Penfolds: The Winery, Its Winemaker and Their Wines

by Chuck Hayward

This is Part 1 of a 3 part blogpost on Penfolds, Australia's legendary winery. There is so much to this historic winery that one blogpost could not do any justice to their story. This first post examines some of the factors that have led to Penfold's place in the world of wine.


Penfolds is rightfully acknowledged to be Australia's most iconic winery and surely has to be one of the most recognized wineries in the world. While it may be taken for granted today, it was not always so. It has assumed its place in the world of wine through an unwavering work ethic, a commitment towards respecting the winery's history and an endless dedication and respect to the Penfold's winemaking style.

This is not an easy thing for a winery to accomplish today's world. The demands currently placed upon wineries are wide and varied. Not only must they be expected to respect their terroir and the fundamental forces that define the winery but they must often look towards the future and be a leader in new and innovative wine trends. The demand for profits in an increasingly competitive global market makes it difficult to maintain and improve a winery's cellars and vineyards yet at the same time, sales and marketing programs require constant attention. Navigating these pressures is not an easy task.

Penfolds has also faced unique dilemmas due to their remote location in Australia. Long revered at home, Penfolds in the past cast a very small shadow on the global wine scene due to the fact that the global market for Aussie wines did not really take off until the late 1980s. Even then, Penfolds was mostly known for its iconic shiraz, the Grange Hermitage (now just called Grange). When one considers that it has taken many decades or centuries for some wineries to become household names, it's striking to realize how quickly Penfolds emerged from relative obscurity to global awareness.

How did this happen? Penfolds has maintained and developed it's place as a global brand not only through hard work in the cellar where they have been making wines that honored their heritage. They have also excelled in their unceasing efforts to reach out to the trade and consumers across the globe. Whether it's within Australia itself or in far-flung corners of Europe and Asia, the winery's team of winemakers consistently travel across the globe opening countless bottles of Grange and other iconic wines while telling the Penfolds story.

When it comes to specifics about respecting the Penfolds winemaking style, the winery maintains a laserlike focus on honoring and respecting the winemaking methods that were developed during the 50s through the early 70s under the oversight of Max Schubert, the head winemaker responsible for creating Grange. With respect to Penfold's icon wines, this has included techniques like the use of American oak in aging wines and sourcing fruit from regions throughout South Australia is a mainstay. Penfolds has always preferred to stay with the techniques attributed to specific wines such as the use of old 1460 liter oak casks for aging their St. Henri shiraz while Grange is always aged in classic 225 liter American oak barrels.

While Penfolds has always placed a premium on upholding their traditional winemaking style, it does not mean that the winery is averse to innovation. One could see an openness to new ideas develop under the leadership of John Duval, Penfolds' chief winemaker from 1986 to 2002. Duval led the initial forays into the development of Yattarna, a wine project that was dedicated to making a "White Grange" as a counterpoint to the shiraz based Grange.

John also began to embrace regionality and the use of French oak, long before American oak detractors found their voice amplified by the wine press. The RWT shiraz was first made in 1997 and was made entirely with fruit from the Barossa Valley. This provided an alternative to the prevailing Penfolds stylebook which used fruit sourced from a number of regions in South Australia. And rather than use American oak, Duval's RWT was aged entirely in French oak.

Duval's successor, Peter Gago has pushed the winery to even more exciting areas working with new varietals and blends at the same time fully embracing the trend towards making wines that are more defined by their regionality and subregionality. New projects are released under the "Cellar Door" line of wines and include successful efforts to produce gewurztraminer, tempranillo and sangiovese. While most of the more experimental wines are only available at the winery, a few of these bottlings leave the tasting room and can be found in select overseas markets.

One of the frequent criticisms directed at Penfolds is their tradition of sourcing grapes from a number of growing regions. Critics, most of them American or British, argue that multi-regional wines such as Grange or the cabernet based Bin 707 are concocted wines that lack a sense of place. The winery's overarching policy of maintaining the Penfolds style has led them to respect the steps of winemakers that came before them rather than change the essential essence of their iconic wines to reflect current trends.

I would argue, however, that wines like Grange and the Bin Series wines do reflect a sense of place in that they are proudly South Australian wines. Boldly flavored, rich in texture, these are wines that could only come from South Australia. A wine made from many regions within the state of Victoria or Western Australia would taste quite different, reflecting the specific terroirs that exist in those states. The terroirists, in this case, are not looking at the bigger picture when they claim that multi-regional wines lack a stylistic imprint.

Nevertheless, this does not mean that the winery has its head stuck in the proverbial sand. The winery's Magill Estate shiraz (first made in 1983) is about as site driven a wine as can be. It's made exclusively with fruit from vineyards surrounding the old winery just outside Adelaide at the foot of the Adelaide Hills. Peter Gago has expanded upon John Duval's initial forays into making wines with a more specific sense of place. His efforts to showcase unique regions and subregions has led to new wines like the Bin 150, a shiraz based on fruit from the Marananga subregion in the western Barossa and Bin 311, a chardonnay from the cool Tumbarumba region and once an important component in Yattarna. We can expect to see more types of these wines in the future.

And that is what is striking about Penfolds over the past 25 years, it's ability to walk the tightrope that respects the past while moving forward, keeping its core base of consumers while reaching out and developing new wines that appeal to niche markets. At the same time, the winery did the hard yards by hitting the road, opening bottles and reaching out to the press, consumers and the folks that sell their wines. The combination of education and promotion played an important role in Penfolds ascension to a global brand. And the man who led that charge was Peter Gago.

Part 2 of this post on Penfolds will look at Peter Gago, Penfolds chief winemaker since 2002, and will be followed in the final post by tasting notes and comments on the latest vintages of Penfolds' icon wines.

JJ Buckley has an extensive selection of Penfolds wines. These wines show you the diversity of what the winery can do!

2009 Penfolds "Yattarna" Chardonnay

2009 Penfolds "Bin 23" Pinot Noir

2011 Penfolds "Bin 138" Grenache/Shiraz/Mourvedre

Penfolds "Grandfather" Tawny Port