Penley Estate is one of Coonawarra’s most celebrated producers, with a firm underpinning in cabernet sauvignon and shiraz. It is a pillar of the region, and it’s a classic region at that – conservative, some would say. But, with a rethink of the operation in 2016, the Penley ship was turned in a different direction, embracing change and experimentation, while still remaining respectful of its roots. Lauren Hansen works alongside head winemaker Kate Goodman to refine Penley classics, as well as to dramatically reframe possibilities with their project wines.
When sister Bec and Ang Tolley took full control of the family winery after the retirement of their winemaking brother, Kym, they decided that a ground-up renaissance was in order, which has seen everything from viticulture, winemaking and marketing rebooted. In the winery, the appointment of Kate Goodman in 2016 saw layers of refinement added to wines that remained identifiably, respectfully, Penley. Lauren Hansen joined her in 2018.
“The Project range is ever evolving. Every vintage brings a new opportunity to trial and experiment, to dare, to push the boundaries a little further. Trialling whole bunch fermentation in cabernet has been on my mind since 2015. The goal: to create modern, bright-fruited styles, completely different to everything you associate with Coonawarra cabernet.”
“I’m responsible for daily operations of the winery and management of the cellar team,” says Hansen. “Winemaking direction is a team effort between Kate and me. With a similar vision, I have significant input into the creative direction of the wines we make, and the continual improvement of each product. All blending decisions, and those impacting the style of the finished product are made together at the tasting bench.”
Hansen arrived at Penley via a three-year stint as the assistant winemaker for the legendary Pete Bissell at Balnaves. Prior to that, she had graduated from her viticulture and oenology degree as dux in 2012, before working at Brokenwood in the Hunter Valley, then Bannockburn and Madden’s Rise in Victoria. A vintage at Adelina with Col McBryde in the Clare was followed by stints in New Zealand and Austria, before returning to work with Bissell. Hansen has also worked at Château Clinet in Pomerol as part of a scholarship program.
Wine wasn’t always Hansen’s calling, though, with her path there somewhat less vocational. “It all started from a smart-arse comment when I was 15, while looking into narrowing down subjects at high school. Very much unsure of where I wanted to end up, I quipped that I just wanted to ‘drink wine, travel and be outdoors’ – somehow, I managed to nail that brief! This led me to vintage in Canada and then off to study winemaking – I was hooked.”
Hansen grew up on the Limestone Coast, and though she didn’t really intend to make wine there, an opportunity to work with Bissell – a winemaker she had long admired – was too good to pass up. “The longer I have stayed in the region, the more I want to stay,” she says. “I feel like we’re on the cusp of big changes, and being one of the winemakers responsible for the renewal of such a classic region is exciting.”
For Hansen, that change is not about completely rethinking the region, but rather reframing it. “Our goal is to create wines that show a modern approach to a classic style. Taking traditional varieties like cabernet, shiraz, merlot and cabernet franc and bringing a new approach and a fresh perspective… to push the boundaries, challenge the norm, and show consumers, and ourselves, a different side to these varieties.”
The clearest expression of this is in the Penley Project wines, which were first made in 2017, prior to Hansen’s arrival, but she has been deeply involved in their development from the 2019 vintage. “The Project range is ever evolving. Every vintage brings a new opportunity to trial and experiment, to dare, to push the boundaries a little further. Trialling whole bunch fermentation in cabernet has been on my mind since 2015. The goal: to create modern, bright-fruited styles, completely different to everything you associate with Coonawarra cabernet.”
Key to the approach of Hansen and Goodman is the connection to the estate vineyard, managed by Hans Loder since 2016. “Kate and I are constantly working closely with Hans to understand different pockets in the vineyard that show potential, and keeping these separate in the winery,” says Hansen. “Really separating out sections within a block – isolated by soil mapping, aerial imagery to show vigour differences, and then overlapping this with plenty of walking rows and tasting to find the best parcels each vintage.”
This detailed approach allows for great flexibility in the winery, as they can identify fruit that is better suited to one approach or another, with the large vineyard holdings becoming a significantly rich resource for experimentation. And that experimentation is only possible through the latitude allowed, indeed encouraged, by the Tolley sisters.
“The Project range is a highlight of working for Penley,” says Hansen, “for a company and chief winemaker with the vision to release project wines like these to market. No idea is too crazy to trial, no two vintages or releases the same. Working for a company where experimentation is encouraged, and no idea is off the table has been incredibly refreshing.”
This freedom, which is often considered to be the realm of small makers – without investors and accountants looking over their shoulders – is a big statement about the culture and aspirations of today’s Penley, and a fertile environment for the ever-curious Hansen. “I’m a bit of a nerd at heart, but the creative side of winemaking is what keeps me engaged from day to day. Challenging the science, pushing the boundaries of ‘safe’ winemaking, and working with what the season throws at you each year. I feel like it’s an industry where I will always be learning, always noticing differences between seasons and always closely watching small parcels in the winery.”
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