Last night’s UK launch of the Penfolds Ampoule was held at Hedonism, London's swanky new temple to fine wine. I had my doubts that there’d be an uncorking of the ampoule itself, or whatever you do to open an ampoule. Sure enough, there wasn't but it was an opportunity at least to check out the breathtakingly lavish new Mayfair venture presided over by ex-Harrods wine buyer Alistair Viner and to gawp at Penfolds’ much-lauded wine treasure.
If it’s not too grandiose a notion, there’s an unrivalled heritage and pedigree behind the great Australian brand name of Penfolds. Its solid values are based on more than a century’s pursuit of quality and the bedrock of the great Max Schubert’s pioneering achievement in creating Grange 61 years ago.
The numerous bin-numbered wines that flow like tributaries from the Penfolds cellars are made in the image of Schubert’s ideal: generosity of flavour combined with smoothness of texture and polished oak to deliver that special Penfolds feelgood factor.
Penfolds, 168 not out, hasn’t stood still. Along with the classics of Grange, St.Henri and Bin 707, it has created the fine RWT Barossa Shiraz and Yattarna, the ‘white Grange’ which itself has spawned a number of startling cool climate chardonnays such as the Bin 311 from Tumbarumba and the Adelaide Hills Reserve.
There are pet projects too, a sangiovese and pinot noir, and more recently the superb 2011 Cellar Reserve Mataro (the Wine Gang’s red wine of show at the London International Wine Fair) and the delicious new 2008 Bin 169 Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon.
Apart from Richard Geoffroy, the public face of Dom Pérignon, is there a head honcho anywhere who’s managed the big company ethos with more brilliant dexterity and effortless charm than Peter Gago? Gago is the engaging, mellifluous voice of Penfolds.
In the decade since his first Grange, he has managed to maintain and advance the cause of Penfolds at a time when Australian wine has suffered severe setbacks and when other brands under the same umbrella such as Rosemount and Lindemans have carelessly misplaced their integrity.
Along with Andrew Caillard MW, Ch’ng Poh Tiong and Joe Ward, I was a first hand witness to this energy and commitment during the Rewards of Patience VI US city tour in 2008. On that tour, Gago and fellow winemaker Steve Lienert worked the trade and press crowd brilliantly with a fantastic selection of hidden Penfolds’ treasures.
Not surprisingly, they were rapturously received from New York to San Francisco. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NWM1fPOvUHc
And so to the Penfolds Ampoule. In case you’ve neither seen nor heard of it, it’s a piece of limited edition designer ‘sculpture’ that houses, not Grange as you might have expected, but the rare 2004 Kalimna Block 42 Cabernet Sauvignon made from vines as venerable as the Penfolds heritage itself. There are only 12 ampoules. Each costs the small matter of $168k AUD (north of £100k).
The glass sculpture was designed and hand-blown by glass artist, Nick Mount. Australian designer-maker Hendrik Forster prepared the precious metal detailing. Andrew Bartlett designed and made the bespoke Jarrah cabinet and the ampoule itself was created by scientific glassblower Ray Leake. All the arts and craft taste boxes ticked then.
Over to Penfolds: ‘When a decision is made to open the ampoule a senior member of the Penfolds Winemaking team will personally attend a special opening ceremony for the owner (essentially your very own master-class). ...
....The winemaker will travel to the destination of choice, where the ampoule will be ceremoniously removed from its glass plumb-bob casing and opened… The winemaker will then prepare the wine using a beautifully crafted sterling silver tastevin’.
The video of the launch of the ampoule in Moscow stars Peter Gago at a fancy party of rich, heavy rollers in one of Moscow’s smartest locations. The camera pans lovingly to said ampoule and Peter Gago nattily attired in black tie, but just when you’re expecting Gago to wield his tungsten-tipped, sterling silver scribe-snap, he doesn’t. Nothing happens. No money shot. Anti-climax.
‘And your point is?’ Penfolds might say. It’s not after all as if it hasn’t been a marketing succès de scandale. All the ampoules bar the one kept by Penfolds themselves have reportedly been sold. And any profit made from the sale has been dwarfed by the value of publicity worth millions of dollars.
Returning to grandiose notions, the Penfolds Ampoule is a New World icon that panders to The New Money. Its purchase confers on its owner instant VIP wine celebrity. As such, it’s out of sync with the wine values carefully nurtured over a timeline spanning three centuries. At least Peter Gago didn’t dare put Grange inside it. He might have been haunted by the sound of Max Schubert revolving in his grave.