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An Australian Empire

Perhaps one of the greatest ironies and failings in history was that Australia was meant to be a dry colony.


An Australian Empire

Lord Sydney, a terribly idealistic and moral man by all accounts, wanted to reform the convicts sent to this penal colony, believing that hard work and fresh air in the absence of drink and money would cure even the most corrupt of souls. It was a plan that didn’t make it very far... in fact, it didn’t even reach the shores of Australia when the marines guarding the prisoners on the voyage to Australia threatened an uprising should they not receive their rum. Rum quickly became Australia’s social currency (and actual currency in the absence of any money on the colony) and means of control. One of the first buildings ever built was a warehouse to secure the rum (after the governor saw what had befallen the first female convicts after they were unloaded from the ships, he was taking no chances with the precious spirit). The very first hospital and churches were erected in exchange for rum and an attempt to quash rum was the reason for Australia’s first and only military coup. These days, however, rum is a distant memory in Australia’s history, having exchanged the bawdy spirit for the genteeler nature of wine. South Australia (incidentally the first state NOT founded as a penal colony) has since become Australia’s Wine HQ, boasting some of the oldest vines in the world, having dodged the deathly kiss of phylloxera that plagued the rest of the wine growing world thanks to strict quarantine restrictions. Perhaps one of the best wineries to track the evolution of winemaking in Australia is Penfolds. Theirs is a story that starts with a colonial settlement and ends with a wine empire.

Doctor’s Orders

Penfolds’ story begins in 1838 when Dr Christopher and Mary Penfolds emigrated from England to South Australia, being some of the first voluntary migrants on Australian shores after the previous, decidedly INvoluntary convicts and soldiers who had accepted their posts in Australia as an alternative to court martial or hanging (many chose to be hanged). They bought Magill Estate, which is still the spiritual home of Penfolds some (almost) 200 years later and one of the world’s few urban wineries today, a mere 15 minutes from Adelaide’s CBD. Like all the best (or at least our favourite) doctors, Dr Christopher Penfolds believed in the medicinal benefits of wine and made ports and sherries as a tonic for his anaemic patients. As Dr Penfolds reputation grew (no doubt spurred on by his tasty tonic prescriptions), Mary took over more and more responsibility of the winery, until she assumed total control after her husband’s death in 1870, earning herself a place amongst the Badass Wine Widows In History, such as Madame Clicquot Ponsardin of Veuve Clicquot and Lily Bollinger of Bollinger Champagne. Not merely an honorary membership, Penfolds was producing a third of all of South Australia’s wine by the time Mary retired in 1884. By 1907, Penfolds was the largest winery in South Australia.  

A star in Grange

Fortified wines dominated the Australian wine scene until way into the mid-20th century – and not just amongst those suffering from anaemia. Only after Australian soldiers started returning home from WWII with a taste for dry European wines did the fashions start changing. Enter Max Schubert, Penfolds’ first chief winemaker who’d joined Penfolds in 1931 as a messenger boy at the age of 16. Schubert went to Europe to study sherry production, but on a side trip to Bordeaux he tasted old vintage reds and observed how they were aged in small barriques – a completely foreign practice in Australia, where wines were made to be drunk NOW (probably a hangover from their rum days) and usually made in large oak vats, retaining none of the elegance or quality of their dainty French counterparts. Schubert returned to Australia eager to try create a Bordeaux of his own. The results, however, did not resemble a Bordeaux at all, which one could possibly blame on Schubert’s lack of access to Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, both key varietals in any Bordeaux blend. Ever the problem solver, Schubert opted for the easiest grape at hand: Shiraz. What came out was distinctly NEW. He named this wine “Grange Hermitage” after the Shiraz vineyard in Magill Estate and the French wine appellation in the Rhône Valley (Penfolds was forced to drop the “Hermitage” part of the name in 1986 after the French banned any use of French appellation names on non-French wines – the French are bad at sharing that way). After hearing about his experiments, Schubert was asked to show his new wine to the top management in Sydney. They hated it. One described it as “a concoction of wild fruits and sundry berries with crushed ants predominating.” Another said, “Schubert, I congratulate you on a very good, dry Port, which no one in their right mind will buy, let alone drink.” The other reviews were less favourable. Schubert was ordered to shut the project down and to stop throwing away money and time on a wine that no one would buy. Exemplifying how true innovation requires a touch of subversion, Schubert continued making the Grange in secret, hiding the ’57, ’58 and ’59 vintages in the depths of the Penfolds’ cellar. However, once a second board room tasting revealed the beautiful maturation potential of the Grange, the project resumed in 1960, just in time for the 1955 vintage to become the most awarded wine ever in Australian history in 1962. We’re hard pressed to think of a more glorious I TOLD YOU SO moment of vindication. Today, the Grange is an official Australian heritage icon, having never missed a single vintage since 1951 and made exactly the same way today as it was back then.

An Empire

Today, Penfolds is one of the biggest wine companies in the world, with over 2750 acres of vines across five Australian wine appellations and with access to a further 3000 acres across Australia (that’s roughly 7 times the size of Franschhoek in total). Such a vast spread has allowed Penfolds to produce an equally vast range of wines, from the collectable to the experimental, to mass-marketing bottles for everyday drinking. While Australia might have moved on from singing rum songs and swapped their casks for crystal glasses, they have not lost their reverence for a good drink and this is in part due to Penfolds, who helped catapult Australian winemaking from the days of colonial settlements into the modern era.

Published On: 10/31/2018

Raphaela van Embden

instagram @raphaelave

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