PENFOLDS CHOSE HONG KONG and Vinexpo as the launch event for the Magill Cellar 3 barrel program, placing the en primeur type of wine offer of unprecedented behind-the-scenes access onto the international stage.

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Peter Gago, Penfolds chief winemaker, said the launch had created“incredible” interest.
“One of the philosophies of the launch was to reach a global audience,” Gago said. “And the concept has just been embraced, not just from a media and trade point of view either.

“This is an industry of relationships and the barrel program will bring people in. The 2015 vintage is already spoken for and it won’t surprise me if I find out the 2016 is sold out already.”

Put simply, the Magill Cellar 3 program offers consumers the chance to purchase the wine set aside in a single barrel, before it has been bottled. But there’s more to it than that, as the $198,000 price tag suggests.

“We will fly each owner – first class, with their partner – to Adelaide and they will come here to Magill and taste the wine with the winemakers, behind the scenes,” Gago said.
“This is something we just don’t offer to anyone during maturation.

“The owners will physically get to be involved and they’ll also get all the analytical results so they can be involved in monitoring the maturation.

“At the end of the barrel maturation process, the owner then chooses how many 750ml, magnum and double magnum bottles they’d like and we will then lay the bottles down for another 12 months.

“When the time comes to release the wine we will fly an ambassador to them, wherever they are in the world, to host an event focussed on this wine.”

It represents the first time in the winery’s 172-year history that consumers will have the opportunity to access Penfolds inner workings and get access to part of the winemaking experience.

“The wines will not be sold commercially, you won’ be able to go to Magill and purchase a bottle, the wine from each barrel only goes to each purchaser,” Gago said.

“The price doesn’t represent the value of the volume of wine in the bottles, it’s much, much more than that because what we have is an experiential offer as much as a wine offer.

“A lot of people will be focussed on the $198,000 and look at it from a price perspective, but I think ‘why not?’. Are expensive wine projects reserved for the top regions in France and the top producers in the Napa?”

THE WINE

The wine will not be a replica of any existing Penfolds labels, nor will it be available from any other source (unless the purchaser releases it into the secondary market). Each vintage the wine style will reflect the most optimum style and highest quality blend of Shiraz and/or Cabernet, selected personally by Gago.

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“We want it to become a wine program, not a one-off nor every-now-and-then, but every vintage,” Gago said. “We hope it becomes an ongoing program like the other successful things we do, things like the re-corking clinics – they are now part of our DNA and have been with us for a quarter of a century.”

The production is expected to be both extremely limited and somewhat variable. Just a small number of barrels will be available from each release to preserve the uniqueness of a project built on a finite resource and tiny blends.

The 2016 classification was completed a week before Gago travelled to Hong Kong for the launch event. It’s a blend Cabernet and Shiraz with fruit sourced from both the Barossa and Coonawarra.

“There’s a component of Shiraz from Block 3C at Kalimna, which was established in 1948, as well as fruit from our Block 14 Shiraz in Coonawarra. That Coonawarra block was established in 1970 and was planted from Kalimna 3C material,” Gago said.

“Sometimes these things just happen, no-one is clever enough to plan for it – the stars just align.

“I expect the blend will change every year, but it will always be Shiraz and Cabernet.”

The 2015 blend, which has fully allocated, was 85 per cent Shiraz; 15 per cent Cabernet.

This wine is expected to maintain the Penfolds position, which has seen the winery take a pivotal role in the evolution of winemaking in Australia.

Penfolds collection of benchmark wines have been established in a spirit of innovation and the constant and endless pursuit of quality, evidenced from the secret bottling of Grange in 1951 and the unbroken line of vintages of what is now arguably Australia’s most famous wine.

THE CELLAR AND THE BARRELS

The handmade barrels made exclusively for this release will reside within the oldest and most intimate cellar at Magill Estate, Cellar 3. The 19th century cellar dates back to the founding days of the winery, which was established in 1844.

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“In 2015 we looked at it and said ‘let’s restore this cellar’. It’s quite small and contained, it’s the site’s oldest cellar and it’s only four metres away from where the wines were fermented.”

Penfolds is proud to have partnered with AP John Coopers to develop a proprietary barrel for this project. At 260 litres, the barrel is almost exactly halfway between the size of the AP John barrique and hogshead.

“It’s a clever blend of the two sizes,” Gago said. “From a pure wine quality perspective, we’re 100 per cent confident in these barrels.”

While the oak is all French, the source, seasoning and toasting regime will not be disclosed.

Peter and Alex John said they were very excited to get involved with this project.

“It builds on the back of a 70 or 80-year relationship we have with Penfolds,” Peter John said. “I knew, because of the relationship we already have, we could work one-on-one and be really specific about the grain selections to match what they wanted to achieve with the finished wine.

“In some ways it was quite different. From the get-go it was all about the relationship between the oak and the fruit – and it was our experience in the cooperage that made sure we could provide something to fully enhance that.”

Alex said it was a case of the cooperage being able to share a few ideas to help “make this project stand alone”.

“It got us excited to be asked what our recommendations were – what we, as the cooperage, could do for this wine,” Alex said.

The best-known connection between AP John and Penfolds belongs to the new American Oak hogsheads which are filled with still-fermenting Grange each year.

“We know there are preconceptions about what we do with Penfolds, because people know we supply the American oak barrels for Grange, but this is something unique – in terms of the oak and the shape which provides a really different surface area and a juxtaposition between the surface area of the barrel and the head, which gave us a lot of opportunity to do something different,” Peter John said. “To our knowledge, the 260 litre barrel is something that hasn’t been done before.

“But to take my cooper’s hat off for a bit, and to think about this project from a broader Australian wine community point-of-view, we think this is really something worth talking about – a real en primeur project from Australia. It is essential for Australia to stamp its authority on something it does really well.”

Alex said the winery should be recognised for continuing to be a pioneer for the Australian wine industry.

“Penfolds is really doing something not many other winemakers in the world are doing – and we are really pleased to be a part of that,” Alex said.

His father agreed.

“It can be nothing but good for the Australian wine industry,” Peter John said. “How do we feel about our part in that? Absolutely honoured and proud of the relationship.

“Winemakers are always driving to something creative and this is a great example, but it would be great if this project creates a bit of awareness of how we can think outside the square.”

And this is why it is an important project for other Australian wineries to take notice of, according to Alex.

“It brings together all of the things we’ve learned as a cooperage, whether that’s from working with alternative varieties or from the work we’ve done with different approaches to Chardonnay.

“And it does highlight how that we are really good at meeting the individual needs winemakers have.”

Peter John said the Magill Cellar 3 project demonstrated all the knowledge of French oak the cooperage has. “We are the guys who are just down the road who work regularly in the forests and the mills,” he said. “Our knowledge of the supply chain is exceptional and it is all built on the relationships we’ve had. Our research and development in this game is so far ahead that things happening today may have first been explored 10 years ago.”

While the winemaking and oak maturation has been a journey based on the shared experience of the winemakers and the coopers, Gago said the most important experiences of this project will belong to the owners of the barrels.

“We took a barrel to Hong Kong so people didn’t just hear us talking about it, they could touch and feel it – and they just loved it,” Gago said. “It has got to be real, it can’t be a gimmick.

“From a pure winemaking project point-of-view, this is something we just launched at. We had the cellar restoration in mind and we’ve matched a fine wine project with it.”

This article first appeared in the Grapegrower & Winemaker magazine.
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