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History in the Glass from Lehmann

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: May 18, 2007 4:40pm ET

You don't expect a winery's basic red to taste like you want to drink it with dinner after 25 years in the bottle. That sort of longevity is supposed to be for high-priced reserve wines.

But the Peter Lehmann Shiraz 1980, made as an everyday red from Barossa Valley grapes, still shows a core of cherry flavor. It smells like an old red, but it's still vibrant, with crisp texture behind the ripe fruit. I would not hesitate to drink it with a slice of rare roast beef at dinner.

The wine was the oldest in a 25-year retrospective presented to me by Ian Hongell, Lehmann's winemaker today, on a recent foggy San Francisco morning. It represented the first vintage bottled by the then-maverick vintner, who once was the winemaker for Saltram, then one of the mainstays of Barossa. He set up his winery with the support of some 150 independent growers, many of whom still provide their grapes to the winery.

Back in 1980, Barossa Valley was a different place than it is today. Australian wine had just been through some serious doldrums. The government had actually been paying growers to pull out their vines. Times were so tough.

And winemakers were after something different than they are now. Those were the days of "food wines" in California, when vintners decided they wanted their wines to be more tart and less ripe, supposedly to go better with food. Australia was following the same misguided path, resulting in wines that were not as flavorful or as distinctive as what we are accustomed to today.

Hongell, who has been with the winery for the past 10 years, describes the winemaking process then.

"In the early 1980s, they were using big 32-ton fermenters, left the wine on the skins only three days, then finished it in tank," he says. "They had to, to make space. There were grapes backing up at the crusher. They were going for 12 to 12.5 Baumé (which translates to about 13 percent alcohol), so they would pick earlier. In large vineyards they would start with underripe grapes and finish with overripe raisins."

Oh yes. The winery had no oak barrels until 1987.

The winemakers spend more time in the vineyards now, aiming for more consistent ripening. "In the beginning we just took the grapes that came in on the truck," says Hongell. "Now we work with the growers to get as close as we can to ideal ripening. We also have learned to pick the eyes out of the growers' best blocks." In other words, they know the best parts of the vineyard.

Today the winery is fitted out with fermentation tanks of various sizes so lots can be kept separate. Fermentations are longer, developing more color and depth, and a percentage finishes its fermentation in barrel, a common Aussie touch. "One barrel per ton," says Hongell. "it integrates the oak better and results in a smoother wine."

After fermentation, all the Shiraz goes into oak barrels, only one in 12 of which is new. Average alcohol is at or just under 14 percent.

Tasting the wines over 25 years, the differences in style are striking. The wines from the 1980s feel crisp in texture, and the tannins still show significant grip. When they are good, it's because the vintage was generous enough to create a lasting core of fruit. Not surprisingly the celebrated 1986 vintage produced a wine that still has bright cherry and raspberry fruit, mineral and meaty nuances and refined tannins. I rated it 90 points, non-blind, today, not bad for a wine that sold for $7 in the day.

On the other hand, lesser vintages such as 1985 (tart and unfriendly, 78 points) and 1984 (modest cherry and herb flavors, 84) would be unacceptable today.

Lehmann's style hit its stride in the 1990s. In my recent non-blind tasting, I rated most the wines of that decade right around 90, give or take a couple of points. The 1996 was a revelation, fleshy, generous, with appealing layers of dark cherry and blackberry and a tarry edge (92). The 1991 was only a step behind (91), with lively cherry and pomegranate flavors and a lift of acidity to keep them fresh, lingering well.

The 1995, probably a bottle affected adversely by the cork, tasted flat. And the 1999 was excessively gamy, the result of brettanomyces getting out of hand in the winery. In the late 1990s, Lehmann followed the fashion of the time for using virtually no sulphur dioxide. "We have the analysis, we can tell," Hongell admits. "We're using sulphur more wisely now."

The last four wines, 2001 to 2004, amply demonstrate where Lehmann is today. Each one has a supple core of fruit flavor as its calling card, but it also reflects the vintage. 2001, a hot vintage, has firm tannins but fresh plum and blackberry behind it (88). 2002, a cold vintage, is tart and zingy, with a leafy edge to the lively red fruit and a kiss of chocolate on the finish (90). 2003, another hot vintage, has impeccable balance for the vintage, with pretty cherry and raspberry fruit (89). And 2004, a vintage with near-ideal weather, has enough flesh to balance the crisp texture and let the cherry, blackberry, chocolate and spice flavors roll out one by one (89).

Barossa's signature generosity and cherry and berry fruit come through clearly in the wines. More recent vintages show more suppleness and the pleasant spice and chocolate notes that come from judicious use of oak barrels, but they still have a sense of balance that makes them worth the current $16 price tag. Plus, as this tasting suggests, there's no rush to drink them. They'll still be amiable dinner companions in five or 10 years.

Bruce Matheson
May 21, 2007 6:24pm ET
Just wondering if you included the '98 Barossa in that non-blind Lehmann tasting. I have several bottles of it left. I had heard a friend who has several bottles left say her most recent tasting was not as good as she remembered, but I opened a bottle shortly after that and I was still impressed by the balance.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  May 21, 2007 11:51pm ET
I liked the 1998. It was a mouthfilling wine, with tarry blackberry and cherry flavors. Tannins are a bit prickly, but the flesh wins in the end. Drink it with some juicy red meat.
Allen Clark
Arlington, VA —  May 26, 2007 2:05pm ET
Bruce, I opened a bottle of the '98 just a few months ago and my notes were that it was remarkably fleshy, not at all tired, but lacked the vibrancy it showed on release. I wouldn't call it flabby, but it had lost its original zest. Nonetheless not likely to decline for quite a long while.
Bruce Matheson
May 29, 2007 11:19am ET
Thanks for the confirmation, Allen. your description matches what I found. I expect the 'zest' to go, and quite frankly sometimes I think it gets in the way. As long as the balance, fruit, and roundness remain, I'm in no hurry. The color was showing no sign of decline.

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