Obituary: Peter Lehmann

  • Monday 1 July 2013

One of Australia's most famous and best loved winemakers, Peter Lehmann, died on Friday, at the age of 82.

Peter Lehmann

One of Australia's most famous and best loved winemakers, Peter Lehmann, died on Friday, at the age of 82.

For almost all wine-loving Australians, Lehmann and his wines were synonymous with the Barossa. Often dubbed 'the Baron of the Barossa', he was born at Angaston, a Barossa village, in 1930, the fifth generation of one of the region's oldest families.

His father, Franz – who died when Lehmann was 14 – was the local pastor. It was well-known that the young Lehmann was fond ringing the church bells at inopportune moments, and on occasion would sneak out of church to let down the tyres of the congregation.

His career in wine began in 1947, when he worked with Yalumba as an apprentice winemaker. He left Yalumba in 1960 to join Saltram as their winemaker and manager, forging a reputation for both himself and the company. He was always innovative: some 40 years before it became common practice in South Australia, Lehmann was adding a touch of white wine, such as Muscadelle, to Barossa Shiraz.

The the 1970s, when multi-nationals were swallowing up many of the family wine companies, Saltram became part of the Dalgety empire. Increasingly frustrated by the constraints of working for a huge corporation, in 1979 Lehmann left to start his own winery, which he called Masterson Wines, after the gambling hero of the musical Guys and Dolls. The winery was his ultimate gamble, he used to say. Andrew Wigan, who had joined Saltram in 1976, went with him and worked with him over the next three decades.

The name was later changed to Peter Lehmann Wines' (PLW). Often abrasive, his outspokenness was legendary, but PL, as he was known, was popular with the 140 growers he had on his books, many of whom he saved from bankruptcy. It is said that he never entered a deal on anything but a handshake.

Whilst Lehmann will always be linked to his beloved Barossa Shiraz, he and Wigan turned Barossa Semillon into a very popular style for a period, their flagship named Margaret, in honour of his wife. The Margaret 2008 won Gold at the Decanter World Wine Awards this year. The Eden Valley Riesling, formerly the Reserve, has been named Wigan since 2003 – it too is a multi-award-winning wine. In all, Peter Lehmann Wines makes almost two dozen versions of Shiraz and Shiraz blends, with the iconic Stonewell at the pinnacle.

Faced with a hostile takeover in 2003, Lehmann orchestrated a much more friendly and acceptable takeover by the Hess family. He maintained his interest long after his supposed retirement.

Sitting around the kitchen table with Lehmann and his wife Margaret, usually in a haze of cigarette smoke, while old and amazing bottles were brought up from the cellar, was a privilege many – both in the industry and outside – found memorable.

Lehmann, who died in the Royal Adelaide Hospital, had been suffering from kidney problems. Local winemakers took turns to drive the Barossa veteran to his appointments.

Lehmann is survived by his wife Margaret, his sons David, Philip and Doug, who worked with Peter for more than 20 years, and his daughter, Libby.

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