The story of Penfolds Grange
Friday, November 28, 2014 in News
The story of Penfolds Grange is an intriguing tale of one man's vision against almost insurmountable odds. Max Schubert was a winemaker who spent his war years fighting with Australian forces in North Africa. When he returned to Adelaide, South Australia's garden capital, he rejoined the family company Penfolds, a business managed like an army battalion. During the late 1940s, every man knew his position. Decisions were made from top management and every worker, including senior winemakers, was expected to follow company protocols. Key personnel were instructed to maintain secrecy about Penfolds pioneering winemaking practices and scientific discoveries. After the war, there was a belief that the world would open up for fine wine as European settlers and returned soldiers brought back to Australia an acquired taste for dry red table wine. Penfolds had newly invested in vineyards and developed new technology in the full knowledge that the market was rapidly changing!
In early 1950 Max Schubert, Penfolds chief winemaker, was sent to France and Spain to investigate sherry making practices and the production of port. Fortified wines still dominated the fine wine scene in Australia. On a side trip to Bordeaux, however, he visited many great vineyard estates including the first growths Chateau Lafite Rothschild and Chateau Latour. He was also given the "rare opportunity of tasting and evaluating Bordeaux wines between 40 and 50 years old." Inspired and impressed by these cellaring style wines he dreamed of making "something different and lasting" of his own. On his long five-day return flight to Adelaide, via the middle east, India, Singapore and Indonesia, he made plans to make a great Australian red wine that would cellar for at least twenty years.
On his return to Adelaide, Max Schubert set about looking for appropriate "raw material." He sourced shiraz grapes from the Grange Vineyard at Magill and from a private vineyard just south of Adelaide at Morphett Vale. Combining traditional Australian techniques, new ideas from Bordeaux and precision winemaking practices developed at Penfolds, Max Schubert made his first experimental wine in 1951. Although it was never released commercially, he called it Grange Hermitage after the house and vineyard established by Dr Christopher and Mary Penfold in 1844.
Over the next five years, Max Schubert quietly and studiously developed the Grange style. Using ground breaking technology developed by Penfolds scientist Dr Ray Beckwith, in which wine could be accurately controlled and stabilised, he established a unique wine based on warm climate shiraz fruit, barrel fermented at the end of vinification and matured in American oak hogsheads. In 1957 , Max Schubert was asked to show his efforts in Sydney to top management, invited wine identities, and personal friends of the board. To his horror and embarrassment the Grange experiment was universally disliked. Even further tastings in Adelaide, resulted in negative opinion. One critic observed “Schubert, I congratulate you. A very good, dry port, which no one in their right mind will buy – let alone drink.”
Gladys Penfold-Hyland, the autocratic chairman of the Board , finally ordered Schubert to stop making Grange. "Stocky in build, but generally dressed in beautifully tailored suits", she ruled the family business with an iron rod. Defiance of such an order meant certain dismissal and severe loss of face.
Embarrassed, angry and dejected, Max Schubert's ambitions to make "a great wine that Australians would be proud of" were completely destroyed. Experimental Grange vintages, already bottled and binned, would soon be sold off to clubs as house wine. The remaining stock would be blended away into oblivion. Grange was dead.
It was the happenstance of distance between senior management in Sydney and winemakers in Adelaide, 1400 kilometres apart, that saved Grange from imminent doom. With the help of Magill's assistant general manager Jeffrey Penfold Hyland, a visionary black sheep of the family, and Schubert's team of winemakers, all the experimental Grange was stashed way out of sight in the underground cellars of Magill. The tradition of secrecy expected of every Penfolds employee was taken to a new level. From 1957 to 1959, the "hidden Granges" were made without the knowledge of the Penfolds board. Max Schubert continued to source fruit and make his experiments in relative secrecy. Without finance, he matured the red wines in previously used oak.
Although management was kept away, friends and associates were occasionally brought in to taste the wines. Some bottles were even given away. Although considered uncommercial in 1957, news was filtering out about Schubert's unique Grange Hermitage. The Penfolds Board generously ordered production of Grange to restart, just in time for the 1960 vintage. In 1962 the 1955 Penfolds Grange won the first of 50 gold medals and many trophies. The Grange Legend was born. It is Australia's most famous and respected wine with a reputation for superb fruit complexity and flavour richness. It has proven to be a wine that can last more than fifty years, further enhancing this timeless story of personal triumph and extraordinary vision.
Andrew Caillard MW