Saltram celebrates 140 years

As a Johnnie-come-lately of the wine world, Australia boasts some remarkably old wine dynasties.

We can’t equal the 600 years of Italy’s Antinori family; nor the 952 years claimed by my old mate Ferdinando Guicciardini of Poppiano, Florence.

Considering the comparative recency of our own industry — and the lack of a popular wine-drinking culture for most of that time — it seems even more amazing that so many of our last century’s wine businesses survived – either still in family hands or subsumed into larger companies  — until 1999.

The Hill-Smith family (Yalumba) in the Barossa, the Henschke’s in the Eden Valley, the Drayton’s in the Hunter Valley and the Potts (Bleasdale), to give a few examples, continue the work started by their families last century.

The Penfold, Lindeman, Seppelt and Hardy families all lost control of their enterprises. Not only the names but elements of those original cultures survive in today’s global brands.

Saltram, founded by William Salter and his son Edward, in 1859 might easily have perished. It flourished, slumped, sputtered, almost died and now seems set to flourish again under its sixth owner, Mildara Blass.

Mildara acquired the lovely old winery at Angaston (Barossa Valley) as part of its Rothbury acquisition in 1996. The languishing Saltram and Stonyfell brands came with it.

Celebrating the company’s 140th birthday last week, wine maker Nigel Dolan commented how in his own time, he’s seen three owners: the inept (Seagram, 1979 to 1994)), the romantic (Rothbury, 1994 to 1996) and the professional (Mildara Blass, from 1996).

Prior to that Saltram had been owned by the Dalgety Pastoral company (1972-1979), HM Martin and Sons (1937-1972) and the Salter family (1859-1937).

The Saltram brand weathered the early changes in ownership and acquired Stonyfell along the way.

Both brands may have blossomed in the wine boom of the eighties. But Dalgetys disposed of the winery shortly before the 1979 vintage, leaving wine maker Peter Lehmann without a job and many grape contractors without a buyer for the year’s crop.

Magically, Lehmann rescued the growers by establishing another winery in time for the vintage. Peter Lehmann Wines (now a listed company) was the result.

New owners, Seagram, the giant Canadian spirit company, with all the best will in the world, just could not come to grips with the wine industry.

In my view wine quality deteriorated and the old flagship brands Saltram’s Mamre Brook and Stonyfell Metala gave way to Saltram Pinnacle Selection, widely viewed in the industry at the time as a poor joke.

Yet Saltram and Stonyfell survived the Seagram period. Just two years before the end of that sorry time, Nigel Dolan left Seppelts, where he’d been red wine maker, to join Saltram.

His arrival was, perhaps, an omen of better things to come, first under Rothbury and then under Mildara Blass.

Nigel came to Saltram with a strong awareness of its winemaking heritage. His father Bryan, had been winemaker there from 1949 to 1959, before transferring to Stonyfell, the company’s other winery.

For his first four years at Saltram Bryan worked alongside Fred Ludlow. Fred had been there since 1893, making wine for the last fifteen years of a remarkable sixty years’ service.

When Bryan moved to Stonyfell in 1959, he was replaced by Peter Lehmann. Peter (trained at Yalumba) continued making robust, long-lived reds in the style established by Ludlow and Dolan.

As Peter developed the Saltram wines, introducing and a flagship red, Mamre Brook in 1963 the use of new oak in 1973, Bryan Dolan took over wine making from Jack Kilgour at Stonyfell. Jack made wine there from 1932 to 1959.

Across the decades Jack had been making a sumptuous, velvety red from the Metala vineyard (planted at Langhorne Creek in 1891). Bryan changed the name of the wine from Stonyfell Private Bin Claret to Stonyfell Metala in recognition of the vineyard.

1961 Metala, the first vintage, won the inaugural Jimmy Watson Trophy at Melbourne Wine Show in 1962.

So, when Nigel Dolan joined Saltram in 1992, he inherited both the Stonyfell and Saltram red-wine traditions.

And when Nigel joined Saltram he found the most palpable and palatable of all connections with these traditions.

Sprinkled around various warehouses were thousand of bottles of Saltram and Stonyfell red dating back into the 1940s.

Saltram 140th anniversary, part 2

Last week we saw how Saltram wine maker Nigel Dolan inherited two red-wine making traditions — one (Saltram) based on Barossa Valley grapes, the other (Stonyfell) on fruit sourced from the Metala vineyard at Langhorne Creek, near Lake Alexandrina.

When Nigel moved from Seppelt to Saltram in 1992 he brought not just his own considerable wine-making skills, but family connections with those traditions through his father, Bryan, winemaker at Saltram from 1949 to 1959 and at Stonyfell (owned by Saltram) from 1960 to 1966.

Nigel recalls, as a child living in Mamre Brook House on the Saltram winery site, meeting Fred Ludlow, winemaker for the last fifteen of sixty years (1893 to 1953) spent with the company.

When Nigel moved from Seppelt to Saltram in 1992, connection with the past became more palpable with the discovery of a treasure trove of old table and fortified wines – thousands of bottles dating back in an almost unbroken chain to the 1940’s.

It’s difficult to imagine how this valuable (and drinkable) collection survived Saltram’s traumas and ownership changes of the past twenty years. But survive it did, and now resides (albeit, depleted after our visit there two weeks back) in a museum cellar of interconnected underground concrete wine tanks at the winery.

Given the similar provenance of many of those old wines to today’s, they give insights into what today’s wines might taste like in ten, twenty, thirty, forty or even fifty years from now.

The notion of glimpsing the future by probing the past may seem peculiar. But Nigel and his wine-making crew certainly view past triumphs as a key to current and future success.

After a tasting of reds from most vintages between 1946 and the present two weeks back, Nigel paid tribute to his father and Peter Lehmann (both present), acknowledging the importance of being able both to savour and build upon their achievements.

Remarkably, the great majority of those ancient Saltram and Stonyfell wines not only survived, but flourished over the decades.

Quite often, reds of hoary old age yield, at best, hint of past glories. But not these. With few exceptions, they shone.

The very first wine of the tasting, a tawny-rimmed 1946 Saltram Dry Red combined ancient, earthy, old-furniture smells with big, mellow, sweet-fruited, autumn-leaf flavours.

The standard held though vintages 1948, 1950, 1952 with a tremendous jump to a marvellous 1954 Saltram Selected Vintage Claret Bin 5 and even greater 1954 Leo Buring Vintage Claret (made by Saltram).

Other highlights were: 1957 Saltram Shiraz Bin 18; 1960 Saltram Selected Vintage Burgundy Bin 28; 1961 Saltram Dry Red Shiraz; 1963 Saltram Claret Bin 36; 1963 Stonyfell Angaston Burgundy (Barossa Shiraz); 1964, 1967, 1972, 1978 Mamre Brook Cabernet Shiraz; 1964 Saltram Shiraz; 1971 Saltram Selected Vintage Claret Bin 71/86; and 1973 Saltram Show Dry Red (first use of new oak at the winery).

What a disappointment after these to taste the feeble wines of the 1980’s – a truly disastrous decade for Saltram wine making.

At dinner after the tasting, Nigel introduced his flagship wines alongside more of the oldies:

A lively, intense fresh 1998 Mamre Brook Chardonnay overshadowed a tired, fat and faded 1982 vintage.

A lovely 1958 Saltram Claret Bin 21 and elegant, supple 1961 Stonyfell Langhorne Creek Metala (the first vintage and Jimmy Watson trophy winner) provided mature contrast to Nigel’s stunning Stonyfell Metala Original Plantings Shiraz 1996.

A wine of dense, crimson colour, striking perfume and opulent fruit character, Metala Original Plantings Shiraz, as the name hints, springs solely from grapes grown on the Metala vineyard’s century-old shiraz vines.

Nigel’s Barossa flagships, Saltram No. 1 Shiraz 1996, Saltram Mamre Brook Shiraz 1996 and Saltram Mamre Brook Cabernet Sauvignon 1996 (winners of a combined  8 trophies and 12 gold medals) sat gloriously — latently — beside 1973 Saltram Bin 53 Claret, 1975 Saltram Show Dry Red, 1964 Mamre Brook Cabernet Shiraz and 1976 Mamre Brook Cabernet Shiraz.

This new generation of Saltram and Stonyfell Metala reds rate, in my view, amongst the best and most sensitively handled in the country.

They’re big, powerful, potentially long-lived wines. But the bigness comes not through over-extraction of colour and tannins, nor through heavy-handed use of oak.

Like the older wines crafted by Fred Ludlow, Bryan Dolan and Peter Lehmann, the new Saltram and Stonyfell reds draw their great, supple strength from ripe, deeply flavoured grapes from the Barossa and Langhorne Creek.

A better equipped winery (meaning greater control) plus access to high-quality French oak (and the skill to use it subtly) probably gives today’s wines a slight edge over those glorious old ones.

Given the great pleasure derived from drinking those oldies from the forties, fifties, sixties and seventies, $18 to $25 a bottle for the great 1996 reds seems a modest enough price to pay.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1999 and 2012
First published 28 February and 7 March 1999 in The Canberra Times