Penfolds have announced this week that they’re going to become a truly international winemaker, revealing plans to begin making a Napa Valley red and a Champagne.
No, I didn’t make that up.
What is arguably Australia’s most venerable winery, with a rich and celebrated history, has abandoned pretensions of just being winemakers and now fully embraced ‘luxury brand’ status (complete with an odd pair of spirits).
Does anyone else find this move a bit just a bit dirty? The core appeal of Penfolds has always been that it can connect so readily with that long history. Grange, famously, is made as much by the chief winemaker as it is a panel of former Penfolds winemakers. Older wines are similarly recorked and topped with current vintages just because the lineage (and consistency) is so strong.
While some recent releases have felt like the marketing department has been let loose (Like the G3), you could still always see the Magill winery DNA in the wines. Peter Gago (and winemakers before him) have always pushed to keep Penfolds Magill-centric, resisting the urges of parent company Treasury Wine Estate (and Foster’s before that) to keep the winemaking very much focused upon a historical Magill nucleus. Penfolds is as South Australian as Coopers and Farmers Union Iced Coffee, even if you’ll find some Tassie fruit in Yattarna (and cheekily rumoured to be a little Victorian Shiraz in Grange at one point).
But this move, to start making wines in Champagne and California, is anything but South Australian. Sure, it might be entertaining for the winemaking team (and they are extremely competent, that is unquestioned), but it strikes as concept-first, wine quality second. You only have to look at the comments from Treasury Wine Estate (TWE) Marketing Manager Michelle Terry to realise this isn’t about making wine, it’s about branding:
‘These extensions will consolidate Penfolds as a luxury brand that transcends beyond its existing sourcing regions and categories; positioning it for its next chapter.’
Or TWE CEO Michael Clarke:
‘Innovation of this nature plays a critical role in driving long term, sustainable growth for the Company as we broaden brand appeal and offerings to consumers around the world. Multi-region and multi-country sourcing brings excitement and energy into established brands and at the same time, strengthens TWE’s ability to deliver consistent, quality wine year on year; regardless of vintage variation. What we have announced for Penfolds is just the start of a much larger agenda we have to deliver continued growth.’
Authenticity? Forget about it. Making the best wine possible? An afterthought. To me, this appears to be a way to make more money around the world, not make great wines – a glorified marketing move, made in board rooms far from vineyards and wineries.
I’m willing to be shown up when the wines are finally released – indeed the Napa wine could turn out to be great – but would I buy a bottle?
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Apart from a few bottles of St Henri I haven’t bought a Penfolds wine since the 90s. I don’t know anyone else who buys them. I never see them at anyone’s house, nobody ever brings them to our place and I rarely see them on wine lists. The prices seem to be on an increasingly steep trajectory (389 seems to have doubled since the 90s) and the ones I would love to try (eg Yattarna, Bin A) seem impossible to get. The one time I had Grange it was a big fat so what ? My point is: am I missing something ? Am I meant to be loving & revering Penfolds wines as their marketing suggests ?