The doctor is in at the Penfolds clinic

Peter Gago, chief winemaker, Penfolds

A couple stand in front of a table with three bottles on it. The woman shakes very slightly. “This is worse than when I had my first child,” she says. “It’s quite emotional.”

In front of them, a man is inserting two Screwpulls simultaneously into a cork, to ease the cork gently out of the bottle. Not just any bottle – a 1964 Penfolds Grange. He takes his time opening it.

The Clinic

The scene was the recent Penfolds Re-corking Clinic at the Berkeley Hotel in Knightsbridge, London. The location was chosen both for its luxury – the deep blue carpets muffle every footstep – and its convenience. People can drive right up to the front door, which makes it easier if they’re carrying boxes of wine.

After 22 years of running the Re-corking Clinics, Penfolds have got the fine details worked out. Originally based on Château Lafite Rothschild’s practice of re-corking old bottles for customers, the Clinic gives anybody who owns a bottle of Penfolds a chance to have the wine assessed, re-topped and re-capsuled. Owners can bring any wine from the Penfolds range, from the entry-level Rawson’s Retreat, to the legendary 1962 Bin 60A Cabernet. More than 120,000 bottles have been checked to date.

To the casual observer, it looks a lot like going to the doctor. UK wine writer Anthony Rose brought several wines, including a bottle of the 2004 Bin 60A Cabernet. Winemaker Peter Gago picked them up one by one and checked the ullage – Penfolds have a cardboard gauge they place against the bottle – while asking questions about how the bottles had been stored, and whether Rose intends to drink them eventually or sell them.

The bottles are in good condition, so Gago recommends leaving them alone. A re-corked bottle will have a Penfolds Red Wine Clinic capsule moulded on to it when the checking is over, and a Clinic back label that’s numbered, dated and signed by a Penfolds winemaker. If the bottle is less than 30 or 40 years old, this can potentially be a problem if the wine goes for sale, as buyers will want to know why the owner wanted a relatively young wine checked. It could be a sign that the wine wasn’t stored correctly, or was exposed to heat.

“If the wine is older, having the sticker can improve its value,” says Gago.

Gago does open one of Rose’s bottles. A tasting portion of 15ml – or 2% of the bottle – is poured into a tasting glass, and the bottle is immediately injected with argon, to stop oxidation. Gago tastes the wine. “It’s perfect,” he says, and hands the glass to Rose.

The bottle is then topped up with the current vintage of the same wine. Anybody bringing a bottle of Grange in that day would find it topped up with the outstanding 2008 vintage. “A lot of people won’t re-cork their bottles until they know the top-up wine is from a great vintage,” says Gago.

If the wine had shown problems, it wouldn’t have been topped up. It would have been sealed with a plain cork and not re-capsuled, and Rose may have been advised to drink it quickly.

Even when the wine isn’t good enough to re-cork, Gago says it’s easy to make people happy. “You just tell them to go home and drink the wine, or to drink it at Christmas. You’ve given them permission to drink their special bottle.”

Best of breed

The Clinics allow Penfolds to track their wines and their condition. It also allows them to remove corked, oxidised, damaged or fake wines from circulation, to “improve the breed” as Gago puts it.

The issue of counterfeit is, of course, the nightmare that keeps makers of auction-worthy wines up at night. “We track each and every bottle,” says Gago. “We can say where it was re-corked and what it was topped up with. We put a sticker on the bottle and keep a sticker for our database.”

Nevertheless, Gago says counterfeiting is not necessarily as rife as people think. Penfolds have been surprised at the quality of the wine that’s turning up at their Asian Clinics. Collectors in Singapore and Shanghai are serious about their wine and are as anxious as other collectors to buy wines with good provenance

A more acute problem for Grange, says Gago, is the tea and coffee often found in bottles owned by Australians.

Tea and coffee?

Grange has been an icon wine in Australia for many decades and when people buy a bottle and drink it, they keep the bottle as a souvenir. One typical practice is to fill it with tea or coffee, to make it look as though it’s unopened. After the person dies, the relatives are thrilled to inherit what seems to be an unopened bottle of Grange. “You really have to counsel people before the cork comes out and not create false expectations,” says Gago.

As for the couple with the 1964 Grange, the cork is finally out. As the winemaker pours 15ml of wine into a glass, the couple lean forward, anxiously.

The wine is in perfect condition. It gets a sticker.
Felicity Carter

This article first appeared in Meininger’s Wine Business International in 2013.