Penfolds’ chief winemaker does not believe screwcaps are the future of closures, at least in the higher end of the market, revealing that the company is now investigating glass as the best alternative to cork for some of its bottles.
Peter Gago, chief winemaker at Penfolds
All of Penfolds’ white wines have been under screwcap since 2004, with screw-capped wines stretching back to 1971 providing a solid base for comparing their development. However its red wines are still closed with a mixture of cork, synthetic cork and screwcaps.
Gago said his main issue with screwcaps for red wines was not necessarily the ageing of the wines, as this has not yet been thoroughly tested over time, (the oldest Penfolds wine under screw cap dates from the late 1990s), but the fact that using a screwcap masks the impact of heat damage.
“The main thing I am against is heat damage”, said Gago, speaking to the drinks business at Penfolds’ re-corking clinic in London last week. “A red wine under screwcap looks perfect. It might have been at 50 degrees for four weeks but you would never know. A lot of people want to cut costs and there are companies that are moving it and selling it off. These people aren’t paying for refrigerated transport and at the other end the wine is still zapped but you can’t tell with a screwcap.”
Generally, a weeping cork suggests exposure to intense heat, as does a lifted capsule due to the cork being pushed up with internal thermal expansion. These clues to heat damage are concealed when using a screwcap.
With the TCA problem “partially solved”, Gago said there had been a move back to cork at the top end, noting that examples of TCA in cork were now down to around 1% – about the same proportion of wines oxidised due to mechanical damage of screwcaps.
Its flagship Grange remains a 100% cork release, as do the majority of its top end red wines, with some of its red Bin releases under screwcap. However commenting on the range of closures now available Gago revealed that Penfolds was currently looking at using glass for some its wines.
“I don’t think screwcap is the future”, said Gago. “We are looking at glass. True glass to glass, that’s what we are working on. In the interim, screwcaps for our whites and corks for many reds and some screwcaps.”
Re-corking clinic turns 25
Gago made the comments at Penfolds’ re-corking clinic in London last week, an initiative which this year turns 25 and seeks not only to maintain the wines of collectors, but remove faulty, and sometimes fake, wines from the system.
Available free to any Penfolds wine over 15 years, the team will assess, re-cork and advise attendees on the best drinking windows, re-cork their wine to extend its longevity and, when necessary, pull it out of the system completely.
While many are consumers seeking to ensure their wines are still drinkable for their personal consumption, many clients are seeking to sell their wines, making the assessment by Gago’s team all the more important, policing both bad wines and potentially fake wines.
“We are not just there to just put new corks into old bottles, we are removing bad wines from the system”, he said.
Penfolds 1962 Bin 60a, hailed by James Halliday as “the best red of the 20th century”, is a bottle that always raises a more inquisitive assessment, said Gago.
“These bottles aren’t plateauing but are on the ascent”, he said. “The problem is you don’t know which are the good bottles. This was a wine that was never commercially sold. We had 485 cases made. Some ended up in Parliament house. These are the few that you see about at auctions. But it can be a pretty amazing experience if you get to taste an untravelled, well kept bottle.”
Three bottles of 60a came into the clinic in Sydney, which Gago said “looked a bit too good”, which were ultimately removed from the system.
“I asked Steve (Lienert, Penfolds senior red winemaker ) for a second opinion. He tasted it and said ‘no you cant accept that’. Three bottles were gone. They leave with a plain cork, no capsule and no certificate. They can try and sell that bottle but who is going to buy it? Sometimes they leave the bottles behind.”
Penfolds Grange Hermitage 1951
Ultimate wine “health-check”
Penfolds is the only winery in the world to offer its collectors a wine ‘health-check’ and after sales service, with the pop-up Penfolds Re-corking Clinic this year travelling from Sydney and Melbourne to London, the US and Canada.
Founded in 1991, Gago’s team has now assessed some 130,000 bottles of wine, with collectors given the opportunity to have their 15+ year old bottles visually inspected, then opened (if necessary), assessed, topped-up, certified and re-capsuled – thereby preventing any further deterioration due to leakage and low levels and adding to the investment potential.
It also allows collectors a rare opportunity to engage with the wine’s creator, learn more about their wine and discuss optimum drinking windows and cellaring recommendations. An expert from leading international auction house Christie’s is always on hand for fine wine collection investment consultations.
“After 25 years, the re-corking Clinics continue to amaze and evolve, transcending all our expectations”, said Gago. “The notion that every bottle has a story continues to reign true. As winemakers, it is so meaningful and rewarding to meet collectors and share their personal story of their wine’s unique journey. Professionally it is gratifying to witness the ongoing quality of rare treasures that span so many decades, each one adding to the unfinished story that is Penfolds.”