Penfolds Grange is an Australian icon - a heritage-listed wine protected by the National Trust of South Australia - which captures both a sense of place and the essence of Australian agricultural ingenuity and innovation.
The story of Grange is one of personal triumph and extraordinary vision, steeped in the Australian ethos. Yet it also bears a history, prestige and lasting quality that interconnect with the great wines of Bordeaux.
From its first experimental vintage in 1951 to its current release, Grange is unquestionably one of the world's most prestigious, critically acclaimed and iconic wines. The winemaking philosophy behind this enigmatic wine has hardly changed since its inception, however a lineage of four visionary Chief Winemakers have been its proud custodians over time and have steadily refined and improved upon the winemaking process. Primarily Shiraz driven often with a small percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon, Grange is a beautifully seductive, defining modern wine, lauded by collectors and observers as a true wine of distinction.
"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."
Max Schubert, former Chief Winemaker and creator of Grange.
THE BEGINNING OF AN ICON
The story of Grange is an intriguing tale of one man's vision against almost insurmountable odds. In the latter part of 1949 Max Schubert was sent to France and Spain to investigate sherry-making practices and the production of port. On a side trip to Bordeaux Schubert visited many of the great vineyard estates of the Medoc, including first growths Château Lafite Rothschild, Château Latour and Château Margaux, where he enjoyed the 'rare opportunity of tasting and evaluating Bordeaux wines aged between 40 and 50 years old'. It was an opportunity that would change the course of Australian wine. Inspired and impressed by the French cellared- style wines, Schubert dreamed of making 'something different and lasting' of his own.
Back in Adelaide, in time for the 1950 vintage, Max Schubert set about looking for appropriate 'raw material'. Combining traditional Australian techniques, new ideas from Bordeaux and precision winemaking practices developed at Penfolds, Schubert made his first experimental wine in 1951.
The objective was to produce a big, full-bodied wine containing maximum extraction of all the components in the grape material used. Although the 1951 vintage (which was never commercially released) was moderately successful, it did not fully reflect the ambitions of Schubert.
The commercial release of 1952 Grange Hermitage (as it was then known) was an historic moment for Australian wine. It marked the beginning of a 'dynasty of wines' that would capture the imagination of the Australian wine consumer.
In 1957, Max Schubert was asked to show his efforts in Sydney to top management, invited wine identities and personal friends of the board. To his horror and humiliation the Grange experiment was universally disliked. Even further tastings in Adelaide resulted in negative opinion. One critic observed, 'Schubert, I congratulate you. A very good, dry port, which no one in their right mind will buy – let alone drink.' Embarrassed, angry and dejected, Max Schubert's ambitions to make 'a great wine that Australians would be proud of' were completely destroyed. Grange was dead.
It was the happenstance of distance between senior management in Sydney and winemakers in Adelaide, 1,400 kilometres apart, which saved Grange. With the help of Magill's assistant general manager Jeffrey Penfold Hyland and Schubert's team of winemakers, all the experimental Grange was hidden in the underground cellars of Magill and from 1957 to 1959, the 'hidden Granges' were made without the knowledge of the Penfolds board. Max Schubert continued to source fruit and make his experiments in secret.
Although management was kept away, friends and associates were occasionally brought in to taste the wines. Some bottles were even given away. Although considered uncommercial in 1957, news was filtering out about Schubert's unique Grange Hermitage.
A second tasting with the same board members was organised of the 1951 and 1955 vintages, both with bottle age development, were greeted with enthusiasm (the 1955 went on to have a very successful wine show career). The Penfolds board ordered production of Grange to restart, just in time for the 1960 vintage. During the 1960s Grange firmed its position as Australia's most distinguished wine. The rest is history.
THE VISIONARY CHIEF WINEMAKERS
Key to the success of Grange has been a lineage of visionary winemakers. Penfolds 'mastercraft' winemaking and superb range of wines have been steadily refined and improved upon with each of Max Schubert's successors. Don Ditter, John Duval and current Chief Winemaker Peter Gago have been the custodians of a rich winemaking tradition that goes back for 170 years.
Don Ditter, who joined Penfolds as a laboratory assistant in 1942, was appointed Max Schubert's successor when Schubert retired in 1975. Ditter's contribution to the Grange style is immeasurable. His technical eye for detail and gentle collaborative approach to management took Grange into the modern era. This included a major overhaul of vineyard management and tracking of fruit. Under Ditter's leadership, the Grange style was improved with fresher aromas, more richness and ripeness of fruit and better oak selection.
The 1986 vintage – Ditter's last – is generally regarded as one of the greatest Grange vintages of all time. Veteran Penfolds winemaker John Bird said, "Don Ditter will be best remembered for adding extra polish and finesse to Grange."
The winemaking talents of John Duval were recognised early by Don Ditter and Max Schubert. He was appointed Penfolds Chief Winemaker at a remarkably young age, yet his contribution to the evolution of Grange has been critical. His stewardship saw some of the greatest developments and innovations in viticulture and winemaking, including Penfolds 'White Grange' project and the ground-breaking launch of Yattarna and Reserve Bin Chardonnays. The American consumer magazine Wine Spectator also conferred two important honours during Duval's time: the 1955 Grange was named one of the top twelve wines of the twentieth century in 2000, while the 1990 vintage was named 'Wine of the Year' in 1995. In 2002, after 16 years as winemaker, John Duval stepped down.
Peter Gago, his successor, is the fourth custodian of Grange in sixty years. His appointment as Penfolds Chief Winemaker coincided with the internet age and the expectations of a rapidly changing global market. Described by James Halliday as a 'perpetual-motion brilliant speaker, wine educator and winemaker', and 'Ambassador-in-Chief', Gago brings the Grange narrative into the twenty-first century by 'raising the bar of expectations' and making it accessible, magical and engaging. In 2013, the 2008 Grange crafted under Gago's watch received a perfect score of 100 points by two of the world's most influential wine publications, Robert Parker's Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator Magazine.
The Grange winemaking philosophy hasn't really changed over the last sixty years. Any refinements of style over the decades reflect new reference points, evolution of vineyard management and winemaking practices.
Today, Grange's iconic position in Australian wine history is undisputed. Grange is uniquely heritage-listed by the South Australian National Trust. It also heads up the highly influential and internationally recognised Langton's Classification of Australian Wine – in recognition of Grange's cornerstone presence on the secondary wine market. In recent times Grange has been ranked as one of the most tradeable wines in the world by Liv-Ex – the London Wine Exchange. The Wall Street Journal has even published a Dow Jones Grange Index; the accompanying text was, 'Wine lovers remember their first Grange the way they remember their first kiss!'
The Penfolds Re-corking Clinics, first initiated in 1991, have further enhanced the reputation of Grange around the world. A complimentary re-corking service, offered to collectors in Australia and around the world (for any bottle of Penfolds wines aged 15 years and older), has effectively weeded out poorly stored bottles in the secondary wine market. It has also allowed collectors and media observers to appreciate the longevity of Grange, notwithstanding the diversity of cellaring environments across the globe.
In the late 1940s post-war Australia was embarking on a journey to modern nationhood. Max Schubert, a returned soldier, dreamed of making something different and unique in the world of wine. The development of Grange reflects a national mood: a sense of purpose and an enthusiasm for progress. Australia is a young country and does not have the highly evolved traditions of the Old World. The future is its only reference point.
The stature of Grange has been achieved not through the hindsight of centuries of heritage and accumulated wealth, but through trial, error and persistence. Max Schubert described Grange as 'buoyant – almost ethereal', evocative of friendship, happiness and wonder – the essence of the Grange experience. It has proven to be a wine that can evolve and last more than fifty years, further enhancing this timeless story of personal triumph and extraordinary vision.
Find out more about the current vintage of Grange and view the tasting notes.