On Monday night I jumped into a mini-cab from my flat in a built-up area of Brentford, just outside London, and headed through a chilly, black autumn night to Heathrow Airport.
Less than 72 hours later I was standing on the porch of a beautiful colonial homestead in the far northern tip of the Barossa Valley, supping on a fine Pinot Noir, and chatting away with two young and marvellously down-to-earth wine men (a viticulturist and winemaker respectively) while gazing out at a sublimely Aussie landscape that made one realise just why people fall in love with this country.
The Barossa, home to so many great wineries and wines down the years, is a definitively Australian place. Vast panoramic vistas; long, straight, dusty roads; tall, thin gum trees springing from the earth as far as the eye can see. And grapevines. Thousands upon thousands of grapevines, resplendent in their bountiful green foliage, bursting with young grapes, steadily ripening as spring gives way to summer and harvest time looms in the early new year.
This is what they call ‘big country’ but most of all it’s wine country. It’s also the spiritual and production heartland of Penfolds, one of the great names in Australian and international winemaking. As mentioned in an earlier Blog, I was in Australia to witness a major landmark moment at Sydney Airport for this great winemaker – the launch of the first-ever Penfolds airport store.
The company (now owned by Treasury Wine Estates) has been making fine wines for almost 170 years, over that time earning itself a revered position in the world of wine, not just in Australia but all around the globe. Ask any wine aficionado to name the most iconic wine they know from anywhere in the world outside Bordeaux or Burgundy and I reckon that at least 70% of the respondents would answer “Penfolds Grange”. The wine is that famous. More importantly (and as I had confirmed to me on Thursday), it is that good.
But Penfolds is about far more than Grange. Its portfolio of wines represents a straddling of styles, varietals and price points, that have earned huge popularity around the world, and which are now the subject of a concerted push in travel retail that assumed a new dimension at Friday’s store opening.
My job, if one can call such a pleasurable assignment a job, was not only to report on a landmark occasion but also to discover the qualities and values that lie behind the Penfolds name.
And so, after a 27 hour journey from London (via Hong Kong and Sydney) to Adelaide, I set out on Thursday morning with Treasury Wine Estates’ Travel Retail Commercial Director Tom King from our hotel overlooking the Pacific in the lovely seaside suburb of Glenelg to the nearby Penfolds Magill Estate, the first stage of a thrilling day-long journey into ‘Penfolds land’.
McGill Estate is where it all began for the company way back in 1844. This is a lovely place, featuring a working winery nestled in the middle of a modern suburban residential area. The surrounds might be contemporary but the facility itself is about as historic as you get. For a start it’s the original home of Penfolds – and the company’s most illustrious wine, Grange.
You can just about reach out and touch the history in this place, not least in the vast line-up of old and great wines in the tunnels (or ‘bins’) underground. The bluestone cellars are listed property, while the charming Grange Cottage is a step back into colonial times.
[A wine aficionado's nirvana: Grange served by the barrel]
I had the unexpected pleasure of meeting Penfolds Chief Winemaker Peter Gago (below left with Tom King centre), almost a rock star among winemakers and an ebullient, effervescent character just as much at home with royalty and celebrities as he is in the winery or vineyards. You can read more about him in my follow-up feature in coming weeks, and you’ll realise, like I did, that wine is not just about the right grapes, growing conditions and terroir, but also about passion.
Peter talks about Grange as “understated luxury”, a nice term that encapsulates a great product born of the land, influenced by the climate, shaped my man and conditioned by time. He got “the grip of the grape” in his university and it never left him. The wine world is a better place for it.
From Magill it was out to the Barossa Valley and a stop off at Kalimna Homestead to meet winemaker Matt Woo and Assistant Vineyard Manager Tim Malone for an enthralling tasting of Penfolds’ wines. This included treasures such as 2010 RWT, a big beautiful Barossa Shiraz that will go on way beyond my lifetime and a Grandfather Rare Tawny, which would at least ensure I departed the world happily.
It got even better over a lunch for which the word sumptuous would be a serious understatement. First the wines – the lovely soft yet crisp and fresh Penfolds Yattana Chardonnay 2010 followed by, you guessed it, Grange (2010) and then the great granddaddy (Great Grandfather to give this majestic wine its proper name) of Rare Tawnies.
What food could live up to such an accompaniment? Well, in a simple colonial homestead at the north tip of the Barossa Valley, we found out. The menu was the creation of famous Australian chef, food writer and artist Ann Oliver, a fantastically engaging character who creates sheer magic in the kitchen. From steamed crayfish and cured Atlantic salmon in apple cucumber and mayonnaise (above) to peppered fillet of grass-fed beef to a grandfather ice cream terrine with almonds, marinated Haigh’s chocolates, raisins, brandy snap and Tania Jones chocolate sauce, this was art on a plate. Exquisitely edible art that is.
[At Kalimna with Tim Malone, Ann Oliver and Matt Woo]
After that we took a quick spin around the vineyards with Tim, including a stop-off at the famed Block 82, home to the world’s oldest continually producing Cabernet Sauvignon vines. Vines? More like gnarled tree stumps, things of age and a peculiar beauty all of their own. Look at the example below, like a twisted wooden crocodile. Age may have withered its looks but not its ability to produce outstanding fruit with exceptional concentration.
Superb food, wine with a finish as long as the Barossa Valley and country that makes the heart soar. Going back home to Brentford may be a struggle.