The Sensational (Grange) G5 Wine, Peter Gago, And The History Of Penfolds
by Ken Gargett
Peter Gago has what many people in the wine world think is the best job on the planet. He is chief winemaker for Penfolds, based in South Australia and one of Australia’s oldest wine producers. Penfolds was established back in 1844 by physician Christopher Rawson Penfold, who, with his wife Mary, emigrated from Sussex, England. These days, it forms part of Treasury Wine Estates, though ownership has gone through numerous changes over the years.
When they arrived, Penfold was a firm supporter of the medicinal benefits of wine and his plan was to make a wine tonic to combat anemia. Family support allowed them to purchase 200 hectares at the foot of the Mt. Lofty Ranges near Adelaide to establish vineyards. They built a cottage to act as their home and called it The Grange, while the estate was named Magill. These days, it is very much smack bang in suburban Adelaide and is a must-visit if you are in South Australia, not least because it’s home to one of Australia’s finest restaurants.
Mary Penfold took over after her husband’s death in 1870 and greatly expanded the business – she was famous for ignoring her son-in-law’s advice to sell and for shipping him off to Melbourne. Thomas Francis Hyland had assumed Mary would simply retire, but she had no intention of doing so. She passed away in 1896, at which point her daughter, Georgina, took the reins, no doubt assisted by the son-in-law, who presumably had abandoned any thoughts of a sale.
Penfolds went public in 1962, though the family retained the controlling interest until 1976 when a New South Wales brewer, Tooth and Co, took control. In 1982, Tooth and Co became part of Adelaide Steamship Company – an old shipping enterprise that then tried diversifying, in the 1970s and ’80s becoming one of our most notorious corporate raiders before rather ignominiously going belly up.
SA Brewing purchased the wineries from the liquidation, including Penfolds. The corporate two-step continued as SA Brewing was divided into parts, the wine assets becoming Southcorp Wines. Southcorp Wines was then swallowed up by Fosters in 2005 before shareholders split the wine side of things from the beer in 2011 and Treasury Wine Estates became a separate listed company. There has been much scuttlebutt about Penfolds being hived off and floated to form a separate entity, but that is for a later day.
Australia was very much a strong fortified making and drinking culture right up into the 1970s, though some talk about Penfolds leading the charge to table wines back in the 1940s and 1950s (I suspect among the “some” was Penfolds itself). No doubt Penfolds played a crucial role but when people point to Grange (“Grange Hermitage,” as it was called until the 1990 vintage) as leading the way, this is a slightly convenient adjusting of history.
Sure, chief winemaker Max Schubert created Grange with the experimental first wine, the 1951, after he returned from Bordeaux and wanted to establish an Aussie First Growth, but the visit to Bordeaux was a personal-interest side trek after the company had sent him to Spain and Portugal to study the making of fortified wines.
The story of Grange has been told many times, and as fascinating as it is I won’t rehash it again. Schubert ruled at Penfolds right through to the 1976 vintage, when he handed the reins to Don Ditter. Ditter made the wines right through to the 1986 vintage when John Duval stepped up. Duval was chief winemaker until the 2002 vintage, when he left to do his own thing, very successfully.
Penfolds and Peter Gago
Since that time, Peter Gago has been the chief winemaker. It should be noted that although the role of chief winemaker at Penfolds will always be inextricably linked with Grange, there are a great many other wines in the portfolio for which this position assumes ultimate responsibility.
Alongside the winemaking, in which he is still heavily involved, a usual week in non-Covid times sees Gago flying around the world to tastings, dinners, events, festivals, and promotions. I suspect that only David Attenborough (outside of pilots and crew) has racked up more flying miles. I remember seeing him one day when he seemed even more pleased with the world than usual. Turns out he’d just run into his wife, Gail, now retired but a long-term and highly regarded member of the South Australian parliament, at the airport. Gago had not been aware that they would both be in the same country that week, let alone cross paths, such is his usual peripatetic lifestyle.
Gago has friends and admirers all around the globe, from the rich and famous to young, aspiring wine lovers, and will spend time talking to them all. I suspect that if he wanted to start dropping names, the din would reverberate for days, but you could not find a humbler man. Gago is a serious music buff and you’d be amazed at the number of rock stars who revere him, much in the way their fans might do for them (for instance, after crawling over broken glass to get a ticket to a Bruce Springsteen concert I saw Gago sitting in prime seats with Springsteen’s family, after which they went for dinner and knocked off a few bottles of Grange).
Gago is probably as close to a rock star himself in the world of wine, although perhaps more modest rather than flamboyant. And I have no idea if he can sing.
The thing that most amazes me with Gago is that every time you talk to him, he is bubbling with genuine enthusiasm, not just for Grange but for all his wines. He just loves what he is doing. One gets the feeling that every morning he wakes up and pinches himself to make sure it is real.
Among his many attributes, Gago has the gift of the gab like few others. Only once have I ever seen him lost for words and caught off guard. Many years ago, at the annual release – held in a very fancy location near the shores of Sydney Harbor; it is always a fancy location somewhere and also always includes great champagne to kick off the day as Gago is fanatical about the world’s best bubbles – the then current chairman or CEO of whichever corporate entity was then the owner of Penfolds attended the day. Forgive me for my failure to remember just where the corporate snakes and ladders left Penfolds that day and for failing to remember the relevant gentleman’s name. He had only been appointed as a temporary executive while the search for a more permanent one was ongoing, but unlike any of the CEOs before and after, this man had a genuine interest and came to a couple of tastings to learn.
Anyway, as we sipped our champagne on the lawns overlooking Sydney Harbor and chatted, our friend suddenly posed a question to Gago. He had been meaning to ask, he said, just how much Grange the company made. There were five or six writers in this little group and suddenly, every single one of us had pad and pen poised. The production of Grange is a national secret that is not to be disclosed under pain of death (general consensus puts it at, depending on the vintage, between 5,000 and 15,000 cases, with most releases in the mid range, but this is pure speculation).
Gago was at a loss. The boss of bosses had just asked him a direct question and Gago is far too polite not to answer but knew he couldn’t give that information out in public. He managed a fair bit of mumbling and generalizations and I think he suggested they meet later. Pads and pens all went back into bags, and we could not help grinning while Gago looked like he’d just swallowed a bad oyster.
Gago was born in England in 1957, but his family moved to Melbourne when he was only six years of age. Originally a math teacher (teaching is still a passion), he undertook a science degree at the University of Melbourne and then attended Roseworthy College, a famous Australian winemaking college, graduating as Dux (the highest ranking academic performance -ed),which will surprise no one.
In 1989 he joined Penfolds as a sparkling winemaker, working with Ed Carr, who has established a career in sparkling wine (now with Arras) as successful as Gago’s is with table wines. He moved to reds and quickly rose through the ranks until succeeding Duval in 2002. In the 73 years since Schubert was first appointed, Gago is only the fourth chief winemaker.
During his tenure, he has stacked up an extraordinary array of bling, as has Penfolds under his stewardship (Gago heads a team of eight winemakers for table wines and a couple more for fortifieds). He has several “Winemaker of the Year” awards from different entities and publications, both from Australia and abroad, but the accolades go well beyond that.
In 2017, in what is termed “the Queen’s Birthday Honors List,” he was awarded the highly prestigious Companion of the Order of Australia (AC) for service to the wine industry. For non-Aussies, that is a big one! A year later, he received an honorary doctorate from the University of South Australia and named the Great Wine Capitals Ambassador for South Australia.
Very recently, Gago was awarded perhaps the most prestigious honor of all in the wine world: admission to the Decanter Hall of Fame (previously they honored the Decanter Man – or Woman – of the Year, but that changed). Decanter is a highly respected English wine magazine that established its hall of fame in 1984 with Serge Hochar from Château Musar in Lebanon the first recipient. There is only a single addition per year. Gago is the fourth Australian following Max Schubert in 1988, Len Evans in 1997, and Brian Croser in 2004. That two of the four chief winemakers from a single producer have made this list (Schubert and Gago) is unprecedented but shows just where Penfolds sits in the pantheon of wine producers around the globe.
And should you still remain unconvinced then take a moment to look at some of the names Gago has joined: Parker, Spurrier, Tchelistcheff, Robinson, Moueix, de Villaine, Antinori, Lichine, Gaja, Symington, Loosen, Guigal, Torres, Draper, Peynaud, Mondavi, and so many more. There is no question that the name Peter Gago sits very comfortably alongside them all.
What is most important is that across the board the Penfolds wines have never been better, and while it is a team effort, in the end we can thank Gago.
Penfolds Grange G5
When I first started this piece, my intention was to review the newly released G5, a stupendous wine and more than deserving of a discrete review. It is the final release of the G series and I have already written about the first two – G3 and G4 – in these pages. However, I got a little sidetracked and, as good as the wine is, the story behind it is even more interesting for me. Also, I have probably tasted more wines from Penfolds than any other producer here (the quality more than justifies it), so a look at the background and the man behind them today was overdue.
For me, the G series represents not just an interesting concept and some great wines, but it exemplifies the way Penfolds under Gago has proved itself as innovative as any producer on the planet. When appointed, Gago could so easily have simply ensured that Grange and the other Penfolds wines maintained their superb quality and he would have done more than enough. No chance. The extraordinary new directions in which the company has gone, along with the wines, have stamped it as perhaps the greatest winery on the planet (yes, lots to debate there and it will depend on your criteria).
Gago was hardly the first to innovate while at Penfolds. Schubert and the creation of Grange is an obvious example, but Schubert also made the legendary Bin 60A 1962, the 1953 Grange Cabernet, and more. Other examples have been littered throughout their history (and almost all of them still drink exceptionally well).
Under Gago new standards emerged. As well as this G series, the wonderful collaboration with Thienot to make champagne; the Californian Collection and blends, the controversial ampoule ($168,000 for the equivalent of a bottle?), the new Superblends, a Chinese Baijiu, 50-year-old fortifieds (Liqueur Tawny), the Special Bin 111A, the forthcoming wines from the Bordeaux project, and there are rumors of a Shiraz/Syrah from the Rhône Valley in France.
Penfolds G5 tasting notes
There are 2,200 bottles at a price of AUD$3,500 each. This time, the blend constitutes 2010, 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2018 Granges with both 2016 and 2018 in barrel when selected and the others transversage (taking the wine from full bottles of Grange for blending).
What I found interesting was that over the three G wines, eight different vintages of Grange were used, with four vintages – 2008, 2012, 2014, and 2016 – appearing twice. And, yet, not a single odd year made the cut. It may mean nothing or it might suggest that buying your Penfolds from even years is the go.
Grange is always heavily dominant Shiraz but usually with a little Cabernet. G5 has three percent Cabernet Sauvignon. Grange is also a multiregional blend with Barossa crucial. G5 is 70 percent Barossa, the rest McLaren Vale and Clare Valley with a splash of Wrattonbully thanks to the 2014.
To create G5, many combinations were tried on the tasting bench before Gago’s team settled on the blend (note that we are never told exact percentages as Penfolds is not keen to have someone attempting to recreate the wine on the kitchen table, but each vintage does contribute at least 10 percent). It then spent 12 months in neutral American oak hogsheads originally used for the 2016 and 2018 Granges. G5 was bottled in April 2020.
The wine is dark maroon, but it really does demand time to open up. Then expect a cornucopia of flavors on the wonderfully complex nose – dark berries, cocoa powder, sage, a slightly dusty sawdust note, cloves, chocolate cake, florals, and cassis. Seamless and powerful, immaculately balanced, this is refined and offering extraordinary length. A new array of flavors emerge on the palate: coffee bean, new leather, beef stock, soy, black fruits, and aniseed. 100. It deserves no less.
For more information, please visit www.penfolds.com/en-au/wines/penfolds-g5.