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Monday 12 June 2017

Peter Gago: Master of the Wine Universe

Even today, after 15 years in the biggest job in Australian wine, Peter Gago AC occasionally shakes himself to be certain he is not living a bizarre dream.

He was probably shaking his head again this morning when named as a Companion of the Order of Australia in the Queen's Birthday Honours List.

The Penfolds' chief winemaker, one of the most in-demand wine speakers and presenters in the world, spends much of his time in first-class lounges and luxury hotels, rubbing shoulders with the great and good of the wine world.

Adelaide one week, Hong Kong the next. Then London and Paris, followed, maybe by a few days in New York and San Francisco spreading the Penfolds gospel.

A private tasting with Jancis Robinson one day, a gala dinner the next, accepting a trophy the next.

It is a gruelling schedule, but one which Gago thrives on. He's one of the nice guys of the wine industry, quick with a smile and private chat with even the humblest of wine scribes or representatives.

A few years ago I watched him deal with request after request for a few words or a photo at Vinexpo, the world's biggest wine fair.

We caught up twice late last year, first in Sydney for a Penfolds tasting, then in London, where meeting the all-powerful Robinson and collecting a global science award were on his agenda.

He's come a long way, this former school teacher and scientist turned winemaker.

Born in Newcastle, England, he moved to Adelaide with his family when he was six. After completing a Bachelor of Science at the University of Melbourne, he worked as a chemistry and mathematics teacher before succumbing to a long-held interest in wine, which saw him return to Adelaide at the age of 29 and complete a Bachelor of Applied Science (Oenology) at Roseworthy College.

After graduating as dux, Peter joined the winemaking team at Penfolds in 1989, initially in the craftsmanship of sparkling wines, before moving on to reds where he took on the role of Penfolds' red wine oenologist.

He quickly became an integral part of the winemaking team and in 2002 succeeded John Duval as Penfolds chief winemaker, the role he has now held for a decade and a half.

His job ranges from time in the vineyards to globetrotting ambassador to overseeing the final blends of Penfolds' most prestigious reds.

As only the fourth custodian of Grange since Max Schubert was appointed in 1948, he is in constant demand internationally.

“A year or two ago I was at celebration of the 40th year of Decanter, the English wine magazine, a glamorous event at London's Le Gavroche that was attended by people like Olivier Krug of Champagne Krug, Marchese Piero Antinori of Antinori wines and Christophe Salin of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild,” he said in a recent conversation.

Wines served at that event included Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs 2006, Penfolds Yattarna 2008, Isole e Olena’s Cepparello 2006, Chateau Montrose 1975 in magnum, Chateau Coutet 2009 and a special ‘Decanter’ bottling of Taylor’s 40 Year Old Tawny Port.

“Not only was Penfolds invited, but they also asked for one of our wines, which was a tribute to where we stand in the world of wine and was an absolute thrill,” Gago said.

“It was a recognition of Australian chardonnay in company that included Pierre Taittinger and Angelo Gaja and so many other names that I could drop. Australia is not just a little country any more; our wines have cachet and are being recognised by some of the most serious people in the world of wine.

“It is great if wines like Grange and Yattarna can open global doors for other Australian producers; and I think that is what is happening.”

Gago himself has become used to recognition and sharing stages with the greats of the wine world.

In 2012, he received the ‘Winemaker’s Winemaker’ award, presented by the Institute of the Masters of Wine and British industry publication The Drinks Business.

Late last year, he was honoured by the Royal Institution of Australia, which awarded him a prestigious Bragg Membership for his contributions to the science of winemaking.

The organisation is a national scientific not-for-profit organisation with a mission to '"bring science to people and people to science".

The award is named after the South Australian scientists Sir William Henry Bragg and Sir William Lawrence Bragg, a father and son team who won the Nobel Prize in 1915 for establishing X-ray crystallography, a scientific technique still widely used today.

Gago said he was “shocked, delighted and humbled” to be made an Honorary Bragg Member, the highest category of membership awarded by The Royal Institution of Australia.

“I am delighted as I am honoured to represent the pursuits of the many practitioners of the ancient discipline of oenology, humbled at joining eminent and world-renowned scientists and shocked to have been chosen on the right side of 60,” he said.

Gago joined just 31 other scientists as a member and was inducted along with paleontologist Professor Michael Archer AM, marine biologist Professor Terry Hughes and biochemist Adjunct Professor Zee Upton.

The Royal Institution of Australia chairman, Peter Yates AM, said celebrating the achievements of great scientists was an important part of Australia’s development as an innovative nation.

“By acknowledging and honouring our industry leaders we hope to inspire the next generation of scientists and STEM graduates who will play a critical role in building Australia’s future,” he said.

Gago says he likes his wines to reflect the fruit and the vintage.

"I would not say that my style is particularly evident in the winemaking, although I'm a firm believer in no filtration or fining; natural yeast, open-top fermenting and other non-invasive techniques,” he says.

“My role is about knowing when to interfere and when to stay out of the way."

While Gago is very serious about winemaking; he is not always intense. When we meet up we are just as likely to talk about Bruce Springsteen as wine; and we both enjoyed an exhibition on 1960s culture “Say You Want a Revolution” at London's Victoria and Albert Museum late last year.

He's constantly preparing or presenting – and his wife, Gail Gago, is a leading South Australian State politician. They are one of the busiest couples in the country.

“I still sleep less well than I should on planes, given the amount of flying I do,” he says. “But I'm doing a job that I love, one that I would do for free and one that I never imagined I would have the chance to do.

“It's a very exciting phase of the wine industry to be involved in. I'm sure there are great vineyards still to be planted in Australia. There is every chance that our Le Montrachet has yet to be discovered, and that there are great wine styles still to be invented.

“I'm over the novelty and 'romance' of travel but what thrills me is when we put on an event in Paris and we get a 100% acceptance. That is heart-warming and makes everything worthwhile. If you can sell Australian wines in Paris then you can sell them anywhere.”

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