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Penfolds: Doctor’s Wife, turned Rulebreaker, turned Starchild of Australian Wines

Winery Spotlight: Penfolds

Region: Magill Estate, Adelaide, South Australia


How did a doctor's prescription become one of the most renowned New World wineries?

Image Source: Penfolds

Australia has, for the past few decades, cemented itself to be a powerhouse in the wine industry - producing everyday, accessible wines for those on a tight budget, to classics like the minty Coonawarra or big and bold Barossa wines, up to jaw droppers that stun even the harshest of wine critics. Perhaps there is no other brand that flies the Aussie flag higher than Penfolds - a household name that’s known for premium, flavourful wines, even in their budget line. Any wine shop, supermarket or duty free has to carry a Penfolds, one way or another.

What’s the story behind this ubiquitous Australian wine label?

The start of viticulture and winemaking in Australia

Australia never had native winemaking grape varietals of their own (at least, from the very beginning). In fact, the plant vitis vinifera, is the grape species that originated from Europe. All the different varietals from this single species are mutations of the same plant. 

There are currently about 5,000 named varietials of vitis vinifera. Source: Wikipedia

The first vines that made it to Australia came from the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa. History records speak of Governor Arthur Phillip who, in 1788, journeyed from England and stopped by South Africa for supplies and vine cuttings, before heading off to the then penal colony. The first vine cuttings never quite managed to root and perished soon after they were planted, but that did not stop ambitions to turn Australia into wine country. 

Governor Arthur Phillip. Source: The Australian

In 1833, James Busby brought cuttings from Spain and France, introducing Shiraz (known as Syrah) and Grenache into Australia. As more vine cuttings made their way from Europe and South Africa to Australia, it was setting roots to what would eventually become one of the biggest wine producers of the modern world.

James Busby. Source: Wikipedia

A rich English doctor moves to Australia 

Back in the 19th century, wine was widely accepted as a medicine for a number of ailments (unfortunately, today’s medicine proved otherwise). A Christopher Rawson Penfolds, a practising doctor, studied medicine at St. Bartholomew in London. Christopher Penfolds came from a family of wealth, his father being the vicar of Steyning. Christopher married a Mary Holt, who was a daughter of Thomas Holt, a medical practitioner of Edmonton London. In 1838, there were plans to settle in Brighton, England’s little enclave of high society individuals, but plans fell through, and the Penfolds decided to move to South Australia - not without picking up a few vine cuttings from the Rhone in France first (it was said that the cuttings were Grenache). 

Christopher Rawson Penfolds. Source: Penfolds

In 1844, Christopher Penfolds set sail for Adeladie, with the company of the maid Ellen Kimbrell and their daughter, Georgina. They bought the 500 acre Magill estate, and got to work establishing what would become one of Australia’s first vineyards. Within the Magill estate was a cottage built by the former owner William Feguerson, and Christopher Penfold decided to call it “The Grange” (an important footnote for later!). 

A reproduced magazine cover from 1941 of the Grange. Source: Australian National University

The whole operation wasn’t meant to start a winery business from the get go - in fact, the vineyard and winery was to supply wine for Christopher’s medical practice, like treating anaemia. As Christopher Penfold’s medical practice gained traction, he relegated vineyard operations to his wife - who, together with Ellen and other workers, ran the winery. The slogan “1844 to Evermore”, is still in use today. 

Source: Penfolds Twitter

As was popular with the local crowd back then, the Penfolds initially focused on fortified wines - the go-to wine of the day. Mainly, two types of fortified wines were produced: port-style wines made from red wine grapes, and sherry, which was made from white grapes. Fortified wines are wines that have extra added alcohol into the final product, which made for a more shelf stable product (alongside more booze). However, with expertise from immigrant vine growers, winemakers and lots of trial and error, Mary and Ellen expanded into clarets (a type of light red wine) and Rieslings, a white grape varietal, which furthered the popularity of the winery.

A photograph of the Penfolds Magill Estate in 1908. Source: engage.burnside

In 1870, Christopher Penfolds succumbed to illness, and Mary continued being the head honcho of the winery, expanding it even further. By 1884, the Penfolds banner was responsible for one third of South Australia’s wines, and in 1907, the combined wineries under Penfolds were the largest in South Australia. With fame and production prowess, Penfolds started acquiring prestigious vineyards all across South Australia, such as the Kalimna vineyard in Barossa Valley, and in 1943, acquired the Auldana vineyard and winery right beside the Magill estate.

Mary Penfold. Source: Penfolds

1950s: Rulebreakers in the face of tradition

Much of the Old World wines draw their allure from their prestigious vineyards: where wine quality was often (sometimes pre)determined by where the grapes come from which vineyard it was grown at and winery the wine was produced.

Enter Max Shubert - the chief winemaker at Penfolds during the time. Max Shubert had humble beginnings - joining the Penfolds company as a messenger boy in 1931, before rising to chief winemaker in 1948. Max Shubert was sent to Europe to learn more about winemaking, was heavily inspired by the big, powerful and bold blends of the continent, and in particular, the first growth estates of Bordeaux. Max became obsessed with making an equivalent Australian wine that was “capable of staying alive for a minimum of twenty years and comparable to those of Bordeaux.”

Max Shubert. Souce: Penfolds

However, much of the Bordeaux grape varietals were not in great supply in Australia. These included varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Malbec. Instead, Syrah (called Shiraz in Australia) was much more plentiful. Max Shubert got to work in 1951, and began experimenting with the grape.

Shiraz/Syrah. Source:The Wine Cellar Insider

Max, with the help of his research chemist Ray Beckwith, married ideas from the great French winemakers with a methodical, scientific approach to wine making.They pioneered the use of pH testing to assess wines on their balance in terms of acidity and sugar levels, cold fermentation, the use of new oak, and many other then-modern winemaking techniques, in the pursuit of making a wine that would last for at least 20 years. 

The Penfolds winemaking team in a tasting. Source: Penfolds

Perhaps an interesting footnote in Penfold’s Grange was that the wines were selected from vineyards across Australia - not being limited to a single locality. As mentioned before, much of Europe’s top wines are made with grapes sourced from only one region - for example, a wine with the Champagne appellation could only use grapes grown and picked from Champagne. Yet, in his pursuit to emulate wines made for longevity, Max did not follow this rigid principle. Forgoing the appellation and terroir-based approach on wines, he blended grapes across vineyards, ensuring that the best grapes with the right flavour profiles were chosen.

The 1855 Bordeaux grau clusse classification is an example of an appellation system. Source: Wine Folly

The first wine from this project, named Hermitage Grange, was released commercially in 1952. However, he received much criticism for the wine by local critics, saying the wine was awful. The climate of Australian wines at the time favoured focus on primary flavours - the juicy, fruit forward flavours that displayed the varietal’s characteristics, and these wines were meant to be drunk young. Just five years later, senior management at Penfolds ordered Max to can the project. However, the production manager Jeffrey Penfold Hyland helped by turning a blind eye away from the project, and in secret, Max continued his work under the noses of his employers. Max worked on three other “vintages” of wine - the Grange, 57 and 58 and 59.

Some of the original vintages of The Grange. Source: Penfolds


The Starchild of Australian Wines

The 1960s rolled around, and this is when the wines started to really show their flavour after 10 years of cellaring. The tertiary flavours are produced when organic compounds interact and form interactions in the wine from ageing, giving complex notes of mushroom, leather and forest floor. The Penfolds management restarted the project (which had been going on in secret anyway), and when the Grange 1955 vintage was presented at Australian wine shows, it was awarded 52 gold medals and 12 trophies across many wine tournaments and competitions. The Grange 1955 was Max Shubert’s personal favourite, and the most decorated of the Grange series by far. 

The Grange 55. Source: Cellar Tracker

Remember how the wine was originally named Hermitage Grange? The Hermitage name was used as an alternative way to call the Syrah, or Shiraz grape back then. However, the name was quickly protested against, as French authorities wanted to protect the naming of wines from the Hermitage region. Hence, the wine was only known as Grange, named after the cottage within the Magill estate.

The actual Hermitage. Source: Wikipedia

Nevertheless, the Grange series not only placed Penfolds in the limelight of premium wine producers, but also put Australia on the wine map - in a time when New World wines were still seen as somewhat inferior or not on par with the Old World juggernauts. Within Australia itself, port and fortified wines saw a decline, and instead ushered a newfound appreciation of red and white wines. 

Max Shubert became a wine celebrity with The Grange. Source: Penfolds

Till today, bottles of the Grange 51, the very first vintage of the Grange project, has been the most expensive bottle of Australian wine ever sold, selling for over $150,000 in an auction house. The Grange series has consistently been a highly sought after and anticipated release of wine - with many vintages earning prestigious acclaim and ratings. The Grange 2008 received a full 100 points from the Wine Spectator and Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, two of the world’s leading wine magazines. 

The Grange was dubbed "Australia's Icon" by the Wine Spectator. Source:Robert Camuto

Bins, White Granges, and what else? 

While the Grange has always been the showstopper for Penfolds, the Penfolds brand does not only cater to the top leagues of wine. Within the brand, there are other notable, more accessible wines that have made it a staple in supermarkets around the world. 

Vintage ad. Source: Penfolds

You may have seen the “Bin” on a Penfolds label, what is that? The Bin refers to the “Batch Identification Number”, a reference to where wines were matured in the Magill Estate cellar. Max Shubert used to call the experimental Grange as Bin 1 - making it easy for the winemaking team at the winery to identify the style and location of the wine. In 1959, Shiraz grapes were harvested from the Kalimna Vineyard from the Barossa Valley, turned into wine, and given the label “Bin 28”, the official first wine of the Bin series. 

Bin 28. Source: The Cellar SG

Since then, many notable “Bins” were produced, each with their own story to tell and kept to a close consistency in style from its original batch. The Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz,  a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz grapes, had its first vintage in 1960. The Bin 707 was a wine made with 100% Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, named after the Boeing 707, and was a breakaway from using Cabernet Sauvignon as a blending grape but as a standalone varietal.

Cabernet Sauvignon and the Bin 707. Source: Wine Searcher and SimplyAlcohol

Penfolds decided that it needed to innovate further, and hence, kickstarted a project to make a white wine that could be held in the same awe as the flagship reds. In 1995, sometimes dubbed the “White Grange”, Penfolds released the Yattarna Chardonnay, and continues to release bottlings till today. 

Yattarna Chardonnay. Source: O'Briens Wine

Penfolds has also spread its wings beyond Australia, literally - by taking cuttings from their old vines and planting them in California. Collaborating with Dourthe Bordeaux from France, Penfolds released a bottling where wines from both wineries were blended and bottled in South Australia. A foray into vineyards in China led to the Chinese Winemaking Trial (CWT) 521 - the “5” named after grapes sourced from four regions from Yunnan and one region from Ningxia (hence 5 regions), and “21” for the first commercial vintage of the wine. 

The CWT 521 Reveal. Source: South China Morning Post

A Family Business Goes Corporate

Penfolds went through a series of matryoshka-like acquisitions, at first by Tooth and Co. in 1976, a brewing company based in New South Wales that became part of the Adelaide Steamship Company Group in 1982. In 1990, the winery assets of Adelaide Steamship Company Group were bought over by S.A .Brewing, named “Southcorp Wines”, which then became a part of Foster Group in 2005.

Treasury Wine Estates. Source: Coonawarra.org

A vote was held in 2011 within the Foster Group shareholders to demerge wine assets and brewing assets, and hence the wine arm became the Treasury Wine Estates, and has since been operating alone. A few recognisable names under Treasury Wine Estates include Wolf Blass, 19 Crimes and Beringer. 

Weathering the Storm 

Unfortunately for the world of great tipples, it is not immune to crime and politics at large. The thirst for fine wine in China has accounted for a huge part of Penfold’s funding in 2020, as well as Treasury Wine Estates. Penfolds has been nicknamed “Ben Fu 奔富”, that translates to “leaping prosperity”, reflecting the generally positive reception of the brand amongst Chinese drinkers. While wines have always been a popular gift, corporate or personal, the Penfolds brand has always been associated with both familiarity and quality - where the wines are approachable and generally well liked, yet with an assurance that you’re getting something of value. 

The 2015 Penfolds Collection launch in Shanghai. Source: Penfolds

However, Penfolds would soon find itself with the age-old problem associated with luxury goods - counterfeiting. While a universal problem across the world, the prestige of drinking fine red wine has led to a counterfeiting problem in China - empty bottles being refilled with cheaper wine and marked up higher than original prices. Amongst Penfold bottles being counterfeited are revered Bordeaux châteaux like first-estate Lafite Rothschild, which Chinese authorities has seized millions worth in an “iron fist” against food safety breaches. 

The seizure of thousands of Penfolds counterifeit wines made news in Australia and China. Source: news.com.au

Despite promising ventures in Chinese vineyards and growing popularity, no winery is immune to international politics. In 2020, trading spats between Australia and China led to high tariffs on Australian wine in the Chinese market, pricing out many drinkers. It is only recently when tense trade relations start to thaw that Australian wines are starting to see a slow return back into the Chinese market, including the well established Penfolds. 

The "One by Penfolds" series using grapes from vineyards in Ningxia. Source: Vino Joy News

Penfolds, no longer just an Australian wine?

It seems that Penfolds will only go more international from here on out. When Peter Gago rose to be the fourth chief winemaker in 2002, Penfolds engaged in numerous international projects, while keeping the original serieses that made Penfolds Penfolds alive. Despite the recent international forays, Penfolds continue to score high in their true-blue Australian wines, with the Yattarna Chardonnay 2021 vintage scoring its first 100 points by Andrew Caillard. 

Peter Gago. Source: Options

The exciting conundrum with Penfolds is that it breaks the hyperfocus mould on terroir - that good wine has to be defined only within the parameters of tradition and strict locality. With the bold move of setting up and working with vineyards in China, it’s exciting to see what lies ahead for this Australian powerhouse.