Perhaps more than any other brand, Penfolds is the emblematic Australian winery. Having weathered numerous boom-and-bust cycles and countless changes in corporate structure and management, it continues to endure. And today, under Chief Winemaker Peter Gago, it’s doing more than enduring—it’s thriving.
Gago has driven its flagship wine, Grange, to new levels of consistently high quality, and that same drive has seemingly infected the rest of the winemaking team. Low-margin distractions have been eliminated, and the result has been an unprecedented run of success at all levels of the portfolio, from the entry-level Koonunga Hill range to the icon wines.
“We’ve been constrained by the amount of wine we have to sell,” says Seth Hynes, brand business director for Penfolds. “Most of our wines are sold out soon after release—the quality of the wines has been a big help.”
In a foreshadowing of the boutique winery movement that swept through New World regions in the 1960s and ’70s, Penfolds was founded by a physician more than 100 years earlier. In 1844, Dr. Christopher Rawson Penfold established a small winery at Magill Estate, near Adelaide in South Australia.
The winery expanded during the first half of the 20th century, built largely on the success of its fortified wines. Vineyards throughout South Australia were added, including the Kalimna Vineyard in the Barossa Valley.
Winemaker Max Schubert established the legendary Grange in the 1950s, when despite healthy criticism at the outset it grew to become Australia’s most heralded wine. It also set the company on course to produce many other ageworthy red wines—the heart of the Penfolds range.
In 1975, Schubert stepped down, succeeded by Don Ditter. In turn, Ditter was succeeded by John Duval in 1986. Gago assumed full control of the winemaking team in 2002, making him only the fourth Penfolds chief winemaker in 50 years (now 60 years and counting).
Few publicly traded wineries can boast that sort of consistency, but Penfolds takes its institutional memory a step further, by routinely bringing back past winemakers to consult on the latest edition of Grange. It’s the sort of extra step that has elevated Penfolds above the roller-coaster ride of quality that sometimes affects other brands.
As the respected Australian Master of Wine Andrew Caillard writes in his preface to the latest edition of Penfolds: The Rewards of Patience, “Penfolds’ own brand of craftsmanship and its wine styles are values that have been built up over generations. Such attributes, along with its fine wines, have made Penfolds an Australian institution.”
What does the future hold for Penfolds? In the near term, the company will be rolling out new single-digit Bin releases in the United States. Carrying retail prices around $25, Bin 8 is a Cabernet-Shiraz blend and Bin 9 is a straight Cabernet Sauvignon.
Long-term, we can only hope that Penfolds’ future remains as bright as its past, and that the company remains under such capable and willing stewardship. For its continued and successful pursuit of excellence, Wine Enthusiast honors Penfolds as our 2013 New World Winery of the Year.