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Guy Woodward: Intercontinental blends challenge the sanctity of terroir

Published:  06 September, 2022

Earlier this year, Penfolds announced its ambition to essay “a strategic shift from fine wine brand to global luxury icon”. The brand’s new marketing campaign, it said, encapsulated Penfolds’ “innovative spirit and desire to push the boundaries through self-belief”.

It’s quite the quote. No mention of viticulture or terroir. Instead, Penfolds is shifting the focus away from wine and towards image – all through “self-belief”.

Nowhere is this philosophy more evident than in the launch of the 2022 Penfolds Collection, headlined by two French interlopers. As well as the 2019 FWT 585, a Bordeaux blend vinified by Penfolds at Château Cambon la Pelouse (now owned by parent company Treasury Wine Estates), the 2019 Penfolds II – a partnership with negociant giant Dourthe – blends Bordeaux Cabernet and Merlot with South Australian Shiraz, bottled in Penfolds’ cellars in Adelaide. This follows last year’s inaugural Wines of the World, both of which married Napa and Barossa fruit.

Cue controversy and consternation, with Jancis Robinson MW, no less, observing how “Penfolds seems to dream up new, expensive novelties every year”, before concluding that she was “clearly not the target market; Penfolds are after collectors much less cynical than me”.

For his part, Peter Gago, Penfolds chief winemaker, countered that: “This is not about bigness or boldness or assertion. It is [about] sensitively binding two hemispheres, Old World and New.”

So what is Penfolds’ motivation? Well, the launch certainly generated a fair few column inches, helped by a series of lavish PR events, with the seemingly ubiquitous Gago gamefully pouring vaunted vintages for entranced wine communicators to plaster on Instagram (guilty). Having a clutch of non-Australian wines is useful in China, where punitive tariffs on

Aussie products have decimated a market that, two years ago, accounted for 40% of Penfolds’ sales. And Chinese consumers, so the thinking goes, are also less sensitive to the unorthodoxy of cross-country blending than their more purist Western counterparts.

Equally, the innovation allows Penfolds to charge a premium for these bottlings – the FWT 585, essentially a Médoc cru bourgeois prior to the Penfolds makeover, goes for AU$120 (£70). The Penfolds II Bordeaux/Barossa blend will set you back AU$599 (£350) – a price that, even accounting for what Gago described as the “logistical nightmare” of shipping the French component across the world to be blended with Aussie Shiraz from the same vintage vinified six months earlier, seems punchy (not least to the environment).

Tellingly, Treasury’s latest results reveal a 16% rise in revenue per case, with the Premium and Luxury portfolios now contributing 83% of total sales. All of which is easy to snipe at. But in terms of the overriding concept of cross-country blending, I suspect my view is similar to that of Penfolds – why not?

Penfolds has long trumpeted its innovative approach, and this latest venture ties in with a house style that “embraces the freedom to explore… a global approach to winemaking, unrestricted by region or vineyard”. As Gago says: “We’re not saying the wine is better [though the pricing would suggest otherwise] but done in the Penfolds way.”

The Penfolds way was never about terroir. Its top red and white wines – Grange and Yattarna – are both cross-regional blends, after all. If most winemakers claim that “wine is made in the vineyard”, for Penfolds, it is made in the cellar, to its own formula (or as a Dourthe spokesman reportedly said: “They can’t change the terroir, but they can change everything else”).

I can’t help feeling that the wine world has become dangerously obsessed with the sanctity of terroir. Why should a blended wine inherently be worth less than a wine from a specific plot? What if that plot stinks? What if it suffers a duff vintage? Or climate change presages a change in conditions?

It’s telling that the most premium wine of all – Champagne (which Penfolds now makes too, of course) – largely dismisses terroir. In this rarefied world – and that of all luxury brands, from fashion to jewellery – house style trumps provenance. Certainly it’s no coincidence that Penfolds chose to launch its Venture Beyond campaign, themed around space travel, at Harrods (complete with moon crater gift canister and space-inspired gift boxes with augmented reality experiences).

Many will scoff, but who’s to say multi-origin wines won’t become the norm at the super-premium level? That other great promoter, Jean-Charles Boisset, has already bottled a $100+ Pinot blended from his native Burgundy and his adopted California. Several other top-end producers have feet in both hemispheres, be it Oregon and Burgundy; Australia and New Zealand; or Bordeaux and Chile. So will any dare to follow suit?