny production and the vintage production is the same spirit regardless of which product it is, whether it be Club or Grandfather Rare Tawny or Great Grandfather, it’s the same spirit. Spirit is vitally important in that it ties all the products together, it gives you a house style, it gives you that linkage and lineage across all of them. So, regardless of whether it has a great intense age or whether it is the fruity styles, the fortified, the spirit that we fortified with, is the link and it ties them all together. It is a characteristic that is easily noticeable in a fortified. It in many ways dictates the style that you have. In sherry production and in muscat and topaque production, we use a high strength neutral spirit, so it’s not quite as important except it has to be very neutral and very soft. The influence of spirit is far more pronounced in red production.
JAMES ATKINSON: Are things about to turn? Do you think that we might be coming into an era where fortifieds come back to the fore?
JAMES GODFREY: I think it’s going to be a very interesting era. I have a strong belief that the consumer nowadays really wants to experiment and try and find different experiences and enjoy things in a different way. I don’t think they have any preconceived ideas. I don’t think they have any sort of aspirations to be fixated on one particular wine. They don’t suddenly say, “I’m going to be a Shiraz drinker all my life.” I don’t think that happens. I think in the past it may have. You may have had people that would stay with a brand, stay with a style, stay with a variety. I don’t think that so much anymore of the modern consumer. I think the modern consumer is very happy looking at a whole gamut of things and a whole wide range of experiences and I think it will be our challenge to actually supply those challenges for them, to stay relevant. I think part of what we’re doing with Special Bottlings is very exciting because it is the lead-in to that experimentation and that discovery phase and I think fortifieds fit that beautifully.
JAMES ATKINSON: We’ll come back to Special Bottlings but with the portfolio of fortifieds that you make, what do you think is the Penfolds house character that runs through all of those?
JAMES GODFREY: So, like the table wine, Penfolds fortifieds are rich and dark, they have an aniseed-y sort of character that links them all together, which is the spirit. We have that sort of depth and density of flavour that really signifies the Penfolds style. But, they also have this lightness on the finish. They have this vibrancy and clean lightness and I think that is the essential part of what Penfolds is all about.
JAMES ATKINSON: How do you get that vibrancy when you’re making some of these — when you’re releasing really old products such as the Grandfather and also, we saw the 50-year-old today as well?
JAMES GODFREY: So, I think that level of vibrancy comes from really understanding your product and being able to work it every year. You need to look at these wines, review these wines and understand what they need. Taking them out of wood, refreshing them, giving them a bit of youth and a bit of life is essential and maintaining that balance. You need to have that vibrancy and that cleanness. That comes from the working of them, understanding them but also, the oak we have. The oak is part of an essential part of what we do. We have an oak reserve that is very particular, it’s old but it’s very clean. It doesn’t add excessive oak but it keeps the wines vibrant and fresh. It allows just that right amount of oxygen travel to allow them to slowly and gracefully oxidise and keep that vibrancy.
JAMES ATKINSON: So, this specification is for the oak that you use in your fortified maturation?
JAMES GODFREY: So, new oak for me would be something that would be 10 or 15 years old. If I take new oak into our cellar to replace oak or grow, it will take me five to ten years to season that oak. To season oak we may put some of the younger wines in there but we’ll only keep them in there for six to 12 months, pull them out and replace them. You do this constant empty, fill, empty, fill and you get to a point where that level of oak extraction dies down and they start performing as we like them to and then you can start putting wines in there for a longer period of time. It takes a long time to get a truly, wonderful fortified barrel. It’s a very precious reserve for us.
JAMES ATKINSON: So, you’re seasoning them essentially with fortified wines that would go into your more entry level products such as the Club for example?
JAMES GODFREY: So, Club which is younger, fruit-driven wine which has quite a bit of — it has that robust fruit character. It can sustain a little bit of oak, so by putting from a vintage stage into that oak, then taking it out after a short period of time and putting it into the older oak for the remainder of its maturation, it gives it an introduction of a bit of oak and bit of interest and bit more complexity, but then it lets it soften and mellow in over the next couple of years while it’s still maturing. It get’s sort of the best of both worlds.
JAMES ATKINSON: We had a look around the barrel maturation facility today. Tell us what a typical day is like for you in that facility, which you must have spent a lot of time in?
JAMES GODFREY: So, I guess we certainly do spend a lot of time in our maturation cellars. If we’re doing — at this time of year, we’re starting all our blending operations. We’re looking at putting all our main blends together and that usually happens from the end of May through to November. In that period every single batch of wine in every classification, so whether it be Grandfather or Ten Year Old or Club, every single batch of wine that is in wood we will sample at least once a year. We’ll do its analysis, we’ll taste it and we’ll review it all and see how they’re progressing, how they’re maturing and whether they’re fit for that style and that quality and where it’s destined. We’ll develop our blends and then the wines that we’ve selected for the blends will be pumped out and blended and then the new wines for that classification will go back into that wood. Club will refill Club wood, Ten Year Old will refill Ten Year Old wood and that way you’re maintaining that sort of continuity of age and style and complexity.
JAMES ATKINSON: And you use the solera System as well for some of the older expressions, how does that work for people who aren’t familiar with that?
JAMES GODFREY: So, solera systems are really important for wines that you want to maintain absolute constancy. Grandfather, Great Grandfather, 50 Year Old are all worked on solera systems. Grandfather, which is a six age Solera, has a stage that is roughly 14 years of age and a stage that will be 20 years of age, it has six years in between, each stage is roughly one year of its maturation. We take Topping Wines, which are in individual batches from individual vintages from individual varieties in the cellar maturing, we’ll taste them, we’ll put together what we believe resembles a Grandfather Wine at 14 years of age. We’ll put that into — that will go into the first stage. To get that stage so that that wine can go in there, the last stage goes to bottling. We’ll take the last stage out, the oldest stage, part will go to bottling, then the fifth stage we’ll top the sixth, fourth to fifth and so you get this progression and then topping wine will top the first stage. What you have is you always have some residual wine left and the topping wine provides the freshness. The topping wine refreshes the wine as you go through. Because you’ve got a large block of old wine it takes a long time for it to change. Providing we’re clever enough and we think we are, to match our topping wine every year, the changes of what comes out at 20 years is very, very minimal. You end up with this is very consistent quality and style of wine, year in and year out. Whether you buy Grandfather this year or in ten years time, it should resemble almost the same.
JAMES ATKINSON: Table Wine is such a big part of what Penfolds does today, why do you think it’s important that Penfolds keeps playing around with innovation I suppose but also has maintained its commitment to the fortified category?
JAMES GODFREY: I think Penfolds has evolved and moved on many times in its 175 years. They’ve had brandy’s, they’ve had tonics, they’ve had fortifieds and now they’ve had table wines. If we didn’t evolve and move on and Max Schubert done what he did, we would still be making fortifieds or maybe we wouldn’t be a company anymore because we were still making fortifieds. I think the fact that we can evolve and grow and because the winemakers have the dare to expand their wings and go for things they believe in and challenge the status quo, I think it’s a wonderful thing and I think a company that embraces that change is fantastic. Who knows, in ten, 15, 20, 40 years time, whether what we’re creating now maybe the mainstream and we’ve still fortifieds, we’ve still got our great table wines but this is also there. I don’t think we should be stuck in any one particular thing. I think — I definitely don’t think we should throw out the baby either, when you’ve created a new lot of bathwater. You should maintain and cherish your history and your heritage and you should look after all your history and heritage and preserve it because it is vitally important. It’s where the knowledge and experience and everything is gleaned to be able to do the future and if you lose that, then you lose your future. I think they’re all so interconnected and they’re all part of one that’s really important.
JAMES ATKINSON: What’s your favourite occasion for the fortifieds, we’re talking now about the mainstay fortifieds that you’ve making for the last 40 years, what are your favourite consumption occasions for those?
JAMES GODFREY: There are some things, some foods that are very demanding. Usually the foods with a lot of flavour and a lot of different flavours are very important and to have wines necessarily match them can be quite challenging. I think fortifieds have the luxury of having the ability to absorb all these flavours and still shine. One of the great things I see is something like topaque and chocolate for me is just the match in heaven. The more chocolate you can get the better the topaque will be but I don’t know of many red wines that would necessarily go greatly with chocolate or white wines that go with chocolate. So, I think there are wine pairings that are better and are beautifully suited. There are also pairings with table wines that a fortified may overpower or won’t go as well. Generally, as rule, I would say wines with lots of flavour will be suited to a fortified.
JAMES ATKINSON: Or food with lots of flavour.
JAMES GODFREY: Yeah, sorry, food with lots of flavour will be going really well with a fortified. You don’t need masses of food, you don’t need masses of wine to get a really lovely experience because you can savour both and I think that’s part of the joy of eating, drinking and experiencing is seeing how things interact. We had the experience today where we had a rich main meal with the baijiu and when you drink that with that food, it actually changes that wine quite dramatically, it expressed itself in a very different way, that’s probably quite surprising and it just made them marry together that little bit better. I think those sort of food and wine combinations can be all part of the journey of experience and enjoyment.
JAMES ATKINSON: Jamie Sach the Penfolds ambassador was just saying that he loves Grandfather with blue cheese as well.
JAMES GODFREY: That’s fantastic. Blue cheese is also a confronting cheese, it can be quite dominant and Grandfather has those sorts of old, nutty, sometimes leathery and aniseed-y sort of characters, it has lots of that wood age character and it’s a little bit sweet. The sweet sort of almost fungally character and out there characters of a blue cheese are quite remarkable and they go really well together.
JAMES ATKINSON: Fantastic. Well, I reckon we’ll leave it there. Thanks so much for your time James.
JAMES GODFREY: Thank you, so much.