In 1844 Doc Christopher Penfolds and his wife Mary arrived in South Australia on the ship Taglioni with some vine cuttings from the South of France. They bought some land outside Adelaide and named it “The Grange.” Doc Penfolds prescribed brandy or fortified wine for most of what ails you while Mary made the brandy and wine in her kitchen. The young vintner who gave us a tour of Penfolds’ Heritage winery (the city has encircled the place and encroached on the fields, most of the Penfold’s vineyards are in a valley an hour and a half away) told us that after Doc Penfolds cured them of their ailments they soon came back complaining of a headache.
When we lived in Anchorage our neighborhood bistro featured Penfolds’ wines and Suzi and I enjoyed a bottle of their Shiraz almost every Friday night with our meals. In the 19 years since we were regulars at Jens the wine had gained in popularity and in cost. We can no longer get it in Alaska. We’ve enjoyed it on some of the other cruises we took to Australia when the ship’s wine master took some onboard. But when I was web surfing, looking for things to do in Adelaide, I found tours and wine tastings at the Penfolds’ Magill Estate winery so I signed us up.
It was a hot day, it would get to 103, but it was, fortunately a dry heat. The train took us to town and after walking a few blocks we got on a city bus to the winery. The winery is about 8 and a fraction KM (5 miles) from the Center of the City. In 1844 it was out of town on a hill. Now it is surrounded by Adelaide and is the only urban winery in Australia. The first row of vines along the road serves as a buffer to absorb pollutants, they won’t make wine from them because of the auto pollution. The urban vineyard grow Shiraz grapes.
The young vintner who gave us the tour is interning at Penfolds. He has come from France to learn winemaking in Australia (think on that for a minute.) We opened with a glass of Champaign, which he says they can call Champaign because they are in a joint venture with a French company.
He gave us a tour of the original “Grange” cottage where Doc Penfolds had his practice and Mary cooked up the brandy. The cottage is half buried to keep it cool in the summer and warm in the winter. One of the artifacts on display was an Edison cylinder record player. When the doctor died Mary turned the business into a major winery, adding table wines to the fortified wines and brandies. Today table wines are Penfolds biggest product. After almost 180 years the company is now public, no longer a family company.
From the cottage we visited the winery. Right now the winery is not busy, the harvest will come in at the end of February or the beginning of March. When the production starts the winery will become a very warm building with heat from the fermentation. Then we visited the cellars where the wine is aged, and our guide popped the top on a barrel so we could sniff. One of the vats is named for Hellen Keller, who visited the winery in the late 1940’s. She walked around the vat, feeling it as she went, and correctly called out the vat’s circumference. So, it was named after her.
The chief winemaker for the company in the 1940s through the 60s, Max Schubert, made a special Shiraz he called “Grange” in the early ‘50s. Management didn’t like it so told him to stop. He continued to make it in secret. At the end of the 50s management decided that Grange was worth making so told Schubert to start up production, which he did. The wine won all sorts of awards and the barrels made in secret came out of hiding and sold at a premium. Thirty years ago this premium wine went for $30 a bottle, then $50 a bottle. Now a 2018 Grange Shiraz goes for $1000 a bottle. Some vintages are selling for more. Suzi joked “I bet we won’t be tasting that wine at the end of our tour.” The vintner smiled and said, “don’t be so sure.”
At the wine tasting at the end of the tour they had a flight of 6 glasses of wine laid out for us, 2 Chardonnays, two Shiraz. One Cab, and in the middle, a glass of 2018 vintage Grange. The vintner described each wine, how it was aged, the type of barrel and how the different barrels and techniques added to the flavor. The final glass was the 2018 Grange. I know what we paid for the tour and tasting and how much wine was poured for each of us on the tour. The bottle they opened for the tasting guaranteed that this tour would be a loss leader for Penfolds. After tasting the Grange, which was good, the vintner opened another bottle of Shiraz, a 2019 St. Henri, made by Penfolds, and asked us to compare. All of us agreed that we liked the St. Henri, at $135 a bottle, better than the Grange at $1,000. I think the vintner agreed as well. Usually at a tasting you leave some in the glass so you don’t get too impaired. You better believe I drank every drop of the $1,000 wine. At the end he took us back to the roots of Penfolds with a Tawny (fortified wine) and I would agree with Doc Penfolds, it’s good for what ails you. In all we tasted 8 wines.
The tour over, we took lunch at the winery, outside on the shaded terrace at 100 degrees. We passed on the wine. The tasting pours were generous, and were happy with some sparkling mineral water and that we did not have a car parked 100 meters away that we would somehow have to drive home. We walked to the bus stop in the heat.
Although the ship left at 11 PM most people were back in the early evening. Holland America had booked a well known Australian Folk group, The Beggars, for two shows in the evening. It was a great send off from Adelaide.