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Schubert, Max Edmund (1915–1994)

by Ken Helm

Grange Hermitage lives on after the passing of its maker, Max Schubert, and will be the lasting tribute to his contribution to the Australian wine industry. Not just for Grange, but for the development of the other red table wines he orchestrated at Penfolds.

The wine reflects little of the maker's personality: a kind, gentle person who loved to help young winemakers and consumers alike to appreciate his creation and enjoy wine generally. By comparison Grange was, and still is, a controversial and individualistic wine which has caused arguments and debate around dinner and boardroom tables alike.

Max Schubert was born in the Barossa Valley in 1915 and died on March 6, 1994, as the grapes were being gathered to produce this year's Grange. It will surely be regarded as one vintage to acquire and treasure. The regard for the wine was not always high, especially when he produced the first couple of vintages.

Schubert, as a 34-year-old winemaker from Australia, first visited European vineyards in 1950 where he was taken under the wing of Monsieur Christian Cruse, one of the most respected and highly qualified winemakers of the old school of France at the time. Cruse showed young Schubert Bordeaux wines 40 and 50 years old which were sound and possessed magnificent bouquet and flavour. This Max Schubert single event would change Australian red wine-making forever.

When he returned home, Schubert decided to try to make a new style of Australian red, based on the techniques he had seen in France, where wine would live for years and develop flavour and complexity. As Len Evans described them, "The rich generous wines of Max few could copy." At first, however, the wines were dismissed as a failure and sold for a few shillings.

The first vintage, 1951, was matured in 300-litre new American oak casks to obtain the flavour of the oak which has become a trade mark of the wine. The following vintages through to 1956 saw an accumulation of a large stock of bottled wine. This stock did not go unnoticed at head office of Penfolds in Sydney.

The call for a representative collection of this new experimental wine was received. A tasting of the collection by wine identities, personal friends of the board and top management, declared the wine a disaster – no-one liked Grange Hermitage. The wine was sent to beef and burgundy clubs. The reaction was the same.

Jeffery Penfold Hyland was a notable exception, and supported Max and the wine. Not even his support on the Penfolds board could stop the instruction to "stop making Grange" which came in 1957, but his support gave Max the courage to disregard the instruction and continue to make the wine in smaller quantities and in secret. By 1960, the wine had gained recognition and the board sent an instruction to start making Grange again. He gladly told them that he had not stopped.

The wine has been claimed by experts around the world as the greatest outside France.

We will all miss Max, not only for the wines he created but for his gentleness and kindness. Raise your glass to the passing of a great man.

Original publication

  • Canberra Times, 8 March 1994, p 12

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Citation details

Ken Helm, 'Schubert, Max Edmund (1915–1994)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/schubert-max-edmund-27126/text35007, accessed 10 December 2018.

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