One often hears it said that place is the most important factor in a wine’s identity. Or, to echo a silly cliché, that wine is made in the vineyard. But the quality and the character of the top wines from Penfolds, Australia’s iconic wine company, suggest something else. Multi-vineyard and in some cases multi-regional blends, they are true to a vision, not to a place.
A meeting a few weeks ago with Peter Gago, Penfolds’ chief winemaker, brought home the importance of stylistic vision in the production of truly distinctive wines. The occasion was the release of new vintages of some of Penfolds’ most renowned wines, including Grange, St. Henri Shiraz, and Yattarna Chardonnay. Though suffering a bit from jet lag, Gago was his usual gregarious self, an equal mix of witty cheer and insightful wisdom. The topic dominating our conversation was the significance of style.
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Penfolds, founded in 1844, is one of the oldest wine companies Down Under. It began to rise to its current place in the Australian pantheon in the 1960s, when the national market for fortified wines slowed down and interest in table wines increased. The winemaker at the time was the now legendary Max Schubert, who inaugurated the style that his successors, including Gago, have emulated and refined over the years.
That style marries exuberance with finesse — a paradoxical but, when successful, enthralling combination. It came in part from the natural growing conditions in South Australia, and in part from Schubert’s desire to make wines inspired by a European, especially a Bordeaux, model. Since South Australia tends to be hotter and drier than Bordeaux, the grapes grown there will ripen more fully, yielding wines with more flamboyance and power. To fashion the sort of wines he wanted, Schubert thus needed not only to respect the vineyards he used in his blends, but also to tame the fruit that grew there.
In the subsequent decades, this style became what Schubert and the winemakers who followed him strived to achieve. It is, Gago freely acknowledges today, the company’s “house style,” and he thinks of himself as its custodian.
Good grapes are just the beginning
This emphasis on style does not mean that vineyard sites are unimportant. “You can’t make good wine without good grapes,” he told me, “and good grapes come from good vineyards.” That, however, is just the beginning. Being true to a style means being able to blend wines from various barrels, lots and cuvées in order to achieve the desired result. The more options the winemaker has to choose from, the better his or her chance of success. Thus Gago uses grapes from separate sites, vineyards and even broad geographic areas to craft the wines he wants. Due to different weather conditions in different years, the sources vary from vintage to vintage. That’s because Gago’s goal remains “consistency above all.”
Penfolds has had its house style for nearly half a century. Given the myriad of advances in grape growing and winemaking over that period, as well as the many shifts in consumer preference, it has evolved subtly with the times. The changes have been gradual, but the result has been a stylistic vision that testifies to the value of a living tradition.
Many of world’s best wines are blends
This emphasis on style and the winemaker’s vision may contradict what many vintners (and critics) say about wine today, but it actually is in accord with what happens with many, if not most, of the world’s finest wines. These too are blends, often of different grape varieties and different vineyard plots. Bordeaux and Champagne are obvious Old World examples, but even in Burgundy, where vineyard holdings tend to be quite small and single varieties are the norm, many producers blend barrels or lots to create their best wines. And what defines their best if not an awareness of style?
Of course, such awareness depends upon a knowledge of past vintages of the wine in question as well as many other wines (and not just those made nearby). That knowledge is something that far too many contemporary winemakers lack. It is not something taught in schools of oenology, and it cannot be acquired through scientific analysis. Ironically, its absence helps explain why so many winemakers contend that their wines reflect the character of their vineyards rather than decisions made in the winery.
Great wine clearly begins in great vineyards. It achieves true distinction, however, in the winery, where the skills of talented men and women transform nature’s gifts into human art. And one of the winemaker’s most important skills is identifying the style that he or she wants to realize. As Gago insists, he and by extension any winemaker who aims to craft wines of true distinction have a responsibility “to build upon the legacy of winemakers past.” Put another way, regardless of where the grapes come from, great wine is rare if not virtually impossible without a stylistic vision that has its source in the winemaker’s own awareness of the value of tradition and style.
Main photo: Peter Gago, chief winemaker at Penfolds, at Magill Estate. Credit: Courtesy of Penfolds