- Penfolds is launching French and French-Australian super premium blends.
- These follow a similar launch of Californian wines last year.
- The idea of brands being involved with what Penfolds calls Wines of the World is not new, but there are few successful examples.
- Jean-Charles Boisset, maker of a French-California Pinot Noir, and Penfolds could change this.
- Greater openness in China and possibly post-Brexit UK, may help.
The launch on August 4th by the Australian brand Penfolds, of a super-premium Bordeaux and a French-Australian red, to partner with the Californian examples released last year underlines the company’s decision to champion what it likes to call ‘Wines of the World’.
The 2019 FWT 585 that will cost AU$120 ($83) at the cellar door and from a limited number of ‘select’ retailers globally is a traditional Bordeaux blend produced by Penfolds' senior winemaker Emma Wood from grapes grown at Château Cambon la Pelouse in the Haut Médoc. The initials in its name refer to French Wine Trial, placing it in line with the limited-production RWT – Red Wine Trial – Australian examples pioneered over 50 years ago by Max Schubert, creator of Grange. A 2020 RWT Bin 798 Barossa Valley Shiraz will also be released in August – for AU$200 ($139).
More controversially, the 2019 Penfolds II Cabernet Shiraz Merlot – produced in partnership with the negociant firm, Dourthe - is an assemblage of Bordeaux and South Australian wine, bottled in Penfolds’ cellars in Australia and priced at AU$599 ($347). Penfolds first move into transnational blending came last year with the release of Bin 600 Cabernet Sauvignon and Bin 149 Cabernet Shiraz, both of which combined Napa and South Australian fruit at prices of $90 ($62) and AU$225 ($156) respectively.
There are many examples of wine companies investing overseas – Moët & Chandon and Mouton Rothschild – with Opus One - were pioneers in this field in the 1980s, as was Torrres when it began production in Chile. There have also – very differently - been instances of producers quietly changing the provenance of the liquid in their bottles when faced with short harvests in their own countries. This was the case for Robert Mondavi and a number of other California wineries in the 1990s when they turned to France and Chile to make up for a lack of local wine with which to fill their entry-level varietal range. Wine drinkers in New Zealand have similarly found themselves drinking Chilean Sauvignon from familiar local brands when producers have decided to focus sales of small harvests to export markets.
Historically, this kind of approach has often been poorly received by the trade and critics who like to associate wine with terroir, and wine brands with countries and – ideally - regions. In 2008, when Lindemans – another Australian brand that, like Penfolds, belongs to Treasury Wine Estates – began to sell South African wines under its label, Australian critics suggested that the move would destroy the prestige of a name dating back to 1841. Others thought that, like the Californians in the previous decade, Lindemans would treat alternative sourcing as a temporary measure.
Twelve years later, however, Lindemans’ South African wines are still available in the UK – at attractively low prices that support the critics’ claims that ‘going offshore’ would permanently damage the brand’s premium image.
Long History of Blending Wines from Different Countries
Blending wines from different countries has a longer history. Europeans seeking inexpensive wine, knowingly or unknowingly, buy huge volumes of what is technically termed ‘European Table Wine’ and labelled in France as ‘Vin de la Communauté Européenne’ which is treated in a similar way to multi-country olive oil, coffee or tea. The success of these blends which are sold under popular brand names by giant producers, explains the torrent of bulk Spanish and Italian wine that crosses the French border every year.
However, European regulations that prevent inter-country blends from having a vintage or grape variety on their labels – or even to indicate the varied origins of the wine – place a low cap on the price at which it is ever likely to be sold.
When the California Jug Wine Maker Came to Margaux
These same rules which ban the sale in the EU of wines made by blending European and non-European wine (or indeed wines from two non-EU countries) became relevant in 1988 when the late Peter Allen Sichel of Chateaux Angludet and Palmer in the Médoc helped the large California winery, Christian Brothers, to produce 8,000 cases of wine labelled as Montage, whose sale was restricted to the US. There were equal quantities of a white that combined Burgundian Chardonnay with the same grape grown in California, and a similar cocktail using Médoc red and local Cabernet Sauvignon.
Dan Berger of the Los Angeles Times reported that Christian Brothers had invested $1m in the project which was intended to raise the profile of a 1.2m-case winery that was associated with cheap jug wine. Working with Sichel, one of the most illustrious and respected figures in Bordeaux would, it was hoped, put critics and consumers in mind of Robert Mondavi’s then-recent Opus One collaboration with Mouton Rothschild.
Richard Maher, president of Christian Bros, whose brainchild this was, reined in his ambitions a little. His new Mid-Atlantic wine was priced at £15, rather than the $50 commanded by Rothschild and Mondavi.
Although British critics who had the chance to taste it were impressed by the red, Montage was, however, not well received by their US counterparts who – a little over a decade after Steven Spurrier’s Judgement of Paris tasting - saw no need to adulterate world-beating California wine with anything from elsewhere. Nor was it welcomed by distributors or customers who struggled to associate Christian Brothers with quality wine.
Boisset - Another Pioneer
Montage died quickly and is now almost forgotten. But, around two decades later, the idea of blending California and France was revived by an entrepreneurial producer who embodies the marriage of these two regions. Jean-Charles Boisset is the son of a Burgundy negociant, who while still involved with wine production there and in other French regions, now lives in Napa, where he is married to Gina Gallo and owns a number of California wineries including Raymond, DeLoach and Buena Vista. A keen self publicist, Boisset also has a brand bearing his initials – JCB – under which he sells limited editions of wines that ‘celebrate his French heritage while embracing his passion for California’. Among the most interesting of these is the JCB Pinot Noir which brings together wine from the Côte de Nuits in Burgundy and Sonoma. Rarely encountered in wine retailers, examples command prices of $100-200.
How will Other Markets React?
It remains to be seen whether Penfolds move into multi-country wines helps to encourage others to follow suit. One reason why this may be more likely today than in the past is the importance of the Chinese market for premium and super premium wine. Despite the impact of crippling import tariffs on Australian wine, Penfolds remains one of the strongest wine brands in China, and there is no question that having French and California wines to offer – as well as a soon-to-be-released Chinese wine from Ningxia - will help to support it until the tariffs are relaxed. Chinese customers are also less likely than Europeans and possibly purist Americans to be deterred by the notion of one brand covering several origins or of innovative blends.
The legal position of multi-origin wines in the UK is also interesting. Until Brexit, Britain was subject to the same restrictions as the rest of Europe, but both candidates to replace Boris Johnson as prime minister aim to ‘tear up’ EU legislation that does not suit them, so here too, there may be greater openness to new concepts.
Max Schubert changed the face of Australian wine when his experiments led to the creation of Grange 70 years ago. If the multi-origin, super-premium wines being produced by his successor, Peter Gago, gain acceptance and inspire others to follow their lead, maybe Penfolds will be helping to change the face of wine across the world.