Peter Gago is chief winemaker at Australia’s Penfolds. Part of that job entails making the iconic, elusive Penfolds Grange, known until 1989 as Grange Hermitage. Gago is only the fourth winemaker in Grange history, which dates back to the first, experimental vintage in 1951.
Gago is passionate, articulate, and a smooth brand ambassador for Penfolds; his duties include occasionally taking the Penfolds re-corking clinics on a road trip around the world. Penfolds wines aged 15 years or more can be brought in to the clinic, where Gago himself, abetted by a small, expert team, tests, tastes, evaluates each bottle, fills the bottle to proper levels in the neck, and re-corks. “It is the perfect opportunity for owners of the rarer bottles to have their wine’s provenance, and its future, fully appraised,” says Gago. “It is also a perfect opportunity for us to learn more, to augment our existing information, about these wines as we encounter them.”
For the occasion, we had a bottle of 1998 RWT (an acronym for Red Wine Trials, “although there really isn’t much that is experimental about the RWT anymore,” says Gago). The foil is removed, the cork pulled, a small amount of wine withdrawn, a mix of gases pumped into the bottle to prevent any oxygen from entering. Gago tries the wine, nosing it, swirling, sipping, spitting. “This 1998 is in ideal condition. Although you could age it another 20 years if you so choose, I honestly think its prime time for drinking will be within the next Christmas or two.” Some of the RWT’s current vintage is poured to fill the bottle to ideal level, then it is re-corked and a new foil is placed. (If this was an older Grange, the latest vintage of Grange would be used to re-fill.)
The penultimate step is for Gago to place a small seal on the back label, which he dates and initials, to certify that this bottle is authentic. There is enough counterfeit activity of expensive wine that this step is “absolutely in everyone’s best interest,” says Gago. “You want to sleep well at night knowing your wine is real, and when its ideal drinking time is.” The clinics have proved, over the years, to be immensely popular, which makes sense given the investment level that buying and aging these wines requires. Last but not least: a return of your prized possession, wrapped in semi-transparent tissue, back into your own hands.
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