MARY-THÉRÈSE BLAIR celebrates one of the old-timers of new-world winemaking.

Recently I was stopped in my tracks when Peter Gago, Penfolds’ chief winemaker, mentioned that in 2024 the Penfolds brand will celebrate its 180th year. So often when we think of wineries in the new world we think in terms of decades, not centuries. That longevity is reserved for the European countries that make up the revered wine old world, not us youthful upstarts in the new world. Yet there I was, digesting that Penfolds is approaching its second century as winemakers as I sat ready to taste the Penfolds 2023 Collection. The revelation really got me thinking.

The world right now feels frightening: the Russia-Ukraine war, energy crises, a soaring cost of living and the apparent threat of AI loom large while we continue to live in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pessimistic part of my brain can’t help but despair and wonder how we go forward in a world so off kilter. Surely there’s never been such a time in the world before? A moment’s pause gives time to reflect over the past 180 years: emancipation from slavery; the invention of aeroplanes; women’s suffrage; world wars; moon landings; the creation of the atomic bomb and a flu pandemic that infected 500 million people globally. So no, the world in which Penfolds has existed to date hasn’t seen a time such as this before; it’s seen much, much more.

It’s not a secret to say that you don’t get to 180 years as one of the most-renowned wineries in the world just by making great wine. You get there by learning, adapting and moving forward. You do so by having one eye on the future as you honour the past. You hire dedicated people who work hard with intention and vision, just as Penfolds has. But make no mistake, at the heart of it all is great wine.

The Penfolds 2023 Collection release in New Zealand contains all that you have come to expect from these stalwarts of fine Australian wine, from the beloved Bin Wines that are the very foundation of the collection, all the way up to the iconic Grange, the jewel in the Penfolds crown and one of the world’s most collectable investment wines. This year, however, there are two new releases that look different for an Australian winery, mostly because they’re Californian.

The new releases are both vintage 2020: Bin 704, a cabernet sauvignon from Napa Valley; and Bin 600, a cabernet shiraz blend from Napa Valley and Paso Robles. These ‘Country Of Origin’ wines, along with others from the USA and France, have now become part of the Penfolds’ portfolio. When I queried group winemaker Steph Dutton as to whether these wines were a reaction by Penfolds to the rising temperatures that threaten certain Australian regions, she quipped that they are “the insurance policy we never knew we needed”. While having access to grapes in other regions helps future-proof the Penfolds’ legacy, the decision to experiment with grapes that originate in other countries came from a different pursuit: the pursuit of the best. This search led the team to California for these specific wines and, after more than two decades of trials and investigation, the end result is their addition to the Penfolds’ portfolio and their subsequent release into New Zealand this year for the first time, albeit in limited quantities.

Fans of the Penfolds’ style will be delighted by these wines: Bin 704 is a classic cabernet, full-bodied and resplendent with cassis, dark fruits and exotic spices; Bin 600 is a cabernet shiraz blend that is concentrated and generous with a cacophony of both red and dark fruits. Both are approachable and are drinking beautifully now, but will reward the most patient among us for easily another 15 years.

Blended on site in California by Steph and Penfolds’ red winemaker Andrew Baldwin – who between them have more than 45 years of Penfolds’ winemaking experience – it’s easy to see why these wines fit seamlessly into the Penfolds’ portfolio despite being made from Californian grapes. At Penfolds, blending is so much a part of the craft of winemaking; it’s what creates the hallmark Penfolds’ house style that is adored by wine lovers around the world. So while it seeks to diversify the portfolio with these ‘other region’ wines, the winemaking team always strives to stay true to the heritage that lies in the heart of Penfolds’ home of South Australia.

Steph Dutton, group winemaker

Fast forward from the first plantings in 1844 to today and Penfolds has winemaking teams in four countries across two hemispheres with grape plantings in the USA, France and China. It’s fair to say that founders Christopher and Mary Penfold would be proud of how far the wine company has come since they founded it upon their arrival to Australia with some vine clippings.

While Penfolds is influenced by the market and its consumers, it is unapologetic that its evolution is never rapid. For this brand it’s about being bold and courageous, acting with purpose and conviction but never in a rush, and always in the pursuit of greatness for the long term. For the Penfolds’ winemaking team, maintaining consistency does not mean staying the same but always moving and evolving. Penfolds believes that the changes you make today, when implemented with respect to brand heritage, consistency of house style and a passion for greatness, will ensure a legacy that is not trendy, but timeless. ■

Mary-Thérèse Blair travelled to Melbourne courtesy of Penfolds.