Who’d Have Thought It? Penfolds Pursues Baijiu and Champagne

Penfolds’ new project? It has, as Creedence Clearwater Revival might have said, been “born with the baijiu.”

Words by Drinks Writer, Ken Gargett

The world’s largest selling category of spirits? Baijiu. But you knew that. What you might not have known is that Penfolds has established a new division, which will be responsible for ‘Special Bottlings’. The man in charge is the man most of us think of when anyone talks fortified wines – James Godfrey.

Penfolds Global Fortified and Spirit Winemaker James Godfrey

As far as I can see, special bottlings is basically a euphemism for ‘winemakers wanna have fun’. The idea being that any winemaker in the group can propose ideas, and if they are considered worthwhile (another euphemism, this time for ‘bizarre, wacky, left-field’), off they go. It can be pretty much anything. The only criteria is that whatever they come up with must be good and it must be surprising. The first two releases have the brief nailed.

So what has this got to do with baijiu? No, Penfolds is not making a baijiu, well at least not yet. Instead, the brand has come up with the amazingly creative idea to use baijiu as the fortifying spirit in an Aussie wine, the sort of thing which we used to call ‘vintage port’ before the powers that be put an end to that and left us with the less than inspiring ‘vintage fortified’ (no wonder sales struggle). It is no secret that Penfolds has been enormously popular in China and this is unashamedly designed for that market, though it will be available from the cellar door and perhaps a few other places.

Baijiu is a clear Chinese spirit made from grain (usually sorghum). Popular? The most recent figures are for 2016 – five billion litres sold. Five billion. Yes, billion, not million. It tends to be highly alcoholic, up to 60%, but this can vary, as it seems everything can with this spirit. It has been around since the Yuan Dynasty. As I’m sure you also knew, the Yuan Dynasty was established by the Mongol invader, Kublai Khan, in the years around 1300. So it predates the spirits we know, like rum, gin and whisky, by some considerable time. The cheap stuff costs about the same as beer, at least in China, while the best can go for anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000 per small bottle.

Styles vary considerably, and when James first commenced the project, he thought it would never work, due to the fact the Baijiu he was trialling was from the very intense end of the spectrum. It was only when he moved to the more floral, fragrant styles that it become obvious they had a winner. It has been added to good old Aussie shiraz. The result – ‘Lot 518, Spirited Wine with Baijiu’. Not the most romantic tag ever given to a drink, but there we have it. And you can have it for AUD$150.

This is not the typical, rather simple, sweet red that characterised so many ‘vintage port’ styles, if we may speak illegally, made here for so long. Much more textural with red fruits, florals and spices. Plenty of aniseed here. A really interesting and enjoyable wine.

As fun as the Lot 518 is, it is the second of these first two releases that really excited me.

I always feel that anything named ‘brandy’, as Rodney Dangerfield said, “don’t get no respect.” People revere Cognac, drink Armagnac on bended knee, but poor old brandy? I suspect most people immediately think of a great big St Bernard lumbering through the snow with a small barrel attached to its collar and something aspiring to firewater inside it.

No longer, I assure you. The ‘Lot 1990, Pot Distilled Single Batch Brandy’ (AUD$450) is thrilling. Yes, not cheap, but this is a spirit which has been maturing for almost thirty years and it is brilliant. It spent time in barrels used for some of the great Penfolds tawny ports and also the chardonnay. To finish, a ‘splash’ of Grandfather Port to act as liqueuring. Penfolds had a long and illustrious history as a brandy producer and this is a lovely nod to that.

This is nutty and richly flavoured, orange blossom notes, spices, caramel and raisin. A fine balance between sweetness and fire. Great length and a wonderfully appealing texture – James believes that the texture comes from the addition of the Grandfather. What was fascinating was how dramatically this spirit changed with the addition of a single, small ice-cube. It became more sedate, more refined.

The next release? It won’t be until 2019, and I’ll save you from wasting hours trying to guess. A Champagne. Not a mislabelled Aussie sparkling but a real, honest-to-goodness Champagne. Who they worked with, where they sourced grapes, all the little details so crucial, we will not know for some time but I’ll take one wild guess. The ‘winemaker’ who was behind this was surely none other than Peter Gago, Chief Winemaker, and the man behind Grange. Peter is a well-known Champagne fanatic. It promises to be the most interesting wine released in Australia next year.

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