Penfolds wine collectors get the white glove treatment
By John Schreiner
October 20, 2007
A high quality wine cork should last an average of 20 or 25 years before it needs to be replaced.
Lucky you if your collection of aged wines includes reds from Penfolds, the producer of Australia’s icon wines. Penfolds offers free recorking with a remarkable travelling clinic. Since the winery began recorking its older bottles in 1991 in Australia, about 80,000 bottles and their owners have benefited from this white glove treatment.
On October 19, the clinic paid its first visit to Vancouver. Collectors showed up with about 200 bottles of wine. A Penfold team headed by chief winemaker Peter Gago assessed each bottle and, where required, topped up the wine and closed each bottle with a brand new cork.
Most of the bottles contained Grange, Australia’s most collectible Shiraz and one of its most expensive wines. The 2002 vintage, just being released, will command $329.99 in British Columbia, unchanged from the previous vintage (three bottles of which are still available in the Prince George liquor store, go figure).
Even if a collector had come to the recorking clinic with a 15-year-old bottle of the $17 Koonunga Hill Cabernet Merlot, that person would have received a comparable white glove reception. While Penfolds makes all of its red wines to age at least that long, most people drink their Koonunga Hills on release while cellaring the more pedigreed bottles.
The Penfolds recorking clinic, open to any 15-year-plus Penfolds red, is a remarkable service and a great bit of public relations. Very few wineries, aside from a handful of French producers, operate travelling recorking clinics.
The service is driven by the status of Grange, such a graceful ager that the first commercial vintage, 1952, was still drinking well three years ago when it was tasted for the fifth edition of The Rewards of Patience, that remarkable book (privately published by Penfolds) reviewing nearly every postwar vintage made by the winery.
The book recommended, for example, not opening the 1997 Grange until this year, predicting a lifespan to 2030 for that wine. Whoever gets the last three bottles of 2001 Grange in Prince George can expect those wines, if well stored, to last at least until 2040, well beyond the average life expectancy of the corks. Hence, the logic of Penfolds offering free recorking.
You could always recork the bottle at home with a hand corker. But home recorking may not be technically sound. More to the point, it destroys the collector value of the bottle. With nothing on the cork to indicate the job was done professionally by Penfolds, a potential collector has no way of knowing whether the bottle still contains the original wine or has been refilled fraudulently. Since the auction value of Grange is high – the 1952 might go for as much as $120,000 – fake wines abound.
Collectors who made appointments to have their older Penfolds reds assessed spent at least 30 minutes at the clinic. The process starts with Peter Gago or his associate winemaker, Steve Leinert, examining each bottle, deciding whether or not to open it. With wines that are less than 20 years old, re-opening and recorking may not be needed if the fill level still is high and the original cork feels sound. The choice is the collector’s. If he intended to store that bottle another 20 years, he likely chose to have it recorked. Who knows when the next Penfolds clinic will come around? The only other Canadian clinic was two years ago in Toronto.
Every bottle that is opened is tasted, both by the winemaker and the owner. If the wine is still sound, the bottle is refilled with the current vintage and recorked. The cork is stamped with the Penfolds name and the date of the clinic. As well, a back label is applied that has a certified number, another way to assure auction houses that the wine is the real thing. If the winemakers conclude that the wine is over the hill, it still gets topped and recorked, but with a plain cork and without the back label.
The corking is professional done by a Penfolds technician with vacuum corker that would be acceptable on any bottling line.
Each bottle is wrapped in Penfolds tissue and placed in a leather bottle bag.
The white glove treatment does not end there. At the Vancouver clinic, Penfolds also let collectors taste nine of its current top red releases and two of its best whites. Grange 2002 is fantastic, as always.
Since that wine is always hard to get (except in Prince George, it seems), you might look at the current alternatives from the 2004 vintage, such as the RWT Barossa Valley Shiraz ($122), Magill Estate Shiraz ($80), or Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz ($36). I scored them all between 89 and 93 points, with Grange at 94 or 95. These wines will not appreciate as much in the aftermarket. But if you buy wines to drink, not speculate, these all have Grange’s great blood lines.
John Schreiner is author of British Columbia Wine Country