How Peter Lehmann kept the Barossa flame burning

The story of how Peter Lehmann rescued grape growers abandoned by Dalgety — then owners of Saltram Winery — in 1979 is well known. Perhaps less well appreciated is that in doing so, Lehmann probably spared a century-old winemaking tradition from extinction.

Lehmann had been winemaker at Saltram since 1959. He’d taken the reins from Bryan Dolan when Dolan moved to sister company Stonyfell, replacing Jack Kilgour who’d been making Stonyfell wines since 1932.

Dolan, in turn, had spent his first four years at Saltram working alongside Fred Ludlow before taking over in 1949. And Fred had been there since 1893, making wine for the last fifteen years of his remarkable sixty-year service.

In his time under Dolan, Lehmann continued the tradition of making sturdy, long-lived reds, introduced the flagship ‘Mamre Brook’ red, sourced from a vineyard of that name, and introduced the use of new oak for red wine maturation in 1973.

So, in 1979 when Lehmann walked – with the stranded Barossa growers and offsider, Andrew Wigan – he effectively transplanted the Saltram winemaking culture to his new venture, Masterson Barossa Vignerons. Saltram subsequently fell into a deep hole for fifteen years.

The winemaking achievements of the old Saltram culture can’t be underestimated. In a tasting marking Saltram’s 140th anniversary in 1999 — attended by Bryan and Nigel Dolan and Peter Lehmann – reds from the Ludlow through to Lehmann eras, spanning the years 1946 to 1979, drank remarkably well.

Underlining the significance of Lehmann’s exit in 1979 was the poor showing of the Saltram 1980s reds. (Happily, under successive ownerships of Rothbury Estate and Mildara Blass, Nigel Dolan put Saltram back on track in the mid nineties).

As Saltram lost the plot, Lehmann, even under enormous financial constraints, kept the Barossa red-tradition alive, starting with the 1980 vintage.

Winemaker Andrew Wigan recalls, “The winery was still being built around us. The Italian concreters went crazy every time fresh juice was spilt onto the setting concrete. Cellar hands and winemakers alike had to jump from tank to tank because we did not have scaffolds or catwalks”.

Even without the benefit of oak maturation – a great builder of complexity and stability in red wine – that inaugural 1980 shiraz (sold at $25 a dozen in 1982) still opened beautifully at a tasting held by Wigan in Sydney a few weeks back.

Like the Saltram tasting held seven years earlier, Wigan’s 25-vintage tasting proved two things. First that good quality, ripe Barossa fruit in the right hands makes delicious, long-lived wine. And second, that this need not cost a fortune.

Most of the Lehmann wines in the tasting were holding up well, the highlights, for me being the 1980, 1985, 1986,1988, 1990, 1991, 1993, 1994, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2002 and 2004. That’s a lot of highlights, but it shows how reliable Barossa shiraz can be.

The general theme is one of ripe fruit and soft but abundant tannins, albeit with considerable vintage variation, and a tendency towards riper, rounder, juicier fruit flavours in recent vintages.

It’s worth remembering, too, that Lehmann kept ripe, full Barossa shiraz going during the dark years of the early eighties as other warm-climate growers experimented — and failed — with leaner, earlier picked styles.

Lehmann’s success was no accident. And the good news is that he’s still going and that the glorious 2004 reviewed last week can still be had for as little as $14 a bottle – a modest price indeed for a red of this provenance.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2006 & 2007

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