Heritage, Hard Work and No-nonsense Landed This Winery a Top Accolade

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Female-fronted Penley Estate has pride in its past.

“We have been patient, and persistent and good at our jobs,” starts Kate Goodman, winemaker for Penley Estate. “I don’t think gender makes you a better or a lesser winemaker,” adds Ang Tolley, sister to Bec, sisters descending from the Penfold-Tolley lineage.

A history of family winemaking that dates back to 1844, the namesake of Penley Estate was born out of romance – a red sports car wielding Reginald Lester Tolley caught the eye of a miss Judith Anne Penfold. Fate was sealed.

The South-Australian estate was given fruit many years later, when in 1989, the grandchildren of Judith and Reginald bought a plot of land in Coonawarra, planted cabernet grapes – a variety the region is known for – and waited.

“I think that one of the driving forces for Bec and I is the very strong history of women in the wine industry,” says Ang, when asked what encourages them to break the mostly male mould of the winemaking industry. “To me, a woman in the wine industry is a historical fact.”

Going on to describe women as more “dogmatic” when it comes to winemaking, Kate Goodman believes that they bring a different conversation to wine: “We talk about wine… in a more inclusive manner,” she adds. “I look forward to a day when gender is not even part of discussion,” interjects Ang. “For the last 30 years that I’ve been involved in wine, I’ve seen a lot of amazing women rise up through the ranks. But I’d like to see it as an all-inclusive male and female kind of operation.”

“It’s a very subjective, almost artistic, career, really. I believe it takes all types. No two wines are the same. That’s what makes it exciting. Your product is born of the vineyard, and created by a winemaker.”

So how do they stay on top? As the business head for the estate, Ang trusts in their ability to innovate. “What we want to do is challenge the norm. What is and what is not possible… what works,” she exclaims. “We push the boundaries to be contemporary… to produce something that makes noise in the marketplace.”

Having just released the new Cabernet Franc, an unusual varietal for the Coonawarra region, Ang is modest in exclaiming, “it’s not a new wine, it’s just unusual for it to work in Coonawarra.”

As a winemaker, Kate suggests that it’s a penchant for experimentation that keeps the Penley name relevant. “It’s not being afraid of failure, that’s the only way that you’re actually going to make better wine,” she explains.

Of course, not every experiment is a success, but Kate describes how “trying new techniques or working with variety that’s foreign to you,” can be invaluable for the future. “If it doesn’t quite work, you can fine tune. If you’ve got flexibility in the way that you operate, you can always be striving to do better the next time.”

As Australian winemaking faces the changing effects of climate change, Penley, like all other local winemakers, are presented with a set of new challenges. Needing to adapt, Kate described how she sees opportunity in new conditions. “It doesn’t all have to be negative. For a region like Coonawarra, we’ll make a cabernet ripe every single year. Whereas in the past, it was probably three in 10 where it was marginal.”

Mitigating potential risks, Ang explains that Coonawarra cheats the conditions by constantly mapping the vineyards. “We’re always trying to think ahead in terms of the climate change.”

One of the biggest successes to date, a grand accolade was bequeathed to Penley – one of Wine Spectators’ Top 100 wines for 2017. It was their Cabernet Sauvignon, aptly titled Phoenix, which made these wine lovers feel as though Penley was given new life. “We’ve been selling wine for many years, and the brand had gone a little bit tired, so to rise up against the world was met with honour. It was amazing for us.”

Despite this recent spotlight, Phoenix has actually been a staple of the Penley collection for some 30 years. Ang considers this consistency and familiarity to be what bring her consumers a true “taste of Coonawarra,” as well as great value for money. Having just finished a rebranding exercise, it was quite coincidental that Phoenix happened to stay ahead of the class.

Responsible for creating and recreating this now iconic wine each season, Kate responded to the accolade with a different sentiment: “This reinforced that we’re on the right path. The ideals that we have about becoming a really contemporary and progressive wine brand… we’re moving in the right direction,” she starts. “With our Mythology range (home to Phoenix), I want [the wines] to be both contemporary, but recognisable as Penley. It’s always in the back of your mind when winemaking – where is this grape destined to show up?” Kate adds.

Closing our conversation, Kate and Ang offered a few words of wisdom to the rest of us – whether wine drinkers or considering your hand at making or marketing wine. “You don’t need to study to know about wine. In my mind, it’s about being brave. Just because you don’t like it, doesn’t mean you’re right or wrong. It’s just not suitable for you. Keep trying and pushing your boundaries. You’ll eventually become very confident and therefore knowledgeable about wine,” says Ang.

Kate instead reminds us of the intimate nature of winemaking. “We need to always remember that the wines we make are the subject of the environment they’re grown in, and that we really have to nourish these places. Always remember that wine is a living and breathing beverage. It’s not a soft drink produced in a factory. These are really unique and special drinks.”

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