To celebrate its 70th anniversary, Penfolds held a special dinner for the Grange with vintages dating back to 1979. Our man at the tasting, David Kermode, reports back on the event and talks to head winemaker Peter Gago about what makes the wine so special. Kermode also hears a rare recording of Grange creator Max Schubert talking about Grange and about how this most iconic of Australian wines could have been a stillborn project from the outset.
“It all stems from balance and if it isn’t balanced from the start, it doesn’t go in the bottle,” Max Schubert says about creating the Grange.
From its birthplace, in the tunnels beneath the Magill winery in Adelaide, to the Place de Bordeaux where it is now traded alongside the world’s most coveted cuvées, Australia’s most celebrated wine has come a long way. Initially scorned by those who sampled it and officially discontinued by Penfolds as a result, it ended up being made in absolute secrecy by its determined creator, Max Schubert.
The Grange, usually a blend dominated by Shiraz, turned 70 last year and it is extraordinary to think that, had the controlling Penfolds family had their way, this £500-a-bottle-blockbuster would scarcely warrant a footnote in the company’s long history, dating back to 1844.
Schubert, who died in 1994, joined the winery as a messenger boy in 1931, went on to become chief winemaker in 1948, at the age of 33, and ultimately won his country’s top honour, ‘the Member of the Order of Australia’ in 1984, as well as Decanter’s ‘Man of the year’ in 1988. Yet he risked being fired, 30 years earlier, with his determination to give the world the Grange.
Schubert’s current successor as Penfolds’ chief winemaker, Peter Gago – only the fourth person to hold the title – takes up the story, in an interview for The Drinking Hour podcast:
“Penfolds was then family-owned and Max had a study trip to Jerez, because in those days we made a lot of fortified wines, and he came back via Bordeaux … He started The Grange production in 1951 at the Magill winery, using open fermenters, basket pressing and (he) introduced the process of the completion of a red wine ferment off skins in barrel, which no-one had ever done in Australia before… So he introduced all these new techniques to create a new style of wine, which was very much a trial. It was so different to the wines of the time and I think Max probably showed it to people a bit too early.”
With the controlling family underwhelmed by the response, he was ordered to call off the project and the Grange was officially consigned to history, however Schubert had other ideas, sectioning off a subterranean section of the winery to continue his work in secret.
“So the vintages of 1957, 58 and 59 were literally made underground in tunnels, he hid barrels, he hid bottles, across three years, with the threat of instant dismissal hanging over him,” says Gago. “At the 1962 Sydney Wine Show, the 1955 vintage blitzed the field, it won everything it could win, and the family said ‘what have we done, we discontinued it’ and he said ‘well, look at what I can show you’ and the rest is history.”
Schubert had retired by the time Gago started at Penfolds in the late 1980s, though the two men did meet on a number of occasions, yet his legacy is still very much alive in processes that continue to this day and wines that have changed little.
“Max’s work, and that of his companion Dr Ray Beckwith, the legendary wine chemist, really did pave incredible new territory for Penfolds,” Gago says. “They were doing things, back in the secret squirrel days when you didn’t really tell anyone what you were doing, that hadn’t yet been trialled in Italy, France Spain or anywhere else, and yet they were happening here at Magill Estate. He created a whole set of what were then modern styles, a lot of which are still made today.”
A special 70th anniversary tasting
To celebrate a 70th birthday that might never have been, Penfolds invited a number of leading journalists and commentators to a lavish celebratory dinner in the legendary Rothschild cellars at Waddeston Manor in Buckinghamshire, which was specially floodlit in red to mark the occasion.
After a sophisticated presentation, using images in light boxes to tell the Penfolds story, there was a rare audio recording of an interview with Schubert, followed by a six course tasting menu paired with five back vintages of the Grange – 1979, 1983, 1997, 2008 and the latest release, 2017 – all accompanied by a two-man band performing medleys of music to mark the relevant years.
Of the wines, the most beguiling, in terms of its nose, was the eldest, from 1979, with its delicate floral aromas and elegant, leathery, tertiary character. On the palate, it fades a little towards the finish, but leaves a lingering red fruit and tobacco leaf legacy. The ’83 is powerful, concentrated and still surprisingly youthful, while the ’97 is more relaxed, charming and most certainly ready to drink.
The 2008, a Wine Advocate 1oo-point wine with years ahead of it, is powerful and decadent, with layers of rich berry fruit intertwined with fruit cake spice and finely-woven tannic structure, while the newest release, the Grange 2017, 100% Shiraz, no Cabernet Sauvignon, for only the seventh time in its history, is an exquisitely balanced feast of brooding fruit and silky cedar spice, with real complexity and depth.
Though it was obviously an enormous privilege to taste so many vintages of this most iconic of wines, for me one of the most memorable moments of the night was hearing Schubert talking about the creation of the Grange: “At first they were very rude about it, but after a few years, when the wine had come to some maturity, they came to realise the error of their ways,” we heard him say on the crackly recording as he outlined what might have been his philosophy: “it all stems from balance and if it isn’t balanced from the start, it doesn’t go in the bottle”.
And, most prophetically: “I think some of my wines will outlive me and I look forward to that.”
You can hear more from Peter Gago in a special full-length interview on the Drinking Hour with David Kermode on Food FM, produced in partnership with the IWSC and The Buyer, from 5pm on Friday 14th January.