Max Schubert on the birth of Penfolds Magill Estate Shiraz

In February 1992 I spent several days at Magill Estate, Adelaide, interviewing Max Schubert (1915-1994), creator of Grange Hermitage. During a break in the interviews I wandered past open concrete vats bubbling with the new-vintage Magill shiraz. The sweet and sour, unforgettable fermentation aroma filled the air as it must have for a younger Max savouring whiffs of the first Grange from those same vats back in the early 1950s.

The tenth vintage of Magill Estate that I saw and smelled in the vats four years ago has just been released and it seems fitting to reminisce, with the help of the Max Schubert interview, on how the wine came into existence in 1983 and how its success prevented the historic vineyards and winery disappearing under urban Adelaide.

Max Schubert: “… well it goes back to the time when Magill land was being sold off for subdivision and this was being done by Adelaide Steamship (owners of Tooths Brewery which owned Penfolds) because the cost of running the vineyards around Magill was damn near twice that of running them elsewhere. That was one reason. We could never make the Magill vineyard pay…. what I tried to get them to do — I know that was thrown out quick smart — that they should cost each vineyard on the basis of the quality of the of wine it was producing. For instance, Magill produced only top grade quality wine … which brought in the greatest amount of profit and they should be costed on that basis and it was quickly pointed out that that wasn’t in the system.

… he (the financial controller) was thinking of selling the bloody cellars and all at one stage. And we tried to get the government interested… Tonkin was first, and then even Dunstan… in sort of buying the land for posterity, and all Dunstan wanted to do was to carve it up and put a high school there. But Tonkin, he was very sympathetic, but wouldn’t come at buying the place … and preserving it as a heritage thing.

… I discussed it with Jim Williams (Penfolds General Manager) and I reckoned we could make something along the Chateau line… he was enthusiastic about it, so we went into the next board meeting with this proposition that I would design a wine that would be different to a Grange and somewhat different to our other wines in the main and it would be more in keeping with what was then termed as the modern style… and reluctantly this was agreed to provided I did the design down to the nth degree sufficiently for them to get a true costing done and a probability excercise. It was all to be very hush hush, and it was all to be done within the Board itself because our finance man was also in charge of costing and all that rubbish. So this was done and the original design … was all done in my handwriting and was given to the finance director, and he came up with a nice answer.… it allowed for all possible costs, even hidden costs, and so this was placed before the board, and surprisingly they went along with it and well, we haven’t lost any money over it.”

Thus Magill Estate earned the stamp of approval and between Max Schubert and the Penfold wine making team, the first vintage was produced in 1983. And the wine was far different from Grange as the grapes were picked earlier; the wine was fernented at a lower temperature; and it was matured in a mix of American and French oak rather than in all American oak as is the practice with Grange.

Magill quickly carved a reputation for itself and remains amongst an elite group of highly sought after wines at Australian auctions.

Its success underpins a unique status in the Penfold range of reds. It is the only single vineyard wine produced by the company and is the only wine now produced at Magill Estate (Grange production moved to the Barossa Valley in 1973).

To my taste Magill Estate Shiraz has undergone a considerable transformation in its short history. When I revisit those earlier vintage, I find I am indifferent to them — beautifully crafted and structured though they are. Max himself was a great believer in the flavour of fully ripened grapes and I firmly believe those earlier vintages lack that important flavour element.

But in the 1990, 1991 and 1992 we see Magill at its full potential. These vintages pack in beautiful, ripe shiraz flavours that lift the wine to new heights. The 1991, in my view, is the best yet and overshadows the nevertheless brilliant, probably earlier maturing 1992.