Going back over some old papers recently, I was reminded of a meeting in 1987 with Max Schubert, the inventor of Penfolds Grange, in his home in Adelaide, seven years before he died. He was a fascinating man: in his early 70s, small and wiry, gravelly voiced and short of breath after a lifetime of smoking, and with something about him of an amiable fox. Grange, he explained, was born out of what he had seen in Bordeaux during the 1950 harvest. The French region had not been on the original itinerary for his first trip to Europe, and his attention was supposed to be exclusively focused on port and sherry, the fortified styles from which the company run by Gladys Penfold, his employer, made its money. But he had a few days to spare and an introduction to Christian Cruse, one of the leading negociants in Bordeaux. “And I thought, why not? I may never get another chance.”
Speaking not a word of French, the 35 year-old Australian took careful note of everything he saw and resolved to replicate as much of it as he could when he got home. “Of course we didn’t have much Cabernet Sauvignon, so I used Shiraz,” he said. “And our unseasoned casks were made of American oak not French, but the methods were the same.”
Except, I suggested, for one significant detail. “When you started to make Grange, you finished the fermentation in new barrels. Why, did you do that?”
Schubert looked at me in surprise at the question. “Because that’s what they do in France,” he said simply.
I hesitated before daring to contradict one of the world’s greatest winemakers. “No, they don’t,” I eventually said.
“Oh, but I saw them,” came the response.
A few months later, on a visit to Bordeaux, I took the opportunity to raise the question with a winemaker of a similar age to Schubert. No, he confirmed, there was no tradition of barrel fermenting reds. But then what, I asked, could the visitor from the other side of the planet have witnessed in 1950?
The moment I mentioned the vintage, the Frenchman’s expression changed. “Ah,” he said thoughtfully. “He might have seen it then…” The first harvest of that decade was big – twice the size of its predecessor – and ruined by rain in the Médoc. “Everyone was rushing to get the grapes in, but there was nowhere to put them. So maybe they made space in the vats by pouring the half-fermented must into the barrels. Besides, everybody knew the wine wasn’t going to be good.”
And what about the new oak?
There would, the winemaker explained, have been an unusually large number of new barrels – not to impart vanilla flavour, but simply to replace the old ones after the difficult years of the great Depression and the war. “Of course, there was also more money to pay for them” he continued “thanks to the good vintages of 1945, ’47 and ’49.”
If Schubert really did base his winemaking experiments on what was actually some wholly uncharacteristic behaviour in the Médoc, it adds an ironic edge to the comment by his biographer, Huon Hooke that, “Many other Australians had travelled to Bordeaux to discover its secrets … But they did not come home with the gems of insight that Max did.”
And, for an extra touch of irony, five years after my conversation with Max Schubert, and shortly before his death, a couple of Bordeaux estates – Despagne and Reignac- revealed that they were experimenting with more extreme versions of what at least some of us thought of as the ‘Australian’ notion of barrel fermentation. In 2001, after tasting Thibault Despagne’s Girolate, Michel Rolland went as far as to suggest that full fermentation in cask might become a ‘new standard’
So far, that prediction has yet to come true and, today, most of the attention is on eggs of one kind or another. But who’s to say what’s around the corner– and where the idea might come from.