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Penfolds: The Story Of Australian Wine Triumph

Discover Australia's best wine producer, whose path to worldwide success has been long, ambitious, determined, and fortunately worth it.

This is the story of how a doctor interested in wine entered Australia's wine scene. But it is also the story of how one particular wine from the Penfolds selection would conquer the world's wine hearts. Grange: A wine that rivals Château Latour, Harlan Estate, Masseto, and grandiose Grand Cru Burgundy. Penfolds and Grange are undeniably linked; therefore, one story cannot be told without the other. Read the story here. You can also find out more about Peter Gago - Chief Winemaker at Penfolds - in our exclusive interview with him in the video below.

Wine-Dominants Down Under

Penfolds is arguably the most significant and dominant wine producer in Australia. Despite changing ownership, a constant level of high quality has been achieved, and Penfolds has moved steadily towards the top since its founding in 1844. Even though global success was a long time coming. 

Today, Penfolds is headed by Chief Winemaker Peter Gago, who is only the fourth to hold the prestigious title. The continuity of winemakers is probably also a key to the characteristic balance and stability of the magical wines from Penfolds.

In recent years, Penfolds has expanded its activities far away from its continent with projects in California and Champagne. The level of ambition is massive, but it also takes something special if you want to challenge the world's best producers.

Interview: Peter Gago - Penfolds Chief Winemaker

Clik the image above to start the video with Peter Gago.

Penfolds: An Imported Wine Success

In the mid-19th century, Australia was an open country for wine growing, and many settlers brought and planted cuttings to make wine. English Doctor Christopher Rawson Penfold and his wife Mary Penfold emigrated to Australia, and Adelaide became the home of the Doctor's practice. An interest in fortified wine was the direct cause of the Penfolds planting their imported cuttings on the Magill Estate on the outskirts of Adelaide in 1844. Here they lived, worked, and grew wine, and suddenly the production of wine exceeded the practice of medicine. Even today, the Magill Estate is one of the most critical sites for growing grapes for Penfold's top wines. 

The first prominent wines from Penfolds' product portfolio were wines made from Riesling and the style called Claret. Claret is the English term for a light red wine, and its style is comparable to the wines from Bordeaux. These wines were popular in Australia then and laid the foundations for the rest of the estate's success. 

Magill Estate has almost 100 hectares of vines, originally Riesling and the Bordeaux grape varieties Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. In recent years, replanting has taken place so that only Shiraz is planted on the estate today. These grapes are used in some vintages for Grange (the estates' top wine), and in other vintages, they are all used in Magill Estate Shiraz.

In the early years of Penfolds, grapes were bought from other areas. The wines were blended, and balance was the keyword. Many of these wines enjoyed great popularity at home and in the export market - primarily in the English Empire. Its success meant that by 1907, Penfolds was the largest winery in South Australia. Brought-in cuttings thus became the cornerstone of wine success.

Max Schubert: Free Thinking. Free Wines.

In 1948 the family hired an outside winemaker to reinforce the company's skills. The choice fell on Max Schubert, who would soon prove to be just the right man for Penfolds. Schubert became the company's man, and his innovative ideas paved the way for the company's vision to reach the next level. Penfolds' most vital wine, Grange, can only be attributed to his determined and innovative work over several years. Although his main job was to develop the so-called Bin wines, all of which are followed by a number. The number often refers to where the wine in question was aged in the cellars.

From a winemaker's perspective, Penfolds was, at this time, a merger house. Everything could be blended, and so it was. Penfolds made wines from blended grapes to achieve the style that Max Schubert wanted in the wines. He also saw the idea of blending grapes from one area with grapes from another. In Australia, the winemaker could combine strengths from several regions into one wine. In this way, Schubert created his tiny wine darlings. There was no dominant and rigid French appellation law or centuries-old Italian tradition to keep the mind locked. Free thinking made complimentary wines packed with flavor. Just as the consumers demanded.

The Goal Is The Constant Penfolds Style

Penfolds' wines are not locked into a set of rules, but their code contains a constant desire to enhance the style of each wine. This is exemplified by Kalimna Bin 28, the first Bin wine on the market with the 1959 vintage. Initially, all the grapes came from the Kalimna vineyard, for which it is named. To reinforce the style, Kalimna 28 is made quite differently today. Now it is a blend of several regions and several different vineyards. The only two constant elements are that it is pure Shiraz and that the goal of the wine, according to current winemaker Andrew Baldwin, is: "Bin 28 defines the Penfolds character: generous in style, delicious to drink and dependable every vintage."

Today, the wines at Penfolds are made by a team of winemakers specializing in single grapes or deeply rooted in a single district. The aim is still to keep the style of the wines constant, which is the responsibility of the head winemaker. Since 1948, when Max Schubert made his debut as head winemaker, there have been only three others in charge. The minimal number of head winemakers has significantly impacted the continuity of such an extensive production. Today, the team of winemakers at Penfolds has more than 150 years of combined experience.

Most wines in the selection still have a bin number associated with them. This is usual practice in Australia, but it is also a way of signaling that the style of the wine is constant. Where the grapes originated in that year is less relevant. At Penfolds, the winemaker is the helmsman, who composes the wine in the well-known Penfolds style.

One wine, however, was to surpass them all.

Peter Gago with the iconic wine " Grange " Peter Gago with the iconic wine "Grange"

The Story Of Grange: A Wine Icon With Serious Start-Up Problems

Today, Grange is Penfolds's original and most potent expression. It symbolizes how blending several vineyards and districts can unite into a glorious unity. Grange is Australia's most famous wine, but the road to fame has been paved with skepticism, condemnation, and, thankfully, a great deal of perseverance.

When Grange was first presented, Max Schubert received this comment from a respected taster:

"Schubert, I congratulate you. A very good, dry port, which no one in their right mind will buy - let alone drink." 

Had Max Schubert not been so determined about the high quality of the wine, the whole adventure of Penfolds Grange could have collapsed right there. Fortunately, he was a stubborn man. The wine in the cellar was of such high quality that it showed its true potential after further aging.

The story of Max Schubert's Grange began on a trip to Europe in 1950. Here he experienced for the first time the fragrance of wines that had been aged for a long time.

The feeling of ripe wine in the glass. Tertiary aromas and extra layers in the glass only appear in aged wines, as these chemical compounds develop in the bottle during long aging. In Australia, wines were made to be drunk young, focusing on the primary aromas. The tradition of producing wines with enough complexity for development was not present at all. Max Schubert experienced mature wine on his trip to Europe, taking that experience home with him. He wanted to make wine at home in Australia that could develop in the cellar in the same impressive way.

In Europe, the finest wines from Bordeaux were based on Cabernet Sauvignon. Still, the plantings in Australia at the time meant Schubert had to think of alternatives. The aim was to use grapes from old vines planted in the best locations, and selecting the suitable grapes from the right vineyards was his way forward. Shiraz, or hermitage as it was called in Australia, was thus chosen, and it was to prove a good decision. The first several vintages were called Grange Hermitage on the label until the Hermitage region of France objected. Hermitage was therefore removed from the labels, leaving the current name Grange.

First Vintage Of Grange Hermitage

In 1951, the first vintage was produced. The grapes were partly selected from the Magill Estate owned by Penfolds and a vineyard south of Adelaide. The first vintage was made in two versions to ensure the correct direction. One was aged in five Hogshead barrels, 550-liter barrels, not far from what Schubert had observed in Europe. The second version was aged in a 4,550-litre neutral barrel. This allowed Schubert to test the aging method to ensure he was moving in the right direction. Subsequent vintages proved that aging in Hogshead barrels was the right solution for Grange. Schubert had thus succeeded in making wine from Shiraz following European ideas - with the potential to evolve for more than 20 years.

It was rejected the first time Max Schubert presented his new star to the owners and other talented tasters. It was certainly not the reception Max Schubert had wanted. Still, he was fortunately gifted with patience, fortitude, and the persistency mentioned above. The owners of Penfolds even demanded that he stop production. Yet, he was so sure of his project that he hid his production in the cellar for several years.

Fortunately, Jeffrey Penfold Hyland was on his side. Jeffrey was in charge of production at Penfolds then and allowed the secret production. It was not until the first vintage was ten years old that it had the quality to convince the owners at Penfolds. From there, Max Schubert got the green light to restart his production of Grange.

The Public Presentation Of Grange In Australia

There has always been a great tradition of wine shows in Australia, where producers taste each other's wines blind and award medals. The tastings are highly valued, but Penfolds had stayed out of shows for the past few decades. In 1963 they returned to the Australian wine shows to present the 1955 Grange Hermitage. At the show, Grange won gold, and this vintage has since harvested more than 50 gold medals - in 1977, it even won the award for best red wine at the Melbourne show. Grange had been discovered by all the right people to help make the wine famous.

From here, Grange has harvested countless medals and great reviews. Several vintages have received 100 points from Robert Parker, and the great reviews are making a queue.


More Penfolds celebrities

Although Grange has received an overwhelming, although deserved, amount of attention in this article, there are several excellent wines in Penfolds' range. High quality is present throughout the spectrum from Penfolds, and even at the lower levels, the winemakers at Penfolds aim to deliver wines that excel in their category.

Today Penfolds produces many different wines, all of which deserve their star status. Either small productions, where a single parcel has distinguished itself, or a unique wine, which is only produced in one vintage. There are, however, a handful of wines that have helped make Penfolds famous for more than just Grange.

St. Henri Shiraz

St. Henri Shiraz is part of the history of Penfolds, and the first vintage was produced way back in 1888. Back then, the wine was called Auldana Cellars St. Henri Claret and was probably named after the winemaker's son. The wine enjoyed great success at this early stage and won the award for best red wine at The Adelaide Wine Show in 1890 & 1891. The name and the wine disappeared around World War I but were revived in the early 1950s. The first commercial vintage of St Henri under Penfolds was 1957.

St. Henri Shiraz is almost a counterweight to Grange. The wine is based on Shiraz, which is not aged in new barrels. The grapes for the wine are harvested in several districts, and the latest vintage was harvested from seven different districts. It is aged in large barrels that are more than 50 years old. Here, the wine settles but does not take on any flavor from the barrel. St. Henri Shiraz is a classic Shiraz wine from Australia full of character and power.

Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz - aka. Baby-Grange 

Bin 389 is often referred to as Baby-Grange. That is because it was born roughly the same time as Grange and bottled up with an almost identical mindset. With this one, Max Schubert wanted to see what was possible if he blended good Cabernet Sauvignon with some of the best Shiraz. 

The first vintage for Bin 389 was 1960, so right on the heels of Grange. The grapes are harvested from several different regions. Before bottling, the wine is aged in last year's barrels from Grange, which also contributed to the nickname Baby-Grange. Bin 389 is a classic in the line-up at Penfolds, evolving incredibly well with time in the cellar.

RWT Shiraz Bin 798

The RWT abbreviation stands for "Red Winemaking Trial." It is no longer a trial, but Penfolds has kept the name. This wine is meant to show the best sides of one district - the famous Barossa Valley, where the Shiraz grape is at its best. Grapes with great fatness and lots of aromas are targeted, and wine is produced that differs significantly from Grange.

The first release of RWT was the 1997 vintage, which came after a few years of cellar trials for Penfolds' winemakers. From the 2014 vintage onwards, the wine was named Bin 798. The numbers refer to the letters RWT on a mobile phone's numeric keypad.

Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon

Bin 707 expresses Penfolds' style through Cabernet Sauvignon. The grapes are selected for their great intensity originating from different regions. Both fermentation and aging occur in new oak barrels, and the style is powerful and suitable for long cellaring.

The Bin 707 is named after the Boing 707, in reference to the eponymous aircraft that brought Australia closer to the rest of the world in the 1960s. The plane flew low over Penfolds' headquarters near Sydney Airport. Max Schubert did several experiments with Cabernet Sauvignon in the 1950s and 1960s, but mainly the grape was used for blending. Bin 707 was the first pure experiment and came to market with the 1964 vintage. The wine is only produced when the winemaker believes its quality allows it. 

Magill Estate Shiraz

Magill Estate is where Penfolds was founded in 1844, and the vineyards here are 100% Shiraz. Magill Estate Shiraz is made with tradition in mind, which is why only grapes from the estate are harvested - and all grapes are harvested by hand. The grapes are pressed on an old-fashioned basket press, which was the norm when the winery was founded. Finally, the wine is aged in a combination of French and American barrels. Magill Estate Shiraz was first produced in 1983 and is known to differ markedly from the style that otherwise characterizes Penfolds.

Yattarna Chardonnay

Penfolds are best known for their red wines, which is why the release of Yattarna Chardonnay marked a new chapter in the history of the estate. After 114 attempts at winemaking, the first vintage of Yattarna Chardonnay was produced in 1995, dubbed "white Grange" by the media, and even made the front pages of Australian newspapers. Chardonnay has always been a popular grape, and Yattarna is the finest wine from Penfolds made from this grape. 

The grapes are harvested from the best vineyards in several districts - from the Yarra Valley to Tasmania. Grapes ripened over a long period are desired, thus maintaining an optimal balance. The style here can be compared to the best wines in the world on Chardonnay.

The above wines tell a significant and essential part of the story. Still, new interesting wines are constantly coming into Australia's wine portfolio- some even achieving star status from the first vintage. Bin 111A Shiraz was first released in 2016 and scored 100 points with The Wine Advocate. This just cements that Penfolds is striving for continuity and innovation.


From Adelaide To Champagne

Penfolds is primarily an Australian winery, but the desire to explore new territories has taken them from California to Champagne. Quantum is the name of a recent spectacular wine from Penfolds. It results from Shiraz grapes from Australia and Cabernet Sauvignon from California. Hence the new 'appellation' Wine of the World. The first vintage was in 2018 and has already received impressive reviews worldwide.

The current head winemaker at Penfolds, Peter Gago, started as a winemaker for sparkling wines. That love continues, and for him, it was a natural progression for Penfolds to develop a Champagne in collaboration with their French importer - Champagne Thienot. Initially, the partnership produced three wines to celebrate Penfolds' 175th anniversary. All three wines are based on the excellent 2012 vintage. One is a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay - the other two are from single grapes harvested in Grand Cru villages. The Australian element is that the liqueur used for the dosage is aged in barrels from Yattarna, Penfold's famous Chardonnay from Australia. Penfolds is constantly seeking innovation.

Penfolds Does Not Rest After Victory

When a doctor interested in wine immigrated to Australia in the 19th century, he probably never dreamed that Penfolds would be the dominant brand in the 21st century. Nor did he expect that one of his wines would be among the world's best. So it went, and Penfolds triumphed with Grange.

The success is assured, but Penfolds does not rest after a victory, and innovation and the pursuit of wine perfection drive them forward. There is always room for new developments, and although the level of ambition secured the masterpiece, the quest for the new wine masterpiece is ever-present at the Australian leading wine giant.

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