JUST OCCASIONALLY, the taste of a wine has such an immediate impact that those present burst into spontaneous applause. It happened two years ago in London after a series of mature vintages of Penfolds' Grange Hermitage was compared to Paul Jaboulet's northern Rhone classic, Hermitage La Chapelle. The creator of Grange Hermitage, Max Schubert, by then well into retirement, was conspicuous by his absence. But the instinctive outburst of emotion was as much a tribute to Schubert's modest and charming personality as to his remarkable achievements.
Grange Hermitage is the southern hemisphere's most famous and most controversial wine. Although one of Australia's great winemakers, the gentle, craggy-faced Max Schubert was always a backroom boy. If he sought fortune or fame, it was never for himself, only for the wine, and for the company he served all his life, which only belatedly recognised the significance of his achievements.
Born in 1915 into a family descended from Silesian settlers in the Barossa Valley, north of Adelaide, Schubert was drawn to wine when, as a boy, he breathed in the heady scents of freshly fermented grape-juice at harvest time. He thought it would be wonderful to work in an atmosphere that could create 'such beautiful, complex perfumes'. At 16, he got a job as a fetch-and-carry boy with Penfolds, which, during the age of Imperial preference, produced mainly port and sherry styles and just a single table wine, sold to British wine merchants for two and sixpence a gallon, to beef up anorexic clarets.
Schubert introduced refrigeration to Penfolds shortly after the Second World War, and, for tickling the tastebuds of his new chairman, Gladys Penfold Hyland, with his excellent 'sherries', was rewarded with a trip to Europe. Schubert was taken under the wing of Christian Cruse in Bordeaux, where he tasted, for the first time in his life, great, mature wines that were to inspire him not only to make a great wine capable of lasting 20 years, but to improve the general standard of Australian table wines.
Looking to make a fine wine in commercial quantities, he turned to the shiraz (the syrah of the northern Rhone), which, although largely used at the time for the production of Australian port, was the only available grape variety capable of making the wine he wanted in sufficient bulk.
Schubert then carefully chose grapes grown at Magill and Morphett Vale just outside Adelaide, resolved on a complex technique for the maximum extraction of colour and flavour and put the first experimental wine from the 1951 vintage in new American oak hogsheads for 12 months. Five vintages went by before he took off the wraps and showed them to the Penfolds board, which promptly pronounced them undrinkable.
Determined to prove his company wrong, he arranged several wine tastings in Adelaide, where Grange Hermitage was panned by the critics. 'A concoction of wild fruits and sundry berries with crushed ants predominating,' said one critic. 'A very good dry port' and 'an anaesthetic' were among other unflattering descriptions. Stung by the criticism and ordered by Penfolds to stop production, he became, in his own words, 'quite pig-headed about it', turning a blind eye and continuing to produce Grange Hermitage, albeit without expensive new American oak.
As the earliest wines began to mature, soften and develop bouquet in bottle, former critics began to sit up and take note. He was instructed to start making Grange Hermitage again from the 1960 vintage, but his real vindication came when the 1955 was submitted in the open Claret class of the Sydney Show in 1962 and came away with a gold medal. The same wine went on to win 50 gold medals and Schubert to continue to produce monumental Grange Hermitages until his retirement in 1975.
Public recognition in 1962 was a turning-point, not just for Schubert, but for the Australian wine industry as a whole. Schubert was given the job of restructuring Penfolds' production centres, introducing more cabernet sauvignon, proper controlled fermentation and more oak barrels.
Gradually the emphasis shifted from fortified to table wines, laying the foundations for Australia's huge success in the export market of the last decade. 'We must not be afraid to put into effect the strength of our convictions,' Schubert said: a fitting epitaph for a courageous, imaginative, mild-mannered winemaker.
Max Schubert was awarded the Medal of Australia in 1984 for services to the Australian Wine Industry, he was Decanter magazine's 'Man of the Year' in 1988, and received an Australia Day Citizen Award in 1991.
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