The story of the development of Grange into Australia’s most famous wine is one of intrigue, suspense, humiliation, faith and excitement. Penfolds employee Max Schubert toured Europe in 1950 and was surprised by the high quality of 40-50 year old Bordeaux wine. Australian wine had always been made for early consumption. Schubert resolved to make a local wine comparable to Bordeaux. But the grape varieties used to make Bordeaux were not available in Australia. Schubert decided to use shiraz grapes, which were common in Australia but had previously been used almost solely for port.
In 1951, Schubert combined grapes from Penfolds Grange Vineyard and another vineyard, both on the outskirts of Adelaide, South Australia. He selected these vineyards as they had already produced wines of distinctive flavour and character individually, and felt he could produce something even better by combining the grapes. One of his innovations was to recreate the cold conditions he had found in Bordeaux wineries. He did this by using refrigeration to slow fermentation and maximise the extraction of the tannins, flavour compounds and colouring agents. Refrigeration is now virtually universal in winemaking.
Schubert called the experimental wine ‘Grange Hermitage’ after Grange cottage, built in 1844 at the vineyard of the same name. Hermitage is another name for shiraz. The first vintage was rich and pungent and he chose American oak barrels to try and tame it. He wanted to produce “a big, full-bodied wine, containing maximum extraction of all the components in the grape material used”, and was more than pleased with the results after one month and after one year. The 1951 vintage was bottled following 18 months in the barrels. (The ‘Hermitage’ part of the name, borrowed from the Rhone wine region in France, was dropped in 1990 at the request of the European Union.)
He repeated his efforts each year, despite a lack of commercial interest in Grange Hermitage. By 1956, Penfolds head office located in Sydney was worried about the amount of money being spent. A tasting of the wine was arranged for Penfolds directors and executives and some wine personalities. No one seemed to like it. Schubert arranged tasting in Adelaide and the results were no better. Comments included: “A concoction of wild fruits and sundry berries with crushed ants predominating” and “A very good, dry port, which no one in their right mind will buy – let alone drink”.
Penfolds wrote to Schubert in 1957 asking him to stop producing Grange Hermitage as it was unsaleable and hurt the company’s image. With tacit approval from a couple of Penfolds senior managers, he quietly continued making the wine almost in secret but in smaller quantities. By 1960, Schubert noticed that earlier vintages were becoming more refined with age and were receiving praise. Head office once again funded production and the wine soon became commercial. Grange was entered in the wine tasting competition at the Sydney Show and won its first gold medal. Since then, the wine has gone from strength to strength, constantly winning medals and trophies. Interestingly, the 1955 vintage, the latest when Penfolds requested Schubert to stop production, has won the most prizes with 50 gold medals and 12 trophies.
Grange is a very perfumed and concentrated wine combining the intensely rich fruit of shiraz with the fragrance of American oak. This produces a ‘meaty’ complexity as well as a roundness of flavours. The 1990 vintage was rated the world’s best red wine by ‘Wine Spectator’ magazine in 1995. US wine expert Robert Parker felt Grange was “the leading candidate for the richest most concentrated dry red table wine on planet earth”. Grange has maintained a consistent quality over the years because the grapes in any vintage come from several high quality vineyards in South Australia. The climate is consistently warm, the soil is deep and sandy, and the grapes are described as opulent with spicy flavours. Grange takes 8-10 years to peak, and then remains on a high plateau for a further 5-15 years.
Penfolds Grange is regarded as Australia’s best and most famous wine. It has won a record 117 gold medals, 97 silver and bronze medals, and 35 championships and trophies at Australian wine shows. Overseas success includes a gold medal at the Wine Olympiad in Paris in 1979, where the 1971 Grange beat more favoured French wines. Grange is considered Australia’s most collectable wine. At a wine auction in 2009, a Grange collection with a bottle from every year from 1951 to 1990 fetched A$138,000, while a bottle of 1951 Grange sold for over A$50,000. The 2004 vintage sells for around A$550 a bottle. Two influential US reviewers, Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate, each gave the 2008 vintage 100 points, a first for a wine outside Europe.