As humble as he is in person, Peter Gago is a winemaker that’s difficult to frame in modest terms. Emigrating from the UK to Australia at the age of six, Gago studied chemistry in university and taught pure sciences and mathematics thereafter, before succumbing to what he calls “the grip of the grape”—an irrepressible love for wine. After taking a second degree in oenology, he joined Penfolds in 1989 and has never looked back since.
Today, Penfolds’ chief winemaker has an imperial Order under his belt for his service to industry, as well as many other awards and accolades for creating some of Penfolds’ most famous wines. And after all that, he still manages to find the time to fly around the world yearly to spread his knowledge and passion as a wine ambassador.
Thailand Tatler caught up with Peter Gago on his recent visit to Bangkok last month for the launch of the 2018 Penfolds Collection, to talk about the collection, his career and his other fascinations.
What can we expect from the 2018 Penfolds Collection?
There’s something for everyone in this collection. We have wines starting at the Bin level (wines that are relatively affordable), like Bin 28, Bin 128. Then we go up to Bin 407, Bin 389 and then all the way to the top of the hierarchy with wines like Grange and St Henri. A wine like Bin 311 is worth noting too because we blend not just across vineyards, but across three states—Tasmania, the Adelaide Hills and the snowy mountains of New South Wales.
We have so many different white, red and fortified wines in the collection. Collectors will love the top end; wine appreciators the middle end; and me—because I can’t afford those expensive ones—the entry level.
Between being a winemaker and being a wine ambassador, which do you like more?
Of course, the winemaking. The creation. The blending. Where one and one equals three. Like the magic of when an artist puts two colours together and gets a new colour, we put two characters together and get a new flavour. That’s why I got into the world of wine. Marketing and ambassadorship, the other work, is important, but the love is in the winemaking.
Being in Thailand now, what observation can you make about the alcohol market or drinking culture here?
I think despite taxation issues and the stigma of alcohol due to religion perhaps, there’s a growing awareness of the culture of fine wine and fine food. I think the notion of working hard to enjoy the nice things in life is spreading through the middle classes. “Up there”, they’ve always understood it because of travel and exposure, but I think it’s starting to work its way through now. The concept of in moderation and balance--a glass here and there--is getting through.
What are some of your favourite wines?
I have two cellars personally, and probably two-thirds of them are non-Australian wines. I’ve been collecting wine for a long time and have a very eclectic taste. I love the classics--French, Italian, Spanish--as long as it’s good. I also have a particular fondness for champagne, and I love Bordeaux and Burgundy wines. It’s like with music, I’ve got a very eclectic taste. I like pretty much all styles of music, except one or two I won’t mention in case you’re a fan.
Surprise us--Who are you listening to?
Foo Fighters. I know Dave Grohl personally; he comes to the winery. Kings of Leon. They’re personal friends as well. Pink is one too.
How about your favourite cuisines?
Well, I’ve just been to Tokyo and I’ve always loved the simplicity of raw things done properly. The same with when I’m in Bordeaux, I’ll enjoy a good beef tartare. Again, like music, I enjoy the new and different. But not for the sake of being new and different. It’s got to be new, different and good!
What’s the most random thing you did recently?
Two weeks before I started this trip I got an honorary doctorate. I had to speak to 2,000 people, and it was a hard speech to give because it’s not about me or wine. It’s about the 2,000 people out there with their proud mothers and fathers. I only had about six and a half minutes and for the first time in my life, I read from my notes because it had to be word perfect—and it’s not about wine. Talking about wine, I could talk without notes forever.
What has been your greatest achievement so far?
Hard to say… keeping my job, number one! You know in this very competitive, changing world, maintaining Penfolds wine at a very high level with a great winemaking team is a great achievement. I’m here now because the winemaking team is looking after the bottling and the blending. I’m very proud of the team, the culture and how we’ve enhanced it, the schools of wine and the creation of new wines over the years. Last year’s G3 took the world by storm. Three vintages of Grange in one bottle, matured together—no one ever expected it. Penfolds is known as a traditional house, but we’re always innovating to keep things interesting.
What’s next for Penfolds?
We’re developing a new champagne project in close collaboration with a champagne house in the top, top, top end. Hopefully that’ll be released next year. Obviously, Grange is our number one wine that we make intermittently, so we’re also working on that. We’re also working on more obscure varietals that often get picked up by the so-called “millennials”.
What’s your take on millennials? What implications do they have on winemakers, if any?
Honestly, I don’t know who they are. I hear “millennials” all the time. I know my nieces and nephews are millennials and they like trying wines that their parents don’t try. So I think what it means to me is not even an age bracket or mental disposition. It’s people looking for other and different things, whatever you want to call them. And I think it’s a good thing for winemakers like Penfolds because it stimulates us to keep evolving.
Finally, What would you tell your younger self?
The younger self question is a funny thing. It usually implies regrets, like what I’ve done in the way of my career. But I loved the fact that I had another career before this one. It put this one into perspective. So to my younger self, I would just say keep fit and exercise so that you can make the most out of all of this.