Gago not shy of Shiraz-baijiu ‘controversy’

With an eye on the Chinese market, the most profitable market for Australian wines, Penfolds’ latest ‘Special Bottlings’ incorporating China’s popular and fiery spirit baijiu has attracted controversy – and chief winemaker Peter Gago isn’t at all afraid of it.

Peter Gago (left) at the Special Bottling launch event

The Lot. 518, a Shiraz wine infused with the Chinese liquor, was unveiled in early July as part of the ‘Penfolds Special Bottlings’ range, along with a pot-distilled 28-year-old single batch brandy and two of Penfolds’ multi-sourcing, cross-country projects – a Champagne and Napa wine.

The choice of the hugely popular Chinese liquor from its biggest market is neatly angled at its enormous base of established Penfolds drinkers in mainland China, and the country’s even vaster base of baijiu drinkers.

China’s per capita wine consumption stands at 1.34 litre, while per capita consumption for baijiu, the alcoholic strength of which averages around 50% abv, is at 8.57 litres.

“Of course, it is no secret that Penfolds wines are highly respected and popular in China,” Peter Gago, chief winemaker at Penfolds, replied when asked by dbHK about the choice.

Not to forget – Penfolds first started trading there in the early 1900s. And baijiu is HUGE in China. China is a terrific market for Australian wines, so naturally we are honoured to be able to evolve a new Penfolds fortified wine for Chinese Penfolds drinkers living around the world (and, others!)” 

China’s thirst for Australian wines has pushed up the country’s wine exports to AU$1.12 billion, accounting for 40% of Australia’s total export value in the past 12 months to June 2018. The growth is set to continue too, with China set to completely scrap import tariffs on Australian wines next January.

Despite the risk of appearing to grovel to the Chinese market, the range has had an, “amazing global reception” said Gago. The market has responded, “engagingly, a little bit of controversy – there always is with Penfolds!” he stated, perhaps recalling the reaction to the launch of the £100,000 Penfolds ‘Ampoule’ in 2012.

The single batch brandy and baijiu-infused Shiraz wine

Further explaining on the choice from Penfolds’ historic production perspective, he notes that using baijiu simply replaces the usual grape spirit used in second fermentation. Only 6% of baijiu is added in the fortified wine, and its alcoholic strength stands at 21.5% abv, much lower than the regular baijiu spirit.

“At Penfolds we historically have used a two-stage fortification process using Australian grape spirit, the first to arrest fermentation, the second and most important to add complexity, intensity and final balance. With Lot. 518 we have selected baijiu to replace the spirit used in the second fortification. This adds an altogether different character,” he elaborates. “We think it works … hopefully others will agree!”

The creation, as Gago described it, has a special link to Penfolds’ global fortified and spirits winemaker, James Godfrey, whose father was born in Shanghai.

During the production process James visited various baijiu producers to get closer to the spirit making process and define how he wanted to make Lot. 518. Matt Woo, a longstanding Penfolds red & fortified winemaker, also shares a penchant for baijiu and was instrumental in creating this alternative fortified style,” Gago added. 

For the other creations in the range, the Champagne will bear the French AOC designation, he confirmed, meaning “it will be grown, made and bottled in Champagne.”

The wine will be released in 2019 in time for Penfolds’ 175th anniversary.  

The Napa Valley wines will be sourced from “best of the best” Napa grapes, as the company previously announced, and will likewise be bottled in California.

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