The birth of Penfolds Grange & Australia’s Shiraz obsession.

70 Years of Australian Wine with Vintage Cellars, Part 1: the 1950s

Right in the middle of the 20th century, the Australian wine industry is at the tipping point, about to change forever and become one of the world’s most dynamic vinous forces. In a nation so besotted with fortified wines, table wines were a mere footnote. But wheels were turning in the 50s – including a winemaker making a wine in secret, hidden from his employers, that would become the nation’s most iconic – that would dramatically flip the script, shaping the wine culture that we so celebrate now. Not only were the wines changing, but so was the culture around them, and the way they were being marketed and sold.

In this first instalment of a seven-part series produced in collaboration with Vintage Cellars – 70 years of supporting wine in Australia – we look at Australian wine in the 1950s, and the game changing path that Penfolds Grange and a renegade winemaker by the name of Max Schubert set course for Australia’s love affair with shiraz.

In 1951, two pioneering wine enthusiasts, Jack Edwards and Sir Edward Hayward, opened the first Vintage Cellars store in Gawler Place, Adelaide. That timing, and the genesis of their endeavour says a lot about what was to follow. The pair met during WWII and forged what looks an unlikely friendship, at least on paper, between an upper-class officer and a working class private. What they had in common, though, was a love of wine fostered in Europe, and the vision that wine as a staple at the dinner table would soon be embraced by Australians, too.

Indeed, the war played a big part in this being realised, with an ensuing wave of European migration to Australia forever reshaping the Australian attitudes to food and wine, and manifestly for the better. While it took until the 1960s for the full momentum to be felt, it was in the 50s that the foundation was being laid.

Portrait of Sir Edward Hayward founder of Vintage Cellars | 2021
vc0918 WINECLUB NP1116083 hi resrgb copy | 2021
Opposite: Sir Edward Hayward. Above: Gawler Place, Adelaide, the home of the first Vintage Cellars store, opened in 1951.

At the time, most Australian wine was sold off in bulk, packaged and even blended by merchants and sold with their stamp, rather than that of the maker or region. Edwards and Hayward had faith that there would be a shift to wines that were estate made and bottled, with grape variety and region to the fore. While the duo was helping to shift the public perception of table wine in their first store, another returned serviceman was prototyping a wine that arguably had the biggest influence on Australian wine in the 20th century.

A young master

A 15-year-old Max Schubert had started at Penfolds on the bottom rung of the ladder in 1931, tending to odd jobs in their Nuriootpa winery, though he rose to be an apprentice to the Magill head winemaker Alfred Vesey. In 1940, Schubert enlisted in the AIF, defying a management directive for all workers to remain on the job. Schubert served in several theatres of the war, from the Middle East to New Guinea, where he was finally discharged in 1945, attaining the rank of sergeant.

A disgruntled Penfolds management took Schubert back on at Magill, though his tasks were closer to his odd-job beginnings than where he left off when he enlisted. Schubert’s winemaking skills and intuitive approach soon erased the management grudge, and he became head winemaker in 1948. In 1950, Gladys Penfold Hyland, the Penfolds chair at the time, sent Schubert to Europe to study wine styles and making.

Penfolds winery Magill Estate Entrance historic photo | 2021

“The original study tour was to Spain and Portugal, to see if any improvements could be made on Penfolds fortified winemaking,” says Penfolds’ current chief winemaker, Peter Gago, noting just how important these styles were not to just Penfolds, but to the entire industry at the time.

In 1950, Australian fortified wine consumption was at its peak, with over 80 per cent of the industry devoted to styles that emulated the great wines of Portugal and Spain as well as Victoria’s unique styles from Rutherglen, Liqueur Muscat (often now labelled Muscat) and Liqueur Tokay (now called Topaque for legal reasons). Today, the public take up of fortified wines has shrunk the industry to now occupy less than two per cent of Australian wine production.

Genesis

It was a detour on Schubert’s study tour that led to a revelation which informed the way he would make wine for the rest of his career, and indeed change the course of the whole Australian wine scene. That detour was a side trip to Bordeaux, an incidental excursion where he was exposed to First Growth Chateaux and their wines, as well as becoming versed on the winemaking techniques where small barrels and long maturation in cask and bottle were key.

“Max Schubert began making Penfolds Grange as an experimental red wine in 1951,” says Gago. “Inspired by that seminal visit to Bordeaux in 1950, Grange was blue-printed to be a red wine of stature, a wine capable of ‘living for 20 years’ that would improve in bottle like no other contemporary Australian wine.”

The Penfolds winemaking team in 1950 | 2021

Max Schubert began making Penfolds Grange as an experimental red wine in 1951. Towards the end of 1956, Schubert received a letter from the Penfolds board instructing him to discontinue making the wine. He duly pocketed that letter, not revealing its contents to his winery team.

The wine may have been inspired by the wines of Bordeaux, but Schubert built the wine from shiraz (a small percentage of cabernet sauvignon also typically makes the final blend), paying homage with his name of the day, Grange Hermitage – Grange being the name of the original cottage at Magill, and Hermitage the premier shiraz/syrah appellation of France, in the Northern Rhône. Significantly, that wine was made from old dry-grown, bush-vine material, firstly from their Morphett Vale and Magill properties, then later across an array of sites, as it is today. (It would take decades for old vines to be widely revered, even enduring an extinction threatening event in the ‘vine pull’ scheme of the 1980s.)

From flop to icon

“Max continued to make Grange from 1952–56 in very small quantities and during the 1956 vintage, when no Grange from previous vintages had yet been sold, it was decided that this new wine style had to be showcased and evaluated,” says Gago. “A tasting was organised in Sydney with members of the trade, but this Sydney preview was not received well by those in attendance. I suspect he simply showed these youthful, full-bodied red wines too early – too young and raw, without adequate bottle maturation.”

Peter Gago Penfolds chief winemaker | 2021
Penfolds Grange wine label Close up | 2021
Peter Gago, the Chief Winemaker at Penfolds and the current custodian of the Grange legacy.

“Max continued to make Grange from 1952–56 in very small quantities and during the 1956 vintage, when no Grange from previous vintages had yet been sold, it was decided that this new wine style had to be showcased and evaluated,” says Gago. “A tasting was organised in Sydney with members of the trade, but this Sydney preview was not received well by those in attendance. I suspect he simply showed these youthful, full-bodied red wines too early – too young and raw, without adequate bottle maturation.”

Towards the end of 1956, Schubert received a letter from the Penfolds board instructing him to discontinue making the wine. He duly pocketed that letter, not revealing its contents to his winery team. “He eventually confided in his friend Jeffrey Penfold-Hyland, who was assistant state manager in South Australia at that time,” says Gago. “Jeffrey allowed Max to continue to make Grange in secret at Magill for three vintages, 1957, ’58 and ’59.”

Grange was officially recommissioned in 1960 after those early wines started to lose their youthful awkwardness and the trade started to get on board, but it was a couple of years later that the wine really found traction. “After the success of the 1955 Grange at the 1962 Sydney Wine Show, the rest is history,” says Gago. “Compellingly, the ’52, ’53 and ’55 Granges remain three of the best yet released!”

Technical revolution

It’s no secret that Grange went on to become Australia’s most recognisable and lauded wine, and also one of its most expensive, but it also acted as somewhat of a bellwether for a revolution at Penfolds and beyond. Schubert had employed small barrels and new American oak, imparting distinctive character to the wine, but he was also a champion of technology, controlling the temperature of the ferments – a practice also used increasingly in tanks to pioneer Australian riesling and sparkling styles – to retain primacy of fruit flavours, while he also worked to protect his wines from spoilage yeasts and bacteria.

Penfolds Grange evolution of the wine labels across 7 decades | 2021

“The 1950s and ’60s embraced major advances, from yeast technology to fermentation practices, particularly barrel fermentation and oak maturation,” says Gago. “Penfolds invested heavily in new equipment, including refrigeration and high-grade stainless-steel vats. Ray Beckwith, Penfolds’ wine chemist, modified cutting-edge scientific and engineering advances to enable winemakers to innovate with confidence. Ray observed that pH (a measure of acidity) might be a useful tool to assist in the control of bacterial growth in wine – stabilising and protecting wine by implementing the use of pH meters and new standards and practices.”

The gamble on Grange had paid off, and Schubert was given license to overhaul Penfolds across the board. “Such ground-breaking work and other technical innovations underpinned the creative development of Grange and the growing range of Penfolds table wines of the time,” says Gago. This technical revolution that occurred across the industry was significant, with Australian wine becoming known for brightness and fruit purity, not just because of the abundant sunshine, as was so frequently cited, but also due to the increase in technically sound wines.

Max Schubert portrait with Grange bottle historic photo | 2021
Above: Max Schubert. Opposite: Peter Gago.
Peter Gago Penfolds winemaker portrait | 2021

“Grange arguably paved the way off-shore for Australian fine wine,” says Gago, “and many decades back it captured the imagination of wine lovers, trade and media across the globe.” Grange also helped pave the way for a national love affair with shiraz. While Schubert’s wine maintained a steady reputation and robust demand from the 60s to this day, shiraz in general had a rockier ride.

Shiraz: a national obsession

Even in the Barossa, the value of shiraz fruit went into what looked like a terminal decline. The national obsession first with riesling in the ’70s, then chardonnay in the ’80s, saw those grapes often valued more than old-vine shiraz (and often twice as much), even if they were generally completely unsuitable to both site and climate. But that benchmark of Grange proved that varietal Australian shiraz could command the attention and attract the prices that were normally reserved for great wine from the Old World. As Hugh Johnson called it: “quite extraordinary … Australia’s most luxurious wine” as well as “the one, true first growth in the southern hemisphere”.

While Grange may have set the standard and sketched out the possibilities, the international juggernaut that Australian shiraz has become was built on the backs of many makers, some reading from the Schubert playbook, and others very much going their own way. Makers in Victoria like Best’s established strong followings for wines made from old and ancient vines (the oldest being from 1868), as well as making fragrant, midweight younger-vine expressions, carving out an identity that was distinctly Great Western and writing another chapter in the Australian shiraz story.

bests vineyard aerial photo | 2021
Above: Best’s vineyard and winery in Great Western, Victoria, was named “Old Vineyard of the Year” in the 2020 Vineyard of the Year Awards. Opposite: shiraz vines planted in the 1960s at Oliver’s Taranga vineyard in McLaren Vale. Half of this block goes to Penfolds (“Grange Growers Club”) and the rest goes into the Oliver’s Taranga HJ Reserve Shiraz.
Old shiraz Vine at Olivers Taranga vineyard McLaren Vale | 2021

During the 1990s Australian wine was back on its feet, and shiraz was the king of the red grapes, led by the international sensation that Grange had become. Shiraz was now emerging from most Australian regions, with places like the Canberra District, Great Southern, Pyrenees, Heathcote and Geelong all making their mark, and in their own distinctive ways, while places like the Hunter Valley – seen by many as the birthplace of Australian wine – had moved away from hiding their shiraz bottlings under French names (such as ‘Hunter River Burgundy’). Varietal shiraz was an Australian phenomenon, recognised all over the world.

A growing concern

Another meaningful impact that can be traced back to the success of Grange is the emphasis placed on fruit quality and the role of the grower. While Penfolds has significant vineyard resources, its success has been just as much due to working with grape-growers across South Australia, many who farm significantly old vines. “The ambition for growers to ‘make Grange’ certainly has a top-down flow-on effect to all our premium wines,” says Gago. “Relegation or cascading of aspiring parcels that almost attain lofty quality and style goals benefits those wines below.”

Key to this quality drive was instituting prices based on the land under vine, not the yield. To make the grade for Grange, a focus on low yields and quality over quantity is essential. While some of those growers have remained in the background, many others have also transitioned to become makers themselves. Notable amongst them are the Oliver family of Oliver’s Taranga in McLaren Vale and the Barossa’s Kalleske family – sixth- and seventh-generation growers respectively – who remain some of the most important contributors to Grange, while now also making highly respected wine under their own labels.

Corrina Wright at Olivers taranga vineyard | 2021
Shiraz harvest at Olivers Taranga | 2021
Opposite: Corrina Wright is a sixth generation winegrower – her family has been growing grapes for 171 years. Above: Shiraz harvest at Oliver’s Taranga.

There is no doubting that the rise of the modern Australian wine industry and the iconic position that old-vine shiraz has in our drinking psyche can be linked back to an experimental wine made by Max Schubert back in 1951. And while countless makers have grown the story, inking their own history, there is undoubtedly a debt to Schubert, and it’s a responsibility that Gago feels as strongly now as ever.

“Thankfully, other Australian producers followed, and we now have a wave propelling Australian offerings that beckon interest and support,” says Gago. “Top Australian wines now have a proven track-record for quality, character, difference and credibility. Nothing engenders greater pride than pouring Grange vintages from this new century alongside the classics of the last: shared DNA – same template, different times. After 70 years a pursuit continues to strive to create palate tightness, definition, poise and balance. Tempering technology, resisting fads, respecting learnings hard-earned, … and yet trialling, pushing, innovating, questioning.”

The wines

2017 Penfolds Grange | 2021

2017 Penfolds Grange Bin 95, South Australia $950 RRP

This vintage of Grange lives up to its iconic status, as it is dense in dark ripe fruits like blackberries and plums along with chocolate and liquorice. The intensity of the fruit swallows the oak but rest assured it is there, harmonious and opulent. All the flavours are tightly wound right now and every sip reveals an extra layer. There is coffee, nutmeg and molasses in this heady mix, and dark sour fruits. The finish is firm on the strong bones of this wine. It says with a wink, see you in 15 years.

Available from Vintage Cellars.

2017 Bests Bin 0 Shiraz | 2021
2019 Olivers Taranga shiraz | 2021

2017 Best’s Great Western ‘Bin No 0’, Great Western $95 RRP

There’s an earthy savouriness here that’s at play with lifted dark cherry and plum aromatics, as well as chocolate, liquorice and cinnamon. These themes continue across the palate with a sense of vanilla oak and a textural grip. The finish goes on and on, in an absolutely moreish and intriguing wine, where the savoury and fruit characters continue.

Available from Vintage Cellars.

2019 Oliver’s Taranga Shiraz, McLaren Vale $34 RRP

This is quite complex on the nose with lifted aromatics of raspberries, plums, star anise, chocolate and even marzipan. The palate is a melange of spicy fruit that is rich and firm but in a svelter mould to that which you might expect from McLaren Vale shiraz. The tannins are slippery and the body is the lighter side of medium. Blueberry and glace cherry notes add to the complexity with a bitter chocolate or black tea finish. Normally a wine with this pedigree requires many years in the cellar before it approaches optimum drinkability but this one is so soft and fruitful that you can enjoy it right now.

Available from Vintage Cellars.

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