Here and there – REWARDS OF PATIENCE

Doctor Christopher Rawson Penfold was a medical practitioner near Brighton in England.  He emigrated to Australia to the area around what we now call Adelaide with his wife Mary.  In 1844, just eight years after this convict free colony started, they purchased 500 acres of ‘the choicest land’ for the sum of £1200.  It was from the estate of Sir Maitland Mackgill.  Mary Penfold farmed the land while her husband developed his medical practice.  She looked after the early wine-making on the new estate.  The first wines were made from Grenache and were prescribed as tonic wines for anaemic patients.  In the early years, the Penfolds also grew barley which was made into beer and sold at a place where wagon trains ended with an appropriate name – World’s End Pub.

That is how the wine-making business we know as Penfolds started.  Its slogan was ‘1844 to evermore’ and one of its premium wines was and is Magill Estate.  Penfolds is one of the world’s biggest and best wine-making businesses.  It is at least as good as the French at the bottom end of the market, and it has one label that can match it with the French at the very top.  It is a business that Australians can be proud of and it makes wines that they – including me – can enjoy.  If doctors get dirty about your consumption of Penfolds, remind them of the subject of the first miracle.

A couple of months before the ANZACS landed at Gallipoli, Max Schubert was born to Lutheran parents in a German community at the edge of the Barossa Valley in South Australian.  This was not an easy time for Australians of German descent, and there were lots of such people in the wine-making areas of South Australia.  The Barossa Valley was then the most significant wine-making area in Australia.  Its specialty was and still is the variety known as Shiraz or, sometimes, Hermitage.  Young Max joined Penfolds as a messenger boy.  By 1948, he had become the chief wine-maker, a position he held until 1975.  Max spent his whole working life at Penfolds.  The exception was his war service.  He volunteered against the express wishes of Penfolds to fight the Germans.  He did so in North Africa, Crete, and the Middle East before fighting the Japanese in New Guinea – where he contracted malaria.  That is an extraordinary record of service – to his country as well as to Penfolds.  It is also an extraordinary story of survival.

In 1949, Max was sent to France and Spain to learn more about fortified wines.  They were then the mainstay of production – and the first port of call for serious drunks.  He of course went to Bordeaux.  He visited wine-makers with names to conjure with – Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Chateau Latour and Chateau Margaux.   He there tasted very aged wines.  When he got back, he wanted to try to make a wine that would age as well as these great Bordeaux wines.  He did so, and he succeeded.  When he died in 1994 at the age of 79, The New York Times said that his wine known as the Grange had won more wine show prizes than any other Australian wine and was regarded as the flagship of the Australian wine-making industry.  It is in truth a household name –even if most of us cannot afford the $700 or so one bottle costs on release.  The story of Penfolds, and of the Grange in particular, justifies the wording of the title of this book.

The book includes an address given by Max Schubert where he speaks of the beginning of this great wine.

It was during my initial visit to the major wine-growing areas of Europe in 1950 that the idea of producing an Australian red wine capable of staying alive for a minimum of twenty years and comparable with those produced in Bordeaux first entered my mind.  I was fortunate to be taken under the wing of Monsieur Christian Cruise, one of the most respected and highly qualified of the old school of France at that time and he afforded me, among other things, the rare opportunity of tasting and evaluating wines between 40 and 50 years old, which were still sound and possessed magnificent bouquet and flavour.  They were of tremendous value from an educational point of view and imbued in me a desire to do something to lift the rather mediocre standard of Australian red wine in general at that time.

The method of production seemed fairly straightforward, but with several unorthodox features, and I felt that it would only be a matter of undertaking a complete survey of vineyards to find the correct varietal grape material.  Then, with a modified approach to take account of differing conditions such as climate, soil, raw material and techniques generally, it would not be impossible to produce a wine which could stand on its own feet and would be capable of improvement year by year for a minimum of twenty years.  In other words, something different and lasting.  The grape material used in Bordeaux consisted of our basic varieties…..Only cabernet sauvignon and malbec were available in South Australia at the time, but  surveys showed that they were in such short supply as to make them impracticable commercially….I elected to use hermitage or shiraz only (which was in plentiful supply) knowing full well that if I was careful enough in the choice of area and vineyard and coupled that with the correct production procedure, I would be able to make the type and style of wine I wanted…..It was finally decided that the raw material for the first experimental Grange Hermitage would be a mixture of shiraz grapes from two separate vineyards and areas consisting of Penfolds Grange vineyards at Magill in the foothills overlooking Adelaide and a private vineyard some distance south of Adelaide.

So began an Australian success story.  This book contains a comprehensive overview and tasting notes of nearly every wine that Penfolds ever produced including Grange, St Henri, Bin 389 and the ultimate fall-back of the author, Koonunga Hill, which, at about $10 a bottle is as good a value for wine as you can find anywhere in the world.

Andrew Caillard is a Master of Wine.  This book is effectively put out by Penfolds once every five years and contains on Penfolds styles by leading experts from around the world.

Someone once said that Max Schubert smoked Gauloise cigarettes.  If he did, that would have supplied a real motive for making one very big wine because they could kill a brown dog at thirty yards.  But whether Max smoked those cigarettes or not, he made an enduring contribution to the Australian story.  He helped us to shed that ghastly thing called the cringe.  On a good day, we can play cricket and footy well.  But we can also make a bloody good wine – and without any evident help from on high.

10 thoughts on “

  1. “If doctors get dirty about your consumption of Penfolds, remind them of the subject of the first miracle.”

    • It has been a lifelong struggle. When I do bloods for the Alfred for immnunotherapy, they do one for the liver. That provokes the occasional query. That in turn leads to what might be called a demarcation dispute.

  2. Have followed your essays forever. You are a true Renaissance man who also follows Rugby League (from a person born in Catholic/ALP/Rabbitoh territory.
    My wife of 50+ yrs has decreed 3 alcohol nights/week.
    Tonight I will slip downstairs, open a Penfolds and toast your health.

  3. Interesting read Geoff.
    To think that for a long time Koonunga Hill was penfolds’ fighter.
    Says a lot about the quality of the rest of their stable.

    • Halliday used to say Koonunga Hill was the best value – hard to disagree with. That is one area where we can compete with the French – good reliable red at a good price.
      Stay safe and well, Peter. These are trying times.

  4. Dare I ask, shiraz cabernet?
    To me that is the best of the Koonunga range.
    Thanks Geoff, you look after yourself.
    You are in the at risk category that I’m apparently about to enter.
    Best to you.

    • When I was first diagnosed with cancer, a mate said I was in the best city in the world for that. He was dead right. Trust your doctor, and ignore neighbours or mates and steer clear of the internet.

  5. Thanks Geoff, A timely story of patience and focus about an innovation that, handled with care, can be one of life’s greatest pleasures.

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