The story of the great australian’s wines

2 February 2021

I am about to tell you a story, a story of Australian wine. This is a tell to read with a glass in your hand.

Australia, gigantic island-continent, only ranks 10th in the world when it comes to vine surface, just behind Romania, with 146,000 ha of vines. Nevertheless, it is 6th in volume and most importantly, it masters exports as the number one “new world” country in value, right behind the top trio, France, Italie and Spain. If Australia is so successful today, it is thanks to its international recognition, for wine lovers and professionals, as a land of great wines. Margaret River’s “chardies”, Coonawarra’s “Cabs”, Eden and Clare’s Rieslings or else the stunning Hunter Valley Semillons. Among these wines that amaze us, Shiraz, is well and truly capable of standing up to the great Syrahs of the northern Rhône Valley, however different they may be. Absolut aromatic blast, their richness, density, aromas of dark candied cherry, liquorice, cocoa, make some of these wines the most sensational in the world. And the most expensive. epopee du vin australien  

Did you say “Shiraz”?

When Syrah was introduced to Australia in the 1830’s by James Busby, the “founding father of Australian wine”, it was most likely introduced under the wrong spelling: “scyras”, or “Ciras”. Add to this the unique Australian accent, their soft spot for slang and nicknames and there you have it: the “Aussie Shiraz”!

Once upon a time…

…there was a 33-year-old young man returning from Europe to his native land, Australia. This young bloke is Max Schubert, probably the most famous character of Australian wine history. Lad of the Barossa, hired by Penfolds as a messenger boy some years earlier, he became chief winemaker of the estate in 1948. At the time, the country was a major consumer and producer of fortified wines, tradition dating back to the early stages of its winemaking. Penfolds had been a major player in the business since it was founded a century earlier by Dr. Christopher, who used to prescribe the wines to his anemic patients as was customary then.

In 1950, while Schubert is touring Europe to draw inspiration from the winemaking techniques of the fortified wines of Spain and Portugal, he discovered, on a little detour via Bordeaux, the great red wines of the region and their outstanding ageing potential.

Back to his hometown, he sets out in search of the right raw materials. He is certain of it, he wants to make a great Australian wine, capable of ageing for over 20 years, capable of standing up to the wines of the “old world”, famous for their finesse, their bouquet, their longevity. For years, he devoted himself heart and soul to this project which will soon see the birth of a legend.

The legend of Penfolds wines

The recipe to this magic potion: instead of Cabernet sauvignon, place some nice juicy bunches of Barossa Shiraz and its surroundings, add a good deal of new American oak rather than French, a touch of French savoir-faire, a twist of precision technique developed by Penfolds, all seasoned with a glamourous name, that of Penfolds Grange Hermitage, inspired by one of the nicknames of the Syrah in Australia. Hermitage will be removed from the name after the 1989 vintage[1].

At last, in 1957, the Penfolds management arranged a tasting of this much-awaited wine. But the results were disastrous, and Schubert was summoned to stop production. The wine was severely judged, and Max even humiliated: “Schubert, I congratulate you. A very good, dry port, which no one in their right mind will buy, let alone drink” was a remark made by a well-known critic. It was dismissed as “dry port tasting of crushed ants”. It was the death of Grange, the death of Schubert’s dream.

But it will take more than that to get Max to give up, and luckily, in this 4,000 km long country, the board is based in Sydney, 1,400 km from the Barossa Valley and Penfolds. Thus, from 1957 to 1959, a small troop of rebels secretly pursued the production of this misunderstood wine. Meanwhile, a few bottles of Grange circulated and were traded around and slowly, the rumor of a great mysterious wine was whispered across the country.

In 1962, while the board had ordered the official resumption of production, Schubert’s 1955 vintage was awarded 50 medals and trophies. In 2000, the 1955 vintage was cited among the greatest wines of the century by the Wine spectator. In 2018, one of the 2,000 bottles produced by Schubert in 1951 fetched AUD 80,386 AUD at auction, thence becoming the most expensive bottle in the history of Australian wine. What a twist of fate! Thus, was born Penfolds Grange Hermitage, known worldwide today as Penfolds Grange Bin 95 and one of the most collected wine in the world. A dream come true.

Thanks to Grange and its growing reputation, Shiraz, which was then considered the workhorse of the Australian vineyard, slowly became the emblematic grape variety of the country, and one of its symbols.

At the top of the Hill, you will see Grace

Not very far off is another iconic wine: The Hill of Grace, jewel of the Eden Valley, sub-region of the Barossa and a little higher up in altitude. This wine, produced by the Henschke family, has also climbed the hill to success to become one of the greatest. It is considered one of the most mythical wines in the country and has its place among “cult wines”. Its poetic name is a translation of the German “Gnadenberg”, the name given to the small church overlooking the vineyard, built in 1860 by migrants fleeing religious persecution in Silesia, which is today in Poland. Like dozens of other families, the Henschkes, arriving in Adelaide, settled on the outskirts of the Barossa, in the cooler Eden, that gives the wine the freshness that is not always standard in the country.

Hill of Grace is a true terroir wine, in a Burgundian way. While Penfolds Grange perpetuates the Australian blending tradition, Hill of Grace is a 4-hectares plot of very old, dry farmed[2] Shiraz, a real exception in Australia. 4-hectares divided into 7 blocks, in the same way that seven climats produce a Chablis Grand Cru. Moreover, whereas everywhere in the world today, our vines are grafted on American rootstocks, resistant to phylloxera[3], those of the Hill of Grace stand on their own roots, not grafted. The oldest of these vines, thick and wrinkled, were planted in 1860. They call them “the grandfathers”.

While South Australia has been spared by phylloxera to this day, it was not spared by drought and fires over the last years. Stephen et Prue, fifth-generation owner of the Barossa winery, in the family since 1891, have been hard hit by the fires that have affected many of the region’s vineyards, especially in 2020. Despite the lowest yields in history, the year 2020 saw the release of the 2015 vintage, which drew great attention from journalists at home and abroad.

Conducted according to the biodynamic principles, these ungrafted vines, which are certainly the oldest Shiraz in the world, produce a unique wine. 2015 Hill of Grace, “A Vintage Graced by the Luminous Moon”.

We sometimes have a preconceived idea of “new world” wines. One often imagines disproportionate wine complexes, copiously irrigating their largely mechanized vineyards and whose wines would only be pale imitations of our great European wines, diluted in the mediocrity of their supposed modernism. However, even if these “wine monsters” exist in Australia, it also abounds with small producers capable of exquisite hand-crafted wines, made in limited quantities. Alas, these wonders from the end of the world rarely reach our demanding palates. But just as France is capable of the worst, Australia is capable of the best. It could even be argued that the greatest expression of the idea of terroir is to be found on this side of the world, in the form of the Hill of Grace.

Find and discover more info on australian’s wines during our WSET courses.

Written by our wine specialist Annabelle Mispelblom Beijer

Hollywood Time

These two wines have, among other things, a famous ambassador in common: Russel Crowe, renowned Australian actor and fine wine lover who commented, a few years apart, the campaign of both these great wines:

[1] Hermitage étant le nom protégé d’une grande AOC de la vallée du Rhône septentrionale.

[2] Non-irrigated

[3] Phylloxera is an insect pest that devastated the vineyards of the world in the mid-19th century.
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