Despite making Australia's most famous red, Penfolds Grange, Peter Gago has always had a soft spot for champagne. "It's unique. There's only one champagne in the world, and it can only be made in the Champagne region of France."
Now, in honour of the company's 175th anniversary, Penfolds has released the first of three champagnes from the 2012 vintage with its name in traditional red on the label. And the South Australian company's chief winemaker has had more than a little to do with it.
"I had a bit of a secret kid's fantasy of making champagne one day," says Gago. "We had been extending the Penfolds brand over the years. Our reds, and the classic old fortifieds, were well known, and we had extended the brand to include whites, with great success. All that was missing was a sparkling wine. Why not a champagne?"
"I believe that this is the first collaboration of its kind between an Australian winemaker and a champagne house," says John Noble, director of the Champagne Bureau of Australia.
"Throughout the history of champagne, some champagne houses have made champagne exclusively for royal and aristocratic families around Europe. In the modern day this category really belongs to luxury brands and celebrities who want to personalise their champagne – but this is different from the Penfolds and Thienot partnership which sounds like a real collaboration between winemaker and winemaker."
Penfolds' collaboration with family-owned champagne house Thienot has been some time in the works.
Gago specialised in sparkling wine while still a student at South Australia's Roseworthy winemaking college. On graduating in 1989, he joined Penfolds Wines, reporting to Ed Carr, widely regarded as Australia's sparkling wine master. Under their guidance, and by refining the traditional champagne method, expanding sources of grapes, and mastering blending, the company's sparkling wines took over the Australian marketplace.
In 2002, Gago took the reins at Penfolds red wine headquarters and his contribution to the Grange story, and the story of Australian wine generally, has been hugely significant. In 2017 he was awarded an Order of Australia for his work.
Not only is he the chief winemaker, but the outgoing, gregarious Gago also works as a travelling ambassador for the Penfolds brand. His travels have taken him far and wide, including to France, where he is a frequent visitor to the Champagne district.
Under Gago's watch, Penfolds' red wine has become a significant brand, even in France, where the company is represented by Alain Thienot, a family-owned champagne house that also counts the Joseph Perrier and Canard-Duchene labels among its portfolio.
The close relationship between Thienot and Gago sparked the idea for a collaboration, and the Australian wine company decided "to put a toe in the water", as Gago puts it.
Thienot's ageing stock and their wine sources for blending impressed Gago deeply, the availability of base wines from the top vintage of 2012 stoked his enthusiasm and the two wine companies embarked on a secret collaboration.
Some of Gago's suggestions for "Australianising" the process more, by putting Penfolds Yattarna Chardonnay or St Henri Shiraz in the sweetening dosage for the wines, brought frowns and a firm "non" from authorities in France, where use of the champagne name is illegal unless the product comes from the region and is made according to strict rules governing all aspects of production.
The project has run smoothly, with wine selection, blending and input of know-how from both sides dovetailing nicely.
Last week, at a glamorous event at the Hotel Ritz in Paris to mark Penfolds' 175th anniversary, the first of three limited-release 2012 wines was unveiled. Two more 2012 wines will follow in 2020.
The wines, known as Champagne Thienot x Penfolds and smartly labelled in black with the Penfolds name in traditional red, will be flowing in the French spirit of joie de vivre, and no doubt a bottle or two of Grange will be present as a nod to those who've come from Down Under.
Thienot x Penfolds Chardonnay Pinot Noir Cuvee 2012
A wine of great finesse, characters reminiscent of apple tart, creme brulee and nutty characters flow through a subtle, fine mouthful, light but intense, lingering and fragrant. Very elegant.
Thienot x Penfolds Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs 2012 (not yet released)
My pick of the three, this single-vineyard 100 per cent chardonnay champagne has delicate floral and citrus aromas woven through richer stone fruit and toasty notes. Rich yet fine, it offers a sustained, refined palate of lovely length and tight structure. Ultra stylish champagne.
Thienot x Penfolds Grand Cru Blanc de Noir 2012 (not yet released)
From Ay, in champagne's pinot noir heartland, this is the most reserved wine of the three. It's more fruit-driven with rich pinot qualities at its core, trimmed in classic brioche/patisserie/spice elements adding complexity. Creamy, nutty and fine, it tastes very dry and serious, in need of a little bottle age to flourish.
And the price?
Ideas of value are an individual thing. In keeping with its Penfolds Grange stablemates, Thienot x Penfolds Champagne is not cheap at about $280 a bottle, but a quick scan of the prices of some of the prestige competition give a feel for where it might sit. Krug Grande Cuvee sits just below $300, Taittinger Comtes de Champagne a bit under $350, and Louis Roederer Cristal is near $400.
In addition to being sold at penfolds.com, the 2012 Chardonnay Pinot Noir Cuvee will be available at Penfolds Cellar Doors, airport duty free and in fine wine stores.