To those who enjoy a quality quaff, the legendary chief winemaker, custodian and public face of Penfolds needs no introduction. Here, he shares with us the challenges of working through the Covid-19 pandemic and a simple tip on how to keep our palates in top form.
Options: Your journey to date with Penfolds has been incredible. Looking back, what do you make of it all?
Peter Gago: For Penfolds, it all started 177 years ago during South Australia’s colonial past. Get the wine right and everything else follows. Personally, I would say to expect the unexpected. Attempt to embrace change for good rather than be seduced by reactive and often short-term change. Making wine is akin to making bottled time capsules. We change, they change … and hopefully for the better!
What was your original ambition, though?
To get that Penfolds sparkling wine maker job back in 1989!
What are some of your favourite Penfolds memories?
Engaging with Penfolds’ greats — from Max Schubert, inventor of the Grange, to Ray Beckwith, Don Ditter, Kevin Schroeter, John Duval, John Bird and Steve Lienert. What a legacy! I also must mention the time when we launched the 2012 Penfolds Ampoule in Moscow, the 50 Year Old Rare Liqueur Tawny in London, the 2008 Bin 620 in Shanghai, g3 in Hong Kong, the Thienot x Penfolds champagnes in Paris … the list is endless!
What has working with wine taught you about life, besides patience?
Wait and watch. Always consider all options. Think long-term yet be willing to act when and if appropriate. Recognise, reward and respect loyalty.
How has the pandemic changed the way you live and work?
It has taught me how to treasure the small things, working relationships and actually being busy and still having a job. It has also taught me to learn to try and separate life at work and life at home.
What were the hardest aspects of working through Covid-19 and how did you overcome the challenges that came your way?
A major part of my role at Penfolds necessitates travel, especially outside of the Australian harvest and increasingly offshore — to Champagne and Bordeaux in France and California in the US — as Penfolds pursues its global aspirations. It appears — and we hope — that global travel will soon restart from Australia. Fortunately, we have been spoilt by our global distribution and supply network over the last couple of years. Launching and supporting wines globally and virtually has its fair share of challenges. The wine business is all about relationships, more easily optimised in person and not via a keyboard and screen. But we attempt to avail ourselves of whatever tools are available. Luckily we are well-served electronically nowadays.
Where did you travel to just before the borders closed, though?
In February 2020, I travelled to the Napa Valley as well as to Champagne and Bordeaux in France for our post-harvest Californian and French Classification tastings. It seems like a very long time ago! Fortunately, I have been able to travel out of South Australia interstate quite a bit this year ... to New South Wales, Victoria and Western Australia. But not of late, what with recent lockdowns and border closures.
Where would be your first ports of call once things open up?
Back to California and France ASAP, to its vineyards and tasting benches. And then to New York City, London and, hopefully, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.
How do you consistently keep your palate and palate memory in top form?
Taste, taste, taste. And taste.
What are some of your favourite food and wine matches?
South Australian King George whiting and a chilled Bin 51 Eden Valley Riesling; marron from Kangaroo Island with a bottle of Reserve Bin A Adelaide Hills Chardonnay; Mayura Station wagyu and RWT Barossa Valley Shiraz; and Haigh’s Chocolates with Grandfather Fine Old Liqueur Tawny.
If we visit South Australia, where would you recommend we eat?
We are lucky to have many outstanding casual and fine dining restaurants in South Australia. However, I can never turn down a meal at Magill Estate Restaurant when executive chef Scott Huggins is plating up his world-class dishes. For the entrée I will opt for a light dish like the whiting ceviche with scallops and coconut (paired with a glass of Bin 311 Chardonnay) and for mains I will never turn down the famous Mayura Station steak with a glass of Shiraz or Cabernet Sauvignon.
You’ve visited us many times. What memories do you have of Malaysian food?
One of the best matches I can remember having was a cold glass of Bin 311 Chardonnay with a rich seafood laksa. The elegance of the wine worked beautifully with the aromatic spicing of the laksa broth and the fresh acidity helped cut through the creaminess, opening up so many flavours in both the dish and the wine.
How do you relax after a long, hard day? We’ve heard it sometimes takes a lot of beer to make a good wine. Does that hold any truth?
During our summer and harvest time, beer certainly works. Personally, I’d like a good chat over the dinner table, with music in the background and a glass half full of something white, red or bubbly.
Once the world officially announces the end of Covid-19, how would you like to mark the occasion?
With a magnum of champagne! As to which champagne house, I might have to open a good number of magnums so as not to show too much bias to any one maison!
This article first appeared on Oct 18, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.