Canberra’s Jim Murphy and Michael Phelps buy historic Clare vineyard

In July 2009 wine retailer Jim Murphy and Canberra lawyer Michael Phelps bought the Schobers vineyard – one of three prime Clare Valley sites offered by Constellation Wines Australia in a mass clearance of its Australian wine assets.

In October 2008 Constellation had announced the coming sale of three large wineries – Langton in Western Australia, Stonehaven on South Australia’s Limestone Coast and Leasingham in the Clare Valley. Also on offer were 1,322 hectares of vineyard in South Australia, including Schobers, and 169 hectares in Western Australia. The company had already sold its Kamberra Wine Tourism complex and 85-hectare Holt vineyard to Canberra’s Elvin Group.

With a glut of vineyards on the market at the time and buyers nervous, prices fell. Murphy won’t reveal what he paid for Schobers vineyard, but said, “It was a good price, below replacement cost”.

I always loved the area”, he said, “and all the great Leasingham bin wines. I first visited there in 1970 with Max Schubert [creator of Penfolds Grange]. Max bought wine from Mick Knappstein [Leasingham winemaker] for Grange. Max was fascinated with the area and always needed Clare grapes for Grange, Bin 707 and Bin 389. He thought the wines were very elegant”.

Then in 2009 Murphy took a call from Peter Dawson, Constellation’s former chief winemaker, urging him to buy the Schobers vineyard.

As winemaker for Australia’s second largest producer and exporter, Dawson knew intimately the quality potential of hundreds of vineyards in every important wine-growing region in Western Australia, South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania.

Dawson rated Schobers among the top 20 red vineyards in Australia, recalls Clare Valley winemaker David O’Leary (uncle of Canberra’s Nick O’Leary). He’d received the same excited phone call from Dawson, but not having the money to buy it, joined Dawson in urging Murphy to do so.

Murphy didn’t need much persuasion and over lunch with Michael Phelps found a partner. “We bought it in July”, says Murphy, “and by August we were busy pruning. We’d hired a full time manager, Allen Weedon, and he got contractors in to work it. It had been let go under Constellation”.

The quick restoration paid off and in 2010 Murphy and Phelps sent 200-tonnes of shiraz and cabernet sauvignon to the nearby O’Leary Walker winery for processing. O’Leary describes the wines as “concentrated and powerful”.

Processing the fruit seemed like working with an old friend again, says O’Leary, as he’d made reds from Schobers vineyard in the early nineties at Hardy’s Tintara winery, McLaren Vale. Hardys had acquired Leasingham from H.J. Heinz in 1988 (Constellation Brands USA bought Hardys in 2003). From 1991 to 1994, O’Leary recalls, he made components of the powerful Leasingham Classic Clare reds and sparkling shiraz at Tintara. Chris Proud, and later Richard Rower, produced other components at Leasingham. All used grapes from Schobers.

H.J. Heinz planted the vineyard in 1976–77 at the height of a red wine boom. In unique wine industry fashion this was just in time for a cask-led white wine boom. Hardys expanded Schobers in 1996 to feed the next boom – seemingly insatiable global demand for Australian wine.

While the export boom persisted for another decade, it was, unfortunately, based mainly on cheaper, blended wine with the appellation “South Eastern Australia” or “Australia”. Despite some efforts our major exporters made few inroads with our fabulous regional wines and the world remains largely ignorant of their existence.

As a consequence, much of the vineyard expansion in high-quality, low-yielding areas like Clare (and Canberra) meant grape production cost beyond the level required for export wines. This realisation began mid decade of the new century but became bitter reality as our currency strengthened and the global financial crisis arrived.

Constellation headed for the exit – but not before Leasingham attempted to showcase the glory of Schobers vineyard.

Jim Murphy currently offers Leasingham Schobers Vineyard Shiraz 2005 and Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, made initially by Kerri Thompson and completed by Simon Osicka after Thompson left Leasingham in late 2006.

Thompson (now with her own Clare Valley winery, KT and the Falcon) says, “We focused on the Schobers and Provis vineyards and Schobers, being dry grown, was prone to inconsistent crop levels. But when it hit its straps it was bloody good”.

Indeed, recalls Thompson, Schobers 1994 shiraz proved bloody good enough to win the Jimmy Watson Trophy in 1995 under Leasingham’s Classic Clare label. But the style evolved considerably in the following decade. Under Hardys red winemaker Stephen Pannell, supported by Peter Dawson, the reds moved from the “solid oak and more rustic” style of the 1994 to become “refined and more expressive of fruit” – a perfect description of the exciting Leasingham Schobers Vineyard wines mentioned above (full reviews here next week).

Now for the first time in its history, the 71.8-hectare Schobers vineyard (shiraz 53.1ha, cabernet sauvignon 18.7ha), is receiving the single focus of private owners.

Murphy and Phelps will later this year release their first wines under the Schobers label at three price points – around $15, $22 and $35 – initially with some bought-in material, though form 2012, says Murphy, the reds (shiraz, cabernet and shiraz-cabernet) will be sourced entirely from the vineyard. The range will also include a Clare Valley riesling and, from the Adelaide Hills, a chardonnay and semillon sauvignon blanc blend.

Murphy and Phelps intend to enter Schobers wines in the show circuit and to seek wider distribution in retail outlets and restaurants.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2011