When should you open a good bottle of wine? Penfolds can help

This year's Penfolds re-corking clinics confirmed the number one mistake made when cellaring wine.

"There are two classic quotes at re-corking clinics, whether you're a billionaire or a mum and dad with a pram," says Penfolds chief winemaker Peter Gago.

"'I can afford to buy it, but I can't afford to drink it', and 'I'm waiting for the right opportunity to drink it'.

"We say to people jokingly, 'your family will be sharing this at your wake'. Drink it!'"

Put a cork in it

This is Gago's 25th year of involvement in the re-corking clinics, which always turn up plenty of surprises.

"I've never really thought much of the '59 Grange, but last week in Melbourne we saw probably the best '59 I've ever seen," he says.

"Then other times, very rare bottlings come through, something done in the 1940s or 50s that we don't even have written up."

But the one guaranteed appearance at every re-corking clinic is of wines that have overstayed their welcome in the cellar.

Peak drinkability

"Even the greatest wines of the world will reach a quality peak. The better ones will plateau for years, sometimes decades, but all wine no matter how good or bad will fall off that plateau and go into decline mode," Gago says.


"Everyone's trying to second guess that point, but most people get it wrong because it's different for every wine in every cellar."

Drinkers often hold onto their wines too long for emotional reasons. Perhaps the bottle was passed on from their grandparents, or it was the first wine they ever bought.

"Or it's a brilliant wine from a great year, but they haven't cellared it properly," offers Gago.

The golden rule

He says the golden rule is to err on the side of drinking wines too early rather than holding onto them in the hope they will continue their upward trajectory.

"The styles of wines that Penfolds makes, you can't drink them too early. What you have is a different expression; it's pumped up, you have more primary fruit," he says.

"If you love the vivacity of youth, drink it on release. The 2004 Grange is a great example, I drank most of mine with friends within a year or two of release.

"Do I regret that? Only because I don't have many left. But do I regret having wasted it? No. It was a beautiful drink as a young wine and it will be beautiful to drink still in 50 years' time.

"My adage has always been, a great wine doesn't become great in year 37 or year 49 – they start off good. They just go through a transformation over time."

Corker of a clinic

Re-corking clinics allow wine enthusiasts the opportunity to have their wines opened and the quality assessed, before being carefully re-capsuled to prevent further deterioration due to leakage or low levels.

And if the wine is deemed a good example of that particular vintage and style, Penfolds will top it up with a recent vintage of the same wine and give it a clinic certification label signed by a Penfolds winemaker.

"A wine doesn't have to be the best example of a given vintage to get certified, it has to be just above the point of acceptance for that vintage," says Gago.

"You've got to manage expectations in terms of this assessment, which is very clinical and brutally honest.

"I might like you, but I'm not going to sign off because I like you. That bottle might appear in the auction system signed off and someone's paying thousands of dollars to buy it, thinking it's a good example recently certified of that vintage."

Gago's genius

Gago pauses to reject an '82 Grange presented by another winemaker. "Eighty two is really like fruit conserve, wild raspberry," he informs them. "That's just a bit advanced – a bit muted and leathery."

This is where Gago earns his keep. Chief winemaker since 2002, he joined the Penfolds winemaking team in 1989, and has been been involved in re-corking clinics since the early 1990s.

Few would possess his encyclopaedic knowledge of Penfolds wines dating back almost 70 years, and the sensory cues for how they are supposed to present today.

Penfolds collectors attending the clinics can also discuss with Gago and colleagues drinking windows and cellaring recommendations for the bottle being assessed.

"A wine might be 'now until 2025', but we explain you don't have to wait until 2025. That's a guestimate, and that's for a bottle out of our museum," he says.

Wines that do not meet the standard for certification are re-corked and a white dot is placed on the bottle.

"Some people are very happy leaving with a white dot because we've in effect given them permission to drink their wine," says Gago. "We'll advise them 'this weekend', or 'by Christmas' or 'within the next two years'."