How Altitude Affects Champagne's Taste and Other Wine Facts by Penfolds' Peter Gago

© Penfolds

By Ray Isle Posted April 20, 2016

When he’s not making wines like Australia’s iconic Grange, Peter Gago of Penfolds is on a plane possibly heading to Mongolia. Here’s what he’s learned as an ultra-frequent flyer.

When you’re not making wine for Penfolds, you travel constantly. How many miles do you cover each year?

Any guesstimate I could make would be way off, I suspect. But some years I probably average two days out of the country for every day I’m at home. Just to give one instance, last year I did a wine launch in Shanghai, then flew direct to Dallas; that night, I flew to San Francisco, worked a day, then flew to New York for two days. From May to December I could be anywhere. One time I literally flew from Adelaide [Australia] to New York to give a five-minute speech at the New York Public Library, and then flew straight back to Australia.

How do you deal with the exhaustion?

I can never sleep on a plane, even if I’m lying flat. But I’ve learned over the years that if you just close your eyes, control your breathing and don’t get angry with yourself for not sleeping, that’s at least relaxing. But those people who are asleep the moment they’re in their seats, while the plane’s still on the tarmac? I want to elbow them sometimes.

Have you ever forgotten a bottle of wine in your carry-on luggage?

I have! It happened to me in Sydney, not long after a big news story broke in Australia where another fellow had two very old, very expensive bottles of Grange in his carry-on at the Melbourne airport and was asked to give them up. He actually smashed them in front of the customs officials rather than hand them over—definitely a case of cutting off your nose to spite your face. I was in a hurry in the international terminal with these three bottles in my bag, and when I got to security I thought, Oh, no. I’ve done just what that other bloke did who just hit the headlines! But one of our employees in Sydney was able to come to the airport and collect the wine. And I never would have destroyed the bottles. I never could have done that.

You’re a Champagne lover—do you drink it on planes?

Oh, yes. I’m not one of those people who just religiously drinks water or whatever. When the flight attendants come around with glasses of Champagne, I will always say yes. But I’ll certainly limit myself to a glass or so—unless I’m on Emirates and somehow get upgraded to first, and they’re serving Krug or Dom Pérignon.

Does altitude affect Champagne’s taste?

It certainly does. That’s why I lean toward the bigger styles on planes—Bollinger, for example. At 30-odd thousand feet you can still taste those Champagnes. The more subtle, aperitif-y styles—Taittinger, for instance—which I quite like at ground level, I don’t tend to seek out when I’m at altitude.

How many countries sell your wines?

It’s more a question of how many countries don’t. The wines are really everywhere. China, for instance—people think of China as Beijing and Shanghai, but I’ve been in the backblocks of China for Penfolds many times. I was supposed to do a dinner in Mongolia last year—Penfolds has been selling there for years. I only didn’t go because I had to speak at a dinner in Israel instead. 

What are your favorite wine cities?

I have a soft spot for Europe but, oddly, not the most famous cities. Instead I love places like Frankfurt, Düsseldorf, Geneva. The more obscure places, where you walk into a restaurant and look at the wine list and think, Wow—where did all this come from? That also happens in Canada quite a bit. That’s what gets us wine people out of bed; dusting off some old tag and seeing a price that predates barcodes, finding that surprising cellar in an unknown restaurant.

Where have you made your best discoveries?

This was in London, so not an obscure city, but I was at the Capital Hotel in Knightsbridge not long ago. Lo and behold, on their list they had a bottle of 1943 Krug Champagne. I said at the time, when I looked at the price, "I think you might have left a zero off this." But they 
sold it to me anyway. I was also in Spain last year, in San Sebastián. There’s a restaurant there called Rekondo—not one of the famous places, but it has an extraordinary cellar. We ordered four half-bottles of Rioja from the 1950s; the most amazing experience. And I’m thinking, There goes the car. I’ll probably also have to sell the garage. I can probably hold onto the house. But at the end of the meal I was just shocked by how affordable those wines were—substantially less than $100 per bottle. Great wines, magnificent service, unbelievably good food, and I’m thinking, There is a God.

Are there great airport wine shops?

 Le Clos in the Dubai airport, absolutely. It’s quite unbelievable. Among other things, they have a complete collection of Grange, all 61 vintages of it. The entire collection’s for sale for $600,000. That’s one of the places I make pilgrimages to.

Any other favorite wine stores?

In London, the wine department at Harrods, and also Hedonism. I almost always get to Harrods the day I arrive, so I never make much sense; I’m just this baggy-eyed, jet-lagged wine obsessive. It usually takes me two or three days to get to Hedonism. By then I’m much more normal.

7 Wines to Try Now

2012 Wynns Black Label Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon ($40)

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2013 Grosset Polish Hill Clare Valley Riesling ($50)

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2014 Tyrrell’s Vat 1 Hunter Valley Semillon ($60)

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2012 Leeuwin Estate Art Series Margaret River Chardonnay ($90)
"Arguably Australia’s first collectible Chardonnay, and still one of its greatest. The Chardonnay space is certainly crowded, but not right at the very top of the quality register, where this wine lives."

2012 Penfolds St. Henri Shiraz ($100)

"Many serious collectors put this wine right alongside Grange, though the wine costs several hundred dollars less. And I find a good vintage will last just as long in the cellar. There’s no new oak here, just wonderful fruit crafted to create as proudly an old-fashioned Shiraz style as anyone could hope to find."

2012 Yangarra High Sands McLaren Vale Grenache ($110)
"Old plantings, contemporary style. Scarce production and huge demand. There’s Grenache, and then there’s this! It certainly gives McLaren Vale Shiraz, which is much better known, a run for its money."

2012 Henschke Mt. Edelstone Eden Valley Shiraz ($155)

"Henschke’s extraordinarily expensive Hill of Grace Shiraz gets more press, true. But that allows Shiraz fans such as myself the opportunity to acquire this gorgeous wine somewhat more easily—though it still isn’t what you would call inexpensive. Sadly, however, the word is out. Don’t hesitate if you see it."

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