Evolving Lehmann has market covered
IF it were not in secure hands, the vultures circling the Australian wine industry would have swooped on Peter Lehmann, as Allied Domecq tried to do in late 2003. It was that attempt which led Lehmann into the more compatible waters of the privately owned Swiss-Californian Hess Group.
The transformation of Peter Lehmann — I amtalking about the winery, not its patriarchal and seemingly indestructible founder — began well before 2003 and has continued apace.
The story of Lehmann’s courageous defence (in the late 1970s) of his Barossa Valley growers of shiraz, riesling and semillon has been told many times. Suffice it to say the company began as a maker of traditional shiraz and riesling (the latter plummeting out of fashion as chardonnay took its place across Australia, the former staring down the barrel of cabernet sauvignon).
Its wines were always well made and represented excellent value, as they still do. But as the ’ 90s arrived and the export boom gathered momentum, the Lehmann portfolio began to change.
One seminal wine that first caught the attention of show judges and a coterie of riesling lovers was the 1993 Reserve Eden Valley Riesling, which won 32 trophies and 47 gold medals.
I vividly remember asking chief winemaker Andrew Wigan towards the end of its show career how they had made the wine, and his answer: ‘‘ I wish we knew: it was a sheer fluke.’’
There has been a veritable cascade of flukes since that time, albeit built around a limited array of varietals (riesling, semillon, shiraz and cabernet sauvignon at the core) and a carefully selected suite of individual vineyards in the Barossa and Eden valleys.
Given that Andrew Wigan has always been seen as primarily a red winemaker and semillon as a roughly shod Clydesdale workhorse in the Barossa, it is with the semillons that the intelligence and skill of the winemaking team of Leonie Lange, Ian Hongell and Kerry Morrison, led by Wigan, shines through most obviously. They long since realised that 14 per cent alcohol Barossa semillon, given extended skin contact and then fermented and/or matured in German oak, made a dreadful wine.
Strip away at least 2 per cent of the alcohol (by picking earlier), eliminate the skin contact, trash the German oak (saving significant money), bottle early and release quickly (accelerating cash flow), and you have a genuine alternative to Barossa/Eden riesling.
It won’t be long before the 2007s of these wines appear in the market. If you can find the 2006 Eden Valley Riesling (94 points, $16) or the 2005 Barossa Semillon (11.5 per cent alcohol, 89 points, $13), grab them.
The flagships are the reserve versions: the 2002 Reserve Semillon won a gold medal in the cauldron of the 2006 Sydney Wine Show, thumbing its nose at the Hunter Valley in doing so. The 2001 Reserve Riesling (96 points, $24) is a brilliant wine but you will have to work hard to find this gloriously flowery evocation of great riesling, the incisive lime juice and what I call slippery acidity leaving the mouth thirsting for more.
The red wine offerings grow more diverse by the day. Here you find a refusal to go beyond 14.5 per cent alcohol, a move from American to French oak, the adoption of screwcaps and a proliferation of single-vineyard wines to back up classics such as the 2002 Stonewell Shiraz (96 points, $100).
If you want to protect the bank balance and enjoy a Lehmann shiraz that through the years has had a rapturous welcome in overseas markets (and competitions), there is the 2004 Barossa Shiraz (89 points, $18), which is as honest as they come, neither jammy nor burdened by sweet alcohol, simply offering generous black fruits in the best Barossa fashion.
When the time comes for Peter Lehmann to play poker with Sky Masterson, he will know his legacy is in safe hands, with minds tuned to his.