The Hess Group's recent sale of Barossa-based Peter Lehmann Wines to Casella was shocking: over half of the value of the company, it would seem, had been axed away in little more than a decade. And not just that. Lehmann is a respected leader from the nation's best-known wine-producing region. To see a company like that discounted from high-end international ownership to a domestic giant whose growth has been built on 'value' wine does not look like a happy regional omen.

Jonathan Maltus, credit: Andrew Jefford

Just after this news broke, I sat down to chat with Jonathan Maltus at Ch Teyssier in St Emilion. Maltus is unique: a real-deal, 24-carat entrepreneur who arrived in the downtown end of up-market Bordeaux with youth, money and energy; jumped on board the garage-wine wagon hard enough to make it rock on its springs, and both profited and learned from it on his route to creating a durable and increasingly classical St Emilion portfolio. His low-boredom threshold and superfluous entrepreneurial testosterone meant that he couldn’t resist expanding — to both Barossa and Napa. He crashed and burned in Barossa; Napa thrives. At the very least, I thought, he would have interesting perspectives here.

Like all entrepreneurs, Maltus isn’t shy about embracing opportunity; any opportunity. Just over a decade ago, he saw Robert Parker’s blossoming enthusiasm for Australia’s baroque, warm-country reds; he had experience of and a natural feel for the US market, so he put the two together. “We started in 2002, and got 98 and 92 for our first two wines from Robert Parker. We used all the garage concepts: double-oaking, wooden vats which we shipped from here, double sorting – no one had ever done those things over there.”  

Everything went swimmingly. Soon Maltus had almost 50ha of vines, a winery, a winemaking team and an old farmhouse to restore up in the Eden hills. “Then, though, the Wine Advocate became the Wine Advocates. Not everybody accepted that. After Bob passed Australia on, it didn’t function as well. Then came the sub-prime crash, and the high-end Australian market in the US collapsed. In fact the whole business collapsed: any wine over $30 was impossible to sell in the US in 2009. Stupidly, I hadn’t sold anything in Australia: that was an error. Stock was piling up; I knew I was going to have trouble from the banks. So we had to choose either Australia or Napa. The capital requirement to keep Napa running was lower than Australia, because we hadn’t bought any land and we didn’t have a winery.” The Australian assets were therefore sold, piecemeal.  

A chastened and wiser — but no less entrepreneurial — Maltus is now hoping to buy some vineyard in Napa to supplement the fruit he is allowed (by dint of his St Emilion Parker points) to buy from Andy Beckstoffer and others. “Napa’s great for us as it underpins the distribution of our Bordeaux wines. In the US, you need the distributors, otherwise you’ll never see your wines on a wine list there. ”  

“The advantage with Napa,” he continues, “is that it looks to Bordeaux and to France as its spiritual home. Barossa does not. Barossa is incredibly self-content. Some of the winemaking stuff that was done there shocked me. The use of tartaric [acidity], for example, is rife there; it’s just a natural default position. The concept that you can’t detect it is ludicrous; you can. It’s much less common in Napa – though there is another similarity. They both have this fixation with using vats about 42 times every vintage. In France, you use them once a vintage.”  

“Australia,” Maltus further observes, “doesn’t market itself in a high-end way very well. Once you try to take wine above the level of ‘cost plus’ to ‘what is it worth to you?, you enter the world of watches and boats and fine art. Four guys wearing shorts and high boots standing in front of the station sign at Coonawarra just isn’t going to do it from the point of view of a luxury-goods brand. It’s much easier to do class here, where everybody is walking round in cravats.”

There is much, though, that he jibs at in Bordeaux, too, particularly its lacklustre and superannuated approach to selling wine. “Most people in Bordeaux sell to a négociant, and the négociant then sells on a non-exclusive basis to the rest of the world. But the rest of the world doesn’t want that; the rest of the world wants an exclusivity. Bordeaux loses traction like that. We approach it differently. I have a sales team of four people. No other château in St Emilion has four sales people. They spend their time getting on aeroplanes and pouring wine. We really do brand-build. Bordeaux just doesn’t get it. ” Maltus hopes to buy another 9 ha in St Emilion next year, taking his total holdings there up to 60 ha (“theoretically the biggest brand in St Emilion”).

You might have the impression from all of this that terroir isn’t a Maltus priority, but you’d be wrong; he’s canny enough to realise that without the sincerity of terroir, any ‘high-end’ wine, French or otherwise, will struggle. The sterner, Cabernet-Franc-rich Le Dôme and more opulent, Merlot-rich Vieux Château Mazerat lie each side of Angélus, while in particular the micro-parcel wines Le Carré and Les Astéries offer a terroir contrast of a sort that it is hard to find anywhere in Bordeaux.  These are two tiny sites (200-300 cases a year) in near proximity, formerly part of Curé Bon and Fonroque respectively. They are vinified and aged in the same way, so the differences between them, Maltus hopes, are entirely attributable to a soil contrast: thick clay over soft limestone for Le Carré, and thinner clay over harder limestone for Les Astéries. The wines are clearly different in 2013, with the former wine squarer, chunkier and denser, and the latter wine more creamy and graceful.  

The top Napa wines have a similar single vineyard focus, though since Maltus doesn’t own the vineyards a little more reading of small print is required. I loved the 2009 vintage of the wine he calls Crossfire (made from the Beckstoffer Missouri Hopper vineyard, though it will change to the Georges III vineyard from 2013): splendidly opulent, dense tannins with an unctuous ripeness of fruit which only Napa can manage. The 2010 Good Times, Bad Times (from Beckstoffer’s To Kalon) had greater berry-fruit perfection, but slightly less tannic mass. Maltus has bought some fruit from Stagecoach in 2013 for two new wines, one from Pritchard Hill and one from Atlas Peak.

Underneath both the top St Emilion and Napa vineyard wines come a series of bigger-volume, broader-brush cuvees to give the sales team something to get their teeth into. All very logical; all very businesslike. Might it have worked with Australia, too, had the sub-prime crisis not intervened? “I don’t know,” he says. A short pause. “But I’m pleased it’s not our problem.”    

Written by Andrew Jefford