Max Schubert’s lost Magill specification revealed

Towards the end of his life Grange creator Max Schubert trusted his original hand written specification for Penfolds Magill Estate (first made in 1983) to a trusted colleague, Barrie Woodward, then South Australian state manager of Southcorp Wines (owner of Penfolds at the time).

Until now, Magill has been billed as an estate-grown wine. Indeed its creation saved the historic vineyard, just eight kilometres east of the Adelaide CBD, from subdivision. Schubert’s document reveals, however, plans to beef up shiraz from Magill with material from the Eden Valley and Coonawarra.

Schubert’s specification, dated 9 October 1982:

Chateau Magill Wine

1. Concept

To make a French Chateau style red wine, distinctly different to the Grange Hermitage style, in that body weight and colour would be approximately half that of Grange, whilst aroma, flavour and character would be individual and pronounced, extractives would be less resulting in more elegance consistent with lighter body. As such it would be different to Grange Hermitage.

2. Material

Derived from approximately 16 acres Shiraz or Hermitage grapes remaining as per subdivisional plans Adelaide Development Co.

Hermitage in itself would not be sufficient to give the character, breeding and complexity to make the wine as designated, and would require additional 20% minimum involvement Hermitage from selected vineyard Eden Valley area, and Hermitage or Cabernet Sauvignon from our own Coonwarra Vineyard.

Grapes would be hand picked.’

3. Yield

Based on average 3 tons per acre return from Chateau Magill vineyard would be 50 tons. Supplementary tonnage would be 5 tons Eden Valley Hermitage and 5 tons Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon. This would represent 20% outside involvement. Total tonnage for processing would be 60 tons.’

Penfolds The Rewards of Patience, first edition, published about 1986, describes Magill Estate as ‘the pick of the shiraz fruit off the Magill vineyard’ and that it was ‘the result of the collaboration of Don Ditter, Penfolds’ current Chief Winemaker an Max Schubert A.M., the creator of Grange.’ It doesn’t mention the external material recommended by Schubert.

When I phoned current chief winemaker, Peter Gago, he said he’d not seen Schubert’s document and wasn’t aware of external fruit being used in the wine, but was keen to amend the record if it had been.

Gago subsequently contacted winemaker John Bird, who’d joined Penfolds in 1960 and worked with Schubert and Ditter on those early Magill wines. Bird recalled using Eden Valley and Coonawarra material and even a touch from Clare, up to a legal percentage, for the first two or three vintages – he couldn’t recall precisely for how long. After those first few vintages Magill became entirely an estate-grown wine for philosophical reasons and because it didn’t need beefing up, Bird said.

Bird said he viewed those early vintages as experimental, much as St Henri and Grange had been trialled for several vintages before release. Grange, for example, had been made from 1951, but 1955 was the first to be released. Magill, however, was released immediately, presumably to fulfil a commitment to the Adelaide Steamship board (the board had approved the creation of Magill Estate on the basis of Schubert’s specification, see below).

Woodward, now co-proprietor of Leura Cellars, New South Wales, has now released a copy to Gago for the Penfolds archive. Gago says the full Magill story will appear in the next edition of The Rewards of Patience.

The background to the creation of Magill is related here by Max Schubert (1915–1994) in an interview recorded by David Farmer and myself in Schubert’s office at Magill in 1992:

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 exercise.

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.”

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2010