The Penfolds Collection in 2023 was already destined for greatness, given its base is the widely admired 2021 vintage, and now that it is in bottle, it surely is the best set of wines we have seen from Penfolds ever.
I love it when the weather conspires with the latest in vineyard management and winemaking to yield a vintage that will long repay buyers over the next 30 to 40 years.
Penfolds has only had four winemakers since Max Schubert got it all going in 1948, and while each has made some substantial contributions, Peter Gago has taken Penfolds to another level, not just nationally but internationally as well.
Gago's journey to Penfolds was unorthodox. Born in Newcastle, England, the family moved to Melbourne when he was six. After completing a Bachelor of Science from the University of Melbourne, he taught chemistry and mathematics before the wine business came calling. A Bachelor of Applied Science (Oenology) at Roseworthy College was up next (he was top of his class) before arriving at Penfolds in 1989, where he was in charge of sparkling wines. We will get back to his sparkling wine talent soon enough.
He was soon appointed the Penfolds Red Wine Winemaker, and in 2002, he became only the fourth Chief Winemaker at Penfolds, taking on the considerable challenge and weight of producing the holy grail of Australian red wines, Grange. I can think of no other wine globally, made with the nation's full attention fixated on its outcome year after year. Perhaps Gago’s real strength is the team of winemakers that work with him and their dedication to preserving the Penfolds style while making some of the most innovative new wines in the wine business.
In a wine world accused of failing to connect with younger drinkers and facing stiff competition from all other sectors of the drinks business, Penfolds has reinvented itself year after year, and they have done it at a level few producers have ever reached with their top wines.
It’s the incremental increases that make one marvel over Gago’s talents. He says it's never some earth-shattering news about a vineyard, the weather, or even a new winery facility. Rather, it is “the sum of years of small, incremental, quality tweaks in the half to one percent range that add up over time. The goal is to improve everything from corks to bottles to vineyard pruning, irrigation, transportation, and just about anything that can affect a wine's final quality. Slow but steady wins the race.”
As someone who has tasted Penfolds wines for over forty years, I’m always excited to taste the latest releases. After the online tastings of the pandemic years, it was particularly gratifying to be able to taste in person with the maestro in Napa Valley, where Gago was catching up on the next California Collection Wines, now part of the yearly Penfolds release.
The 2023 Penfolds Collection is the biggest yet and reaches far beyond the boundaries of South Australia, touching down in California, France, and China. If you are unaware, Penfolds has been working in France for a while, in both Bordeaux and Champagne. Gago has had a lifelong affair with Champagne, and his knowledge is legendary, so the fact that he would want to make wine in Champagne should surprise no one, and the fact that it is more than outstanding is hardly a surprise either. Gago modestly told me that after the second year of production of the Penfolds Thienot Champagne, the family said the wine was so good he could remove their name from the label. As only Gago could reply, he would never do that because the honour is all Penfolds' to be working with them and their property.
The French and Chinese wine trials are yet another push into the international market at a very high level. The first release of the 2021 Chinese Winemaking Trial 521 is a combination of cabernet sauvignon from Shangri-La and marselan from Ningxia. It is the best Chinese wine I have ever tasted, and it is still experimental. The project with Dourthe is a triumph just to be on the ground in Bordeaux. The label is a great start, and I’m sure it will be for sale sooner than later at the Place Bordeaux as the rigour of Penfolds' production standards takes hold.
In California, we tasted 25 wines involving five different vintages plus a few surprises not in the original Australian release. Not all the wines we tasted will be available in Canada. Listings and prices vary across the country, as do release dates. The 2023 Collection will be released in BC on December 23, 2023, but we still have no idea where or what wines will be in government stores versus private wine shops. A problem made even more acute by not having reliable vintage dates online. Suffice it to say the attention to detail Penfolds puts into its wines is not matched by the monopolies who seem to have abandoned any idea of posting up-to-date vintages of their product listings.
Not much can prepare you for a tasting like this. All we can suggest is you keep an open mind and expect the unexpected from Penfolds as they continue to explore every facet of their own business inside and outside of Australia.