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60 Years of Grange: The Rags-To-Riches Story of Penfolds’ Iconic Wine
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60 Years of Grange: The Rags-To-Riches Story of Penfolds’ Iconic Wine

According to The Wall Street Journal, you remember sipping your first Grange like you remember your first kiss. But what’s the story behind the wine? And why should you serve it at your next celebration? We look at the four people who made Penfolds’ Grange what it is today.

It’s hard to believe it now, but there was a time when the Penfolds board wouldn’t even allow Grange to be made commercially available. Now it holds an iconic position in Australian wine history. It’s earned a national heritage listing by the South Australian National Trust and has been ranked as among the most tradable wines by Liv-Ex, the London Wine Exchange.

But who is responsible for this rags-to-riches wine story? Well, it was all because of four men and four different generations of perfectionism. Let’s learn a bit about them:

Max Schubert

Max Shubert was a winemaker in a post-World War II Australia. A returned soldier, he had a taste for experimentation and was fearless about challenging the tradition of winemaking. In 1949, he was sent to Europe to study sherry and port. He took a detour, and fell in love with Bordeaux’s decades-aged wines.

Max did what any wine obsessive would do and tried to make something “different and lasting” of his own. He collected the best raw materials he could find in Australia and created an ambitious, experimental vintage in 1951. It was not successful or commercially released but the following year he created the Grange Hermitage, which was sent around the country.

In 1957, the Penfolds Sydney and Adelaide top management invited Max to show off his wines to their friends and other wine experts – and they hated it. They said that no-one in their right mind would buy – let alone drink – this wine. Max was embarrassed and disheartened. Grange should have been dead at that point. But Max didn’t give up.

Since the board was in Sydney and the winemakers were in Adelaide, Max (with the help of Jeffrey Penfold Hyland) was able to hide all of his creations in the underground cellars of Magill Winery. For two years, Max was able to work on his experiments in secret, like some kind of mad wine scientist. Management was in the dark, but Max gave his wines out to some friends and associates, and by 1959, word was spreading about his unique wines.

A second tasting (with the same board members) of the 1951 and 1955 vintages was organised. Both were greeted with great enthusiasm. In fact, the 1955 ended up having a very successful wine show career. The board finally ordered production of the Grange to restart and during the 1960s, Max molded Grange into one of Australia’s most distinguished wines.

Don Ditter

Happy with his creation, and confident in his abilities as a winemaker, Schubert retired in 1975, and his successor was chosen. Don Ditter was a laboratory assistant at Penfolds in 1942 and he brought his scientific eye and collaborative approach to making wines. Under his leadership, the Grange was brought into the modern era. He improved the aromas, developed greater richness and ripeness of the fruit in the wines, and selected better oaks.

Don’s last vintage, the 1986 Grange, is regarded as one of the greatest Grange vintages of all time. While Schubert invented the Grange, Ditter gave it a polish that turned it into an expertly crafted and widely regarded wine.

John Duval

John Duval took over as Penfolds Chief Winemaker after Don Ditter. He was considered something of a wine prodigy by both Schubert and Ditter.

He got to work on innovating vineyard production in Australia and under his leadership, the ‘White Grange’ project was created, bringing to the table such wines as Yatterna and Reserve Bin chardonnays. In Duval’s time, the 1955 Grange was named one of the top twelve wines of the 20th Century and the 1990 vintage was named ‘Wine of the Year’ in 1995.

Peter Gago

In 2002, Duval stepped down and Peter Gago took over. The fourth person to oversee Grange in 60 years, he had huge shoes to fill. Gago’s appointment came about during the internet age, which is why he dedicates his life to being a spokesperson and educator (as well as an impressive winemaker in his own right).

Gago raises the bar of expectations, shares the important story, and continues to finesse the Grange to be among the most accessible and well-regarded wines available today. Under his leadership, the 2008 Grange received a perfect score by two of the world’s most influential wine publications, Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator magazine.

After four generations of leadership, the philosophy of Grange hasn’t changed. The wine is still about experimentation, refinement and evolution. It’s not just about the ingredients, it’s about the management, practices and people that actually make the wines. The Penfolds Grange is so special because it came from the spirit of unrelenting ambition and taking risks. And it’s great to see a wine that is still so in touch with its roots.