Not Just for Cork Dorks: The Penfolds Recorking Clinic

by Chuck Hayward

Not Just for Cork Dorks: The Penfolds Recorking Clinic

Post by Chuck Hayward | September 22nd, 2011

Australia's Penfolds is known worldwide for their wines, especially the iconic shiraz-based Grange. Yet it is their unique service, the Penfolds Recorking Clinic, which sets the standard for what chief winemaker Peter Gago calls "service after the sale." Given the prices of many wines these days, it is seems almost criminal that other wineries do not follow the lead of Penfolds in this regard.

Matt Lane, Penfolds Ambassador, attacks the cork on an old bottle

Developed by the winery some twenty years ago, the Penfolds Recorking Clinic was, until recently, only conducted in Australia. Administered annually in Sydney and Melbourne along with a rotating schedule between Adelaide and Brisbane, the Recorking Clinic now travels to other markets in Europe and America. This week, Penfolds is visiting Washington DC and New Orleans to provide a service that is performed by no other winery and, amazingly in this day and age, free of charge.

Witnessing a Recorking Clinic, especially in Australia, can be quite emotional. Given the reverence for Penfolds there, many families have tucked away a stash of old wines somewhere in their homes. As consumers bring their wines before the winemakers, the tension and nervousness on their faces are palpable. It’s as if they are bringing loved ones to a doctor’s office, anxiously awaiting the diagnosis.

Any Penfolds wine, whether a rare Grange or everyday Koonunga Hill, can be submitted, as long as an appointment is made and the wines are 15 years or older. Some folks bring a single treasured bottle, while restaurants have been known to bring cases. Some wines have been discovered that were not in the records of the winery! During a recent visit of the Recorking Clinic, I had the opportunity to again view the procedure firsthand but this time with a bottle from JJ Buckley's inventory.

Direct from Australia: Penfolds' recorking machine!

The Recorking Clinic itself is conducted at a considerable expense. In addition to Peter Gago and anywhere from 3-10 members of the winemaking team, Penfolds has to ship to the clinic site recorking machines, foil spinners, a vacuum pump, as well as other assorted machines and personnel necessary to recork the wines. And then ship them back to Australia.

The Process
Wines first undergo a visual inspection for such things as fill levels or leakage. Any wines deemed okay are set aside while questionable bottles are brought forward for discussion between the winemaker and client. If further assessment is warranted, a course of action is suggested and agreed upon. For instance, if the wine is to be opened and tasted, the customer must agree to this and understand the repercussions in case the wine does not pass muster. Penfolds retains the right to not approve wines that don’t meet the winemakers' standards.

Tools of the trade for pulling out the cork

Utilizing tools that look like they came from a 19th century medical office, the corks of each bottle are gently extracted. A layer of inert gas is immediately applied to prevent oxidation and a stopper applied to each bottle. Here is where the Penfolds Recorking Clinic provides its greatest service. Once a bottle is opened, both the winemaker and client sample the wine and discuss its merits and drawbacks. It’s an amazing opportunity for a professional assessment as to whether a particular bottle is maturing as expected and/or obtain recommendations about further cellaring potential. Having Peter Gago on hand to assess these wines is another benefit as he is intimately familiar with all Penfolds wines and their current state of maturity (thanks, no doubt, to the Penfolds wine library as well as all these clinics).

Success! The cork is out with only a little mess.

In the case of the rare 1959 Grange that I brought from JJ Buckley, I could now understand that anxiety I had witnessed in clients at other clinics as I nervously waited for his verdict. If the wine was no good, its value would immediately decrease and its resale potential would be zero. Luckily, Gago declared the bottle to just past the bar required for certification. While quite mature, there was a kernel of sweet fruit that is the hallmark of Grange and the core of the bouquet retained some freshness. He did not recommend further cellaring and suggested that the bottle be opened in the near future.

Penfolds Winemaker Peter Gago takes a look at the 1959 Grange

Gago's wealth of knowledge also proved useful in answering a concern about the wine's authenticity. Our bottle did not match pictures I’ve seen in auction catalogs and the label looked questionable to me. It turns out that back then, bottles of Grange were labeled at different times and in different locations. At the time, Penfolds had numerous cellars and the foil color indicated which one had released the wine. Specialized and detailed knowledge like this is priceless. As is the ability of Penfolds to take pro-active steps to ensure authenticity.

Some inert gas before the new cork goes in

After the wine is tasted, a small amount of the current vintage is added to the bottle. Penfolds has conducted numerous tests to show that the wine is not substantially affected by the new wine addition. Special corks branded with the date of the clinic are used for those wines that will be certified, blank corks are applied for wines that do not pass the clinic standards. A new foil is then spun onto the bottle. Once the recorking process has been completed, a numbered sticker is applied with the date of the clinic and signed by the winemaker. Each recorked bottle is placed in the Penfolds database to help fight against fraud or counterfeits.

The '59 Grange gets its Recorking Clinic sticker

The Recorking Clinics represent a unique service to Penfolds customers and allows their customers to assess the current conditions of their wines while providing an invaluable and intimate opportunity to get recommendations on drinkability and market value. That this is provided free of charge just shows why Penfolds sets the standards for more than just great winemaking. Bravo!

JJB's Chuck Hayward & Penfolds winemaker Peter Gago with the certified 1959 Grange

For a complete pictorial tour, click here.