Penfolds chief winemaker Peter Gago unveils Penfolds II in collaboration with Dourthe Bordeaux

The new wine blends grapes from two continents, two wineries and two eminent regions.

Gago, the chief winemaker of Penfolds (Photo: Soophye)

The mercury has pushed past 40°C in Bordeaux, France. It is unusually hot, even for summer. The country, as well as much of the continent, appears to be positively sizzling, struggling with a ferocious and unprecedented heatwave. But amid all this, Peter Gago is cool as a cucumber.

Gago, for those not immediately familiar with him, is the public face and famously affable chief winemaker of Australian winemaking behemoth Penfolds. Born in Newcastle, England, but raised from the age of six in Melbourne, Australia, Gago initially taught mathematics and chemistry before, aged 29 and at a career crossroads, studying oenology at the famous Roseworthy Agricultural College. He then joined Penfolds in 1989 as a sparkling winemaker and went on to become a red wine oenologist before succeeding John Duval in 2002 as Penfolds chief winemaker, only the fourth person to hold the position since Max Schubert, creator of the legendary Grange, was first appointed in 1948.

Fast forward to the present, Gago has just lifted the lid on the long-awaited wine that has been a tightly-kept industry secret for quite a while now. In a cool tasting room in a Bordeaux château, a select group of wine journalists have been invited to be the first in the world to taste the Penfolds II, a collaborative effort between the South Australian winery and Dourthe Bordeaux. And as if that wasn’t enough, Penfolds II’s creation actually comes in tandem with another landmark project — the French Winemaking Trial, which sees the release of a Made in France trial Bin wine (to be more precise, made on-site at the Château Cambon la Pelouse, just on the boundary of the prestigious Margaux appellation, the FWT 585).


Observe Château Belgrave’s coat-of-arms which features a ferret and a crown (Photo: Soophye)


If the name Dourthe does not immediately ring a bell, the chateâux under its aegis might: Château Belgrave in the Haut-Medoc, Château Le Boscq in Saint-Estephe, Château Grand Barrail Lamarzelle Figeac in Saint-Emilion, Château La Garde in Pessac-Leognan and several more. The company takes its name from Pierre Dourthe, who first established a wine merchant business in the area in 1840. It is now led by former director turned CEO, Patrick Jestin.

The launch of Penfolds II takes place at Château Belgrave, a beautiful manor house so quintessential of this grand cru country, set on 59ha just on the outskirts of the Saint-Julien appellation in Bordeaux’s Left Bank. It takes about an hour to get here by car from the city centre. En route, the ardent wine enthusiast will surely spot instantly-recognisable names like Kirwan, Beychevelle, Gruaud-Larose and Talbot.

Belgrave is Dourthe’s oldest and most prestigious château and one of the Medoc’s finest. A fifth growth grand cru, listed in accordance to the official 1855 Bordeaux wine classification, its coat of arms is, interestingly, a ferret and a crown — symbolic of the historic bond between hunting (ferrets were used to beat out rabbits from their holes), the land and the château, a former hunting pavilion known since the time of Louis XV. Château Belgrave produces 220,000 bottles on average per annum and its lands are planted primarily with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon (so iconic of Bordeaux) as well as a smidgen of Petit Verdot.


For today, however, the star of the show is undoubtedly the Penfolds II. “It all started one day when we threw out a ‘what if’,” says Gago matter-of-factly. “Now, here is the result.”

“Result” could not have been a more apt word, really. At first sip, the Penfolds II Cabernet Shiraz Merlot 2019 encapsulates what seems to be a perfect blend of the best of the Old and New Worlds while, fittingly, the “II” in its name — printed smartly in red and silver — represents the coming together of the two winemakers. In its quest to redefine traditional Bordeaux varietals through Penfolds’ own inimitable lens, the inaugural Penfolds II is created using 59% Cabernet Sauvignon and 12% Merlot from Bordeaux and, [drumroll], 29% of the famously succulent, juicy and powerful Shiraz that literally catapulted South Australia (and Penfolds, of course) into global consciousness.

“This is a wine of the world. It is very new, very innovative — this is the first vintage, so let us see how it evolves,” says Gago. “Peak drinking is anyone’s guess at the moment but I am excited to go on a journey to watch this age. And, of course, a long cellaring life is assumed.”

Frederic Bonnaffous, Dourthe’s chief winemaker, is more effusive, saying, “We knew it would be nice but we didn’t know it would be so nice!”

The French component was made at two Dourthe-owned wineries, after which the wine was transported in 10 to 20 hectolitre stainless steel pallet tanks by air freight to be blended and bottled at Penfolds’ Nuriootpa winery in South Australia after spending 18 months in French and American oak barriques and hogsheads. “Straightaway, I can say it is blended and bottled in Australia because Frederic will be going to jail if we bottle it locally,” says Gago, only half-jokingly. It is illegal to bottle a wine using foreign juice on French soil.

“We sometimes say great wine has to travel,” adds Valentin Jestin, Dourthe’s sales and marketing director. “But I can tell you I am really looking forward to the impact and comments from the market.”

Dourthe CEO Patrick Jestin adds: “Being able to push the boundaries and craft such a blend was an unexpected and utterly fascinating concept. Collaborating and cultivating firm friendships with the Penfolds winemaking team in blending such an exceptional wine was a dream come true. For us, this was groundbreaking, resulting in a totally original, innovative wine. Penfolds II surpassed all our expectations while remaining true to the culture and style of our respective countries and houses.”


“I met Peter in 2013 and the first wine we tasted was Essence de Dourthe,” shares Valentin, in reference to one of the rare flagship wines (no more than 6,000 bottles are produced per vintage) made using grapes from select parcels of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot vines. “So, [Penfolds II] is also a first for us, the creation of a wine that spans two hemispheres.”

“Essence de Dourthe resembled what we ourselves were doing at Penfolds,” says Gago, who took Dourthe’s creativity and willingness to experiment as a sure sign they were kindred spirits. “The creation of this limited-release Cabernet Shiraz started with a quest to make something real … something different and aspiringly lofty together with our trusted partner, Dourthe Bordeaux. This is the start of our French winemaking journey and our main objective is to remain true to the winemaking ethos of both wineries. Dourthe and Penfolds, we are on the same page here. This wine is not about bigness or boldness or assertion. It is blended to convey an ethereal lightness, subtlety on the palate, sensitively binding two hemispheres, Old World and New. [And ultimately], this project is about winemaking … it is about the seeking out of new and different things … and what is in store for the next 178 years of Penfolds.”

“This collaboration between Penfolds and Dourthe is fantastically interesting, exciting and full of potential,” weighs in Colin Hay, a wine specialist who also doubles up as a professor of political sciences at Sciences Po, one of France’s most prestigious institutions of higher learning. “It is a massively and typically innovative endeavour and, with Penfolds behind it, is bound to succeed. But I am also just as excited about the FWT project where Penfolds produces its own wine (and, in the future, potentially ‘wines’) from a blend of top terroirs in the Medoc. The first vintage — a 2019 — speaks very eloquently of both the vintage and terroirs from which the wine come, and with an impressively sinuous texture, a beautiful florality and a delightful hint of the cedar notes that will come through with greater bottle age.”


Looking beyond their borders — and indeed thinking out of the proverbial box — is nothing new for Gago and his team at Penfolds though, in case anyone is wondering. Ever innovative, Penfolds had already obtained vine cuttings from its esteemed Kalimna and Magill Estate vineyards to be planted in California, the US, over 20 years ago, the results of which may now be seen and tasted in the Penfolds California Collection. Also, a few years back, the South Australian winery teamed up with Reims-based champagne house Thienot to release a collection of champagnes to mark the 175th anniversary of Penfolds. Who would have known that it would mark the beginning of more exciting Franco-Australian alliances to come?

Andrew Caillard MW, one of the world’s most recognised authorities on Australian wine, comments: “It is a really interesting project. It has got that attractive Penfolds identity, yet with an underlying Bordeaux elegance as well. I think it has the potential of being seen as an international equivalent of Grand Cru Classe Bordeaux. But, of course, it needs to achieve a track record first. This first release highlights the strength of the Penfolds brand and its aesthetics, which go beyond mere house style.

"A bi-country initiative is nothing new; Penfolds has done international collaborations before, as have other wineries, including Cullen — albeit in a small way. What distinguishes this project is the quality of its participants and the intent that goes with it. Dourthe is one of the most enlightened wine producers in Bordeaux and the ideal partner. And I must say that things are off to a very good start. With all projects like this, it sometimes takes three to four years to find a direction in style. Also, every vintage is different; likewise winemakers need to roll with the punches. Every growing season is different. But the potential is definitely there. It is the underlying part of the conversation that is constantly taking place: how to improve, connect, build and so on. It is all about creating new conversations and perspectives.”

On selecting Dourthe as a partner, Hay notes: “This strikes me as an excellent choice — and we wouldn’t expect any less of Gago and Penfolds. First of all, it is very good to have a partner. It makes a lot of sense to me for a project like this — and Dourthe is a top pick as it has a great variety of different terroirs under vine on both the Right and Left Banks. Penfolds II is, presumably, based on Château Belgrave in the Haut-Medoc, but one could imagine other opportunities that use different parts of the Dourthe portfolio alongside what Penfolds can bring from Australia … and possibly even Napa.”


Naturally, a few mutters of “sacré bleu” could already be heard when news of the New World’s encroachment into the Old World leaked out into the market. “We tend to imagine there is likely to be some French resistance to this,” says Hay with a grin, “but I suspect that anyone who has tasted these wines from Bordeaux will be very impressed indeed, not least with the capacity of FWT to bring together something of Penfolds’ house style with an expression of the 2019 vintage, which is very authentic, very pure and very expressive of the season and the terroir from which the wine hails.”

Caillard agrees how such a project is definitely disruptive to the traditional Bordeaux model. “I expect the French reaction will be a general shrugging of the shoulders. That is, the adoption of a ‘wait and see’ approach to what will happen,” he notes. “But the international market will take a more open-minded view. Ultimately, Penfolds II has an attractive house authenticity and worldly provenance.”

Hay goes on to add how “Penfolds II is perhaps a more challenging proposition. But Rhone varietals, including Syrah (though not as yet Shiraz), have a long history of being blended with those of Bordeaux. Just think of Château Palmer’s Historical XIXth Century Blend and the more recent Odyssée. They have all typically done very well. Penfolds II brings something genuinely new and exciting to the table but it has its historical antecedents and is perhaps not as iconoclastic as it might first seem to some traditionalists. Penfolds II, if anything, is more ambitious still as a project. At present, and at this very early stage, the 29% Australian Shiraz in the blend tends to actually dominate the wine; but that will surely rectify itself as the transcontinental components get to know each other better in the bottle. I will be very excited to see how this develops as it matures and the fresh flush of youth passes.”


Just as the proof of the pudding is in the eating and the wine is already in the glass, all it takes is a sip of Penfolds II to shut the critics up. Alas, with only 4,500 bottles of the 2019 made, you would have to take our word that it is a beautifully-balanced and expressive wine. There is also no confirmation as yet on whether there would be a 2020 vintage of Penfolds II. For now, the tasting is done — for the day, at least. The team at Dourthe are ushering everyone out into the sunshine for a garden party sous les arbres. A quartet is playing soft jazz and we are invited to feast on langoustines and lamb accompanied by the best of Penfolds, including its Bin 51 Eden Valley Riesling, the 2010 Grange and the Thienot x Penfolds NV rosé champagne.

Gago repeats the phrase “on the same page” a lot when discussing this great challenge taken up by two wineries from two different countries on two different continents. Guess what? The Penfolds and Dourthe collaboration has extended from being on the same page to becoming the first chapter in what is already an epic story. Don’t believe us? Heck, they even share the same label now.


The annual Collection release is on sale from Aug 4 at Penfolds’ cellar doors in Australia and select fine wine stores globally. Penfolds II, available for orders from that date, will likely reach Malaysia sometime in October/November. For more information, see here.


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