70 years of Penfolds Grange – An Australian Icon

Max Schubert looking at a bottle of Grange

© photo provided

Max Schubert looking at a bottle of Grange

Max Schubert looking at a bottle of Grange

© photo provided

A voice from the past

The voice of Penfold’s late and legendary winemaker Max Schubert, remembering how he started at the Australian wine estate “as a fetch and carry boy” in 1931 when he was just 16 years old, set the scene. By 1948 he had become chief winemaker. A recording of his voice was played to set the scene for the anniversary tastings – held in the wine cellars of Waddesdon Manor, England.

English immigrants

The Penfolds estate was founded by Dr Chris and his wife Mary Penfolds in 1844. They moved to from England to Australia, settling in Adelaide, to start a clinic and soon they started producing tonic wines. This business grew to become an award-winning winery. Like most Australian wineries at the time, they specialised in fortified wines. 

European inspiration

When the Second World War broke out, the young Schubert volunteered to join the army and was posted to Egypt and Europe. This is where he first came across dry table wines, not something he had tasted before. Advanced to chief winemaker at home, Schubert travelled to Jerez and Porto – Europe’s epicentres of fortified wine production – in late 1950. But it was a fortnight at the end of his stay that he spent with the famous négociant Cruse in Bordeaux that had the decisive impact. Schubert tasted mature wines with 50 to 60 years of bottle age. “I never had seen wines like that before,” he remembered.

Australian trailblazer

This spurred him to make wines just like that back home in Australia. He lost no time – he made the first Penfolds Grange wine in 1951 – 70 years ago. His wines, however, in a then completely new style for Australia, did not convince the local critics. But Schubert was not deterred, he made a small amount of Grange every year.

Secret production

In 1957 Schubert received a letter from his management asking him to stop – they could not sell the wines. But rather than stop, Schubert moonlighted and produced the 1957, 1958 and 1959 vintages of Grange in secret. A good thing he did: in 1960 his 1955 vintage of Grange won a gold medal, and the rest is history. Ageability, said Schubert, “I am sure is only achieved by balance. We must have balance, I think my wines will do the talking for me.”

The wine was then, and is now, a cross-regional blend based mainly on Shiraz.

Wines from five decades

To celebrate this anniversary, Penfolds put on a splendid dinner and tasting, with Grange vintages from five decades: 1979, 1983, 1997, 2008 and 2017.

1979 was the most savoury of all, showing fine freshness despite its maturity and its wealth of tertiary flavours, 1983 was still grippy and sumptuous, 1997 showed exquisite sleekness while 2008 beguiled with its utter elegance. 2017 tasted just like the baby it is – like all the Grange wines, it has a brilliant future. As Schubert said, the wines did all the talking for him.