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Australia's winemaking history of less than two hundred years is brief by European measures though, like Europe, punctuated by periods of extreme success and difficult times. From the earliest winemaking days Penfolds has figured prominently and few would argue the importance of Penfolds’ influence on Australia’s winemaking psyche.
Without the influence of Penfolds the modern Australian wine industry would look very different indeed. Sitting comfortably outside of fad and fashion, Penfolds has taken Australian wine to the world on a grand stage and forged a reputation for quality that is without peer.
Penfolds’ reputation for making wines of provenance and cellaring potential might suggest a mantle of tradition and formality is the preferred attire of a company with so much history to defend. But to label Penfolds as simply an established and conventional winemaker, would be to confuse tradition with consideration and to overlook the innovative spirit that has driven Penfolds since its foundation, and continues to find expression in modern times.
If there is anything traditional about Penfolds, it is the practice of constantly reviewing the wines it already does well, and continuously evolving and refining styles as vineyards mature and access to ever older and more varied vineyard sites improves.
Making The Best Possible Wine
At Penfolds, the role of the winemaker is to make the best possible wine within the constraints of each vintage. Penfolds’ house style emerged from a fortified-wine producing culture and evolved as a winemaking philosophy – a way of making wine – which has had a profound effect on the entire Australian wine industry.
The concept of multi-regional and vineyard blending, a feature of the Penfolds house style, is an amplification of the ‘all-round wine’. Without the constraints of a single vineyard, winemakers could choose the best possible fruit with the outstanding characteristics of each vineyard.
While American oak has played a central role in the development of Penfolds red wines, French oak has been increasingly used in the evolution of new wines – particularly RWT and Yattarna. Maturation in oak, which follows fermentation, is also key to the Penfolds house style.
The Penfolds approach to winemaking has percolated through the entire Australian wine industry over the last 50 years. The techniques employed in research and development of Penfolds wines are remarkable and many of the discoveries and innovations have had a lasting impact on winemaking thinking.
In Max Schubert, Don Ditter, John Duval and Peter Gago, Penfolds has nurtured four of Australia's great winemakers. They have passed the Chief Winemaker’s baton of responsibility for crafting some of Australia's most iconic wines, down through the past six decades.
Joining Peter Gago in the Penfolds winemaking team are Senior Red Winemaker Steve Lienert, Senior White Winemaker Kym Schroeter, and Red Winemakers Andrew Baldwin, Adam Clay, Stephanie Dutton and Matt Woo - also the Penfolds Fortified Winemaker. All members of the Penfolds winemaking team ensure that Penfolds’ reputation for outstanding quality is upheld.
Penfolds draws fruit from a combined vineyard area of 618 hectares in the Barossa region of South Australia. The Barossa is about 70 kilometres north of Adelaide and in 1911 Penfolds established a winery at Nuriootpa, completed in time for the 1913 vintage. The Barossa region is known for its relatively low rainfall with many vineyards dry grown on single wire trellising.
The historic and heritage-protected Magill Estate Vineyard was established in 1844 by Dr Christopher Rawson and Mary Penfold—just eight years after the foundation of Adelaide. It was originally known as the Grange Vineyard, named after their new homestead ‘The Grange’, a cottage which still stands intact amongst the vines.
Joseph Gilbert planted the first vines in the Eden Valley in 1842 and since that time the region has become synonymous with producing elegant riesling and complex shiraz. While its name suggests a concave nature, Eden Valley is actually a wide ridge, situated east of the Barossa Valley with an altitude ranging from 440 – 550 metres.
McLaren Vale is located approximately 40km to the south of Adelaide, with the vineyards in the region located between 6 and 15 kilometres from the Gulf of St Vincent. The elevation ranges from 50 to 350 metres above sea level. Penfolds has company owned vineyards throughout the region, using the fruit as blending components for premium red wines such as Grange and Bin 389.
Penfolds has had a long history with the Coonawarra region, dating back to their first vineyard purchase in 1960. It is one of the most famous red wine regions in Australia with weathered limestone terra rossa soils, relatively cool climate and overall water availability. Coonawarra has played a significant role in many of Penfolds' multi-regional wines as well as the single region wines such as Bin 128. James Halliday Australian Wine Companion Winery Of The Year 2014: Penfolds
Penfolds is Australia’s foremost winemaker, with an unbroken line dating back to its establishment in 1844 when medical practitioner Dr Christopher Rawson Penfold and wife Mary purchased ‘the delightfully situated and truly valuable of Mackgill … Comprising 500 acres (202 hectares) of the choicest land’. Here they built the house that still stands today, and within a few years had begun the winery and cellar on the site of today’s buildings at Magill Estate.
Mary took charge of winemaking, initially producing grenache prescribed by her husband as a tonic for anaemic patients. By 1870 she, son-in-law Thomas Hyland and cellar manager/winemaker Joseph Gillard had formed Penfolds & Co. With markets in South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales, their wine production was over one-third of South Australia’s total.
Growth continued unabated, and in 1945 Penfolds acquired the jewel of the Magill Vineyard, at that time the largest vineyard in South Australia. It now has 2100 hectares of vineyards, the largest share of Australia’s total. Two men came together in the 1950s to lay the foundation of Penfolds today: winemaker Max Schubert, and research chemist Ray Beckwith (who died shortly after his 100th birthday in 2012); indeed, their contribution transcended Penfolds to the entire Australian wine industry.
The architecture for the Penfolds wine portfolio of the twenty-first century was established in the 1960s, half a century ago. There has been growth, both in the range of labels and their price points, but it has been cleverly – indeed sensitively – managed; demand-driven growth has been achieved without any quality compromise whatsoever.
There is no possibility that the pre-eminence of Penfolds will ever be challenged by any other Australian wine business. Equally certain is that the Penfolds brand value will continue to gain ground on the world stage of all consumable products. If proof be needed, the overall quality of the wines in this Wine Companion is the best Penfolds has ever presented to the markets of the globe.
Author: James Halliday Jul 2013