This was first published in The Independent Weekly in April 2008
I spent the ANZAC weekend reading A. J. Liebling’s inimitable New Yorker dispatches from the North African front in World War Two. What a godforsaken mess! And there in the midst of it was Grange maker Max Schubert. Shivering with Liebling and a glass of 389 in my ancient blacksmith’s cottage, I felt very close to my old friend Max, who grew up in a blacksmith’s cottage at Moculta.
Much is made of Max’s second international trip, when he studied the great wines of France in 1950, and came home with the recipe of Grange fermenting in his mind. But his first big trip had been ten years earlier, when he served in Libya, Egypt, Greece, Crete, Palestine, Libya and Syria before spending two years in New Guinea. In one terrible action near Mount Olympus, Stuka dive bombers blew his truck to smithereens about him, killing two of his off-siders, and another two hundred hapless infantrymen a little further along the track.
“I never enjoyed the army” he told Huon Hooke in Max Schubert – Winemaker. “I volunteered, because I wanted to prove that I was one hundred per cent Australian … I did my job … there’s absolutely no bloody future in wars.”
Max never met the great Liebling, but as a committed gourmand who covered the war from dining tables in trenches and bars as much as fine restaurants, I’m sure Liebling would have had much in common with our Max, who loved little more than getting his knees under a well-laden table once the impossible work was done.
What a pity that Max did not live to see the triumph Peter Gago has made of the Penfold’s premiums!
In spite of takeovers, booms and busts, the stubborn persistence and continual striving for improvement that marked Max’s winemaking career carry on seamlessly under Peter’s husbandry.
I spent a vintage day with him recently at his beloved Magill cellars, which must have been Australia’s poshest in the early Grange days. Peter has them sparkling like new, and still makes all the Penfold’s super premium reds there, pretty much in the old way. Of course vast improvements in biochemistry, cooperage, available varieties and vineyard selection make it easier than it was in the early days of Max and the likes of the great chemist, Ray Beckwith, but nevertheless, to the untrained eye, things go on pretty much as always.
The heatwave had not yet hit when I called. Peter was finishing his pinot ferments and beginning to accept perfect shiraz, continuously evaluating each precious parcel, adjusting his winemaking this way or that as he aimed each batch at a different end product.
“This one’s for 389”, he’ll murmer, sniffing a glassful of heartily fermenting must. “And this … oooh this? This is headed for St. Henri…”
Some august body of European gourmands had just announced the 1971 St Henri to be worth a perfect score, so he opened another, just to check. It was an astonishing symphony of orange chocolate, pickled lemon, caramel, silk, and Bal a Versailles perfume.
“I woulda bracketed that with 62 and 69 personally” said veteran Grange maker John Bird, as I tried to summarise that sumptuous tincture in my sort of English. I gave it 98 points – the highest I’ve ever awarded an Australian red.
But the new wines were the real reason for this tasting, and let me tell you, there will be some 98 pointers amongst them when they get through the awkwardness of their yoof, not that it’ll take forty years.
Like the Reserve Bin 06A 2006 chardonnay: a long, savage, crunchy beast from the Adelaide Hills – 94 points, easily. In deliberately untidy counterpoint to the staunch, reserved Yattarna 2005, which looks like an Exclusive Brethren in comparison. Same points, but more later.
The 06 Cellar Reserve Adelaide Hills Pinot is Peter’s best one yet, with its mint and bitter cherries, wild yeast and long-haul tannins. 94+++. And his Cellar Reserve Sangiovese 06 plays similar music with its feral heartiness and unfettered natural verve. 94+.
There were two mind-boggling Cellar Reserve Barossa cabernets, the 05 (94++) due for possible release in September; the 06 (95++) impossibly youthfully brash and brilliant, and, as my notes say, “if you must have American oak, have this”, meaning the drop dead gorgeous 05 Bin 707 (94+++).
Shiraz? The newly released St Henri 04 (95+++) “… perfectly formed slender silky juicy dry red...” will give the 71 a run for its money; the 05 Magill Estate “..another 05 that breaks all the rules – just wait…” 94+++; the 05 RWT “…Sophia Loren…” 95++.
All great trips and adventures, these wines. In promoting them, Peter Gago travels the world in a way that would make Joe Liebling and Max Schubert wince. But imagine being half way through all this and feeling sudden obligation to dash off and do your bit dodging Stukas in the north African desert.
For more reviews visit http://drankster.blogspot.com