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.”
Read the full story in ISSUE NO. 3 of VINE & BUBBLE Magazine.
Words by Sara Underdown
Photography by Leif Carlsson