Winemaker Peter Lehmann, who just turned 80, is considered a hero in Australian wine circles. It’s not just the wines in a career that spans more than 60 years, but what he did in the 1980s to rescue a host of Barossa Valley growers who likely would have gone out of business if he hadn’t started Peter Lehmann Wines in 1980.
Today’s economic woes pale in comparison to what was happening then. The oversupply was so bad that the government instituted what was called a “vine-pull scheme.” Many growers actually did pull out mature vines, but others realized that the plan only paid growers not to 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. And that is why so much old-vine Shiraz and Grenache still exists in the Barossa today.
Lehmann’s role was to give those who badly needed a home for their grapes a place to sell them at a decent price. Growers knew him from his previous positions as winemaker for Yalumba, where he started in 1947, moving on in 1960 to Saltram, a longtime independent Barossa Valley winery. He left Saltram as it embarked on a series of ownership changes that was leaving the growers behind.
“I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t do something,” recalled Lehmann, who has said many times that he started his namesake wine company as much for the growers as for himself. Lehmann is one of Australia’s most successful wineries today. Peter and his wife of 40 years, Margaret, were in California visiting his U.S. importer, the Hess Collection in Napa Valley, and invited me to taste wines from each decade of his work.
The impressive lineup reflected a depth and variety that might surprise those unaware of how long Australia has been at this game of making world-class wines. There was a 50-year-old Shiraz, a 47-year-old Cab-Shiraz, a 21-year-old blend of Bordeaux grapes and an extraordinary Madeira-like wine that contained some lots that were 80 years old. Every wine was vibrant, drinkable and at least dinner-worthy. The best were superb.
We started with a wine from his first year as a chief winemaker, Saltram Claret Bin 27 1959. Made from 100 percent Shiraz, it was among the few dry red wines then being made in Australia. “At the time it would have been 95 percent fortified wines,” Lehmann said. “We matured all the wines in 500-gallon oak tanks. New oak barrels did not come in until 1972.”
Although fully mature, the 1959 still showed a lovely core of cherry and earth flavors. It had roasted tomato and tomato leaf nuances on a long and polished frame. Distinctive, complex and elegant. 90 points, non-blind.
“What was that like when it was young?” I wondered. “Very solid,” said Lehmann. “But not as heavy as some. Before the 1970s, 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. Most of the reds were some blend of Shiraz, Grenache and Mataro.”
Saltram Mamre Brook 1963, a blend of 65 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and the rest Shiraz, was a single-vineyard wine, for the first time named after the vineyard instead of being called Claret or Burgundy. I liked the wine at first, respecting its open texture with a hint of meaty flavor and bay leaf to the cherry and sassafras notes. It was complex and seamless, with a savory finish (92 points, non-blind, at first, but after 20 minutes it had faded, and the meatiness rose up to dominate the fruit; final non-blind score, 86).
This lineup of Australian wines dated back to 1959.
Representing the next decade, Saltram Shiraz HP Basket Press 1973 was a new one for me. I was put off by its earthy, red pepper aromas and slightly medicinal character, and the tannins were still tough after all these years (80 points, non-blind). Lehmann disagreed. “To me it’s got strength, vitality, depth and terrific tannin,” he said, adding, “This was pure 100 percent pressings.” Aha! No wonder it was so tough in the mouth. Press wines contain high levels of tannins and are usually used in small doses to add mouthfeel to the free-run wine.
The first Peter Lehmann-labeled wine got us back on track, big time. Cabernet Malbec Merlot Shiraz Barossa Valley 1989 was quite a mouthful to say, which is why later vintages were simply called Mentor, now one of Australia’s highest-regarded Cabernet blends. At only 13.5 percent alcohol, it showed refinement and focus. Still youthful, it played out its beautiful currant and tomato leaf flavors with power and grace. It remained complex and elegant in the glass sipped with lunch. 95 points, non-blind, on my scorecard.
“We were very used to making Cabernet-Shiraz, and I thought, let’s try going back to that early 20th-century Bordeaux idea of hermitagé," said Lehmann, referring to the practice in which Syrah-based wine from France's Rhône Valley was added surreptitiously to a classic Bordeaux blend to add richness and depth.
The next wine, Peter Lehmann Shiraz Barossa Stonewell 1996, represented the best vintage of the 1990s, with a single-vineyard wine of astonishing suppleness, depth and power. Gorgeous stuff, it showed spicy cherry and blackberry flavors that glowed through polished tannins. Has power without excess weight, and it feels like it can go on for decades. Easily 95 points, non-blind.
The last red, Peter Lehmann Shiraz Barossa 2008, was a juicy mouthful with lively balance and nice focus to the spicy blue fruit flavors. For me, 89 points, non-blind.
The wine of the day, though, was W. Salter & Son Pty. Ltd. Sweet White Show Wine, bottled in 1973. Very Madeira-like, its light brown, tawny color heralded a complex nutty, tangy, pruny array of aromas. Very sweet, its syrupy qualities were balanced with mouthwatering acidity. Very long, and extraordinary in its freshness and detail. 97 points, non-blind.
“He came home very excited the day they bottled that,” Margaret recalled. “We had it for breakfast for a whole week.”
Peter explained, “We found some old casks of sweet white wines, Verdelho, Chenin Blanc, other grapes we really didn’t know. They made a terrific blend. It won us a lot of awards.”
Today, Peter Lehmann focuses on bright, juicy, polished wines at fair prices, like that Shiraz 2008. But it still makes Mentor and Stonewell, and a few other special bottlings, and it buys from more than 200 growers, keeping them in business in another difficult economic time.
It’s a formula for success that seems to have eluded some of the younger guns in Oz these days. But the good ones have learned from the master the virtues of good—and creative—wines from good vineyards, made with ripe fruit and no-nonsense, balanced winemaking.