Lehmann legend will live on

Margaret Lehmann and Peter Lehmann from Peter Lehmann Wines.
Margaret Lehmann and Peter Lehmann from Peter Lehmann Wines. 

Peter Lehmann's flagship red, Stonewell Shiraz, carries his profile on the label and I can never open a bottle without thinking of the legendary winemaker, his witty quips and his profound influence on the Barossa Valley.

In the end, the company he founded, Peter Lehmann Wines, is now owned by the Swiss group, Hess Family Estates. But that was an outcome Lehmann, who died on June 28, engineered 10 years ago, in the third and final battle he fought, and won, in the interests of Barossa grape growers and, indeed, the identity of his company and the Barossa, in general.

The first battle came in 1977 when pastoral company Dalgety, the owner of Saltram Winery, decided not to buy grapes for the 1978 vintage. As a winemaker at Saltram, Lehmann refused to abandon the growers. And in a gutsy effort, with support from his wife Margaret , good friend Robert Hesketh and others, he established Masterson Wines to buy grapes and make wines under contract at Saltram in vintages 1978 and 1979.

The Stonewall vineyard in the Barossa valley.
The Stonewall vineyard in the Barossa valley. Photo: David Mariuz

In 1980, when new owners Seagram banned contract-making at Saltram, Lehmann rushed to build a new winery at Tanunda in time for the vintage.

Long-time Lehmann winemaker Andrew Wigan recalls of the vintage, "The winery was still being built around us. The Italian concreters went crazy every time fresh juice was spilt on to the setting concrete. Cellar hands and winemakers alike had to jump from tank to tank because we did not have scaffolds or catwalks."

Later, Masterson Wines became Barossa Vignerons, then Peter Lehmann Wines, after Cerebos took a controlling interest.

In 1987, Adelaide-based McLeod's bought the majority of the company, at the same time folding Hoffmans and Basedows into it. Peter and Margaret Lehmann, via a family trust, held 8 per cent of the new entity.

In 1993, the Lehmanns became a vocal minority when McLeod's decided to offload its interest. But McLeod's was backed into a corner as it could sell to no one but the Lehmanns. Once again, the Lehmanns placed the family jewels (and Peter's superannuation) on the line as they sought to finance a buy-out.

The outcome, after a short period of intense anxiety for the Lehmanns, was a listing of Peter Lehmann Wines on the Australian stock exchange in 1993 - it was oversubscribed by $5.8 million in just three weeks.

Advertisement

But the listing ultimately exposed the company to a hostile takeover bid by British giant Allied Domecq in 2003. Lehmann, thoroughly aware of the enormous damage wrought to the Australian wine industry by large corporate takeovers, refused to sell his block of shares. He successfully engineered a friendly buy-out by Switzerland's Hess Family Estates - an option he believed offered greater security for the company's Barossa identity and the grape growers behind it.

One of Lehmann's perhaps less-appreciated achievements was to save a century-old winemaking tradition from extinction.

Lehmann had been winemaker at Saltram since 1959. He had taken the reins from Bryan Dolan, when Dolan moved to sister company Stonyfell, replacing Jack Kilgour who had 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. Ludlow had been there since 1893, making wine for the last 15 years of his remarkable 60-year service.

In his time under Dolan, Lehmann continued the tradition of making sturdy, long-lived reds, and introduced the flagship Mamre Brook red, sourced from a vineyard of that name. He also 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 Wigan - he effectively transplanted the Saltram winemaking culture to his new venture, Masterson Barossa Vignerons. Saltram subsequently fell into a deep hole for 15 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 1946 to 1979, drank remarkably well.

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

In 1987, Lehmann made the first Peter Lehmann Stonewell Shiraz. Lehmann once described Stonewell to me as, "a continuation of the Mamre Brook dream - aided and abetted by Andrew Wigan".

This marvellous wine (current release 2008 vintage, about $95), remains, for me, a memento of this exceptional man, son of a Lutheran pastor, winemaker from 1947, businessman and loyal and courageous friend and supporter of hundreds in the Barossa Valley.