Long history behind Lehmann’s brilliant Barossa wines

In 1987 Peter Lehmann, with winemaker Andrew Wigan, produced the first Peter Lehmann Stonewell Shiraz (current release 2005 vintage about $90), a magnificent but comparative newcomer to the blue-chip wine ranks. Behind it lies an extraordinary winemaking and viticultural heritage, reaching across generations.

Fortunately the heritage survived traumatic changes of company ownership over the years, culminating in a friendly buyout, endorsed by Peter Lehmann, by Swiss based Hess Group in 2003.

The central character behind Stonewell shiraz is Peter Lehmann, son of a Barossa Lutheran pastor. The viticultural heritage is the shiraz grape — a great survivor of the Barossa Valley’s 160-year winemaking history. And the winemaking heritage stretches each side of Peter: back to his predecessors at Yalumba and Saltram and forward to his winemaking successor, Andrew Wigan.

Peter once told me he saw Stonewell as a “continuation of the Mamre Brook dream — aided and abetted by Andrew Wigan”.

Mamre Brook was Saltram’s flagship Barossa red, created by Peter in 1963, four years after he took over winemaking from Bryan Dolan at Saltram (on the outskirts of Angaston) in 1959.

Bryan made wine at Saltram from 1949 to 1959, for his first four years working alongside Fred Ludlow. Fred had been there since 1893, making wine for the last fifteen years of a remarkable sixty years’ service.

Peter had trained as a winemaker at Yalumba (on the other side of Angaston from Saltram) in an era when fortified wines reigned. However, both Yalumba and Saltram had long-established traditions of making sturdy Barossa reds capable of ageing gracefully for decades (an art that almost died during the eighties).

In early 1999 I was privileged to taste with Peter Lehmann, Bryan Dolan (Bryan died only a few months later) and Bryan’s son Nigel (winemaker at a rejuvenated Saltram at the time and now with Pernod Ricard-owned Jacob’s Creek) a glorious line up of aged reds made by Fred Ludlow, Bryan and Peter from 1946 onwards.

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).

Saltram lost this extraordinary red-wine tradition with the 1977 decision by its owner, Dalgety, not to buy grapes from their growers for the 1978 vintage. Peter refused to abandon the growers and in a gutsy effort, with support from his wife Margaret, good mate Robert Hesketh and others, established Masterson Wines to buy grapes and make wines under contract at Saltram in vintages 1978 and 1979.

In 1980, when new owners Seagram banned contract making at Saltram, Peter established a new winery at Tanunda. Masterson Wines became Barossa Vignerons Pty Ltd and, later Peter Lehmann’s Wines Pty Ltd after Cerebos took a controlling interest. In 1987, Adelaide based McLeod’s acquired the majority of Lehmann, at the same time folding Hoffmans and Basedows into it. Peter and Margaret Lehmann, via a family trust, held eight per cent of the new entity.

Thus, in 1993 Margaret and Peter became a vocal minority when McLeod’s wanted out. They were backed into a corner as they could sell to no one but the Lehmann’s. Once again, the family jewels (and Peter’s super money) were on the line as the Lehmann’s sought help to finance the deal. The company was listed on the ASX in 1993, $5.8 million oversubscribed in just three weeks.

During a hostile bid by British giant Allied Domecq in 2003, Lehmann refused to sell his block of shares, instead engineering the friendly buyout by Hess Group. Lehmann believed this option offered greater security for the Barossa grape growers behind the Lehmann brand.

When Peter left Saltram, winemaker Andrew Wigan stayed with him, aiding and abetting the development of Stonewell shiraz.

The first two vintages, 1987 and 1988, says Andrew, were simply the best vat of shiraz of the vintage put into new American oak puncheons for maturation.

From 1989, selection of Stonewell began in the vineyard. Selected fruit parcels are now fermented separately, finish fermentation in barrel, and the final blend is made from only the best barrels.

Andrew says that about fourteen vineyards ranging from 35 years to 110 years of age might make it to the Stonewell blend. The ‘Stonewell’ vineyard at Marananga in the Western Barossa makes the grade every year. The 2005 vintage contains material from the Kabiminye, Koonunga and Stonewell subregions.

The wines have tended to become riper, but more finely structured over the years. In 1996 fine-grained French oak was introduced, making up about 10 per cent of oak used during maturation. By 1998 French oak was up to 70 per cent and in the 2005 vintage is at 90 per cent. But, as finer oak was introduced, Andrew opted for slightly riper shiraz, to make Stonewell more opulent with ripe, soft tannins.

Looking back over all the Stonewells from 1987 to the just-released 2005, we see a wonderfully generous, satisfying Barossa red that ages beautifully while revealing marked individual vintage characters.

This year the wonderful, complex Stonewell Shiraz 2005 ($90) comes to market with four other Lehmann Barossa wines from the outstanding 2005 vintage.

Eight Songs Shiraz 2005 ($40) presents a brighter, fragrant, less burly face of Barossa shiraz. It’s all French oak matured and just lovely to sip on now (but it’ll age well, too).

Peter Lehmann Mentor Barossa Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 ($40), reveals just how well this variety fares in good Barossa vintages. It’s a big wine, but there’s an appealing purity to its slightly minty varietal flavour and an elegance to its structure.

Lehmann’s Wigan Eden Valley Riesling 2005 (reviewed here last week) is a near perfect example of maturing Australian riesling, glorious to drink and highly distinctie.

And Margaret Semillon 2005 ($40 – named for Peter Lehmann’s wife), delivers a beautiful, distinctive drinking experience. Like the Wigan riesling, it’s maturing, but has years ahead of it, but offers a different spectrum of flavours – zesty and lemony with the intriguing undertone of honey and toast that comes with bottle age.

These are exceptional offerings from a team with deep roots in the Barossa Valley.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2010