To be named chief winemaker at Australia's Penfold's is a little bit like becoming pope of that country's wine industry.
The person in that position becomes the guardian of Australia's proudest wine tradition -- the wine known as Grange. It has been called the greatest wine made in the Southern Hemisphere, and its success has inspired two generations of winemakers down under.
So here comes Peter Gago breezing through Baltimore, on the job all of three months, telling a critic in a broad Aussie accent that "Grange isn't the be-all and end-all."
Over lunch at a local restaurant, the affable winemaker made a convincing case that there's much more to Penfold's than Grange -- a wine few of us can afford.
From a fresh, young riesling to an array of blockbuster red wines, Gago presented persuasive evidence of the 157-year-old winery's thoroughly modern versatility. "We can't be all things to all people," he said, "but we're giving it a go."
Gago immediately caught my attention by pulling out a riesling in a screw-cap bottle. It was a good sign, showing that an internationally acclaimed winery was joining the revolution against tainted corks.
Penfold's 2002 Eden Valley Reserve Riesling ($19) certainly showed exceptional liveliness and balance. Its apple, honey and peach flavors were capped by bracing acidity.
An even finer value is the 2002 Penfold's Thomas Hyland Chardonnay from South Australia ($12). This lively, elegant wine is the antidote for all those container loads of over-oaked and characterless chardonnays Australia has been exporting. Penfold's judicious use of oak has allowed the natural-apple, marzipan and white-pepper flavors of the grape to shine.
The red Thomas Hyland wines, Penfold's mid-priced range, also showed well. I slightly preferred the young 2001 cabernet sauvignon to the 2000 shiraz. Both are bold expressions of varietal character that are well-priced at $14.
Penfold's entry-level premium wines are generally known by bin numbers. One bin number that's well-known to devotees of Australian wine is 389, a South Australian cabernet-shiraz that is known as "Baby Grange."
The 1999 Bin 389 ($27) lives up to that name with its concentrated blackberry fruit, deep color and earthy, beefy flavors. It shows every sign of being able to age well, and Gago said the winery's restaurant is still serving vintages from the 1970s.
Bin 128 is a shiraz from the renowned Coonawarra region. The 1999 ($25) displays intense blackberry fruit in a wine that is concentrated but not ponderous. Its smoothness and sweet oak make it easy to approach now, but it should improve for decades.
Besides Grange, Penfold's also produces two other high-end red wines made primarily from shiraz -- but in thoroughly different styles. While they are not inexpensive, they are both more affordable than Grange.
Penfold's St. Henri has almost as long a track record as Grange. First produced in 1957, it has always been made without exposure to new oak so that the unadorned flavor of the wild berry flavors can come through.
The 1998 ($40) was a brilliant example: very concentrated, soft-textured and elegant. Collectors who can't afford Grange might want to consider St. Henri as an alternative.
Penfold's RWT, a Barossa Valley shiraz, stands for "red winemaking trial" -- its name as an experimental wine in 1995. The moniker stuck when it was launched as yet another variation on shiraz, using French oak instead of the American oak used to produce Grange.
The 1998 is a wine of staggering complexity and finesse. Classical music lovers might call it Mozart to Grange's Beethoven. At $65, the RWT is an expensive indulgence, but well-heeled collectors should note that it's in the same league as Grange at less than half the cost. It might not remain that way for long. Knowing the secret to luring a wine writer to his table, Gago brought along the latest release of Grange -- the 1997 -- priced at $185 a bottle.
It was merely a good vintage for Grange, not a great one such as 1998. Thus, it fell a few points short of perfection. But who's complaining?
The concentration, intensity and finish were exceptional and its flavors of blackberry, chocolate, smoked meat, sweet oak and exotic spices unmistakable. Grange, even in a so-so year, is simply one of the most memorable wines on the planet.
Gago, only the fourth chief winemaker at Penfold's since 1948, said he'd been given a "huge license to experiment," but has no plans to mess with Penfold's flagship wines. "There's such a tradition and heritage. Any person would be ill-advised to tamper with it," he said.