Penfolds takes a gamble with fortifieds

The wine is one half of a two-pronged Penfolds innovation spear-headed by Godfrey (pictured), a former long-time fortified winemaker at Seppeltsfield. (Photo: Penfolds Wines)

Penfolds is taking one of its biggest gambles, launching a new product which – looked at one way – is quite a conventional young vintage port style, but looked at another way, is revolutionary.

“We looked at the entire range of the world’s spirits. Baijiu is not one thing, it’s a whole range of spirits.” – James Godfrey

Put simply, it is a vintage port, partially fortified with a spirit familiar to all Chinese: baijiu. It is an undisguised attempt to woo elite Chinese wine drinkers with a flavour they understand almost instinctively.

Baijiu is a spirit distilled from fermented sorghum, the best-known brand being Maotai. It is massively popular.

Penfolds fortified winemaker James Godfrey travelled to China researching Maotai and is clearly fascinated by its history. Maotai comes in a myriad of different styles and he experimented with various blends in his new wine, and tested it on Chinese Australians. They liked it.

“It’s a new product, something we hope has never been done before,” he said.

“We looked at the entire range of the world’s spirits. Baijiu is not one thing, it’s a whole range of spirits. We found a style that was very different from what we’d been playing with before. We wanted it drier, and we wanted to express the grassy/leafy, rice-like savoury notes of the spirit with the rich plummy character of shiraz (the base grape of the fortified wine) and the licorice of the Penfolds fortifying spirit. We liked the almost umami character of the spirit when it combined with our fruit characters.

“It’s remarkably compatible with a range of Chinese foods.”

The fact that China is currently the boom export market for Australian – and especially Penfolds – wine, was evidently a major factor. Godfrey said Penfolds has been exporting to China for more than 30 years.

He said the base wine, which might have once been called vintage port and is technically a sweet red shiraz, was initially fortified to 17.5% alcohol using the traditional Penfolds fortifying spirit. The intention was to take it up to 20% by adding other spirits, at the same time reducing the sweetness. The finished wine, named Penfolds Lot 518 Spirited Wine With Baijiu, weighs in at 21.5% alcohol. It comes in the same bottle as Penfolds Grandfather port, but clear glass. It was released in August and is AUD $150 at Penfolds’ cellar door.

To the average Aussie taste it’s a vintage port style, but has a slightly unusual aroma note, due no doubt to the baijiu. Whether it succeeds or not has little to do with what round-eyes like me think, but how the Chinese take to it.

The wine is one half of a two-pronged Penfolds innovation spear-headed by Godfrey, a former long-time fortified winemaker at Seppeltsfield.

The first of these so-called Penfolds Special Bottlings, which was released in July and packaged in the same Grandfather bottle, is an altogether different drop: a very old and rather wonderful brandy. It’s called Penfolds Lot 1990 Pot Distilled Single Batch XO Brandy and is priced at AUD $425.

This is a spirit any brandy or Cognac lover could take to. It’s a single-vintage 1990 brandy, which is now 28 years old and has been in the company’s possession since it was newly purchased from a long-forgotten source. Godfrey always knew it was special, but never quite knew what to do with it. It’s been in wood all the intervening time. “Now it’s mature, it suddenly has a home,” he says.

Coincidentally, it’s almost a century since the last Penfolds vintage-dated brandy was harvested, as far as Godfrey can discover. It was a 1919 Old Liqueur Brandy.

The 1990 brandy is 42% alcohol and was matured in ex-Penfolds chardonnay barrels and ex-Grandfather port barrels. A touch of Grandfather was added ‘for liqueuring’.

It is astoundingly intense, miraculously complex, and very dry – somewhere between an old Cognac and a single malt whisky. It would stack up well against similarly priced Cognacs. A great spirit.

*First published in Gourmet Traveller Wine magazine, June-July 2018 edition.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *