19 Apr 2013

Wine: Barossa's Very Special Dirt

Peter Lehmann Wines - Learn Why He Is the King of the Barossa and How to Purchase His Wines (For Kevin The Wineman)
82 year-old Peter Lehmann and wife, Margaret live in Tanunda where their home overlooks acres of gnarled Shiraz vines. Taking the aborigine title for 'water hole', the Lehmann's town is home to nearly 4,000 inhabitants, served by, and serving four Lutheran churches, purportedly the oldest brass band in the southern hemisphere and, most importantly, a clutch of the continent's most revered wineries, including that founded by Peter Lehmann.
Up until peaceful retirement, Lehmann, 'Baron of Barossa', who became the first Australian winemaker to be made a Member of the Order of Australia, but still refers to himself as 'just an old Barossa bastard', lived a distinguished and influential life. Of the fifth generation Barossa son born to a Lutheran pastor, wine writer, James Halliday said: 'It's not often a person becomes a legend in their own lifetime.'
Lehmann began the business of winemaking aged 17. In 1947, he worked alongside Austrian, Rudi Kronberery at Yalumba winery ('all the land around'). It was the beginning of a 13-year tenure. Lehmann was subsequently chosen as winemaker for Saltram Wines, where he carved a reputation for crafting particularly age-worthy wines. Indeed, bottlings of his Shiraz from those days are still uncorked to inspire younger winemakers. But wines of potential and finesse weren't always the dish of the day. Lehmann said: 'I battled corporate arrogance for most of my career, but my defining moment was with the impetuous writer, who after a tasting said to me, "the Barossa floor is only good for growing cabbages".'
During two decades at Saltram, Lehmann grew the operation from 400 tonnes of grapes per year to over 6,000. But disaster crept close in 1978 when the country was experiencing massive surpluses. While Saltram's owners ordered Lehmann to renege on often long-established, but verbal contracts with some 185 local grape growers, Lehmann point-blank refused.
With financial sustenance pledged by family and friends, Lehmann moved quickly, founding a new company - and brand new winery - to buy and process the grapes of loyal growers. He called this Masterson, after master gambler, Sky Masterson. His logo was the Queen of Clubs. Today, Lehmann is buff about the gamble. 'I didn't really see the risks I took as gambles. If they were, they were bloody good ones.'
Lehmann's Victoria-born chief winemaker is Andrew Wigan (aka. 'Wig') a qualified industrial chemist. Wigan has been involved with every wine ever produced by the Peter Lehmann winery. On accepting the position of assistant winemaker at Saltram, Wigan noted his mentor would be none other than winemaker, Peter Lehmann. After four years under Lehmann's tutelage, Wigan choose to embrace Lehmann's rescue venture. The union proved resilient. In 2003, Wigan's role was recognised: Lehmann renamed 'Reserve' Riesling as 'Wigan' Riesling.
Now under the ownership of the Hess Group (with Lehmann retaining just over 10% of shares), Peter Lehmann Wines produces around 600,000 cases per year, with formative distribution throughout Australia, the UK and USA. Wigan continues to follow the mantra - 'growing wine, not grapes' - with grape-growers, including many whose livelihoods might otherwise have failed were it not for the quick-thinking of agile, wise mentor, Lehmann. Lehmann has proved as steadfast, generous, and flavoursome of personality as the gnarled Shiraz vines which sprout the Barossa's very special dirt.