Penfolds' wines have played a pivotal role in the history of Australian wine and the evolution of modern winemaking. In this blog we look at the history of Penfolds and how this famous Australian winery has helped the evolution of winemaking across the world.
Penfolds: the beginning of an Australian wine legend
The Penfolds story begins in 1844 when Dr Christopher Rawson Penfold, a medical practitioner from Brighton, England, and his wife Mary arrived in South Australia and purchased land in the suburb of Magill in Adelaide. The land, now famous as the home of Penfolds Magill Estate vineyard, winery, cellar door and restaurant, was farmed by Mary as Dr Christopher was busy building his medical practice. Records and accounts show that Mary Penfold was responsible for the early winemaking and also managed the estate. The Penfolds name first gained fame as a provider of iron-rich tonic wines, produced for Adelaide’s fledgling society. However, Penfolds' reputation for quality grew and soon there was demand for Penfolds' wine in Victoria and New South Wales. It took just over fifty years for Penfolds wines to grow from humble beginnings to becoming Australia’s largest producer of fortified wines by the time of Australia’s Federation in 1901.
This remarkable success as a fortified wine producer enabled Penfolds to expand throughout the early 1900s. Descendants of the Penfolds purchased key vineyards in South Australia and New South Wales. One of these purchases was the legendary Kalimna vineyard in the Barossa Valley, the grapes from which have contributed to many classic vintages of Penfolds' renowned wines. These include vintages of Grange, Bin 707, RWT Barossa Shiraz, St Henri Shiraz, Block 42 Cabernet Sauvignon and the legendary Bin 60A Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz; only ever made in 1962 and 2004. The 1962 wine is thought by some to be Australia's greatest ever wine.
Max Schubert and the story of Grange Hermitage
Penfolds Grange is arguably Australia’s most famous wine and the story of its creation by legendary winemaker Max Schubert with the help of brilliant research chemist Ray Beckwith is a modern tale of imagination, a battle against the odds and redemption. In 1950, Max Schubert, visited the major wine-growing regions of Europe. During this visit Max was inspired and came up with 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...' But, as the varieties that make up the red wines of Bordeaux (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Malbec) were all in very short supply in Australia he decided that the wine would be made from the more readily available Shiraz. With the grape variety determined, Max created the first experimental Grange vintage in 1951.
The research and development undertaken by Ray Beckwith was instrumental in providing Max with the tools he needed to make the wine he desired. Ray pioneered the use of pH meters in determining the balance of sugar and acidity content of the wines, which was vital for Max in being able to determine the correct picking dates for the grapes and in monitoring the wines during fermentation. The use of pH meters is now standard practise in modern winemaking, and has led to an enormous reduction in the amount of wine affected by bacterial spoilage around the world. Other pioneering winemaking techniques used by Max in the production of Grange included temperature control of the fermentation process, the use of acclimatised pure yeast cultures and finalising the fermentation of the wine in new American oak casks. Max continued to make the experimental Grange vintages from 1951 to 1956. In 1956 he was summoned to Penfolds' head offices in Sydney to showcase these wines for his superiors and some well-known Sydney wine critics. The results of the tasting were absolutely disastrous: not one person liked the wines. As a result, Max received written orders before the 1957 vintage to cease production of Grange. But Max chose to disregard these orders and with the support of Jeffrey Penfold-Hyland, descendent of Dr Christopher and Mary, made reduced quantities of the wine in secret until 1959. By this time, earlier vintages of the wine had matured. People changed their minds, their original misconceptions on the wine fell away as they tasted the wines as they matured in the way Max had intended all along. Max was instructed to recommence 'official' production of Grange in 1960 and the wine has only increased its reputation and global standing every year since then.
The legacy of Grange for Australian wine
Max Schubert reminisced about the influence of Grange in a presentation to the first Australian National University Wine Symposium in Canberra in 1979, he said, 'I would like to express the hope that the production and acceptance of Grange... as a great Australian wine have proved that we in Australia are capable of producing wines equal to the best in the world. But we must not be afraid to put into effect the strength of our own convictions, continue to use our imagination in winemaking generally, and be prepared to experiment in order to gain something extra, different and unique in the world of wine.' It's a sentiment that all of us at Wine Australia echo to this day.
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