Peter Lehmann died in Adelaide, Australia, on June 28 after kidney surgery. He was 82. Known as “The Baron of Barossa,” Lehmann made wine there for 66 years and was a key figure in the region’s rebound from financial hardship in the 1970s to renewal in the 1980s.
In the early '70s, the oversupply of grapes in Barossa was so bad that the government instituted what was called a “vine-pull scheme.” Many growers actually did pull out mature vines, but most simply accepted subsidies to not produce grapes for several years. Those who could ride it out took the government’s money, let their vineyards go wild, then started retraining the vines after the hiatus.
But they needed a place for their grapes, and Lehmann is remembered for providing it. He started his own winery in 1979, while still chief winemaker at Saltram Wines, to give Barossa growers a place to sell their grapes as the region struggled to recover. “I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t do something,” Lehmann recalled in a 2010 interview with Wine Spectator. Originally known as Masterson Barossa Vineyards, it became Peter Lehmann wines in 1982.
Born in Angaston, in 1930, in the heart of the wine region, he got his first job at the age of 17 in the cellars of Yalumba Winery. In 1960 he moved to Saltram to be chief winemaker when it was still an independent Barossa Valley winery. He left after a series of ownership changes and devoted himself full time to his own business.
Lehmann maintained a winemaking style that emphasized the character of the vineyards over winemaking elaborations. For grapes such as Shiraz and Riesling he preferred to rely on pure varietal character, even in such single-vineyard bottlings as Stonewell and old-vine selections such as 8 Songs. His high-end blends, such as Mentor (Cabernet, Malbec and Shiraz), also have achieved high ratings over the years. Peter Lehmann wines have earned more than 50 scores of 90 points or higher on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale.
He had a dry sense of humor. Discussing one of his first wines, a 1959 bottling simply called Claret, he said, “In those days we labeled the reds Burgundy if you could stand a spoon up in them, Claret if you tilted the glass and the spoon tipped along with it.”
He retired in 2002 as head of the winery, but continued to live on the property, surrounded by vines, with his wife, Margaret. The winery was sold to The Hess Group, based in Switzerland and known for its Hess Collection California wines, in 2003. But even as his health was failing, Lehmann continued to be the label’s figurehead, often presiding at lavish dinners prepared by the winery’s in-house chefs. Lehmann is survived by his wife, Margaret, his sons Doug, David, and Philip and daughter Libby.