The apotheosis of Grange Hermitage wine occurred in the early 1980s.
Before this people regularly drank Grange. Now they idolize it, invest in it, trade it, auction it, collect it, horde it, souvenir it, stare at it, pose with it, engage in spastic dialogue about it – anything and everything but drink it.
Consequently, Australia is awash with Grange. Any vintage can be purchased at any time. Except for vintages of the early 1950s, gallons of it can be acquired without too much bother.
A catalogue from any large or small wine auction will always show it well represented.
If you are a trophy seeker, and money is no impediment, the entire set of vintages beginning with the experimental 1951 to the current 2002 can be expeditiously acquired.
I’ll commence Grange’s narrative in the year legendary Hunter Valley winemaker Maurice O’Shea died.
It was 1956 and Max Schubert, a shy, anonymous, obsequious, 41-year old former cellar hand, promoted to senior winemaker at Penfolds South Australian Magill cellars, decided it was time to surrender his secret wine to the scrutiny of experts.
Max (pic) named it “Grange Hermitage” a name combining a whitewashed stone cottage and the synonym for shiraz grapes.
Today this cottage is a wine aficionado’s shrine, commemorating a Sussex vicar’s son, Dr Christopher Rawson Penfold.
About 10 years after the legal establishment of the colony of South Australia the innovative doctor planted vines and other crops on land adjacent to his home, Grange Cottage.
By 1956 Schubert had surreptitiously crafted six vintages of Grange Hermitage wine using predominantly shiraz grapes, “the workhorse grape of Australian red wine”, as the ebullient Len Evans used to say.
The 1951 and 1952 vintages were 100 percent shiraz, the 1953 vintage contained the largest infusion of cabernet sauvignon, 13 percent.
It would not be until 1963 before another 100 percent shiraz Grange would be made, and then not again until 1999.
“The time appeared to be ripe to remove the wraps and allow other people to see and evaluate this wondrous thing.”
However, the 1951 to 1956 vertical tasting gig held in Sydney was a disaster.
Max was not present, but when he heard the terrible news he felt humiliated.
The experts said the wine was: “anaesthetic … a dry port, which no-one in their right mind will buy let alone drink.” Other crazy comments were made about “crushed ants”.
There was more disappointment. Prior to the 1957 vintage the Penfolds’ board demanded Max immediately cease making Grange because the wine was an embarrassment with no commercial future.
Twenty-three years later, at a wine symposium in Canberra, Max remembered to his audience that, “in its early years Grange was insulted and classified as the lowest of the low”.
The possibility of crafting an Australian red wine using high quality fruit, new oak barriques and long bottle maturation occurred to Max in 1950.
In that year Penfolds sent him to Spain on a fact finding tour to look at sherry-making techniques. Fortuitously, his mission was expanded to include a visit to the seaport city of Bordeaux, in south west France.
Max was inquisitive and accommodating in manner. In Bordeaux he made the easy acquaintance of Christian Cruse, the paterfamilias of prominent Bordeaux negotiants, or wine wholesalers, Cruse Freres & Fils.
It was under M. Cruse’s short but important tutelage that Max was permitted to sample numerous old Bordeaux clarets made in a style conducive to bottle maturation of 20 years or more.
Inspired, he returned to Australia and, adopting and adapting vinification techniques observed in Europe, commenced his journey to create Grange.
One day in 1982 while tooling about in his dilapidated Citroen my dear, wonderful, departed, friend Derek Jolly said: “Do you want to meet Max?”
Derek’s grandfather was the eccentric plutocrat Leslie Penfold-Hyland. However, it was Leslie’s son, the erratic and affable Jeffery who ultimately rescued Grange Hermitage by becoming Max’s collaborator and protector.
In 1957 he instructed Max to ignore the Penfolds’ board and, under deep cover, to continue making what would become Australia’s most iconic red wine.
Without Jeffery’s collusion and encouragement Max and the Grange narrative would have been crushed … like grapes.
Everything about Max was modest, except his ability as an innovator of vinification techniques.
He always wore a suit, tie, cufflinks. In winter he was never without his sky blue jumper worn under a navy blue suit.
Max was simple, private, a meat and three veg man. In 1988, when he became Decanter wine magazine “Man of the Year”, the palaver associated with the honour irked him.
The wine writer Huon Hooke said he wanted to write a book about his life and Max expressed astonishment that anybody would be interested enough to read it.
With me he was always patient and polite during many inconvenient interrogations as I sought information about wine he had made or technically supervised.
His great line, “no winemaker has a monopoly on flavour”, is still with me.
My first Grange Hermitage experience, in about 1978, was a bottle of Bin 49 1960, the only vintage to carry a picture of a wicker wine caddy on its label.
What was immediately striking was its high level of extract and insinuation of blackberry fruit accompanied by subtle sweetness of new American oak.
The Granges of the 1960s are much more satisfying than the Granges of the 1970s or 1980s. I also think the much lauded 1971 is overrated and not as fascinating as, say, the 1966.
In the decade of the 1980s only the 1983, the bushfire Grange, still holds my interest.
Of course, by 1973 Max was no longer head winemaker at Penfolds. I have only once sampled the much awarded 1955 Grange, the drop that in 1962 fully re-established Max’s credibility as a brilliant winemaker.
It also silenced cynics and pseudo-wine critics who were desperate to see Max fail.
Derek and I had a meat pie with a bottle of it, just as Max hoped it should be with Grange. It is justifiably one of the great Australian wines of the 1950s, possibly of all time, although for me not as interesting as Hector Tulloch’s 1954 Hunter Dry Red or Maurice O’Shea’s 1953 22T Hermitage.
However, it’s an unprofitable exercise to compare them.
Almost 15 years have passed since Max disengaged from all earthy pain and pleasure. Had he been alive in 1995 to witness the 1990 Grange voted Wine Spectator magazine’s “red wine of the year ” he would have wondered why they don’t just drink the stuff instead of worshipping it.
The recent 2002 vintage came onto the market at the absurd retail price of over $500 a bottle.
In 1966 a bottle of 1960 Grange retailed for $1.75 a bottle. In 1981 a bottle of 1974 Grange cost $13.50. Today a bottle at auction of 1960 Grange can cost anywhere up to $1,400 a bottle, the 1974 about $400.
Unbridled madness. I don’t care what it’s called – no alcoholic grape juice is worth $1,400, $400 or even $100 a bottle.
Grange, lamentably, has become a commodity, a speculative currency to be traded and driven ever upwards.
I know Max would not have embraced the apotheosis of Grange nor pay the price asked for the current vintage. His laconic observation would have been: Grange should be drunk because that’s what you do with it.
Wine drinker, maker and collector Gabriel Wendler is a Sydney barrister at Windeyer chambers.