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Jefford on Monday: Wine and Pretension

It came rather late in the year (on 12.12.12, ominously enough), but there was one press release last year which I read twice. The first reading was accompanied with growing incredulity; the second was to lay my disbelief to rest.

Let me put this as plainly as I can. You can (I mean, in theory) walk into Hedonism in London’s Davies Street, and write them a cheque for £1.2 million for a single purchase. It buys you £50,000’s worth of Penfolds wine. (I’m not sure what the Hedonism price is for Rawson’s Retreat Chardonnay, but that would equate to 643 cases at Asda prices.) The other £1.15 million goes on ‘the finest set of Penfold’s wines ever to be sold’ including a full vertical of signed Grange bottles from the experimental 1951 onwards through to 2007; thirteen magnum cases of more recent top-end wines; and a couple of business-class air tickets to Adelaide from Ulan Bator, or wherever you happen to be starting from, and no doubt party time when you get there, including a trip to the Magill Estate. It originally included a spiral cellar inserted in your own home, but on second thoughts (perhaps those of lawyers) the cellar was quietly forgotten. More here.

This follows (as you might recall: https://www.decanter.com/news/wine-news/530101/penfolds-commissions-100-000-ampoule-for-block-42) the June launch of 12 ‘ampoules’ of 2004 Block 42 Cabernet Sauvignon at AUD£168,000 each, equivalent to a £106,797 premium on the normal bottle price. That premium buys you ‘the unique work of art’ which the ‘ampoule’ apparently is, plus delivery of ‘a senior member of the Penfolds Winemaking team’ to open it with you in a ‘ceremony’, drink it with you, and presumably help you recycle the ampoule afterwards. You can buy one of those at Hedonism as well if you want.

I can’t decide if all this makes me want to weep, or to throw up.

It’s no surprise, of course, that we live in a stupendously unequal world where individuals can be wealthier than nations. It’s no surprise that wine has become just another vacuous totem of wealth, like pointlessly complicated watches, tank-sized vehicles for urban use, houses which are never lived in and boats which spend the year bobbing about on their moorings. I don’t mind the fact that the price of certain wines puts them quite beyond the reach of ‘ordinary drinkers’: that’s how markets work. I certainly don’t object to the desire by Australian winemakers to have their wines globally feted.

These initiatives, though, seem to me to be statement-making of the crassest kind. They aren’t an offer to the market; they’re yelling at the market, and hitting it over the head with a mallet. They look so obviously like the fantasy of pale people who have spent too much time locked up in a room with glossy magazines. They are hilariously alien to the great Aussie traditions of piss-taking and pretension-popping.

They also seem to me to run the risk of being counter-productive. No First Growth or top Burgundy domain would contemplate anything this silly; they leave that kind of ludicrous marketing excess to the bubble-brained Champenois, where form regularly eclipses content. “How much it cost after ten years, how much the value changes, this is not the purpose of wine,” said Bertrand de Villaine to me back in November. “This is not how we do things in Burgundy.” What would Gérard and Jean-Louis Chave say to a Parisian marketing graduate who drove into Mauves one day and offered to do put a single parcel of their 2010 Hermitage into an €130,000 ‘ampoule’? They are polite people, but I don’t think the conversation would be a long one.

Meanwhile, just how treasured is Block 42? Go to the Penfolds website, and after a bit of poking about you’ll find it under ‘Kalimna’. Historically the two vineyards were part of the same large estate, but nowadays Block 42 lies on the other side of the Barossa golf course to the big, sandy Kalimna vineyard, a little way down the Heintze Road, just past Block 41. The ‘terrior’ (sic) is, we learn, “Deep and sandy to sandy loams and heavy, red-brown clays”. That’s a fair overall description of the entire 11,358 ha of the Barossa Valley, but doesn’t begin to do justice to this small, 4.4-ha single block.

Unlike Kalimna, it’s not sandy, but rather loamy over what chief winemaker Peter Gago calls “a medium-to-heavy blocky clay”, certainly vital in the flourishing of Cabernet here, while there is weathered siltstone or carbonate beneath that. Method of care? “Most blocks are mechanically pruned and harvested,” announces the website. “Some blocks, particularly Block 42 which comprises century-old bush vines, are hand-picked.” Phew! I visited Block 42 with Peter Gago in late 2009 (see photo above). The vineyard had recently been sprayed with herbicide, as it regularly is, which alarmed me; surely something this precious merits a little cosseting? Peter told me that it hadn’t produced anything for seven years after the company attempted to trellis these ancient Cabernet vines (planted in the mid-1880s).

I’d tasted the 2004 Block 42 about six months earlier: pristine Cabernet flavours at their most singing and lyrical, a kind of blackcurrant barbershop quartet, and a fine wine of enormous charm. Gago himself is a singularly gifted winemaking chief, perhaps the greatest since Max Schubert, who is nudging the wines towards naturalness of articulation without upsetting the traditional Penfolds consumer: a difficult act. He’s also a communicative genius, can obviously handle the office politics, and can out-name-drop Jancis Robinson (had any calls from Lance Armstrong recently, Peter?). Block 42 may indeed prove eventually to be the Lafite of the Barossa; it has few Cabernet rivals. If you ask me, though, this is an arse-about-tit way of getting there.

I asked Penfolds how many ‘ampoules’ had been sold. The company has kept one for its own museum, but the rest “have all been placed with customers”, including at least one in Hong Kong and another in Shanghai. The venture, in other words, has been a glorious success. Reach your own conclusions.

Written by Andrew Jefford

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