Classic Wines of Australia – 1878 to 1960 (Part I)
The rare Australian ultra-fine wine market has reached a point where there is an astonishing drought of supply. Many of our most famous wines have gone missing or have been consumed to near extinction. Over three decades collectors have enjoyed a long period of reasonable and unremarkable prices. Without the party-pooping distraction of relatively high auction values, stocks have dwindled at a remarkable rate. Today it is easier to buy 1945 Chateau Mouton Rothschild or 1921 Chateau d’Yquem than 1965 Lindemans Bin 3100 Hunter River Burgundy or 1963 Mildara Peppermint Pattie Cabernet Sauvignon. Prices for many Australian rarities have doubled or even tripled over the last two years.
In 1992 it was possible to buy 1965 Bin 3110 for around $100. Today it will fetch over $1500 at auction. Old Australian vintages of any kind and regardless of reputation are now being snapped up eagerly by buyers. While they are expensive, these bottles remain relatively good value when compared to prices for newly released vintages or contrasted against the ludicrously high prices of many European grand cru type wines.
The market, however gradually, recalibrates every generation; only a few of the greatest wines of any era endure in the collective fine-wine memory bank. Over a period of time many famous wines of their day slowly lose traction and fall by the way-side. In the art world re-discovery or re-examination of a painter’s oeuvre may result in a market renaissance. Fine wine, however, is ultimately a consumable. While it is sad to think that many of Australia’s greatest vintages of a bygone era are now virtually unavailable or in their drinking dotage, the Australian fine wine market is more diverse and interesting than ever before. Perhaps winemakers of today should consider maintaining a decent sized library of back vintages for future generations.
I am in the midst of compiling a list of Australia’s classic wines.
These wines represent significant technical, philosophical or identity waypoints in Australia’s wine making evolution. I have drawn on Langton’s significant auction data and many Australian wine books including Wine in Australia by Walter James (Georgian House 1950), Classic Wine of Australia by Max Lake (Jacaranda Press 1966), The Australian Wine Compendium by James Halliday (Angus & Robertson 1985) and Penfolds Rewards of Patience 6th Edition, Andrew Caillard (Allen & Unwin 2007). It is interesting to note that much of the early 20th century Australian wine history is heavily skewed towards the Hunter Valley and Penfolds! There is not much information about Australia’s best wines of the very early 1900s. A cellar note describes the 1907 Chateau Reynella Burgundy as a “typical great Australian full bodied red of great age.” There are anecdotal stories of old Seppelt Sparkling Burgundies of the 1920s etc.
However during this early period of the 20th century, the wine industry was in decline; phylloxera had ravaged some of Victoria’s greatest early vineyards during the 1890s and 1900s. Table wine production was miniscule compared to fortified wine. All of this may account for the very strong Hunter Valley-South Australia axis that developed during the 1940s. It was resources and personality based.
There is no question, however, that the Hunter Valley was a cradle of the modern fine wine movement. Maurice O’Shea not only pushed forward the wines of Mount Pleasant and the Hunter environs, but also sourced wines from South Australia and Victoria. The idea of multi-regional blending was born from limited resources and a keenness to identify the best parcels of fruit. This in turn created long standing relationships between winemakers and propelled winemakers Roger Warren and Colin Preece into household names.
The development of Grange and the in-house rivalry between Max Schubert and John Davoren also stumped up memorable wines. It is interesting to note that the observations of wine writers of the 1940s and 1950s were bordering on the airy-fairy! Walter James was the doyen of wine writing during this period but even his musings are quixotic. Classic Wines of Australia by Max Lake is a truly remarkable book and really captures the atmosphere and ideas of the day. The Australian Wine Compendium probably epitomises James Halliday’s legendary capacity for work. This is without question the finest piece of Australian wine-authorship of the 1980s. Curiously it becomes difficult again to identify the important wines of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. In many respects it reflects the cosmopolitan agendas of this period.
The wine show system reached its zenith during this time but successes have been blurred by too many show awards and an excess of marketing hype. Langton’s released its Classification of Australian Wine during the early 1990s. Although it has ordered the secondary wine market and brought Australian ultra-fine wine in sharp relief, its efficacy has distorted the impression of Australian fine wine. Non-vintage Rutherglen Rare Muscat, a great and much praised Australian wine style, has been very difficult to record and therefore has no palpable traction in the market. Ditto sparkling wines.
Wine writers/wine journalists (subtle difference) have also been prolifically at odds with each other. All of these examples and many others contribute to a fog of identifiable waypoints and a soup of opinion. This list is therefore definitely a work in progress. It began as a simple exercise which would take no more than a day to complete. It appears now to be something of an ongoing project. This first tranche of the “Classic Wines of Australia” comprises wines between 1878 and 1960. I would be grateful for any comments or suggestions.
THE CLASSIC WINES OF AUSTRALIA
1878 Seppelt Para Liqueur Port, Barossa Valley, South Australia
A few bottles were sold through the wine auction market in 1978, initially for $2000 and a few months later for $3700. When the market discovered that Seppelt would release annually several bottles of its centenary Para Liqueur Port, the market fell dramatically resulting in a headline “Para Prices collapse!”
In real terms the wine fetches a fraction of the initial price realisations. A bottle of 1878 Para Liqueur will fetch around $1000 a bottle at auction today! Perversely the Centenary Para Liqueur Ports represent some of the rarest and finest offerings of 19th century wine anywhere in the world. The 1878 begins a remarkable and contiguous series of tawny style fortified wine. These wines were known about by previous generations of winemakers and opinion leaders, but the fame of this wine only began in 1978. In some ways it is unfair to start a list of Classic Australian wines with the 1878 Para Liqueur, but it does acknowledge the foresight of Benno Seppelt.
Seppelt 100 Year Old Para Liqueur Vintage Tawny is the most remarkable of wine curios. It is Australian wine heritage in a bottle, a direct link to our colonial past. For 125 years Seppelt has been laying down puncheons (475 litre barrels), arguably making it the longest unbroken collection of wine vintages held any where in the world. Unlike many 100 year-old wines, these Para Liqueurs are still drinking beautifully with rancio/leather/spice/raisined/prune/chocolate aromas and flavours. Some have a slight burnt orange/toffee complexity, but all are unctuous and incredibly concentrated wines.
It is a rather extraordinary and wondrous experience to drink these wines, knowing their historical context. In 1878 for instance Ned Kelly, the notorious Australian bushranger, formed the Kelly Gang and the colonial painter Conrad Martens died.
Seppelt has been at the forefront of fortified wine production in Australia for around 150 years. Established in 1851 Seppeltsfield became a focal point of the fledgling Barossa wine industry. Originally a wheat and sheep farmer, Joseph Seppelt (a chemist by training) saw local vignerons struggle to make decent wines.
The new winery, located in Seppeltsfield’s dairy, began operating in 1855 and worked in a similar way to a co-operative with many back-yard type local growers supplying fruit. Benno Seppelt took over running the cellars at the age of 21 and oversaw a rapid expansion during the late 1800s. By 1902 it accounted for one third of the regions vintage crush. The original stone cellars, considered state of the art in 1888 and designed to allow gravitational flow of wine, are still used today including its open slate fermenters and brandy still (which was commissioned in 1877).
The historic bluestone winery, family mausoleum and stands of date palms are a reminder of Benno Seppelt’s eccentric genius and pioneering enthusiasm for the Australian wine industry’s future. Re-badged under new owners as Seppeltsfield 100 Year Old Para these ancient fortified wines continue to thrill and delight collectors.
Circa 1903 Auldana Cellars St Henri Claret, South Australia
The original Auldana Cellars – neighbouring Magill Estate – was established in 1853 by Patrick Auld (1811-1886) an early South Australian settler who migrated from Scotland in 1842. The Auldana vineyard was one of the most important and well known vineyards in South Australia. It was planted to a fruit salad of varieties including Tokay, Muscat of Alexandria, Grenache, Verdelho, “Carbonet (sic) – grafted on Carignan”, Mataro, Malbec and Shiraz.
The high price of labour and shortages of manpower restricted vineyard expansion. However Auldana wines were highly regarded in the South Australian colony. In 1892, the Victorian, New South Wales and South Australian Governments “held court” at the famous Bordeaux Exhibition of 1892. The winemaker of the time was a Frenchman – Leon Edmond Mazure (1860-1939) – who is credited as the creator of the famous and unique style of Australian Sparkling Burgundy! Mazure was also responsible for the creation of the St. Henri label; the original name probably derives from the name of his son Henri.
The first vintage under this label was around 1890. Curiously few bottles from this era have survived. A bottle of 1896 Auldana Cellars St Henri Claret – found in the cellar of a Tasmanian collector – surfaced in the late 1980s. At this time Auldana Cellars was making around 50,000 gallons for red wine; much of it used for St Henri Claret. A bottle of 1911 appeared at a Penfolds Red Wine Clinic in Hobart in 1996. In 1911, Auldana Cellars Sparkling Burgundy won first and second prizes at the Adelaide Wine Show in the Australian Sparkling Red Wine class. These wines were shown successfully for many years from 1907 to the early 1920s. Turn-of-the-century St Henri Clarets were beautifully packaged in Bordeaux type bottles and with unique – tamper-proof riveted capsules.
1903 was the year Edmond Mazure became managing director of Auldana. Historian and vigneron John Wilson of Wilson Vineyard in the Clare Valley believes that St Henri was the first “trade named” wine. It is actually very difficult to pin point an exact vintage of note, but Auldana Cellars was a hugely important and innovative producer during the early 20th century.
1911 H. Buring and Sobels Quelltaler Hock, Clare Valley, South Australia
Extremely favourable weather conditions resulted in the most satisfactory vintage at H. Buring and Sobels Spring Vale winery in both “quality and quantity.” Trouble, however, brewed during vintage because unionists attempted to persuade non-unionists to leave their jobs at Spring Vale.
With a loss in manpower, district members of the Liberal Union assisted in completing the harvest. At the end of vintage the company put on a vintage festival for all of the workers involved with a banner that read, “All’s well that ends well.” The ructions at Spring Vale were recorded by the local and state press.
The 1911 H. Buring and Sobels Quelltaler Hock went on to win first prize at the Adelaide Wine Show and at the Brewers and Allied Trades Exhibition in London. Originally spelled “Quellthaler” (Springvale) Quelltaler Hock became an important fixture of the Australian wine scene during the 1920s,1930s and 1940s. Its success in wine shows and in the market was largely because the wine was based on true Riesling (then called Rhine Riesling) rather than the inferior quality and more prolific Clare Riesling (Crouchen). The wine was brought in at relatively low Baumé levels (11.5 to 12). After fermentation it was not unusual for the wine to be aged in large old oak vats for three years!
H. Buring and Sobels also produced the highly successful brands St Carlo Claret and Granfiesta Sherry, which also featured prominently as prized wines at various Australian and international wine shows. Co-founder Hermann Buring had previously worked with Benno Seppelt at Seppeltsfield and was a successful wine merchant in Adelaide; he had purchased Spring Vale wine for many years prior to buying the winery and vineyards in 1890. Carl Sobels, Buring’s partner, was the winemaker who also famously had 13 children; many who would live and work on the property.
Both families played a prominent role in the development of the Australian wine industry. Hermann’s son Rudi was prominently involved in H.Buring and Sons. For a brief time second son Leo Buring (1876-1961) “the doyen of Australian wine” worked as a cellarman. He also worked as manager of Hans Irvine wine cellars in Great Western (purchased by Seppelt in 1918), manager of Minchinbury Wine Cellars (1902-1919) and governing director of Lindemans (1923-1930) before establishing Leo Buring Pty Ltd in 1931 and launching the hugely successful semi-sweet white wine Rinegold (“pure gold”) and Leonay brands. The famous Quelltaler brand name, however, lost momentum during the early 1980s despite making some of the most exquisite Rieslings of the day. The historic Quelltaler property is the present –day home of the Annies Lane brand.
1922 Seppelt Para Liqueur Port, Barossa Valley, South Australia
Seppelt Para Liqueur Port has enjoyed a longstanding presence on the Australian secondary wine market. Established in 1851 by a Silesian tobacco manufacturer Joseph Seppelt, the eponymous producer played a critical role in the development of an Australian fine wine industry.
At the height if its influence and commercial power it owned Seppeltsfield and Chateau Tanunda in the Barossa Valley, Great Western in Victoria, the Clydesdale Vineyard and cellars in Rutherglen and an additional winemaking facility in 1927 at Dorrien near Nuriootpa in the Barossa Valley. It was heavily focussed on the production of fortified wines and inextricably linked to the very best wines of this genre. It was also highly involved, through its Great Western winery, in the production of “Champagne (sic)” and Sparkling Burgundy.
A shift in consumer tastes and the ravages and fray of the market all lead to a gradual decline in operating assets. Seppelt reinvented itself with the production of table wines from the Barossa environs and Great Western. It also presciently invested in cool climate viticulture especially in Drumborg, Victoria (1964) a region better known as Henty these days. The 1922 Seppelt Para Liqueur Port is a Tawny Port style wine which was first released in 1953. It was made principally from Shiraz, Mataro and Grenache and fortified with brandy spirit from Seppelt’s own still.
Deep mahogany in colour, Para Liqueur Port typically shows rich paneforte/ nutty/ rancio aromas and flavours, with beautiful brandy spirit cut. Although sporting a vintage date, the wine was regularly topped up through maturation and may have compromised vintage integrity. Nonetheless Seppelt further released a 1925, 1927, 1930, 1933, 1939, 1944 and 1947 before it re-badged the production of its fabled Para Liqueur Port vintage series as non-vintage! A contiguous series of numbered wines from 101 to 125, were further released before resumption of the 1976 vintage.
All of these bottles, especially the vintage dated wines, were hugely popular among Australian wine collectors. Prices at auction escalated during the 1960s and 1970s, but Para Liqueur Port lost its cachet in the market during the 1980s and 1990s. Prices stagnated for a long while because of overall sentiment. In more recent times, because of increasing rarity, auction values have crept up. The 1925 recently achieved $920 at auction. All of the 1920s (1922/1925/1927) are spiralling upwards.
Occasionally pre-1922 bottles or even commercially un-released material will be found at auction. These are generally “one-offs” bottled for special charity auctions (ie Barossa Vintage Festival) or other events. The Seppelt brand still prospers under Fosters ownership. The Great Western winery is still under Fosters ownership but the Seppeltsfield winery – where the 1922 Para Liqueur Port was made – is now owned by a private consortium whose plans are to restore the winery operation back to its former glory under the brand name “Seppeltsfield.”
1924 Lindemans St Cora Burgundy, Hunter Valley, New South Wales
The 19th century Hunter Valley Kirkton Vineyard was originally planted in 1830 by James Busby, an early and important pioneer of Australian wine. The wine derived from original old vine material. It was a "Full-bodied dry red wine” made from Shiraz. It may be satisfactorily made only in favourable years when there has been sufficient warmth and dryness fully to mature the fruit.”
This wine was served at the Kirkton Vineyard Centenary banquet by Leo Buring. Curiously the vineyard didn’t really make the 100 years! In fact 1924 was the last vintage made from this property; about 100 gallons of Chablis and 100 gallons of Burgundy were made that year. The vineyard was subsequently abandoned, but the St Cora name prospered becoming one of Australia’s wines of the 1940s and 1950s. The Lindemans Ben Ean Vineyard subsequently became an important source for the wine after the abandonment of the Kirkton Vineyard.
James Halliday wrote “I would sell my soul for a bottle of such wine. It is a macabre fact that 1924 was Kirkton’s last vintage.” Research suggests that it may have comprised other varieties including cabernet. It was a very highly prized vineyard. A bottle of 1876 Kirkton Hermitage once won a gold medal at the Bordeaux International Exhibition in 1882.
1925 Sevenhill Cabernet Port, Clare Valley, South Australia
Fortified wines were strongly favoured by the consumer during the 1920s. Sevenhill was established in 1848 and is the birthplace of the Jesuits in Australia. The wine, made by Brother George Downey, was described by Max Lake as “fabulous”. The winery made sacramental wine for the Catholic Church located in Australian and around the pacific-rim. Almost all of the wine was fortified. The sacramental wine was usually a blend of Shiraz, Grenache, Tokay, Verdelho, Frontignac, Pedro Ximenez and Muscat. Fortified to 32% it must have kept the priests very happy. Small quantities of dry red (Mataro) and dry white (Doradillo and Riesling) were made at this time. It wasn’t until the 1954 vintage that decent commercial volume of table wine was produced.
1928 Penfolds Minchinbury Trameah, Sydney Environs, New South Wales
This period was also marked by expansion of the vineyards, winery and cellars at Minchinbury. Champagne and sparkling Burgundy output was greatly increased, and, in 1920, the first Trameah was marketed. “This dry, light wine, produced at Minchinbury from Traminer grapes, is a white type of high quality, with a delightful bouquet that invites the highest praise of wine connoisseurs.” The 1928 Trameah was regarded as one of the greatest wines of the 1920s. If these bottles existed today, it is doubtful the contents would be drinkable. It fetched £15 at auction during the early 1960s.
1929 Mount Pleasant Grandmother Dry Red, Hunter Valley, New South Wales
Max Lake wrote in 1966, “I am dwelling on Grandmother in my own cellar and I hope she is up to it”. Subsequently it is written about as one of Australia’s great wines. Although recorded in such a way, this wine is largely unknown today. Campbell Mattinson, Maurice O’Shea’s biographer, mentions the 1929 vintage as being pivotal to O’Shea’s reputation. By all accounts this was not a great Hunter Year but a “Melbourne Show 1929” apparently turned a few heads. It is difficult to know whether these two wines were one and the same but clearly Grandmother is one of a handful of wines that have “claims for the top Mount Pleasant reds.”
1930 Matthew Lang and Co Hunter River Cabernet, New South Wales
“The best red in my experience up to 1960,” said Max Lake in his book “Cabernet: Notes of a Wineman” (Rigby 1977), “of extraordinary complex flavour, it was a supple and elegant wine consisting of equal parts cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot, grown at Dalwood. Only three hogsheads were made and the vines were pulled out!” Max Lake was “influenced to start a cabernet vineyard” as a result of tasting this wine. Many commentators believed that Cabernet was not suitable to the Hunter Valley micro-climate. Nonetheless Max Lake established Lake’s Folly, one of Australia’s early boutique wineries in 1963.
1933 Woodley’s St Adele Claret, South Australia
A Bill Redman wine that was shipped up to Woodley’s in Adelaide and bottled under the St Adele label. It won the best wine of the show at the first empire competition in London in 1936. No mention of either region or winemaker was inscribed on the label. Coonawarra would have to wait almost another 20 years before it started to receive the attention it deserved. A bottle of 1935 St Adele Claret surfaced in Wellington, NZ in 2008.
1934 Yalumba Bin C046 Eden Valley Riesling, Eden Valley, South Australia
In 2004 the 1934 Yalumba Bin C046 was still showing plenty of Riesling character and the exceptional aging potential of Eden Valley with “fresh lime/honey aromas, lovely fine acidity, weight and balance.” Yalumba’s longstanding investment in the Eden Valley has lifted the reputation of this important Barossa Zone region. Although the Leo Buring label is inextricably linked to Eden Valley through the 1960s wines of John Vickery, it is Yalumba’s enduring family commitment to Eden Valley Riesling across the 20th century that brings so much spirit and character to this place. While this wine has lasted 70 years, Eden Valley Riesling has become known worldwide as a lasting and classical style. The Hill Smiths – through their investment in Pewsey Vale (1960s) and the Heggies Vineyard (1975) and joint winemaking venture with Jeffrey Grosset – continue to define the genre. Yalumba was the first winery to adopt early bottling in 1933 to preserve fruit. This wine was also a pre-cursor to the fabulously successful Carte d’Or brand.
1937 Houghton White Burgundy, Swan Valley, Western Australia
Jack Mann (1906-1989) is regarded as one of Western Australia’s great figures of the 20th century. In 1930 Jack Mann succeeded his father George – a former brandy maker from Chateau Tanunda in the Barossa Valley – and began an extraordinary career of 51 vintages. In 1937 he entered a “big, full flavoured white wine from chenin blanc. It won first prize at the Melbourne Wine Show… one judge, W.W. Semior. Likened it to the great white burgundies of France and so Houghton’s White Burgundy was born.” This wine was an extraordinary success story and considered one of Australia’s great white wines until the early 1980s when the market changed gear with the advent of a strong emerging boutique wine scene. The style was described as “truly white burgundy. Powerful honey and spice bouquet, full golden colour with an occasional tinge of green, soft rich flavour, it is a unique white wine in Australia.” Although the wine has morphed into the Houghton’s Classic White, it is still a well-regarded and inexpensive commercial wine.
1937 Mount Pleasant “Mountain A” Full Bodied Dry Red, Hunter Valley, New South Wales
Maurice O’Shea (1897-1956) is regarded as a founding father of the modern Australian Wine Industry. He was the son of an Irish-born wine and spirit merchant and a French mother. Educated at Riverview (St Ignatius College), Montpellier and the École Nationale Supérieure Agronomique de Grigon, near Paris, he further studied viticulture and then lectured analytical chemistry at the University of Montepellier.
He returned to New South Wales in 1920. In 1925 he named the family property at Pokolbin “Mount Pleasant” and began making table wine. Although the Australian community preferred beer, fortified wines and spirits, his fledgling winery became a centre of an emerging wine and food culture. He made numerous wines and quickly established the lower Hunter Valley as an important quality wine region. He experimented prolifically.
He planted his vineyard, on volcanic soils, with several grape varieties including “aucerot, cabernet sauvignon, hermitage (shiraz), madeira, montils, picpoul, pinot blanc, pinot noir, riesling, semillon, and traminer (gewurztraminer).” He was a masterful blender and sourced wine from both local growers or as far away as South Australia and Victoria. Whether the latter wines ever found their way into his most famous Hunter Valley wines is supposition.
However his wines definitely found their way into the cellars of contemporary winemakers in South Australian and Victoria. Although physically small and short-sighted, O’Shea was a visionary winemaker adopting varietal labelling and naming his fine wines after individual vats, vineyards, friends and relations. Henry was in honour of Henry Renault, a Sydney wine merchant who supported and encouraged O’Shea. Others names included Richard (Tyrrell’s), HT (Hector Tulloch) etc.
JK “Johnnie” Walker the great Sydney Restaurateur did much to put Maurice O’Shea’s wines on the map. Max Lake said that, "He was a great blender of wine, able to achieve effects like a painter uses colours and textures. Luckily for his reputation, he had the great good fortune to be subsidised against economic failure by McWilliams."
James Halliday recalls the 1937 Mountain A Dry Red would “live with me for the rest of my days.” He described it as “ethereal in its delicacy, light and smooth, but with a soft, intense, lingering finish.” It is arguably O’Shea’s greatest wine or certainly an example that epitomised his genius.
He made a succession of beautiful wines, many single cask offerings and therefore of very limited production. 1929 Grandmother, 1939 Mountain C, 1944 Mountain D, 1942 Henry I, 1945 Henry II, 1947 Henry III, 1942 Pinot Hermitage, 1952 Pinot Hermitage, 1952 Prince and 1954 Richard all have been written about.
Max Lake describes many of these wines as “great beyond imagining.” Max Schubert, the creator of Grange once wrote in a letter to McWilliam’s Chairman, Don McWilliam in 1990: “Maurice O’Shea did so much to convince us who followed him, that it was possible to make an internationally competitive Australian table wine... the wines he left behind have spoken to me on many occasions and made me feel humble in their presence, not only for their all-round excellence but for their amazing longevity...”
Any remaining Maurice O’Shea wines would be teetering on senility. A few years back I tasted the 1944 Mount Pleasant Henry Claret Light Dry Red. While past its prime, it was a lovely old wine with walnutty characters, some fruit sweetness and chalky tannins. Maurice O’Shea wines are now extreme rarities. The market has almost dried up completely. Langton’s last sold a Maurice O’Shea wine in 2005. The remaining bottles, which still exist, are very tightly held.
1937 Caldwell’s Claret, New South Wales
1937 Caldwell’s Claret was probably made at Tullochs at Glen Elgin in the Hunter Valley. Max Lake described this wine as “ravishing”. Caldwell’s was an important Sydney wine merchant during the 1920s and 1930s. Many table wines of this period were labelled as negociant-type brands. The success of Caldwell’s was based on Hunter Valley material, mostly derived from Tullochs. The Hunter Valley enjoyed early fame was because of its proximity to Sydney and a fledgling fine wine market.
1938 Chateau Reynella Vintage Reserve Burgundy (Dry Red), South Australia
Reynella Farm, later Chateau Reynella, was established in 1838 by John Reynell. He received his land grant only two years after the founding of the colony of South Australia. The beautiful rolling countryside has since yielded to the sprawling Adelaide suburb of Reynella.
Max Lake described the 1938’s “deep red colour” and the complexity of bouquet and bigness of flavour with balance that distinguish the majority of wines of this vineyard.” Walter James, the distinguished Australian wine writer, wrote in his Wine in Australia (1952), “Reynella has produced limited quantities of excellent vintage Burgundies, that of 1938 (made from Shiraz) being outstanding.”
My Grandfather Kenneth Crawford possessed 30 bottles of this wine in 1956. In his cellar book he describes the 1938 as “beautifully proportioned wine with a long way to go to reach its peak. A big, robust wine which reflects considerable credit on its maker because it is not always that the balance and tannin finish of this wine can be achieved with such size.” My grandmother (Lydia Reynell) wrote in the same book in 1966, “This is a magnificent wine and will still be so long after we’re dead!” A bottle purchased at Langton’s in 2006 for $576 was consumed soon after and was still in remarkable condition. Incidentally the highly regarded Reynella clone of Cabernet Sauvignon sourced originally from Reynella’s home vineyards is widely planted in Coonawarra. In many respects this is the most enduring of the family’s legacy to the Australian Wine Industry. Chateau Reynella is now the headquarters of Constellation Brands Australia.
1938 Tahbilk 5X Claret, Goulburn Valley, Victoria
This was described by Walter James in 1952 as, “One of the most perfect claret-type wines ever produced in Australia.” It was made from ‘red-grape press wine, purchased young and matured by Mr. W Nairn, then Victorian manager for McWilliams wines.” Max Lake also mentions the wine as an all-time great. In 1952 it was already “no longer to be seen”. This is an example of how time diminishes reputation. Clearly it was something of a celebrity wine of its day. Max Lake described it as “one of the most reverently recalled wines in the country.” It is also interesting to note the dearth of great vintages between 1939 and 1945.
1945 Hardy’s Vintage Port, South Australia
Roger Warren (1905-1960) is regarded as one of Australia’s greatest winemakers (see 1957 Bin C24 Cabernet Sauvignon). He joined Hardy’s at Mile end in 1938. The 1945 Hardy’s Vintage Port is generally acknowledged as one of the greatest fortified wines of the era “possessing all the integration and balance for which the wine is legendary.” Together with Chateau Reynella (which Hardy’s would later buy) Hardy’s produced a remarkable line of vintage ports, fortified with brandy spirit, and laid down for up to a decade before commercial release. The 1956 vintage was also highly regarded; some observers believing it to be of similar ilk to the 1945.
1945 Hardy’s Tintara Bin 79 Reserve Bin Cabernet Sauvignon, McLaren Vale, South Australia
Roger Warren, one of the great master blenders of recent times, produced Hardy’s Tintara wines. Tintara was a shortening of “Tintinara” the original name of Dr. Kelly’s vineyard in McLaren Vale. For a while during the late 1940s and early 1950s Maurice O’Shea spent some time experimenting with Hardy’s Tintara wine. The rare and limited bottling of 1945 Bin 79 Reserve Bin Cabernet Sauvignon was one of O’Shea’s famous bottlings.
1945 Lindemans Bin 40/80 Hunter River Burgundy, New South Wales
A remarkably hot year. Bottled in 1948 the 1945 Lindemans Bin 40/80 won first prize at both the Melbourne and Sydney wines shows. It was described as very like “an excellent St Julien, dry and splendid tannin finish”. The wine was made by Hans Mollenhauer’s predecessor Ross Miller and during Lindemans’ period in receivership. The famous 1965 Bin 3100 was often compared by commentators of the time to this wine. It has never appeared through Langton’s auctions.
1945 Stonyfell Vintage Port, South Australia
A famous show wine that was propelled into immortality by George Fairbrother, the doyen of Wine Show judges during the 1950s. It was regarded as one of “the best among the few Australian vintage ports” on the market. The wine was made by Jack Kilgour “one of South Australia’s best-known technical winemen”.
After graduating from Roseworthy Agricultural College he joined Stonyfell winery in 1932 where he spent 27 vintages as a winemaker, specialising in fortified wines. 1945 Stonyfell vintage port is considered his greatest achievement in winemaking. Walter James in “What’s what about Australian Wine” (1953) said, “the only Australian (port) wine ever to win my real approbation for the completely dry finish essential to a good port is the Stonyfell 1945 vintage, made at Milang near the mouth of the Murray from cabernet grapes.”
This was, interestingly, where James Brazill Barry (of Jim Barry fame) did his first vintage at Stonyfell while studying at Roseworthy Agricultural College. Stonyfell was a very important wine producer during the 1940s and 1950s. At the time the commercial market was heavily segmented towards fortified wines. Legendary winemakers Brian Dolan and Peter Lehmann both worked stints at Stonyfell and developed the famous South Australian dry red Stonyfell Metala (based on Langhorne Creek Cabernet and Shiraz fruit).
Peter Lehmann remembers the 1945 Stonyfell Vintage Port well, “A batch of cabernet wine was accidentally fortified instead of shiraz. Although there was plenty of denial at the time, George Fairbrother once told me it was true. It was made at Stonyfell’s Metala winery in Langhorne Creek.” Stonyfell was sold to pastoral company Dalgety Australia in 1972 and within a short period of time the name lost its cachet in the market. The brand is now owned by Fosters Wine Estates.
1946 Seppelt Sparkling Burgundy, Great Western, Victoria
Colin Preece (1903-1979), dux of Roseworthy Agricultural College in 1923, is ranked with Maurice O’Shea as one of Australia’s greatest winemakers. On graduation, he became a member Seppelt’s technical staff at Seppeltsfield in the Barossa Valley. In 1932 he was appointed manager of Seppelt’s Great Western winery in Victoria; a position he held for 31 years.
Preece developed the quintessential Australian Sparkling Burgundy style. He was a hugely influential figure during his time and regarded as one of the most skilful blenders of his generation. Although he preferred the 1943, overall sentiment favours the 1946 Seppelt Sparkling Burgundy as the greatest vintage of the era. The 1946 has been sold several times over the last twenty years. It last fetched $508 in 2005. The 1943 is nowadays extremely rare. Incidentally Seppelt Great Western was already long-established as a sparkling wine house. During the 1890s Mark Twain visited the cellars and wrote in his travel diaries, “It yields a choice Champagne and a fine Claret, and its hock took a prize in France two or three years ago.”
1948 AP Birks Wendouree Claret, Clare Valley, South Australia
Wendouree is a 19th century vineyard of great importance. During the first half of the 20th century, it supplied many South Australian wineries with its richly concentrated and flavourful wine including Lindemans and Romalo Cellars at Magill for the production of Sparkling Burgundy.
Based on Shiraz fruit “their wines were always big, so big that sometimes they had to be broken down first." Bulk wines were also sold to various wine agencies including the highly influential Melbourne fine wine merchant Doug Seabrook. AP Birks died in 1948 at the age of 80. His third son the “diminutive and gentle” Roland (Roly) Napier Birks, a winemaker since 1917, retained Wendouree’s reputation for making “old style wines – big reds noted for their longevity. Curiously Roly Birk was not so confident his reds could age. He considered the wines would become over the hill relatively quickly. He used to show other winemakers including Peter Lehmann to prove his wines wouldn’t age; but they always did. He failed to convince us. The 1948 was one of the great wines of this era, a fabulous wine with typical pronounced tannin structure.”
1948 Penfolds Kalimna Cabernet Sauvignon, Barossa Valley, South Australia
In 1948 Max Schubert (1915-1994) – recently appointed senior winemaker – made a “one-off" single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. Planted in 1888 Block 42 is located at the edge of the Kalimna Vineyard in the Moppa sub-region of the Barossa Valley and comprises Cabernet Sauvignon vines of ancient genetic origins. It belongs to a national heritage of great old 19th century pre-phylloxera Australian vineyards including Henschke’s Hill of Grace located in the Eden Valley sub-region of the Barossa and the astonishingly small central Victorian Shiraz vineyards planted by Bests and Tahbilk.
Max Lake – author of the seminal work Classic Wines of Australia and founder of Lake’s Folly – wrote in 1966, "It is becoming magnificent and can only be compared to the big Cabernet wines of Europe.” Two bottles of 1948 Kalimna Cabernet Sauvignon surfaced at an auction in Sydney in 1987. The wine was unearthed with other rare Australian vintages from Max Lake’s cellar at Greenwich. The wine, probably blended and bottled on Max Schubert’s return, was never released commercially. This may explain the scarcity of the wine. It has never been seen since a memorable Royal Sydney Wine Show dinner. Despite the evolution of winemaking practice and time, the wine – with duck-egg coloured capsule – was unmistakably Penfolds; it had classic mature sweet fruit characters, chocolaty tannins and superb flavour length. The wine has never been seen again despite serious efforts to unearth other bottles!
1949 Woodleys “A Natural History Vignette” Treasure Chest Series Claret, South Australia
Woodley’s Wines was based at Glen Osmond, now a suburb of Adelaide. Silver and lead deposits were found on the land during the 1840s. Once the deposits were depleted, Osmond Gilles the first treasurer of South Australia, planted a vineyard. The four kilometres of underground drives were used for wine storage.
Urban pressure resulted in the loss of vineyards to suburban building blocks in 1922. Woodley’s became a negociant-type wine merchant and established a relationship with Bill Redman “who made or supervised virtually every wine out of Coonawarra for the most part of this century (fifty years).” The wines were trucked up to Woodley’s for further maturation and bottling. Under the direction of Tony Nelson – An Austrian trained winemaker – Woodley’s expanded into Coonawarra buying Chateau Comaum in 1946. However it was sold in 1952 to Wynns at a huge profit.
The “opening-up” of Coonawarra lead to a bust up between Woodley’s and Redman’s in 1956. The famous Woodley’s Treasure Chest Series Clarets belonged to a large cache of residual inventory lying in the drives of Woodley’s in Glen Osmond. There were eight contiguous vintages of museum stocks from 1949 to 1956; all claret styles based on Shiraz.
These wines had all been made by Bill Redman, whose fame was quickly spreading across the Australian wine market. The 1949 was previously known as the “magnificent young Woodley” (and bottled by David Sutherland Smith). Subsequent releases, especially the 1954, 1955 and 1956 were also highly regarded. Seeing an opportunity, Tony Nelson employed Wytt Morro to design a series of labels for his unique collection of back-vintages. Each historical print was chosen to match the character of the wine.
Based on colonial etchings and printed on heavy paper, the Treasure Chest Series ignited huge interest. Morro recalls that Nelson even marketed the wines to “Australian Trade Commissioners around the world.” The wines quickly sold out. Although the 1949 is probably the most famous wine of the series, the collection of eight wines is nowadays highly valuable. The Treasure Chest series reflects the genius of Bill Redman and the extraordinary marketing ingenuity of Tony Nelson. Langton’s has sold bottles on numerous occasions. In 2006 the values hovered around $400 a bottle. However these wines are now so depleted the values will have probably doubled if not tripled.
The Treasure Chest Series was sold as:
Treasure Pack – 3 bottles each of 1949,1950, 1951 & 1952
Vintage Box – 3 bottles each of 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956
Single bottles – 1953 and 1955 only!
1949 – A Natural History Vignette
The label depicted Australian flora and fauna with a French Chateau in the background. It belonged to a sheaf of maps catalogued as Terre Napoleon. An accompanying scroll was inscribed, “LA NOUVELLE HOLLANDE MIEUX CONNUE VEGETAUX UTILES NATURALISES EN FRANCE.” A collaboration between naturalist Francois Peron who joined the Baudin’s French Expedition to Australia (1800-1804) and artist C.A. Leseur.
1950 – Government House, Sydney
A view of new Government House from the botanical gardens. An engraving of a sketch by Frederick Terry a prominent landscape artist of his day. His name appears erroneously as Fleury on the original engraving.
1951 – Terre Napoleon
A map of the the southern coast of Australia extending from South Australia to Victoria. The engraving was based on a sketch by explorer Louis de Freycinet, a member of Baudin’s French expedition.
1952 – Captain James Cook
Taken from a print published in 1800. In 1770 Cook landed at Botany Bay and took possession of the land for Great Britain; New Holland was renamed New South Wales.
1953 – Queen Adelaide
The city of Adelaide, founded in 1836, was named after Queen Adelaide, a German princess and consort of William IV. This label was reprised for the highly successful commercial Queen Adelaide brand (owned by Fosters Wine Estates).
1954 – Views in Bathurst Plains (Views in Australia)
The most famous of all the treasure chest labels. Convict Joseph Lycett became an artist to the Governor of New South Wales. The Views in Australia folio was published in 1824 and dedicated to the Earl of Bathurst, Secretary of State for the colonial department.
1955 – The Galatea
Taken form the front cover of sheet music “The Galatea – Polka Brillante” by Frederick Ellard (Adelaide 1867). It celebrates the visit of Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh and second son of Queen Victoria.
1956 – Skeleton
A famous Irish racehorse owned by Alexander Riley, an early New South Wales pastoralist. Engraving from a painting by BM Chalon, a well known animal painter of the period.
1951 Penfolds Bin 1 Grange Hermitage, South Australia
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.
Langton’s has sold several bottles over the last 20 years. In 1989 a bottle fetched $8769. In 2009 the wine achieved $53,936.
1953 Bailey’s Old Matured Hermitage, Glenrowan, Victoria
Described by one critic as “liquid steak and eggs” and by another “this isn’t wine: its wine, food and a good cigar.” James Halliday recalls receiving a consignment of this wine for 45 cents a bottle. He wrote, “The 1953 Hermitage was despatched at barbeques and on other inconsequential occasions. Oh for the innocence of youth!”
Max Lake said, “Year after year, these consistent wines appear with so little variation… They have tremendous vigour and future, and personally I have not seen one go over the hill.” Interestingly the style was compared to the “big, generous, robust” wines of Wendouree, a producer that mostly sold its wine to merchants until the late 1950s. The wines of Northern Victoria were well regarded by pioneering winemakers including Maurice O’Shea who indeed sourced wine from Bailey’s and neighbouring vineyard Taminick.
1953 Chateau Tahbilk Marsanne, Goulburn Valley, Victoria
Chateau Tahbilk was a profoundly important temple of Australian wine culture during the 1950s. Indeed it is still headquarters of the Chevaliers de Tastevin. The property – on the banks of the Goulburn river at a place called tabilk tabilk (many watering holes) – was famous during the 1940s and 1950s for both its red and white wines.
“The 1938 5X Claret was one of the ‘most reverently recalled wines in the country ranking with the 1928 Minchinbury Trameah, 1929 grandmother of Mount Pleasant, 4080 and B79 of Ben Ean (Lindemans) and 1945 Hardy’s Tintara Claret.”
Maurice O’Shea, Roger Warren and others sourced wine from the Purbrick family to bolster their wines. The richness of fruit and muscular tannins were highly valued blending qualities. However the importance of Chateau Tahbilk’s idiosyncratic Marsanne cannot be under estimated. Although Hunter Semillon and Eden Valley Semillon are regarded as Australia’s longest living wine styles, this wine represents a bridge which connects the past with the contemporary Australian wine scene.
James Halliday tasted the 1953 Marsanne in 1995 and described it as “nutty and sweet, holding well and showing no outright decay.” Possessing beautiful aromatics and strong indelible acidity when young, these wines develop extraordinary complexity and richness with age without losing freshness or life. The wine was made in the old red wine cellar without any form of temperature control and matured in “wood 15 to 18 months before bottling.”
1953 Orlando Barossa Rhine Riesling, South Australia
The first pressure fermented white wine to be released commercially into the Australian wine market. This was a huge step forward for white wine. It was a technical breakthrough that would irrevocably enhance the reputation of Australian Riesling and allow the idea of regional definition to become a reality.
James Halliday wrote, “This wine has better claim than any other single wine to be the ancestor of modern-day aromatic white wines.” This method allowed winemakers to take full advantage of the delicate floral aromas of Riesling and its pure fruit flavours. Gradually cold fermentation would take hold. This wine represents an important waypoint in the evolution of the Australian wine industry. These days the wine is nothing more than a curio.
Orlando also introduced horizontal pressure tanks in 1956 to make cheap sparkling wine; Orlando Barossa Pearl introduced a whole generation of Australians to wine, many of whom graduated eventually to better quality bottles. While Orlando boasts the first pressure fermented Australian white wine, it is rarely acknowledged that it would not have happened without the assistance of Yalumba. The story goes that Yalumba received the first shipment of pressure fermenters, but didn’t have their cellar ready to install them. Orlando took receipt of this first shipment in a deal arranged with Yalumba. The 1953 Rhine Riesling was rejected by some “conservative palates” but the wine went on to wine first prize at both the 1953 Melbourne and 1954 Sydney wine shows!
1953 Penfolds Bin 9 Grange Cabernet, Kalimna, Barossa Valley, South Australia
The 10 acre Block 42 was planted only 30 years after the great 1855 Bordeaux Classification, and comprises the oldest plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon in the world. These original very old low yielding contorted, knotted and serpentine vines have deep penetrating roots which extend through alluvial sands, rich brown soils and into the fissures and cracks of bedrock. For over 110 vintages the vines – planted on their own roots – have produced flavour-intense mineral rich fruit with exceptional concentration and balance.
Max Schubert experimented with parcels of Block 42 Cabernet during the development phase of Penfolds Grange. He recognised the extraordinary potential of this vineyard site through the special bottlings of the late 1940s. Those early but very limited wines – made from pressings and matured in old oak puncheons – were deeply concentrated with immense flavour and classical fine grained tannins.
Max Schubert said, “A variation occurred in 1953 in that, in addition to Hermitage, a straight Cabernet Sauvignon from our Kalimna Vineyard in the Barossa Valley was made experimentally, employing the same method of production as for Grange. The quantity made was five hogsheads as in 1951. The decision to make an experimental Cabernet at all, despite the shortage of this variety, was influenced by the fact that in 1953 the analytical balance of the grapes was similar to that laid down for Grange.”
Impressed and inspired by the wines of Bordeaux, Max Schubert had initially hoped that his “different and lasting” Grange would be Cabernet based. On closer scrutiny he realised that the variable supply and overall quality of South Australian cabernet would compromise Penfolds commercial objectives for a consistent “high-grade wine”. While Max Schubert struggled with this grape variety at first, improved viticulture and the acquired wisdom of succeeding vintages resulted in the release of Bin 707 – a wine that was born from Block 42 – but which eventually (after a stop/start history) found its core fruit source in Coonawarra.
Block 42 Cabernet was never far from Max Schubert’s mind during the early development of Grange. While the story of Grange is inextricably linked to Shiraz, a 1952 and 1953 Penfolds Grange Cabernet – entirely sourced from Block 42 – were in fact commercially produced. The complex and fully mature 1953 Grange Cabernet is still a magnificent testimony to the perfume and staying power of exceptional Block 42 vintages.
The UK’s World of Wine editor Neil Beckett described the wine as showing dried blackcurrant aromas and rich sweet flavours. The wine is so magnificently balanced with ravishing complexity and seamlessly woven, silken-like tannins. It begins a series of wines which have a wonderful unforced naturally expressive floating quality.”
The wine achieved $12,650 at auction in 2007.
1953 Penfolds Bin 2 Grange Hermitage, South Australia
The 1953 vintage is regarded as something of a triumph. At a tasting in the early 1990s with Anders Josephson, the noted Swedish wine collector, Len Evans exclaimed “This wine is arguably the greatest Australian wine I have ever tasted.”
Along with 1955 Grange is has certainly enjoyed a reputation as a long living and beautifully portioned wine. The 1955 is more famous because it had enormous success on the Australian wine show circuit. In older age it also further impressed the emerging international wine media. The 1953 however was a much smaller production wine. Max Lake said, “The 1953 was possibly great, some say greater than 1952.
Nowadays it is considered as an important way-mark in the evolution of Australian wine. It has certainly out-lived 1952 (the first commercial release). The Rewards of Patience (6th Edition Allen&Unwin) tasting note entry describes the wine, “Medium brick red. Fresh mocha/ apricot/ meaty/ Provencal herb/ polished leather aromas. A beautiful velvet textured wine with sweet fruit/ roasted meat/ mocha/ herb/ leather flavours and loose knit slinky dry tannins. Finishes long and sweet. A very famous old Australian wine still showing remarkable freshness and balance. Very rare. 87% Shiraz 13% Cabernet Sauvignon. Magill Estate/Morphett Vale (Adelaide) Kalimna Vineyard (Barossa) Blend. 260 cases made. Some half bottles (375ml) were released. First vintage – and then uninterrupted - use of Kalimna fruit – hence the term “mother vineyard”. Released as Bin 2 (also Bins 10, 86C and 145).”
A single bottle of 1953 achieved $16,102 at Langton’s in 2008.
1953 Seppelt Type J34 Great Western Claret, Victoria
1953 J34 is regarded as Colin Preece’s finest red wine. Only 137 dozen 5/12 were made. It was made from Mataro, Malbec and Shiraz. It enjoyed a remarkable wine show career including Champion Claret at the Royal Sydney Wine Show in 1956.
The wine was a multi-vineyard blend (St Ethel’s, Black Imperial and Salinger). No bottles have appeared at Langton’s. In 1966 Seppelt no longer possessed any museum reserves of this wine; no doubt the wine shows and accolades drained availability very quickly! Australian wine-writer James Halliday described the wine as, “Very full, deep and richly textured. Rich minty-sweet fruit, with light balancing tannin giving length.”
On another occasion the wine was completely oxidised. Author, surgeon and vigneron Max Lake described the Great Western Claret style as “generally high in flavour, dark red in colour and rarely showing their age, the wines have a generous, clean, floral bouquet, and are always in perfect balance." The 1953 J34 exemplifies Colin Preece’s extraordinary winemaking and blending skills.
1954 Mount Pleasant Richard Hermitage
Definitely one of Maurice O’Shea’s greatest wines and made towards the end of his life. It vies as an all time Australian Classic and bookends O’Shea’s contribution to fine winemaking in Australia. This wine derived from Dan Tyrrell, who was a legendary Hunter Valley winemaker in his own right.
Maurice O’Shea greatly admired his attention to detail in both vineyard and winery. Indeed he purchased most of Dan Tyrell’s top wines. The myriad of interesting Mount Pleasant wines and extraordinary consistency of quality make O’Shea one of the most interesting of all Australia’s pioneering winemakers. In many respects he began a culture of fine wine in New South Wales and encouraged and played to the fledgling collector’s curiosity.
The 1954 last sold at Langton’s in 1991 for $124.
1954 Tulloch Private Bin Pokolbin Dry Red
At one stage Tulloch’s were the largest land-holders in the Hunter Valley with 300 acres. During the 1920s and 1930s its wines were sold under the Caldwell’s label; bottles which have surfaced occasionally at tastings over the years.
Len Evans described the 1954 Private Bin Dry Red (Shiraz) as “one of the most famous Australian wines ever made – a fantastic old red; big and firm, tremendous flavour and nose; sturdy, strong: firm clean finish; a magnificent wine.”
The fruit was sourced from around the Glen Elgin winery. It was a dry growing season but picking took place during relatively wet conditions. The 1954 Private Bin Pokolbin Dry Red impossibly won first prize for Claret, first prize for Burgundy and the Best Red Wine of the Show at the 1956 Royal Sydney Wine Show – an extraordinary feat which stirred up the wine judging community and further enhanced the reputation of the Hunter Valley.
1955 Wynns Coonawarra Estate Michael Shiraz
David Wynn – a Melbourne-based wine merchant – purchased Chateau Comaum from Tony Nelson of Woodley’s and renamed it Wynn’s Coonawarra Estate in 1951. Without three-phase power and isolated from major centres, Coonawarra was seen as the vinous boondocks.
During the early 1950s, several major wineries including Woodley’s, Hardy’s, Chateau Reynella and Saltrams purchased wine from the region – much of it through Bill Redman – to add further finesse to their stock-in-trade wines. David Wynn’s foray into Coonawarra literally put the region on the map and began something of a gold-rush type of land grab by prominent producers including Penfolds, Lindemans and Mildara.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate enjoyed early success. Initially Ian Hickinbotham was brought in as winemaker for the 1952 and 1953 vintages. However it was Norm Walker who made 1955 Michael Hermitage, named after David Wynn’s son Michael who died at child-birth. In James Halliday’s tour de force The Australian Wine Compendium (Angus & Robertson 1985) he says, “1955 was an historic year. The most exceptional was 1955 Michael, a freak wine which seemingly gained much of its character from the second-hand fortified wine cask in which it was matured.”
Good bottles still exist. Blogger wine enthusiast Cam Wheeler described the wine in 2007 (I have edited his text), “The colour was rather amazing for its age, mid-red with only a slight amount of bricking toward the rim. Aromas started to come forward including smoked meat, cherries, raspberry and with time tobacco, milk chocolate, earth, old leather, black tea leaves and cloves. The palate had a charm and elegance of its own with a core of sweet fruit leading the way and with the tannins completely resolved. More than three hours had passed quickly in the presence of this amazing wine, and it was still very much alive and standing proudly when I took my final sip.”
Wynn’s – at the time owned by Southcorp (now Foster’s Wine Estates) – released the 1990 Michael Shiraz beginning a now long standing series of this label. Although production of the 1955 Michael was ludicrously small, bottles still exist.
In 2008 it fetched $1730 at auction.
1955 Penfolds Grange Hermitage, South Australia
Penfolds Grange is a cornerstone of the Australian secondary (auction) market with a reputation and track record that rivals some of the great classified growths of Bordeaux and Burgundy. From around the mid 1960s, Grange could be found in most Australian wine collector’s cellars. The 1955 vintage was listed by the American wine consumer advocate Wine Spectator as one of the greatest wines of the 20th Century.
Leading wine judge Len Evans – in his last published book “How to taste wine” remembered, “Great Granges were often quite volatile and the 1955 caused a show incident. I was on a panel of three, two of whom, including me, gave the wine a gold (medal). We recognized the acetic acid but also gloried in the flavour, depth and balance of the wine. The other judge gave it 13, a very low score and wouldn’t budge. The chairman, the late great George Fairbrother, a man of infinite patience and great charm, took one sniff of it and said to the dissenter, “Well if you won’t budge, I’m afraid I’ll have to overrule you and give it a Chairman’s gold.”
Magill Estate (Adelaide) Morphett Vale (Adelaide) Kalimna Vineyard (Barossa Valley) McLaren Vale Blend. The most decorated Grange – winner of 12 trophies and 52 Gold medals on the Australian wine show circuit. Spent only 9 months in oak. A favourite of Max Schubert’s, partly because it won a gold medal in the open claret class at the 1962 Sydney Wine Show – some members of the judging panel had previously been vocally critical of the style. Most common but later release (after show success) is Bin 95 (also Bins 13, 14, 53, 54 and 148A).
1956 Lindemans Bin 1270 Porphyry, Hunter Valley
Porphyry is derived from the name of Reverend Carmichael’s 19th century 24 acre vineyard which was already 32 years old when his wine was shown at the Bordeaux International Exhibition of Wines in 1882. The Porphyry style was based on specially selected hand-picked fruit typically raisined and high in sugar. About one or two days of skin contact during early vinification was favoured to build flavour and colour in the wine. Botrytis may have featured occasionally but this was generally avoided because it could it could “go to far in a matter of hours in that climate.” It was considered these wines showed their best after 10 years of bottle age.
It last sold at Langton’s for $265 in 2005.
1957 Hardy’s Reserve Bin C24 Cabernet Sauvignon, Coonawarra-McLaren Vale
Roger Warren (1905-1960) is regarded as one of Australia’s most important winemakers during the 1950s. He is always mentioned along with Maurice O’Shea, Colin Preece and Max Schubert as pivotal figures of the modern Australia wine industry.
In the Australian dictionary of Biography Roger Warren was “Well known for his excellent palate and memory for wines – and his appropriately large nose.” He was best noted for his table wine blends especially Thomas Hardy Cabinet Claret – a multi regional blend based on South Australian and Hunter Valley fruit. He also made St Thomas Burgundy and Old Castle Riesling. All of these wines played a key role in changing consumer patterns and began an exorable rise in the fortunes of Australian table wine.
Roger Warren’s regular travels to the Hunter Valley and Northern Victoria illustrate how important and influential these areas were to the fine wines of Australia. Ray Beckwith who would become Penfolds highly influential chemist worked as Roger Warren’s assistant at Hardy’s Mile End Winery in Adelaide between 1933 and 1934. Notwithstanding Roger Warren’s reputation, it is extremely difficult to pin down a wine that epitomises his skill as a winemaker. Commentators write of him affectionately but in the broadest terms. His all-pervading influence, however, demands inclusion of one of his wines. The 1945 Hardy’s Vintage Port is regarded as an “all time classic” possessing “all the integration and balance for which the wine is legendary.”
However it is probably the small Private Bin wines that truly encapsulate his greatness. This micro-production wines were generally Claret style wines based significantly on Cabernet Sauvignon from a “small central strip of vines running down the hollow which creases lower Tintara.” The vineyard was planted by Dr. Alexander Kelly at his property “Tintinara” – later shortened to Tintara in 1861. These wines were often blended with some other material usually from the Purbrick family at Chateau Tahbilk or Bill Redman in Coonawarra. House style and consistency was a common philosophical thread in winemaking. Even so, Cabernet Sauvignon remained a scarce resource in Australia. No more than around 600 acres was planted at this time in the whole of the country. The 1957 C24 is mentioned in despatches a few times. The style typically showed “superb berry bouquet, rather robust fruity flavour with excellent balance and deep soft red depth of colour.”
A bottle of 1957 C24 was sold at auction at Langton’s in 2006 for $306.
1957 Penfolds St Henri Claret, South Australia
The now defunct Auldana vineyard (adjacent to Magill Estate) was acquired by Penfolds in 1943. The St. Henri label was revived by John Davoren (1915-1991) – a brilliant Penfolds winemaker – in the early 1950s.
Davoren had strong family background in wine; both his father and grandfather worked at Dalwood, a famous Hunter Valley vineyard. The revival and development of St Henri – mirrored the story of Grange – except that Davoren deliberately looked at the heritage of Auldana Cellars and his own family winemaking traditions for inspiration. Both St Henri and Grange were regarded as classic Penfolds red wines within a decade of first release. In 1966 Dan Murphy – a respected Melbourne wine merchant – described them both as “the best firm styles Australia makes”. Indeed both wines were referred to by wine critics as “special bottlings of Claret”.
Initially St. Henri achieved greater commercial success than Grange. It was a more elegant approachable style whereas the revolutionary Grange was something of a blockbuster with a richness and fullness “that few people cared for.” Reports from the critics of the 1960s refer to St. Henri as “one of the only true claret (sic) styles in Australia.” John Davoren’s work with St. Henri is not as well documented as Grange. This is perhaps because the wine was never planned. The first experimental vintage – made from Auldana and Paracombe district fruit – was made in 1953. While the 1957 vintage is officially recognised as the first release, John Davoren was still calling them trials until 1960.
The very first experimental vintages – based on Cabernet Sauvignon and Mataro – were foot-stomped in open-ended hogsheads. A relatively high percentage of stalks was also retained in the vinification. Davoren once explained this practice, “We add stalks deliberately to keep the skins apart for the plunging cap, and to get colour as quickly as possible.” The St. Henri style – to this day – is a highly perfumed elegantly structured wine based on fruit clarity and maturation in older oak.
While the overall philosophy of wine style has not altered, vinification and maturation practices have changed over the years. Fruit selection, tannin management and maturation in large 1460 litre old oak casks have all contributed to an evolution of style. But some practices have remained the same. Winemakers will often use concentrated drainings and tannin-rich pressings as components to the blend. The first vintage of St. Henri was the 1953, although Penfolds cites the 1957 as the first commercial release. This vintage marks a coming of age and the beginning of a hugely important and longstanding engagement with the national and international fine wine scene.
1957 Penfolds Bin 14 Minchinbury Dry Red, Sydney Environs, New South Wales
The rare 1957 Bin 14 Minchinbury Dry Red – made by veteran winemaker Ivan Combet – was a special bin to commemorate the last red wine vintage at the historic Minchinbury Estate. The property – on the soon-to-be-urbanised western plains of Sydney – was originally granted to Captain Minchin (a veteran of Wellington’s Peninsular War) in 1821 by Governor Macquarie. Penfolds purchased the estate in 1912. Leo Buring – one of the great pioneer winemakers of the early 20th century – was instrumental in establishing the reputation of the Minchinbury vineyard.
At one stage Penfolds Minchinbury “Champagne” and Minchinbury “Trameah” were the leading sparkling and white table wines produced in Australia during the 1950s. The Minchinbury brand still exists but it is no longer a Penfolds wine. The vineyard was also planted to Gamay, Shiraz, Pinot Noir and Cabernet. 1957 Minchinbury Bin 14 Dry Red was described by Max Lake in 1966 as “developing now into a superb true claret; complex perfume, austere flavour and austere grip on the finish.” Remarkably this old relic was “still very much alive” in 2007!
1959 Lindemans Bin 1590 Hunter River Burgundy
This was a great low-yielding Hunter Valley vintage. It also coincided with the transition of winemaking responsibilities from Hans Mollenhauer to Karl Stockhausen. The wine was identified early as something special. Matured in cask for around 18 months, it was bottled in October 1960 in a Bordeaux bottle. Some early releases were labelled Bin 1590 Claret, probably to match the bottle with the wine. However subsequent releases were labelled Bin 1590 Burgundy.
Max Lake described the wine as a marvellous soft round red, with a bouquet suggesting strawberries, bottles as claret and smartly relabelled burgundy as it sped its way to show glory.” Indeed its show record was desultory until 1963. The change of label to Burgundy and subsequent entries into Burgundy wine show classes was an act of good fortune. The wine enjoyed a stellar show career and quickly achieved a phenomenal reputation. It has been scarcely available for years; many old bottles have moderate or poor ullage levels. The best are probably still drinking beautifully.
A bottle in mint condition reached $911 in 2003. The last time it sold in 2005 (with the risk of mid-high shoulder) it fetched $519.
1960 Lindemans Bin 1616 Hunter River Riesling, New South Wales
Notwithstanding a disastrous Hunter Valley vintage, 1960 Lindemans Bin 1616 was a multiple gold medal winning wine that enjoyed a longstanding show career. It is regarded as one of Australia’s all-time great white wines. This was winemaker Karl Stockhausen’s first vintage. The crop was so small (because of hail damage and botrytis cinerea infection) that the wine comprised a fruit salad of varieties; principally Semillon, but also Verdelho, Traminer and other odds and sods to stretch the vintage!
Andrew Caillard MW
Classic Wines of Australia – 1961 to 1980 (Part II) will be released in the next edition of the Langton's Magazine.
If you have feedback, please contact Andrew at email@example.com
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2011 A review of Coonawarra
Penfolds 2006 Grange Release
A history and description of famous 20th Century Australian wines -1973 Wolf Blass Bilyara Black
Classification V - Questions & Answers
A history and description of famous 20th Century Australian wines - 1973 Moss Wood Cabernet Sauvigno
Region Focus - Margaret River
A history and description of famous 20th Century Australian wines- Penfolds Grange 1971
Bordeaux 2009 Top Picks from the Great Solar Vintage
Overview of the Langtons Penfold's Sale
Languid Lunches and Goose-Fat
Bordeaux 2009 The Great Solar Vintage
Entering the Realm of First Growths
The Annual Croissant Fight
A history and description of famous 20th Century Australian wines
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A history and description of famous 20th Century Australian wines
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GiantSteps - Winery Spotlight
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Kaesler Old Bastard Shiraz
2009 Penfolds Auction Overview
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Classic Wines of Australia Part One
Forecasting the wine auction market 2009 (through a cumulonimbus).
10 Things About Langton's
Penfolds Wine Making Philosophy
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Master of Wine Charity Auction
Penfolds and the Australian Secondary Wine Market