Getting to Know an Aussie Legend – The Ultimate Penfolds Wines Tour and Tasting
Australia is well known for many great people and things. There are the trailblazers like Heath Ledger, Steve Irwin and Kylie Minogue, and particular exports, let’s hear it for Tim Tams, AC/DC and Home and Away, that have helped define how Australia is perceived today.
But if your speaking to a wine lover the big one is Penfolds. A winery so deeply integrated in the history of the country and the evolution of winemaking across the world that its most iconic wine Grange is today listed as a heritage-protected wine by the National Trust of South Australia.
It’s safe to say that Penfolds Wines roots in Australia go deep. They’ve been growing since 1844 in fact, explains Penfolds Global Ambassador Jamie Sach, as we stand outside the very cottage Dr Christopher and Mary Penfold built just 8km outside the city of Adelaide, at Magill Estate.
A trip to Penfolds Magill Estate has become a must-do when travelling to Adelaide, and similarly to one of the more premium experiences the winery offers we were beginning our visit at its historic home, the Grange Cottage.
Those taking part in the ‘Ultimate Penfolds Experience’ start their visit here before touring Magill Estate winery, vintage cellar and underground drives, concluding with a tasting in the private tasting rooms of the newly redeveloped Cellar Door.
No doubt an intimate and insightful way to explore Penfolds, but I watched smugly as other visitors made their way up the driveway knowing that the exclusive two-day Penfolds Wines tour we were about to embark on would surpass this ‘ultimate’ package – and then some.
Here in Adelaide with Emirates with whom Penfolds have enjoyed a longstanding relationship as part of the airline’s world-class wine programme, we would be not only be exploring every corner and cellar at the historic home of Penfolds, Magill Estate, but visiting Penfolds Kalimna Vineyard in the Barossa Valley too, home to the oldest Cabernet Sauvignon vines in the world.
While The Cellar Door at Magill offers wine tastings daily, we would be taking part in a private Grange tasting with Chief Winemaker Peter Gago, tasting of some of Penfolds most sought-after wines. And all throughout we would enjoy unique dining experiences served up within Penfolds’ estates themselves.
I’m going to share what I learnt from the experts at Penfolds broken down into the winery’s three distinct styles of winemaking: single vineyard or single block, single region, and multi-region or multi-varietal blending.
Where better place to start to get to know Penfolds than at its spiritual home, Magill Estate. Among the first wave of migrants to come out to Australia, the Penfolds had the presence of mind to bring some vine cuttings, most likely purchased during a stopover in Cape Town, and planted them here in what was originally a 500 acre estate.
“They planted a vineyard here on arrival with a view that they could use the grapes to administer medicinal tonics to their patients,” Jamie explained after taking us inside the humble homestead.
“Before long they were banging at the door, not because they were sick but because this new medication was pretty good, and there was a thriving wine business here in no time.”
Overtime, grape sales and prices went up and down and under the pressure from the expanding city of Adelaide, land sales occurred, whittling the original site down to just 12 acres.
“We are a rare example of a suburban vineyard, which in modern times is very unique but also sets us a fair few challenges,” says vineyard manager Jonathan Shearer.
“Trying to do agricultural practices in an urban environment is quite a tricky thing to do – we have to shoo away quite a number of tourists!”
Only a few days’ shy of harvesting the vineyards, one of the latest harvests in nearly 20 years, Jonathan visibly breathes a sigh of relief when he announces that he has high hopes that the vines will indeed reach their full potential.
“Magill Estate is the only single vineyard wine that we do, and so we have to be very careful that we have enough fruit in the vineyard here to make enough product. Even with mother nature on your side, there is a lot of work to be done as a vitaculturist to make sure you get that quality right in the vineyard, because you can’t make that up in winery.”
From the older vines planted in the 1950’s that run right up to the original estate cottage, Penfolds strategically hand-pick the best parcels of fruit to go to Grange, and then McGill Estate Shiraz. Slightly lower grade fruit in the block is set aside for the less-expensive, but much-loved, Bin 28, Bin 128 or Bin 389.
“We don’t just go ahead and pick everything and chuck it in a tank, we strategically pick according to flavour, colour, tannins, sugar content, all those different factors – we give it a field grade, put it into the winery and let the fruit speak for itself.”
In comparison to the newly planted vines across the driveway, “the future of Magill Estate”, as Jonathan puts it: “this side of the vineyard is still, what I like to say, kicking goals. Still producing top quality fruit for high-end use.”
“The French don’t have a monopoly on the concept terroir,” Jamie pipes in, “we think we can do terroir pretty well here in Australia from the unique ancient soils that we have here and our unique climate.”
While Magill Estate Shiraz epitomises the sense of place ideology that single block wines are famed for, it’s not the only wine that manages to distill the essence of Penfolds into a bottle. An hours drive from Adelaide, in the Northern Barossa Valley, is Kalimna Estate Vineyard.
Fruit grown here contributes to the likes of Grange, Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon, and RWT Shiraz, however the vineyard produces some stellar single block wines too: Block 42 Cabernet Sauvignon, Cellar Reserve Kalimna Block 25 Mataro, and 2010 Bin 170 Kalimna Shiraz, made from grapes picked from Block 3C.
At Kalimna we meet winemaker Andrew Baldwin and vineyard Manager, George Taylor, responsible for 850 hectares across the valley – including those most precious of vines at Block 42.
Planted almost 130 years ago in 1888, with material brought from France, Penfolds claim these as the oldest Cabernet Sauvignon vines in the world – a bold and impressive title coming from a ‘New World’ winery.
Penfolds single vineyard wines are celebrated for their unique terroir, though it is perhaps its multi-regional and multi-varietal blends that the winery is best known for.
“We’ve got vineyards throughout the Barossa Valley, Clare Valley, Eden Valley, Adelaide Hills, McClaran Vale, and all the way down the South East to the sandstone coast districts, like Coonawaara. We can get fruit from all of these areas and they all have very different soils, climates and bedrock structures,” Jamie explains.
“We champion that concept of multi regional sourcing, and that has been the case since Max Schubert, a very famous Australian winemaker, produced the first vintage of our flagship wine Grange in 1951.”
Still the most powerful expression of this blending philosophy, Penfolds Grange has fulfilled the vision of its creator, who in the 1950’s after a time in Europe returned to Australia determined to make an Australian wine in the Bordeaux mould, a wine that would take at least 20 years to reach its peak.
Grange has been regarded as Australia’s finest wine, without rival, for at least 30 years. “This isn’t just a wine this is the ultimate beverage,” quips Peter Gago, chief winemaker at Penfolds, only the fourth in its history, in his prelude to what was to be a tour highlight: a Grange tasting, beginning with the 1976 25th anniversary Grange.
In comparison to Penfolds Bin series, wines which are blended consistently, Grange is made from entirely unique blend of intensely-flavoured fruit every year. “It’s actually harder for us to make a blend that is entirely based on quality,” Peter notes.
“When we make the blend that goes into Grange, we do not know vineyard, we do not know variety, we do not know volume – we make the selection purely, organoleptically blind.”
“How do we do that? We have tables bigger than this covered with hundreds and hundreds of sample bottles with codes – you can’t cheat. A little bit like how really good wine journalists will only assess wines blind. They used to say a label is worth a thousand years in the wine industry.”
It’s only later that everything is revealed to the wine making committee at Penfolds, but it’s Peter that gives the ultimate sign off. Then, before bottling, the Grange occupies millions of dollars worth of the best new, small American oak barrels for 18- 20 months, and comes to market only after five years of aging.
This time for Grange to reach a level of maturity was not always appreciated within the Penfolds institution, however. Later on our tour of Magill Estate, we are brought to the recently re-developed drives (tunnels) that showcase the original resting spot of Max Schubert’s ‘hidden’ Grange – the 1957, 1958 and 1959 vintages that were made in secret.
Why were what are now considered to be some of the best wines in the world banished to the darkest corners of Penfolds’ cellars? The secrecy of their production followed a tasting of the first six vintages 1956, abhorred by flavours the Penfolds board considered too extracted and ‘big’, management passed a directive decreeing Grange as unsaleable.
As early Granges matured further, the quality of the misunderstood wines their quality was recognised and production was, officially, resumed with the 1960 vintage.
Now, selling only once, and rarity aside, the price of Grange is based on this very concept of longevity. Peter says the free re-corking clinics that Penfolds host all over the world are testament to their philosophy:
“We want to create wines that people can confidently put away for 10, 20, 50 years.”
According to the winemaker, the 1976 Grange we drank that day is worth well in excess of a $1000 dollars. “Let me give you some perspective, in 1981 when this was released there was no wine in Australia that cost more than $20 a bottle. This wine was the first to transcend that $20 price range.”
He recalls buying a bottle as a ‘long haired Uni student in the seventies’, long before he joined Penfolds, for $20.85. “They said no one in Australia would buy a bottle of red for over $20.” “Robert Parker went on to give us a 100 points.”
In the same clutch of glasses we tasted Grange 2008; awarded 100 points by both Robert Parker and Wine Spectator – a feat achieved prior to this by only 10 wines in the world.
“But which is the Grange that I’m going to take to that corner over there, dim the lights, and share with no one?” he ponders aloud. “The ‘53, and I say that from a pure, hedonistic drinking enjoyment perspective – not from a rarity, or price point of view. If you ask me what’s the best Grange to drink right now, in my opinion that’s ‘53.”
In between tours and tastings there was also feasting, and we were lucky enough to sample some fantastic food at both estates accompanied by a selection of wines all at their drinking peaks – with numerous examples among those that reflected the differing styles and character of single regions.
At the Magill Estate Kitchen, within the new Magill Estate Cellar Door, we shared a charming family style lunch, and later that same day we dined as the sun set over the vineyard at the esteemed Magill Estate Restaurant.
There, we nibbled on a selection of playful ‘snacks’ over a 2005 Bin 51 Eden Valley Riesling, and a few dishes into the nine course menu, there was the 2012 Cellar Reserve Semillon, sourced from two vineyards in the cool climate Adelaide Hills. Paired with a daintily deconstructed summer fruits sponge, the 2014 Cellar Reserve Barossa Valley Viognier’s fresh apricot aromatics hit all the right notes.
The following day after touring the expanse of the Kalimna vineyard in the heat of the Barossa, we were treated to another example of fine Southern Australian hospitality at private lunch at the Kalimna Homestead.
Among the wine pairings for the meal, prepared by another Penfolds legend chef Anne Oliver, were two single regions wines: 2016 Cellar Reserve Fiano, an Italian varietal grown in the McLaren Vale, and the notable 2014 RWT Barossa Valley Shiraz.
Connecting each of these categories within Penfolds’ portfolio is not only the great wine institution itself, but also Emirates. Over the past ten years Emirates have served over 20 Penfolds’ varieties onboard across all three classes, part of the airline’s unique approach to purchasing exceptional wines en primeur, years before they are released to the market, .
Rather than source their wines through brokers or tenders, Emirates’ own team of wine connoisseurs has built direct relationship with prestigious vineyards like Penfolds, allowing them to handpick and secure the most exclusive and rare wines for its customers – including Penfolds Grange, RWT, Saint Henri and Kilimna Estate.
Just as Penfolds rule the vineyards of Australia, when it comes to airlines’ wine offerings, as Peter Gago put it, “Emirates rules the skies.”
Erica grew up with a baker and confectioner for a father, and a mother with an instinct and love for good food. It is little wonder then that, after completing a law degree, she went on to do a Masters in Food Business at UCC. With a consuming passion for all things food, nutrition and wellness, working with TheTaste is a perfect fit for Erica; allowing her to learn and experience every aspect of the food world meeting its characters and influencers along the way.