Peter Lehmann is a living legend in the Barossa. MAX ALLEN meets the outspoken and hugely talented Australian winemaker.
Let’s not beat around the bush here: Peter Lehmann is a living legend in Australian wine. In fact, the word ‘legend’ is possibly not strong enough to acknowledge the contribution Lehmann has made over the last half-century, both to his beloved Barossa Valley and to the wider wine industry.Lehmann – PL to almost everyone who knows him – is about as quintessential Barossa as it’s possible to be. Son of a Lutheran pastor, he was born almost 72 years ago in Angaston, the so-called English end of the Barossa, where the Hill Smith and Salter families ran the then-century-old Yalumba and Saltram wineries like small outposts of the British empire. While wine was a feature of community life, it was not Lehmann’s first interest. ’At 17,’ remembers PL, ‘I was a drop-out, and I would have taken virtually any job in the world just to get away from school. Mum happened to hear that Yalumba was looking for a likely lad. At that time, I wouldn’t have described myself thus – however, I got the job. I was there for 13 years, and was very strongly influenced by three mentors: Rudi Kronberger (legendary winemaker); Alf Wark (company secretary), a lover of food and a real terrific character; and, of course, the big boss, Windy Hill Smith. He was the one who really instilled in me that your word is your bond. ’Windy had a soft spot for me because my old man used to call in when Windy’s father was dying and see him regularly – he didn’t try and convert him or anything, it was just for solace, contact. So the Hill Smiths had a strong influence on me. Christ, I mean at 17, you’re pretty impressionable. This was at the end of the war, and Angaston was a pretty snobby area – with the Hill Smiths, you were in high society.’
In 1959, Lehmann, by now a hot young winemaking talent, moved down the road to Saltram, where he produced some now-classic wines (still drinking wonderfully), and developed an enduring relationship with many of the Barossa’s fourth and fifth-generation grape growers.Things changed in 1977 when Saltram’s owners, the large pastoral company, Dalgety, decided to stop buying grapes from these traditional suppliers. Appalled that the winery could break its word so casually, Lehmann set up his own company, Masterson Barossa Vineyards (after Skye Masterson, a gambler in the musical Guys and Dolls), which took the grapes and made them into wine. The last straw came in 1979, when Saltram was sold to the multinational, Seagram, so Lehmann left and set up his eponymous winery.
Peter Lehmann Wines is now a very successful public company and a leading light in the region. The winery annually crushes 15,000 tonnes of grapes (close to a million cases of wine) for both the Peter Lehmann label and contract customers, and the company offers both high-volume, good-value and top-price ‘flagship’ wines: the Au$12 Lehmann Semillon is the Barossa’s number one selling white wine.The company is so successful that it attracted the interest earlier this year of the drinks multinational, Allied Domecq, who claimed a 5% stake in Lehmann Wines, sparking takeover rumours and dramatically raising the share price.
At the time, PL, whose family holds a fifth of the shares, was adamant that his company would remain in Australian hands – an opinion shared, he says, by most of the 3,600 small shareholders who have stuck by the Barossa winemaker for years. But son and company CEO, Doug Lehmann, was also realistic enough to acknowledge that some of the larger, corporate shareholders would find a very high offer from Allied hard to resist.This isn’t the first time Peter Lehmann has emerged triumphant from times of uncertainty. Many people credit Lehmann and his risky stand in the late 1970s with saving the Barossa, and boosting its spirit: PL famously conducting vintage operations each year from the winery’s weighbridge, where growers, journos and visiting royalty would congregate for a schluck (glass of red) and a schnitter (slice of German sausage). It was a timely boost, too, as the Barossa spirit would soon be tested during the dark days of the 1980s, when exports were gloomy, cool-climate Cabernet was king, and wine was in such oversupply that the government sponsored a vine-pull scheme to discourage growers.
Sitting at the table in his big, cluttered kitchen, Peter Lehmann seems remarkably relaxed. Both he and his wife Margaret (herself a tireless, vocal supporter of the Barossa) are heavy smokers: packs of fags are strategically placed at various spots around the room, for easy access. His smoking has sent PL into hospital in the past, but he refuses to give up. He also refuses to buy into any misty-eyed view of the Barossa, or the Australian wine industry as a whole.
Take the vine-pull scheme, from the 1980s. The conventional wisdom is that it was a disaster for the Barossa, with vineyards full of old Shiraz vines decimated. Lehmann takes a different view: ‘I think it did more good than harm,’ he says. ‘It got rid of a lot of rubbish – all the unwanted non-premium varieties went, like Palomino and Pedro Ximinez – we’re not a sherry-producing country, really, any more.’Sure, some very good fruit, particularly very good old Shiraz went, but in 20 years’ time the newer vineyards that were planted after the vine pull will be old themselves, so it won’t really matter. I think that’s one of the strengths of Australia: the fact that, through it has no appellation system, we’re still experimenting with this variety, that variety, and sooner or later, whether by accident or by design, we are going to find the right spots for the right variety.’
Or take the export-driven wine boom that Australia is currently enjoying. On the surface, the industry projects an image of all producers being part of one happy family. ‘I see no evidence of that,’ he smiles mischievously. ‘Some of the big boys still loathe the small companies, and wish they didn’t exist. ’I’m a great exponent of the smaller guys being an integral part of the industry. A lot of our business comes from visitors to the Barossa, and if there were only two or three wineries, these visitors would be bored shitless. The fact that they’ve got a choice of 50-odd in the Barossa alone adds to their interest and enjoyment. It’s an old, hackneyed phrase, I know, but variety is the spice of life.’No, there is an element of truth in the unity of the industry. I’ve seen it here in the Barossa often, where, if a winery’s in strife, his neighbours would do anything to help. I think the only time swords are drawn is out in the marketplace.’
Lehmann also remembers a time when there was anything but camaraderie among all his Barossa neighbours.’The Barossa was principally settled in the 19th century by the English,’ he says. ‘They brought in a heap of dissident Silesian Lutherans, the peasant class, who worked the land for the opportunity to buy parcels of it. Most of that land is now owned by fifth-generation descendants of the peasants. Being of Teutonic background during World War II, though, was difficult – it was okay in the Barossa; we were well known, but in Adelaide, going to a Lutheran school, it was like “Little bloody Krauts! Here come the Huns, let’s get into them!” kind of thing. And I’m not proud to say now that, at that time, I was ashamed of my heritage. A lot of people changed their names, and denied their birthright. The word “patriotism” brings out some terrible traits in people. Now, of course, it’s quite fashionable to claim to be a fifth-generation mettwurst eater!’
Especially if you’re a grape-growing mettwurst eater. ‘There’s a terrific pride and love of the land among these people now,’ says Lehmann. ‘There are blokes in their 40s, 50s, who I remember seeing as kids coming in to the weighbridge with their grandfathers and then their father, and now they’re bringing their children in. They look upon themselves as caretakers of their vineyard, and their role in life is to hand it on to their kids in better shape than when they got it from their dad. This is very strong in the Barossa, it’s one of the strengths. This feeling of debt and gratitude to the land. It’s almost holy.’I’ve never seen the Barossa standing so tall and looking so proud as it is today,’ says Peter Lehmann. ‘It’s great to see.’
Max Allen is an Australian wine journalist and author.
Written by MAX ALLEN