When two great wine brands come together, anything can happen. The unlikely collaboration between Thiénot X Penfolds has the potential to change the future for champagne across more challenging markets. With their eye on China, this could be the one thing that penetrates the impenetrable.
It’s the eve of Penfolds’ anniversary extravaganza in Adelaide to commemorate 175 years of winemaking by one of Australia’s oldest wine brands. Unusually, champagne will take some prominence on the night, a nod to a new era of partnership with one of Champagne’s most respected and youngest houses, Thiénot. Stanislas Thiénot, Managing Director of the house, and Peter Gago, Penfolds’ Chief Winemaker, have set aside the afternoon to meet with me and talk about their collaboration.
In 2019, they took the wine world by surprise with the release of a brand-new champagne, a 2012 vintage, under the auspices of Thiénot X Penfolds. The gold and red label cast against a jet-black bottle is as audacious as the idea of one of Australia’s biggest and oldest wine brands making their own champagne. Champagne, by virtue of its UNESCO heritage listed status, is the most protected wine-producing region in the world. It was ambitious, to say the least, to seek industry approval for the partnership. On that, both men agree that it has always been their intention to protect the integrity of Champagne above any business proposition.
“The CIVC [Comité Interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne] says we did it properly from the start,” says Thiénot about the industry’s staunchly protective trade and regulatory body. “It was important for us to do it transparently with the CIVC and it was important to Peter and Penfolds to do it right. It’s a project that has never existed in Champagne before.”
Gago adds that whilst it was a long-shot, the proposal presented some convincing win-win opportunities for the greater good of champagne wine, in addition to their business objectives.
“It could be that the CIVC thinks that by using Penfolds, Champagne can enter into new markets,” he says.
By this, Gago refers to China, which has proven difficult for champagne to crack into despite growing affluence. Champagne is considered by many producers as a cause not yet worth fighting for in China, at least for now, with sales held back almost indefinitely by consumers’ drinking habits. In 2018, a paltry 4.7 million bottles were shipped to the Chinese triangle comprising mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Penfolds, on the other hand, couldn’t be more popular, with China accounting for more than half of its total earnings across Asia.
Even at this early stage in the relationship, there are signs that the collaboration could be penetrating the impenetrable Chinese market.
“People [in China] are buying it, including a lot of millennial Chinese,” says Gago. “In terms of a win for champagne, you’re getting Chinese and you’re getting millennials…it’s tick, tick.”
Gago gives the example of a Penfolds dinner he attended in China with wealthy business people. Guests were stunned, to say the least, at being handed a glass of champagne on arrival. When they heard it was a Penfolds champagne, they were willing to give it a go.
“People went to a Penfolds dinner to drink red wine, but also drank champagne. By the end of the night it was ‘can I have another glass please’.”
The potential of champagne’s reach into China via the Thiénot X Penfolds brand has been realised by many in the industry, attracting support from the corporates behind Champagne’s most important houses who see it as a good thing.
Beyond China, the acceptance of the partnership has been amazing, according to Gago and Thiénot, who say that in America, and even around France, people have embraced the project. Producing a top quality vintage champagne has been essential in winning over the hearts and palates of would-be critics.
The inaugural release from Thiénot X Penfolds comes from the generous 2012 vintage. It is a 50/50 blend of pinot noir and chardonnay and has the Penfolds touch, according to Gago. It employs French oak barriques used to mature Penfolds’ premium Yattarna chardonnay, to house the liqueur d’expédition. And whilst the use of Yattarna barriques may represent the smallest of touches, Gago says it’s the first toe in the water.
“Originally, I thought it would be lovely for Penfolds to buy a little vineyard over there [in Champagne],” says Peter about plans to strengthen their connection to the project. “I am now totally aware of the dynamics. Stanislas’ father was a broker of vineyards, and a very successful one, but it’s not easy, there’s a queue.”
Whilst land ownership may not be an option for Penfolds, they have found other ways of getting Australia’s fingerprint on the champagne.
Gago came together with the team at Thiénot during harvest, when composing the blend, and then during trials of dosage levels with blind tastings. Dosage sits at 4g/L but only 2.4g/L was added with non-fermentable sugars making up the difference. The quality of fruit from the 2012 vintage was really good, according to Gago, who goes on to say that acidity was softer, requiring less dosage. Full malolactic fermentation was also used.
“We did take a look at the 2008s alongside the 2012s but there was no choice,” he says. “I think, as more 2012s come onto the market, people will say ‘hang on, this is a very special vintage’. And it’s not because it was a hot or cold year, it’s because all of the stars aligned for it.”
On the palate, Thiénot X Penfolds Chardonnay Pinot Noir Cuvée 2012 is delicate and silky, as well as fresh with a lovely line of acidity. It’s more chardonnay, than pinot noir, which is still unfurling at this early stage. When I asked Gago and Thiénot about retaining freshness in a decidedly warmer vintage year, Thiénot points to the very cold nights they had, which helped. Crops were also smaller, due in part to some odium issues, resulting in deeper and more textural wines.
Gago concurs, saying there used to be an adage from Burgundy that the best fruit comes from cool areas in a warm year.
“It’s all pre-climate change,” he says. “Even in the Coonawarra, the warmer years in this cool area produce some of the very best Cabernet. Things have changed now even in Champagne, in a year like this. Cool area, warm vintage – it’s Champagne.”
In 2020, the 2012 vintage will continue as a theme with the release of two new grand cru champagnes from the collaboration: a blanc de blancs sourced exclusively from Avize and a blanc de noirs from Aÿ. Gago believes their release will go well in Australia because Australians know how to enjoy champagne throughout a meal, not just for celebrations.
“It’s why Australia is such a prominent market, even though we’re a small size,” he says. “We treat champagne as a wine of great character. And not to forget the history of sparkling at Penfolds. We started in 1912 with the Minchinbury and, 100 years later, a 2012 champagne.”
The unlikely partnership between one of Australia’s oldest wine brands with one of Champagne’s youngest houses proves that when two great brands come together, anything can happen. All of a sudden, the future looks very bright – and different – for champagne.
Read more in ISSUE NO. 3 of VINE & BUBBLE Magazine.
Words by Sara Underdown
Photography by Leif Carlsson