At an exclusive party held at the Ritz Hotel in Paris overnight, Penfolds' chief winemaker Peter Gago popped the cork on the 175-year-old brand's first ever champagne.
"You can only make champagne in Champagne, it's the top of the tree and this is very much a top-down way of doing it," says Gago. At $280 a bottle, the impressive fizz sits in competition with Dom Perignon, Krug and Bollinger.
The three new releases have been made in collaboration with Penfolds' French distributor, Thiénot (pronounced Tier-no), which has made sparkling wine in the Champagne region since 1985.
It's the latest in a series of moves that is turning Penfolds into an international heavyweight, with the brand also making wine in California's Napa Valley for release in 2022.
"These two entities, Penfolds and Thiénot, come together with many shared ambitions and goals," says Gago. "We had that working relationship anyway and one thing led to another through conversation."
The independent, family-run business was started by Alain Thiénot, with his son Stanislas now the managing director and a driving force behind the collaboration.
"For 20 years (Alain) was the middleman between the winemaker and the vine growers and became the most important grape broker in Champagne," says Stanislas. "He acquired a huge knowledge of terroir, the good and the bad vine growers, and used this knowledge to create a top quality champagne house."
Gago and Stanislas worked alongside Thiénot chef de cave Nicolas Uriel to create three blends, each from the 2012 vintage.
The Chardonnay Pinot Noir Cuvée is available in June, with two single vineyard wines, a Blanc de Blancs and a Blanc de Noirs, to be released in 2020.
"We haven't started with a more commercial style, hoping to make this in 10 years time, this is the top of the tree to begin with," says Gago. "We have no fear of being embraced, pricing aside."
Penfolds is pinching itself that the notoriously strict regulatory body of champagne allowed the famous moniker to be included on the label. "It's amazing, from one of the world's most regulatory and myopic bodies," says Gago. "To my knowledge this has never been done before."
Old vs new
Gago is candid about the possibility of the project attracting backlash from conservative corners. "The concept will be a bit provocative – a new, old world producer with an old, new world producer," he says . "But this is the start of the journey."
Stanislas Thiénot agrees. "If you went back five years ago and told me, 'OK we're going to go and do this project' you would think it's impossible," he says.
"Twenty years ago you wouldn't even talk about it, 10 years ago you'd wish about it, and it's happening now!" adds Gago.
"(The two businesses) are two extremes, the new and the old, but with a common philosophy," continues Stansilas. "Penfolds' philosophy behind the art of blending is a very unusual story, but really makes sense to us as champagne people."
The Chardonnay Pinot Noir Cuvée is the collaboration's opening gambit, a blend of 50 per cent chardonnay and 50 per cent pinot noir sourced from eight regions around Champagne. "Time will be kind to this wine," says Jago, using words such as alluring, rich, opulent, majestic and complex to describe the bubbles which can cellar up to 2040.
The Blanc de Blanc is nutty with hints of sweetness, using 100 per cent chardonnay grapes from a "regal" single vineyard, though Jago is tight lipped about naming which one. "It's sourced from vines up to 60 years old. Identity? One day to be revealed."
Perhaps the best of the drops is the Blanc de Noirs, a ripe, delicate, long-lasting wine using grapes from the Aÿ region. "To get this level of complexity from pinot noir from one a single vineyard is very rare – that's why you don't see very many single vineyard champagne styles," Gago says.
The high quality of the champagnes can be attributed to the stellar 2012 vintage, which had a relatively mild winter and a late summer. "The '12s are just starting to come out, and that's the thing," says an excited Gago. "They all talked about 1985, 2002, 2004, now people are talking about 2008 – and they will soon talk about 2012."
A longtime champagne obsessive, Gago even wrote a book on the subject: Acidity Factors Affecting the Development of Champagne Character, published over 30 years ago. "I think this was meant to happen," he says. "It's a lovely Australian story, it's a lovely French story … everything has happened (organically), not because there were meetings and focus groups and committees."
Gago and Thiénot hope that this is the start of a beautiful, and fruitful, working relationship. "We can now concentrate on maintaining this style and this proposition, but a lot will depend on what we have out there: mother nature," says Gago. "But the finesse of these wines, and elegance, it's all about balance. I could be talking about Grange here."
The writer was a guest of Penfolds.