An interview with Peter Gago in Auckland, New Zealand, 31 July 2003
in conjunction with The Penfolds Red Wine Recorking Clinic

© Sue Courtney - text and photos
19 September 2003

The inaugural Penfolds Red Wine Recorking Clinic in Auckland, New Zealand has just been completed. Of almost 300 bottles aged 15 years or older registered by 60 wine enthusiasts, 96 percent were Penfolds Grange with the remainder comprised of Penfolds Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon and Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz. Just 130 bottles were opened and 116 passed their health check.

Sue Courtney caught up with Peter Gago, Penfolds Chief Winemaker, over a glass of 1998 Grange to talk about the history of the clinic and the future of corks as a red wine closure.

Penfolds Chief Winemaker Peter Gago SC: Why did Penfolds start these recorking clinics?
PG: "Well they were started over 12 years ago in the attempt to provide the ultimate in after sales service I guess, to owners of our wine with bottles not with faulty corks but with corks that probably wouldn't continue to deliver after a number of decades of service. So very much as a rehabilitation as what we could do to help them with leaking bottles or bottles with a worrying amount of ullage. A free service that is very much a win-win for all concerned. We gain because of the interfacing with our clients and customers. They gain because the service is free and not only do they get their wines recorked if they are OK, they get to try them, they get new corks, they get new capsules and they get them certified."

SC: Were the clinics started because there was a problem in the Penfolds Cellars with ullaging and leaking and stuff?
PG: "I think that there has always been a problem everywhere in the world of wine. Anyone who uses Quercus Suber to seal a bottle has an issue with the odd bottle. But, from what we can gather, once wines get to a certain age, some say 30 years of age, some 40, some say even 15 to 20 years, these are not closures that last for ever. So if there is a need, and we perceived that there was a need, so why not provide the service that looks after our bottles out there."

SC: What kind of strange things do you see happening with corks in the bottle?
PG: "We know nothing about the provenance of these bottles or the storage conditions but its seems that fluctuation of temperature is the biggest killer of a cork as a seal, the effect of pressure, volume, temperature and the relationship of all three on each other. With fluctuation of temperature there is a piston effect with the cork. Then if you get a little bit of a run as the result of a shock a jolt or whatever and if there is a weakness there anyway in the cork - and every cork is different - you get a problem. If that problem is sustained then you get leakage. And once you get leakage you get aeration, oxidation and who knows what. Quite often there is some inkling of a leak or seepage and then you get to it. The earlier you get to it the better your chances. We are attempting to get to it in almost a preventative method in some instances. "

SC: Have you ever seen cork weevil?
PG: "Not here. I have heard of it in some cellars but I've not seen it in any bottles that have been bought in. What we have had is really badly damaged labels because of really humid cellars - more labelling issues, but we really can't do anything about that. It really is a cellaring issue."

SC: What is the youngest wine you've encountered with a faulty cork and by that I mean crumbling, falling to bits and so on.
PG: "We only look at wines that are 15 years or older but every now and then with a particular wine from a certain vintage we will notice a difficulty to extract or they will snap halfway or whatever and you will sometimes see a pattern. But not very often and not with many vintages. We buy the best corks we can but a cork is a cork!"

Crumbly cork in the Grange '86 SC: I remember a tasting at Southcorp in Takapuna (Auckland, NZ) in May 2000 when you opened a bottle of the 1986 Grange. You virtually had to pick the cork out. Was 1986 a particularly bad year for corks?
PG: "We have found lots of problems with the 1986 and we encourage owners of the 1986 to have a look at them. If there is no leakage whatsoever why not take that crumbly cork out at the time of consumption? But keep an eye on the 1986's and if any problems develop, bring them into the clinics straight away. We've only encountered problems with crumbly cork when taking the cork out but the seal has been fine. But in 5, 10, 20 years time if that changes so, not only is it hard to extract but it is also not forming a good seal, well then it is time to act. The 1986 is one to look at closely."

SC: In Tyson Stelzer's 'Screwed for Good, the case for screwcaps on red wine' you are quoted as saying about the two wines in cork and screwcap, the 1995 Bin 2 and 1996 Bin 389 tasted at Tesco last year, that 'the wines had developed nicely, albeit slightly differently. The screw-capped version had aged in a similar way to a wine in a really cold cellar". Is that such a problem on wines that you want to age, and age well?
PG: "The wines were bottled at the same time, one in a metal closure in Stelvin, one under a cork. What I said at the tasting was 'there is a subtle difference between the two wines, but no different to the subtle difference that you would expect from a wine stored in a cold cellar versus a wine stored in a really cold cellar'. That is they have subtle differences. They hadn't developed exactly the same, but both had developed nicely, albeit slightly differently."

SC: According to the book you say you need a successful 40-year trial with Stelvins before you will commit Grange to the closure, that you need seals that will be reliable for 50 years, but here we are at a recorking clinic, fixing unreliable seals. Any comments?
PG: "What we are fixing, really, is bad storage related problems, I'm talking about unfavourable cellaring conditions, but even then we never really know. It's a bit like the randomness of TCA - if you knew which bottles were corked you would seek them out and cull them. Most of the problems that we are addressing in the way of recorking have been due to poor cellaring, very few just die to the mechanical problem of the cork, everything else being equal. We have had a very low rejection rate here in Auckland (5.4%), which is just wonderful in the scheme of things."

SC: Just how much Grange do you have under Stelvin for the Trial, and from what vintages?
PG: "From memory only one vintage under trial, to be honest we haven't looked at it for ages. We are running out of the 1996 Bin 389. We looked at it at Tesco last year and again at VinExpo in May. These are trial wines and we never thought that this was what that would be used for. We trial everything all of the time and this trial has come in particularly useful in the comparison of the same wine under Stelvin and under cork, but for red wine. They looked good. Both looked good. But we have found that with some of the wines we have opened for comparison there has been the odd corked wine - from wines that were closed with cork."

SC: Have you ever seen TCA in bottles of wine that were closed with synthetic closures?
PG: "Once, but we traced it back and found it came from the water that was used for washing the bottles on the bottling line. You can get TCA affected barrels - but not at Penfolds. One bad apple spoils the whole lot, so we rigorously check them."

SC: What countries have the recorking clinics been to?
PG: "Australia, London, now New Zealand and in October of this year we are doing our first clinics in Chicago and Manhattan."

SC: Lastly, what is the best line-up of wine you have seen at a recorking clinic?
PG: "We've seen everything from 1951 through to the 15 year back period of the time on a number of occasions. But what we have seen are special bin wines, sometimes wines we almost haven't heard of ourselves, wines out of the 40's and 50's appear that are just fascinating. Winemakers queue up for the opportunity to work at these clinics, we love them. They're hard work, really hard work. In Melbourne and Sydney, we do 3 full days and with the dinners and peripheral events it's exhausting. Exhausting but hugely enjoyable. "

SC: Thank you Peter. Now let's enjoy our drink. Cheers!

Also see Part 1 - The Penfolds Red Wine Recorking Clinic.

© Sue Courtney, Sept. 19, 2003

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