The Extraordinary Peter Gago

The Extraordinary Peter Gago

Wine of the Week Penfolds 2005 Thomas Hyland Shiraz, South Australia ($19.95, 89 points 611210)I tasted this new vintage, just arriving as a Vintages Essential, alongside winemaker Peter Gago during a recent trade tasting of Penfolds 2007 releases. Very youthful, solidly built yet quite elegant for $20. Reserved, complex nose of cedar, mint, blackberry, clove and graphite. Dense, firm structure, excellent length. Some tannic bitterness, so age it a couple of years. Best 2009 to 2012.

Australia’s Peter Gago, Penfolds’ Chief Winemaker, is the most knowledgeable, informative and entertaining vintner that I have seen stand before an audience in over 20 years.

He spoke Tuesday night at Splendido restaurant while presenting the company’s 2007 releases. I joined other writers for a tasting and lunch at Canoe. It was a stellar line-up, the wines showing gumption, poise and complexity, from the basic Koonunga Hill 2006 Chardonnay ($13.95, 88 points, LCBO 321943) to the magnificent Penfolds Grange 2002 ($320, 95 points, 336388) that will be released through Vintages Classics Catalogue in November. Many others are being released piecemeal in the months ahead, so watch this space.

Some winemakers are wooden while leading tastings; many, after all, are scientists at heart whose passion and skills are better expressed deep in a cellar far from the madding crowds. Some winemakers are great in a one-on-one formal interview while others really get rolling over lunch or dinner. But it is quite rare to find winemakers with natural podium charisma—and it is increasingly required of them.

In this era of global marketing the winemaker—the man or woman singularly responsible for translating a grape and a place into wine—is often the key humanizing link to a winery or brand, especially large operations like Penfolds, which owns 5,500 acres in Australia (roughly the equivalent to the entire vineyard acreage of British Columbia). Gago spends a full three months per year traveling from tasting to tasting around the world, with Moscow, Bejing and New York being among his most recent stops.

One of the results of his global experience—tasting the world’s best wines and meeting with winemakers everywhere—is an amazing grasp of any current topic, and the ability to explain it with logic and clarity. His mind is encyclopedic; he can discuss the winemaking specifics of any of the 40-plus wines in Penfolds portfolio, in every vintage (at least since he joined the company in 1989.) But the knowledge extends back through every vintage of Penfolds’ iconic Grange (first vintage 1951) and Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon (first vintage 1956).

He is at the centre of the global movement to improve wine closures, defending high quality cork, while at the same time embracing screwcaps for all Penfolds whites and some lower priced reds. “The screwcap is a transitional closure,” he says, “very important for preserving the quality of so many wines”. But he is more excited about research underway on glass stoppers (one European version is called Vinilok) that are more attractive than screwcaps, more durable and more inert. The trick is how to get a perfect glass-on-glass seal without using a foreign substance as buffer against chipping. He was able to explain in detail new engineering of the surfaces where stopper and bottle meet.

What becomes obvious after listening to Gago discussing either closures or his own wines, is that he has a classicist frame of reference quite different from some New World peers who seek out accessibility for a power hungry, impatient market. To Gago, wine quality is expressed primarily through a wine’s ability to age. He treasures old bottles himself and is the mastermind behind the Penfolds re-corking clinics that have traveled the world put and new corks in over 80,000 bottles of old Penfolds vintages (one is to be held in Vancouver in October).

The ageing ability of Penfolds has, by example and osmosis, convinced many European wine collectors of the stature of top Australian, indeed New World, reds. And for those who are not budgeting to collect the Granges of this world, the practical benefit of this viewpoint is the quality and age-worthiness of bottles like our Wine of the Week. You will not find many other wines at the LCBO under $20 that are capable of cellaring, as this will, for ten years or more.