“We must not be afraid to put in effect the strength of our own convictions, continue to use our imagination in winemaking generally, and be prepared to experiment in order to gain something extra, different and unique in the world of wine.” Max Schubert
Is winemaking art or science? Or is it a craftsman’s philosophy? At Penfolds the role of the winemaker is to make the best possible wine within the constraints of each vintage. A deft hand, initiative, precision – a touch of guile – and a sympathetic understanding of nature’s colour and order are the tools in trade.
Penfolds House Style emerged from a fortified wine producing culture and evolved as a winemaking philosophy – a way of making wine – which has had a profound effect on the entire Australian Wine Industry. The development of red table wines during the 1950s was underpinned by an investment in new vineyards, winemaking equipment, skilled personnel and perhaps most importantly research and experimentation.
Penfolds already had a reputation – within the wine industry – for its ground-breaking work during the 1930s and 1940s in overcoming spoilage and wine stability problems, an industry-wide concern. It employed a full-time chemist, Ray Beckwith, to investigate and research every aspect of the wine making process and to develop ways of improving all Penfolds wines.
During the 1950s his contribution underpinned the extraordinary creative development of Penfolds Grange and St Henri by Max Schubert and John Davoren. It was ground breaking work that would have an enormous impact on winemaking around the world. His preventative winemaking making regime, originally kept under strict wraps, would eventually filter through the Australian wine industry and overseas. Ian Hickinbotham, a veteran Australian winemaker and industry observer, said, “Let’s be blunt – there would have been no Grange without Beckwith’s brilliance. Possibly, Beckwith contributed more to Australian oenology than any other and he should be recognised in the same class as Louis Pasteur.”
During the 1950s Penfolds was a centre of creativity and innovation. With highly intuitive and imaginative winemakers, and benevolent, production-orientated owners, particularly Jeffrey Penfold Hyland, Penfolds made considerable technical and applied winemaking advances. The remarkable Story of Grange written by Max Schubert gives an insightful view of the times. While he was ordered to stop production of Grange in 1957, Penfolds had already set an irrevocable course towards table wine production.
The professional rivalry between Max Schubert and John Davoren resulted in a wide rather than narrow winemaking perspective. The development of Grange, however, had a major impact on Penfolds winemaking culture. St Henri, a traditional style, inevitably played a cameo role, although its importance should not be underestimated. Penfolds House Style embraces the concept of multi-regional blending, optimum fruit quality, the use of fine-grained American (and increasingly French) oak, barrel fermentation and maturation.
Max Schubert – who was appointed production manager at Magill Estate in 1948 – was an early proponent of regional definition. His fascination and specific demands of fruit quality resulted in a comprehensive understanding of vineyard performance. He said, “The development of a new commercial wine, particularly of the high grade range, depends on the quality and availability of the raw material, the maintenance of standard and continuity of style.” He achieved this through identifying specific vineyards sites and developing relationships with growers. He once observed, while developing Grange, that using Shiraz from two specific vineyards would “result in an improved all-round wine.” During the 1950s Max Schubert searched widely for suitable fruit particularly in the foothills around Adelaide, McLaren Vale and the Barossa Valley. Both Max Schubert and John Davoren were mindful of vinification and maturation practices in Bordeaux.
The development of both Grange and St Henri was modelled on Claret styles. The availability of Bordeaux grape varieties in South Australia, however, was limited. Schubert soon favoured Shiraz, largely because of the spectrum of ripe flavours, tannin structures and the relative ease of supply. He struggled initially with Cabernet Sauvignon because of its scarcity and capricious nature in the South Australian climate.
John Davoren was also similarly constrained. His first experimental St Henri vintages were based on Cabernet and Mataro. However Shiraz would play an increasingly important part in the style. Both winemakers – steeped in the historical importance of the “noble grape variety” – would use Cabernet to add perfume and structure to their wines.
The release of Bin 389 in 1960 – a Cabernet-Shiraz blend which is now considered an Australian classic – reflects the winemaking attitude of the time; that Cabernet Sauvignon did not have the power or mid palate intensity to be made as a single wine. Improved vineyard management, site selection and winemaking has resulted in the subsequent releases and success of Bin 707 and Bin 407 Cabernet Sauvignon.
The concept of multi-regional and vineyard blending – a feature of the Penfolds House style – is an amplification of the “all-round wine”. Without the constraints of a single vineyard, winemakers could choose the best possible fruit with “the outstanding characteristics of each vineyard”. This idea gathered pace during the 1960s largely as a result of the success of Bin 389 and experimental cross-regional blends such as Penfolds Bin 60A. This method of fruit selection also contributed to a consistency of style. As the volume of production increased over the years a method of classification was introduced to earmark particular fruit for individual Bin numbers. This selection process has been further refined allowing extraordinary blending options. The Rewards of Patience tasting showed that optimising fruit quality in blends does not compromise vintage character.
The felicitous choice of using American oak was one of availability. Max Schubert had noticed during his visit to Bordeaux in 1949 that some winemakers used new “raw” oak during vinification and maturation. Actually he stumbled across a rare practice. Few clarets ( Red Bordeaux) at that time completed fermentation in barrel. However it was true that top Chateaux employed new oak during maturation; the percentage used depending on the quality of the vintage. His experiments with Shiraz and American oak were profound. He discovered that if the wine completed fermentation in new American oak the two components would generate a tremendous “volume of bouquet and flavour”. Max Schubert remarked that “It was almost as if the new wood had acted as a catalyst to release previously unsuspected flavours from the Hermitage (sic) grape.”
The release of Bin 128 Coonawarra Shiraz in 1962 and Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz in 1959 pre-empted the contemporary enthusiasm for regional definition by about 25 years. Max Schubert applied many of the techniques used in the research and development of Grange using American oak and barrel fermentation. All the same the difference between the ripe opulent Bin 28 and elegant structured Bin 128 – as shown in The Rewards of Patience tasting – illustrated strong regional differences.
James Halliday, the distinguished Australian wine critic and The Rewards of Patience panel member once said; “The so-called 'Penfolds style' is so distinctive that to miss it meant either I or the wine was off-colour. The hallmarks are rich, sweet fruit which (within the constraints of the given vintage) is always at the riper end of the spectrum; oak influence which invariably manifests itself in the structure of the wines and in the more expensive labels to a marked degree in the flavour, with warm vanilla-and-spice. American oak to the fore; and in the invariably pronounced yet rounded tannins.”
While American oak has played a central role in the development of Penfolds red wines, French oak has been increasingly used in the evolution of new wines, particularly RWT and Yattarna. Don Ditter – who became Chief Winemaker in 1975 – introduced French oak to the elegantly structured Bin 128 as a way of refining the style and emphasizing its regional characteristics. RWT Barossa Shiraz, which is barrel fermented, is also particularly suited to the savoury nuances of French oak. Nowadays Magill Estate Shiraz is matured in 2/3rds French oak, and Bin 407 Cabernet Sauvignon in 50% French oak.
Maturation in oak, which follows fermentation, is also a key to the Penfolds House Style. Penfolds Grange which is matured in American oak for a period of 18 months benefits greatly from the ageing process where aromas and flavours derived from both fruit and oak evolve and tannins polymerise and soften. At the other end of the spectrum is Penfolds St Henri which benefits from the maturation effect rather than from the influence of new oak. However John Bird has noted on several occasions a sibling likeness, “There is some kind of similarity between St Henri and Grange between 10 and 15 years of age. There is no doubt about which stable they came from.”
Research and development continues to play an important part in the evolution of Penfolds. The “Penfolds Flagship White Project”, which resulted in the release of Penfolds Yattarna Chardonnay, echoes Max Schubert’s sentiment of “making something different and lasting.” Penfolds continues to experiment with new varieties, new vineyards and new winemaking techniques while improving on the tried and tested.
The Penfolds approach to winemaking has percolated through the Australian wine industry over the last 50 years. The use of American oak and barrel fermentation – for instance – is considered these days as a traditional Barossa winemaking practice! The techniques employed in the research and development of Penfolds wines are remarkable. Many of the discoveries and innovations have had a lasting impact on winemaking thinking.
This is why 1951 Penfolds Grange is regarded as an historical curio and a treasure. The experimental Granges are a major body of achievement in the art and science of wine; perhaps the Australian wine industry’s equivalent to the chronometer or powered flight. Max Schubert and his team pioneered major advances in yeast technology and paper chromatography, the understanding and use of pH in controlling bacterial spoilage, the use of headed down/submerged cap fermentation and the technique of rack and return, cold fermentation practices, the use of American oak as a maturation vessel and perhaps most critically, partial barrel fermentation.
The Penfolds Wine Making Philosophy is the accumulation of more than half-a-century of knowledge and winemaking practice initiated by Max Schubert and his 'navigator' Ray Beckwith. The Penfolds house style has a strong stamp of authenticity and provenance. While the wines have been refined over the years by chief winemakers Don Ditter, John Duval and Peter Gago, they are unmistakably Penfolds and distinctly Australian. However in the end the wines must speak up for themselves; this is the essence of this sixth edition of Penfolds The Rewards of Patience.
The Penfolds Winemakers
Max Schubert: Chief Winemaker 1948-1975
"All winemakers should possess a good fertile imagination if they are to be successful in their craft." Max Schubert
Max Schubert (1915-1994) was Penfolds chief winemaker and the creator of Grange. He was one of the most important Australian winemaking figures of the 20th century. His remarkable contribution to Penfolds wines is well documented and includes Schubert’s own “Story of Grange” – one of the most vivid and inspiring personal accounts of winemaking during the 1950s and 1960s.
Max Schubert joined Penfolds in 1931 as a messenger boy. He learned his craft by working with some of the most experienced chemists and winemakers of the time. He never formally studied oenology, but his practical experience, natural inquisitiveness and team leadership lead to remarkable innovations in winemaking, many of which percolated throughout the Australian wine industry.
Huon Hooke, Schubert’s biographer, said “Max was a sensitive and highly intelligent, but formally untrained man who learned by trial and error, by keen observation, by the seat of his pants. Hence he had his own explanations for some things and they may seem unorthodox.”
Schubert was appointed Penfolds National Production Manager (Chief Winemaker) from 1948 to 1975. His greatest achievement was Grange, a wine that would alter the course of Australian wine history and pave the way for future generations of winemakers. In his lifetime Max received many awards, including Member of the Order of Australia (AM) and the inaugural Maurice O'Shea Award for his contribution to the Australian wine industry. He was also named 1988 Man of the Year by London's Decanter Magazine.
James Halliday, Australian wine writer noted, “He was no more perfect than any of us, but he went as close to creating perfection in wine as anyone is ever likely to do.”
Don Ditter: Chief Winemaker 1975-1986
Raised in South Australia's Barossa Valley, Don Ditter started work with Penfolds as a laboratory assistant at the Magill winery in Adelaide in December 1942. From 1944 to 1945 he served in the RAAF. In 1946 he studied winemaking at Roseworthy Agricultural College.
After graduating in 1950 with first class honours he was re-assigned as an assistant winemaker at Penfolds Nuriootpa in the Barossa Valley. Without suitable technical people in New South Wales, he was lured to Sydney in 1953 to improve cellar operations and bottling at Penfolds Queen Victoria Cellars in the central business district and at Alexandria in Sydney’s inner west. In 1963 Don was promoted to NSW Production Manager. In this position he was responsible for winemaking operations in Sydney, Minchinbury, Griffith and the Hunter Valley.
As Chief Winemaker – the new title for national production manager – he oversaw the consolidation of Penfolds winemaking to South Australia. A golden period followed with the release of Koonunga Hill and the re-release of Bin 707. Don Ditter took the Grange style into the modern era. This included a major overhaul of vineyard management, tracking of fruit, refinements in winemaking and bottling. Don Ditter retired in 1986 but remains a longstanding consultant with Penfolds. In 2008, he was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for his “services to the Australian wine industry, particularly as chief winemaker at Penfolds Wines.”
John Duval: Chief Winemaker 1986-2002
John Duval grew up on a mixed farm at Morphett Vale near Adelaide. His family were longstanding Penfolds growers. In fact Shiraz cuttings from the Duval’s vineyard were used to plant blocks at Penfolds Magill Estate. After completing an Agricultural Science Degree at Adelaide University and a post-graduate diploma in Oenology at Roseworthy College, John joined Penfolds in 1974 at Nuriootpa in the Barossa Valley.
As an Assistant Winemaker he gained early experience working under managers, John Davoren and Kevin Schroeter. In 1986 John took over as Chief Winemaker, a position he held for the next 16 years. In 1989 John was named International Winemaker of the Year at Britain's 1989 International Wine & Spirit Competition.
In 1991, and again in 2000, he was named Red Winemaker of the Year at the International Wine Challenge held annually in London. John Duval oversaw many developments at Penfolds including the creation of Bin 407 Cabernet Sauvignon, Bin 138 Old Vine Barossa Valley Shiraz-Grenache-Mourvédre and RWT Shiraz.
The White Grange project which would culminate in the release of the much vaunted Yattarna Chardonnay, also lead to the spin-off Reserve Bin Chardonnay. In 2002 Duval stepped down as Chief Winemaker after a distinguished career of 28 years at Penfolds. He has since built up an international winemaking consultancy business and now makes his own wine. However he continues to act as a “sounding board” to the red winemaking team.
Peter Gago: Chief Winemaker since 2002
Peter Gago, who born in Newcastle, England, was raised from the age of six in Melbourne, Australia. After graduating with a Batchelor of Science from Melbourne University, he spent much of the 1980s teaching mathematics and chemistry. At the age of 29 and at a career crossroads Gago undertook a Batchelor of Applied Science, Oenology at Roseworthy Agricultural College (now a campus of the University of Adelaide) graduating as dux of his course. In 1989 he joined Penfolds as a sparkling winemaker eventually becoming Penfolds Red Wine Oenologist.
In 2002 Peter Gago succeeded John Duval as Penfolds Chief Winemaker – the fourth person to hold the position since Max Schubert was fist appointed in 1948. Gago’s imprint on the Penfolds house style reflects a strong sense of custodianship. "I would not say that my style is particularly evident in the winemaking, although I'm a firm believer in no filtration or fining, natural yeasts, open-top fermenting and other non-invasive techniques. For me, it's about knowing when to interfere and when to stay out of the way".
While Gago has won several awards including the prestigious Wine Enthusiast Magazine’s Winemaker of the Year 2005, he insists Penfolds is all about team effort. This strongly held view has brought an important perspectival shift. In 2007 Penfolds red winemaking team was nominated as winemaker of the year by Australian Gourmet Traveller WINE Magazine. The Barons of the Barossa further recognised Gago’s team by awarding “Penfolds Grange Winemakers” Winemaker of the Year also in 2007!
Peter Gago’s peripatetic energy and drive has brought great enthusiasm for Penfolds wines across the globe. Under his bailiwick Penfolds has released Bin 311 Chardonnay, Bin 8 Cabernet Shiraz, a multitude of great wines under the Cellar Reserve Label and the widely applauded 2004 Bin 60A Cabernet Shiraz and 2004 Block 42 Cabernet Sauvignon. Grange, St Henri, Bin 707, Bin 389 and a myriad of other bins continue to grow in stature.
Peter Gago’s role as chief winemaker is wide ranging and embraces the reality of a worldwide market. At vintage time, he is hands on winemaker, but during the off season he is in heavy demand as the face of Penfolds. In this capacity Gago excels as a teacher and promoter of Penfolds and Australian fine wine. He is regularly asked to participate in international forums and is the co-author of three educational books on wine.
Edited extract from the 6th Edition of Penfolds The Rewards of Patience, Andrew Caillard (Allen & Unwin, Sydney 2008)
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