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Interview: Q&A with Penfolds' Peter Gago

Written by Max Veenhuyzen 4th March, 2006

When it comes to celebrities in the world of wine, they don’t get bigger than Penfolds’ chief winemaker Peter Gago. But personal fame and renown aren’t what Mr Gago gave up a teaching career for. His ambition is simple; to make the best possible wine. So even though the press release that prefaced our telephone interview made mention of Peter being named by Wine Enthusiast magazine as 2005 winemaker of the year, Penfolds’ chief winemaker made it clear that he didn’t want to talk about personal accolades; it was time for Penfolds’ famous Bin wines to soak up their annual 15 minutes of fame and the winemaker was going to let his creations enjoy every second in the limelight.

Ah, Penfolds Bin wines; the cornerstone of the brand that rightfully deserves the title of “Australia’s Most Famous Wine”; wines that are as instantly recognisable as the brand’s simple yet unmistakable logo of cursive lettering. The importance of Penfolds Bin wines is something that even the most casual of wine drinkers understands and I’d wager that most older Australian wine drinkers have a little Bin 28 flowing through their body. “Grange is a lovely wine and Yattarna goes from strength to strength but the bread and butter of the range – what Penfolds really is – is the Bin wines,” believes Peter. “Most Penfolds drinkers grew up on Bin 28 and they probably know the Bin 389s better than I do – they’re the kind of people we need to look after with our Bin releases.”

As part of this year’s Bin release, seven wines will make their way on to bottle shop shelves. At the end of February, retailers received their first allotments of the red wine cellar-regulars Bin 28, Bin 128, Bin 389, Bin 407 (all from the 2003 vintage) and Bin 138 (from 2004 and the first red wine under screw cap), plus the range’s newest addition, the Bin 311 Tumbarumba Chardonnay. The 2006 Reserve Bin Eden Valley Riesling will then be released in July immediately after vintage to preserve all the pristine citrus and apple characters that were calling cards of previous releases. But while 2002 is widely acknowledged as one South Australia’s best vintages in recent times, 2003 proved far more challenging for the industry.

“I’ll be the first to recognise that 2003 wasn’t the easiest of vintages; but as part of the Bin philosophy, in difficult years we are able to source fruit from different vineyards in South Australia, with the exception of Bin 128 which is all Coonawarra,” acknowledges Peter. “Based on previews of the ‘03 wines we’ve shown to trade and people who’ve popped into the winery, the response has been really, really good. We’re very, very pleased with the ‘03s and the way they’ve come up; the wines have improved considerably in bottle which is always a good sign.” The palatable differences in vintage conditions won’t be the only change drinkers will notice in this year’s Bin range; the addition of Bin 311 – yet another offshoot of Penfolds’ infamous Yattarna project – will also add a splash of white to the once red-wine-only clique.

“Yattarna and our Reserve Bin wine are lovely but are a little pricey; they’re wines for special occasions, even for wealthy people,” admits a frank Gago. “With Bin 311, we wanted to create something that sat alongside Bin 389 but didn’t break the bank; something top-end but not out of reach for drinkers, including people like myself. It’s affordability coupled with quality. It’s also a wine that, by virtue of conditions, will evolve from vintage to vintage as we source fruit from different regions for the wine.” That’s the background on the 2006 release of Penfolds Bin wines. So what do they actually drink like? Most people who’ve had a trawl around the internet will no doubt have read plenty of people’s comments on this year’s release – and not all of it complimentary

Personally, I found the very floral and confected 2004 Bin 138 (the first red Bin wine to be released under screw cap) lacking in the intensity that made last year’s release such an attractive wine; similarly, the warm-climate Bin 28 Shiraz was neither here-nor-there. But any thoughts I might have been harbouring that Penfolds had lost the proverbial plot (which for the record, I hadn’t and they haven’t) were well and truly perished once the new kid on the block, the Bin 311, passed between my lips. One single four letter word says it all; Gosh! Unfiltered and fermented in small French oak barriques, the 2005 Bin 311 ($35) has all the complexity you could ask for without wandering into the price point of the sometimes-challenging Reserve Bin chardonnays; swirls of chewy oatmeal, juicy nectarine and even an enjoyable saltiness come together to create a very smart and sophisticated wine that offers discerning palates more than just ho-hum melon and butter chardonnay flavours. An auspicious release that has raised the bar for subsequent Bin 311 releases as high as the Snowy Mountains; home of the Tumbarumba vineyards. To me, this is the most exciting Penfolds white wine release since Yattarna.

The 2003 Bin 128 Shiraz ($26) is a wine that proudly flaunts its cool-climate origins, sporting a nose of freshly cracked pepper mixed together with handfuls of garden herbs. Savoury plum and pepper flavours shine in the mouth, making the wine enjoyably approachable now. I’m certain however that like previous vintages, this is a drop that will blossom beautifully with bottle age. For those searching for gutsy sticking-to-its-guns South Australian cabernet, take down those WANTED posters and head to the station; once you’ve caught a whiff of the earthy blackcurrant and capsicum aromas of the 2003 Bin 407 ($35), you’ll realise you’ve got your man. The tannins are firm all right, but with age they’ll settle down and allow the Bin 407’s core of lovely blackcurrant and sour plum flavours to shine. A five to eight year sentence should do the trick nicely.

Finally, we come to arguably the most famous of the Bin wines; Bin 389 ($40). Sure, the 2003 lacks the lip-puckering power and intensity of the 2002 release and certainly won’t live as long in the bottle, but as a wine that can be approached now, the current release isn’t a bad buy – albeit a slightly pricey one considering the other options available on the market. The wine’s firm, supple tannins form the perfect skeleton for a skin of dark berry fruit flavours to glide through the mouth before finishing with a burst of deliciously long blackberry flavours. As alluded to above, the Bin wines may not represent the value-for-money they once did (hence the animosity from certain sectors of the wine drinking community) but their place in Australian drinking lore can never be overstated. Most exciting of all, the addition of the Bin 311 to the range has added an intriguing new branch to a family tree that the whole of the country knows so well.

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