Penfolds’ New Champagne: The First Australian Genuine French Champagne
by Ken Gargett
There was a time when the words “Penfolds champagnes” would have sent the Champenois into a frenzy far frothier than any of their fizz.
No wine region on the planet has been more vigilant than Champagne in protecting its name (and reputation). In days gone by, we saw riots and even deaths stem from this.
These days, the battles are fought in courtrooms, though they are no less fierce. Champagne is a region that has seen legal actions to claim a color, while in far distant Queensland the tiny wine region of the Granite Belt saw litigation because one small producer happened to have a family name that was similar – not the same, but similar – to a major French house.
How anyone was going to mistake the family red wines from vineyards at Stanthorpe for the champagne from the world’s largest producer was beyond me, but this did not stop the Champenois. And to be honest, in the vast majority of cases I fully support them.
These days, it is strictly forbidden for any Australian producer, or indeed anyone outside the region, to make “champagne.” That is a good thing.
Penfolds is part of the Treasury Wine Estates mega-empire, well known and respected around the globe for its top wines like Grange, Yattarna, and St Henri.
Chief winemaker Peter Gago is also an unabashed fan of great champagne and seems to consider it almost de rigueur to open one or two at any tasting. Penfolds has been spreading its wings, extending beyond the shores of Australia, in order to make spirits from China, wines from California, and a few more projects it is keeping under its hat for the moment.
Around a year ago, Penfolds representatives mentioned that there was a champagne in the works, but that was all the information they would release. I doubt the Enigma machine could have got more from them.
Finally, word came through that we were to see these wines. It turns out that there are three of them at this stage – the first released on May 10, 2019. The three will be on staggered release, with the Chardonnay/Pinot Noir blend the first to hit the markets and the Blanc de Noir the last to see the light.
There were so many questions.
Penfolds’ three new champagnes
Gago told us that the idea for this had really come more than quarter of a century ago. His first position with Penfolds was far from making the famous Grange. Rather, he worked in the sparkling wine program.
Sparkling wine in Australia has a very long history; a wine like Minchinbury goes back to 1912. For a long time, it was third-rate grapes made into fourth-rate fizz by second-rate methods.
The change came around the late 1970s/early 1980s when the forerunner to what became a mega-brand, but was then little more than boutique, Yellowglen, started producing small amounts of bubbles by what is known as the methode champenoise.
This was the way it was done in Champagne and ensured the highest quality. Today, Australian sparklers have come a long way, and there are many superb examples. The leading maker is undoubtedly Ed Carr at Arras, though there are many fine producers.
The idea to make true champagne was, as Gago put it, “Aussie propelled.” But of course, to do it from scratch would have required either vineyards or the contacts to allow them to access quality growers; a winery; a lot of time; and more.
So Penfolds teamed with Champagne Thienot (a large producer also boasting the Canard Duchêne and Joseph Perrier brands in its stable). Penfolds was afforded access to wines from various vintages, including the stellar 2008 vintage, but ultimately went with 2012, a vintage destined to become legendary.
Penfolds’ new champagnes: what are they?
The three wines – the Thienot Penfolds champagnes are all from 2012 – are a standard Chardonnay/Pinot Noir blend, a Blanc de Blancs, and a Blanc de Noir (the latter two being champagnes made from only Chardonnay and only Pinot Noir and/or Meunier respectively – in this case, 100 percent Pinot Noir). All come in at AUD$280.
All three are superb now but will age and improve for many years to come. Mostly in standard bottles, there are some magnums and even a jeroboam or two. The jeroboams were produced with the wine in that bottle, not by transfer, which often is the case with large bottles.
All three are made with low dosage and all of the liqueur for that dosage was stored in ex-Yattarna barrels, giving the champers a nice Aussie touch without transgressing the regulations. The blend and the Blanc de Noir both went through 100 percent malolactic fermentation (the process that softens the acidity), while the Blanc de Blancs saw none to assist in maintaining its vibrancy.
The Chardonnay/Pinot Noir 2012 is a 50/50 blend of the two grapes from Grand Cru vineyards.
This is a superb effort for a first attempt. An immediate creamy note is apparent with hazelnuts, spices, citrus, and some honeycomb. Alluring aromas. This is all class.
Complex and seamless, the quality of the vintage is evident. On the palate, a hint of green apple quickly morphs into lovely baked apple pie characters.
Loved it. For me, 96.
The production of this wine is considerably larger than the others.
The Blanc de Noir 2012 is for me the least of the trio. From Ay, a wonderful Grand Cru village and a vineyard of just 0.9 hectares, this is certainly a fine champagne, but not with the class of the others.
There are notes of ripe strawberries, coffee beans, and stone fruit with that creamy texture, but it lacks the finesse of the others. A little more burly. Time may soften this. 93.
Finally, the Blanc de Blancs 2012 is from the Grand Cru village of Avize. The vineyard is just a half hectare, so quantities, not revealed, are obviously tiny. It is made without any malolactic fermentation to help ensure bright acidity.
This is stunning with baked apple notes, nuts, lemon curd, white peach, and florals. It is complex, clean and fresh, an appealing texture and great length. Gorgeous texture and already exhibiting plenty of complexity. 97. Wonderful.
Champagnes that even the locals must look upon with pride.
So what next?
Well, it is possible that Penfolds may look to vintages between 2012 and 2018, but one has the feeling that eyes are firmly towards 2018, another extraordinary year.
Asked if we could expect a non-vintage, Gago suggested we’ll “see how it goes.”
One would have to think that if champagnes are to become a staple of Penfolds, even if only in tiny quantities, a gap of six years could be problematic.
Asked whether Penfolds would consider making a rosé, “All things are possible” was the answer. When asked if Thienot might reverse the process and work with Penfolds to make “Aussie” wines, Gago simply smiled and said, “watch this space.”
Would Penfolds consider buying its own vineyards in Champagne for future production? “Possibly.”
Where is that Enigma machine when you need it?
For more information, please visit www.penfolds.com.