Wine can be many things; a collectible, a status symbol, or something to pass down to the next generation. But most importantly, it’s an experience to be savoured with friends and family, whether in celebration of a significant event or for no greater reason than the enjoyment of one another’s company. This final role can be overlooked at times – particularly when it comes to the prestigious world of high-end wines – and it’s something Australia’s most celebrated winemaker, Penfolds, is determined to address.
To put it simply, Penfolds believes wine is there for drinking – and if you saw the Man of Many office on a Friday afternoon you’d be left in no doubt as to our opinion on the matter – but all too often bottles are left to sit in a cupboard, cellar, or some less optimal location maturing away while the owner waits for the so-called right time to pop the cork. Sadly, for many bottles, that time never comes. Or if it does, it arrives too late, meaning some of the best bottles of wine in Australia (and around the world) are only opened once they’ve passed their plateau of maximum drinkability and entered their decline, which is, sadly, a phase every bottle reaches eventually.
Vino Time Like the Present
To minimise the occurrence of such tragedies, Penfolds has been hosting complimentary Re-corking Clinics around the world since 1991, with the most recent taking place in Sydney just a few weeks ago. These celebrations of the viticultural arts invite local wine enthusiasts, collectors, and those with any bottle of Penfolds red wine 15 years or older to have the condition of their special bottles assessed, with several possible outcomes.
The first is successful certification, meaning the wine is in great condition and can continue to be cellared. After re-corking, such a bottle may keep for up to 20 more years if stored properly. Second, owners walk away with a bottle that isn’t certified but is still drinkable – resale of these white-dotted bottles isn’t generally an option. And third, the application of twin white dots to the bottle means the wine is not certified and not in a drinkable condition (perhaps it’s heat compromised or oxidised).
With some bottles valued upwards of AUD$60K each on the secondary market, having one successfully certified is no small event and the process can have owners holding their breath. However, no matter the outcome, Penfolds’ service acts as a valuable reminder to owners that no bottle lasts forever and it’s better to enjoy it today than save it for a vague time in the future that may never come.
We were fortunate enough to visit the most recent clinic in order to experience this remarkable example of aftercare service firsthand. Hosted in the luxurious art deco surroundings of the Kimpton Margot on Sydney’s Pitt Street, the event saw an estimated 250 wine lovers with a total of 1,500 registered-in-advance bottles go through the process over the course of three days.
The popularity of Penfolds’ clinics makes pre-registration essential if you want your wine inspected. Rules dictate that each bottle must be a Penfolds of at least 15 years old, but beyond that, there are no restrictions and once you’ve signed up the service is entirely complimentary.
The Penfolds Process
With corks generally lasting 15-20 years, having a bottle re-corked can be a crucial step in maintaining the integrity of the wine within, while also providing the owner with the opportunity to get expert advice on the best time to open and enjoy it. This is, after all, what Penfolds hopes to remind us wine is actually for.
At a clinic, once you’ve been introduced to your Penfolds experts – we had the privilege of being guided through the process by Penfolds winemaker Matt Woo and Penfolds Australian Ambassador Zoe Warrington – an ullage measure is used to determine how much wine has evaporated from each bottle, thereby indicating the need for re-corking, urgent or otherwise (feel free to download your own ullage measure here). If your bottle’s level is in the light green, you’re probably safe to wait before having the process completed – Penfolds only undertakes re-corking once per bottle, so you want to ensure your timing’s right. If the bottle’s in the darker green, there’s been a little ullage, so it may require re-corking, but once again, you may also want to wait a little longer.
Things get more serious from the amber zone onwards. If your bottle’s resting in the amber, the ullage has been significant, so you’ll definitely want Penfolds to open it up and have a look. Finally, the red zone and beyond indicates the bottle’s too far gone and, well, you really should have popped it open some time ago.
Truth in the Tasting
Once your assigned expert determines an examination is necessary, the bottle’s cork is removed and a small sample of the wine is poured into a glass to be tested. Immediately following this, a gas made of nitrogen and CO2 is used to fill the top of the bottle, minimising the remaining wine’s contact with the oxygen in the air in order to maintain its integrity before re-corking.
Next, your Penfolds expert will taste the wine to determine where it’s at in its journey of drinkability. Also on hand to provide his revered input at our session was Penfolds’ Chief Winemaker, Peter Gago; a man who prides himself on having taken not one day of sick leave in the more than 30 years he’s worked for the brand. The benefits of loving your job, eh?
Once a wine is determined to be certifiable, its bottle is topped up using a current vintage of the same wine – Penfolds reassured us this negligible amount has no impact on quality or flavour of the original wine – and from there it’s carried to the re-corking station, where, as the name suggests, a new cork is put in place and the bottle is vacuum-sealed. Upon completion, Penfolds’ iconic red capsule is reapplied to the top of the bottle.
As re-corking is such a valuable way of ensuring a wine’s quality, Penfolds provides three ways of verifying whether or not a bottle has received this certification. The first is found on the cork itself via the etching “RE-CORKING CLINIC” and the year the assessment took place, which can be easily viewed upon the removal of the red capsule.
For those who’d rather leave the capsule in place, a second verification can be found via a label applied to the back of the bottle, while a third comes via a hand-signed certificate – featuring the name of the assessor and the date of completion – that’s provided for each certified bottle at any of the clinics held around the world.
White Glove Service
With bottles of Grange from as far back as 1951 coming through the clinic, the Penfolds team recognises the special place each of these drops holds in the hearts of their owners. So, in addition to walking out with a newly certified bottle of vino, Penfolds aims to help visitors mark the occasion by inviting them to take the original cork home with them too. The cork can either be placed in a beautifully soft velvet pouch or immortalised in a resin block imprinted with the details of the bottle from which it originally came, making it a perfect memento for wine lovers to enjoy for years to come.
With immaculate finishing touches like these enhancing the highly personalised experience, the Penfolds Re-Corking Clinic is about nothing less than the wholehearted celebration of great wine. From the moment you arrive, it’s clear these experts live for wine and genuinely care about every bottle that comes through the clinic doors. It’s this care that fuels Penfolds’ insistence that wine is there to be enjoyed, and with over 150,000 bottles certified globally since the first re-corking session over 30 years ago, Penfolds has guided people the world over to a better understanding of when to drink their wine. And perhaps the most important takeaway is that if you’re ever in doubt, there’s no time like the present.