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Schubert, Max Edmund (1915–1994)

by Charles Gent

This article was published online in 2018

Max Edmund Schubert (1915–1994), winemaker, was born on 9 February 1915 at Moculta on the north-eastern fringe of South Australia’s Barossa Valley, third surviving child of Adolph Carl Schubert, blacksmith, and his wife Emilie Clara, née Linke. His parents were locally born descendants of German-speaking Silesian migrants. Max was educated at Nuriootpa Higher Primary School. At fifteen he began working as an odd-jobs boy at the Nuriootpa winery of Penfold’s Wines Pty Ltd, where his duties included assisting the firm's first chemist, John Farsch. In 1933 Schubert was transferred to the company’s Magill winery near Adelaide. Apprenticed to the head winemaker, Alfred Vesey, Schubert learned the complex skills of blending, and studied chemistry at the South Australian School of Mines and Industries. He was also tutored by the Nuriootpa winemaker and chemist, Ray Beckwith, in adjusting the pH levels in wine with organic acid to prevent bacterial spoilage.

In defiance of a management order directing workers to stay at their posts, Schubert enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) on 29 June 1940. He served in the Middle East (1940–42), North Africa (1941), Greece (1941), and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) (1942) with the 2/2nd Army Field Workshops, and in New Guinea with the 6th Division Ordnance Workshop (1943) and the 2/119th Brigade Workshop (1944–45). In June 1944 he was promoted to sergeant. While on leave, on 26 July that year he married Thelma Maud Humphrys, a typist at Penfold’s, at the Kent Town Methodist Church.

Following his discharge from the AIF on 11 September 1945, Schubert returned to Magill. Although he was initially demoted to cellar-hand, within three years he was chief winemaker at the vineyard. In 1950 the company’s chairman, Gladys Penfold Hyland, sent him to Europe to study sherry-making in Spain. As part of a side-trip, he travelled to Bordeaux in France, where he tasted old vintages at first growth estates, and the vigneron and négociant Christian Cruse exposed him to local winemaking practices. At a time when Australia's wine consumption and exports were dominated by sweet, fortified styles, he was inspired to create a red table wine of a quality, depth of flavour, and longevity previously unknown.

Using shiraz as his base variety and flouting French preference for a single site, Schubert chose to make his experimental wine by blending the best fruit from disparate South Australian regions. Called Grange Hermitage, it married the name of Christopher Penfold’s cottage at Magill with the premier shiraz-growing region of France. The first vintage was produced in 1951 from old-bush vines at Magill and Morphett Vale. Later vintages drew on grapes from Reynella, McLaren Vale, and the Clare Valley, but the wine's core was ‘grown on low-yielding, old, non-irrigated Barossa vines’ (Halliday 1990, 151). Its character was developed through cool, controlled fermentation, extended contact between the fermenting wine and its grape skins, exposure to air, and long maturation in small barrels of new American oak. The result was ‘a big wine in bouquet, flavour, and balance’ (Schubert 1990, 78).

In early showings, response to the concentrated and tannic wine was almost unanimously hostile and sometimes derisive: critics invoked ‘crushed ants’ and ‘dry port’ (Schubert 1990, 81). Before the 1957 vintage Schubert was ordered to cease production. With the connivance of Jeffrey Penfold Hyland, however, he disobeyed the instruction, covertly employing used barrels to create further vintages. As the early wines aged and softened, assessments at trade tastings improved and production was officially resumed in 1960. From 1962 Grange won an unprecedented run of medals and trophies at Australia's major wine shows. The leading English wine writer Hugh Johnson praised it as ‘the one true first-growth of the southern hemisphere’ (1983, 472). Grange established itself as Australia's most famous, expensive, and sought-after wine.

From 1960 Schubert was Penfold’s national production manager and later a director (1968–82). Determined to reform the company's winemaking practices, he introduced elements of the Grange approach across its range of reds, oversaw the creation of many of the numbered ‘Bin’ varieties, and established a central laboratory. He was also a leader in the adoption of cold stabilisation of white wine to avoid crystal formation, and in the use of plastics to overcome taint from metal. The success of his methods influenced subsequent Australian wine styles and techniques. Struggling with poor health and overwork, and buffeted by changes of management, he reluctantly left full-time work in 1975. He continued as a technical consultant and was instrumental in creating the prestigious Magill Estate Shiraz (released 1983).

A gentle, modest, and dedicated man, Schubert had a deep, somewhat gravelly, voice and a nose ‘made for sniffing wine’ (Halliday 1994, 13). He was appointed AM in 1984, named man of the year by the London magazine Decanter in 1988, and was inaugural winner of the Maurice O'Shea award, the Australian wine industry’s major honour, in 1990. In later years he promoted the company at events interstate and overseas but was dogged by deteriorating health, developing emphysema after decades of heavy smoking. Survived by his wife, and their son and daughter, he died on 6 March 1994 at Magill and was buried in Centennial Park cemetery, Adelaide. He was widely eulogised as a visionary innovator of Australian winemaking and in the year of his death a State electorate encompassing the Barossa Valley was named after him.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Evans, Len. Complete Book of Australian Wine. 3rd ed. Dee Why West, NSW: Paul Hamlyn, 1978
  • Faith, Nicholas. Liquid Gold: The Story of Australian Wine and Its Makers. Sydney: Pan Macmillan, 2002
  • Gent, Charles. Mixed Dozen: The Story of Australian Winemaking since 1788. Sydney: Duffy & Snellgrove, 2003
  • Halliday, James. ‘First Growth Winemaker.’ Australian, 9 March 1994, 13
  • Halliday, James. More Vintage Halliday: Wine Writing. North Ryde, NSW: Angus & Robertson, 1990
  • Hooke, Huon. Max Schubert: Winemaker. Alexandria, NSW: Kerr Publishing, 1994
  • Johnson, Hugh. Hugh Johnson’s Wine Companion: The New Encyclopaedia of Wines, Vineyards, and Winemakers. Sydney: Colporteur Press, 1983
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, SX6898
  • Schubert, Max. ‘The Story of Grange Hermitage.’ In Penfolds: The Rewards of Patience. 2nd ed., 70–84. [St Peters, NSW]: Penfolds, 1990

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Citation details

Charles Gent, 'Schubert, Max Edmund (1915–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/schubert-max-edmund-27126/text34671, published online 2018, accessed online 22 July 2019.

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