Evolv­ing Lehmann has mar­ket cov­ered

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence - James Halliday

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.

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