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Legends Barossa Valley

Catharine Lowe profiles the figures who, through a mixture of dedication and skill, have shaped and will continue to shape the winemaking landscape of the Barossa Valley.

One of the great things about this region is that everyone is an expert on wine; 50 wineries, 500 families, almost everyone is involved in the industry in some form or other. ‘The camaraderie in the community is second to none,’ says Bob McLean of St Hallett. The Barossa was settled in the 1830s and ’40s by British and Silesian immigrants, many of the latter fleeing persecution for their religious beliefs. A proliferation of Lutheran churches, small stone buildings and Germanic place and people names still survive today. Whole communities – doctors, bakers, butchers and so on – resettled in the region, each bringing their skills, and planting vines in the surrounding land. Along with the visual reminders lie the deep sense of community, Teutonic frugality, passion and loyalty that are repeatedly cited as the reason behind the Barossan wine industry’s survival through the depressed wine market in the 1970s, and the grape glut of the 1980s. As McLean, a good spokesman for a passionate tale, says: ‘Any one player would not have revitalised Barossa Valley. It was a unanimous decision among the smaller guys – Lehmann was a leader, Henschke had yet to prove the quality that is there now, Melton and Rocky fuelled the farmers. We met every Wednesday evening and spent it at Maggie Beer’s farm. That to me is the way that Barossa Valley got back on its feet.’ The convivial meetings still exist but not with the same frequency, rues McLean: ‘The problem of success is that we don’t have time any more.’

Below are some of those characters. Envisaged as a feature on the legends of the Barossa, it is still about them, but not solely, for it is impossible to differentiate between the legends, nearly legends, and rising stars. To make a list is, by its very nature, to leave things off it: suffice to say, many more people deserve space that these pages will not allow…

Peter Lehmann

‘The leading light’ was a phrase proffered by more than one Barossan on this winemaker who has truly earned his legendary status. It dates back to working for Saltram in 1979, when, at the height of the enormous grape surpluses, he was told to break the contracts with grape growers that had been made. Unable to go back on his (or, his company’s) word, he set up his own winery to buy the grapes. ‘It was a point of principle. Some would say I was pig-headed and stubborn, but I like to say resolute and determined. Either way, we didn’t have much hope of success but I kept my word to the growers.’ Such a philosophy, he says, originated from his mentors at Yalumba where gambling meant ‘your word was your bond’ and carried over into grapes. With Peter comes Margaret, his wife, companion in wine and cigarettes, and a marvellous hostess. When I met her, she was handing out marmalade on toast, fried breakfasts and 1984 ‘Semillon Sauternes’ to all those in the weighing room as the first grapes of the vintage arrived. ‘We never planned Lehmanns, it was all reacting to disasters. We lurched across the difficulties of the surplus and survived the 1980s. It’s amazing where we have reached today.’

Stephen Henschke

My suspicion that great winemakers must occasionally resort to a touch of magic were confirmed on finding that Stephen Henschke was an avid Harry Potter fan. Henschke is quietly spoken, yet any sense of over seriousness is frequently dispelled with a wink. After spending time with him and his wife Prue, being talked through the local grasses and seeing the love bestowed on the 140-year old Shiraz ‘grandfathers’, there is no surprise that their wines are of such high quality. Prue, winemaker, committed botanist, and, I’m sure, also in on the Potter magic, is focused on Henschke’s nursery at Mount Edelstone, conducting several experiments, especially with various training methods. Parcels are vinified separately and the Scott Henry currently produces the ‘best colour, and the most aromatics in fruit and flavour, though it’s expensive on labour’. She’s also encouraging tree planting to reduce the high levels of salinity in the soil in the region. Asked to name his influences over the years, Stephen Henschke came up with Max Schubert, Rory Beckworth at Penfolds, Jim Irvine (then at Hardy’s) and, of course, his father Cyril. As for those to watch in the future, he’s betting on Rolf Binder at Veritas and Charlie Melton.

Wolf Blass of Beringer Blass

German born and bred, Blass was offered a job in Australia in the 1960s, yet tells that on approaching Australia House to ask where the Barossa Valley was, he was met with a blank stare. An offer at the same time to make sparkling wine in Venezuela almost swayed the irrepressible Blass, tempted by the thought of beautiful women, but a South American revolution ensured his passage to Australia. Firstly working for Kaiser Stuhl, then Tollana, he started Wolf Blass in 1973 with an overdraft and a supply of well-aged reds he had prepared earlier. Soon he was winning: three successive Jimmy Watson trophies to be precise. In 1991, a merger with Mildara went ahead, most recently metamorphosing into Beringer Blass. Now, Wolf’s role is as roving ambassador for his company and country.

Robert Hill Smith

Consummate professional and professionally charming, Robert Hill Smith has had the fortune to be born into one of the Valley’s oldest family wineries, Yalumba. He also faced the daunting task of turning that family upside down to ensure its continued competitiveness. That involved buying out of the family and selling its fortified division. ‘The takeover heightened my ambition to make the most of the wine market,’ he says. ‘But it was tough, and it wasn’t until 1995 that Yalumba finally turned the corner.

‘Success has brought with it the ability to diversify, push boundaries and plant new varieties’ he continues. We might be a big company, but we want the individuality of each style to stand out. Our ethos as a family-owned winery is that we are able to do the little things; small production, premium style.’ Such concentration on quality has led Yalumba to define the Australian Viognier style: The Virgilus 1999 from Heggies is hedonisitic, full of creamy, peach and ripe apricot fruit.

Bob McLean

‘I haven’t missed a lunch since 1972,’ boasts Bob ‘lunch a lot’ McLean, rapidly adding in case there was any concern, ‘not that I ever missed one before, it’s just that that was when I joined the wine trade’. McLean is larger than life in his appetite and attitude, and in his love of Pol Roger, Bessie his barge and the Barossa Valley. In 1987, he was offered the chance to buy into St Hallett. ‘We had no money, so I hocked ourselves (him and his wife, Wilma) for Au$1m (£350,000).’ It took 10 years to pay off the debt, but he did it. Now, along with winemaker Stuart Blackwell, McLean is producing good wines, as lovers of Old Block Shiraz will testify. ‘The winery had a very humble beginning, but I wouldn’t change a single thing.’

He pays tribute to the likes of Henschke, Lehmann, Melton and O’Callaghan as ‘lovers of Old Shiraz, the deep intensity of flavours, not over-alcoholic, not overpowered’. He also gives credit to Wolf Blass: ‘He taught us how to make soft wine; we owe a lot to that’. He also pays credit to those coming up through the ranks. ‘I admire David Powell at Torbeck, and Rolf Binder. Rolf’s been around for a long time now, but just hitting the straps now.’

The ultimate bon viveur, McLean still spends time down at St Hallett’s cellar door. ‘The tourists want to see Big Bob and our obligations are to the consumer. We can give them the world, one by one.’ This, no doubt, means having lunch with each and every one of them.

John Duval

Responsibility can be tough wherever bestowed, but must make itself particularly acute as the chief red winemaker at Penfolds, home of Australia’s best known wine. ‘Grange has played a very important role as a flagship for Australia and Penfolds,’ says Duval. ‘It opened the door for people to see that Australia does produce quality.’ And to continue that quality? ‘We have to continually fine-tune what we are doing to protect that quality reputation. We are redeveloping vineyards which doesn’t happen overnight, especially with old vines.’ Duval started out under some excellent tutors – winemakers Donald Ditter and Max Schubert at Penfolds – and went on to list most of the younger winemakers also at Penfolds when asked to name the rising stars to watch out for in the future. Duval also pointed out that Penfolds’ launch of its RWT (all French oak) is a way of expressing what the Valley can do. ‘It’s more perfumed, more open, more accessible, but still big and fruit-driven,’ he explains. ‘It helps define some of the diversity that the Barossa Valley has. It’s a fantastic opportunity to contrast what the Barossa Valley can do.’

Jim Irvine

Irrepressible, stubborn and with a huge amount of experience – 51 years in the industry – Jim Irvine has settled into the den Valley hilltops at the eponymous winery where he is now making top class Merlot. ‘I remember the first time I tasted Pétrus in 1975,’ says Irvine. ‘I took one sip and was bitterly disappointed – I was used to big, in-your-face Cabernets. But then I went back to it and it was a revelation.’ An Irvine 1997 Grand Merlot, just released, had layers of rich chocolate, cinnamon, plums, raspberries and leather. Elegant, silky body, high acidity and alcohol (15%), with long length. A phenomenal wine, and a tribute to his many years in the wine industry. Irvine also grows Petit Meslier and Pinot Gris, and his winemaker daughter, Jo, has a patch of Zinfandel. He wasn’t convinced about the Zin, but recognising his own stubborness in his daughter, he relented.Irvine, who still consults for various wineries including Hans Haan, grew up in a bakehouse, which he said taught him about ‘flavours and front of house’ and learned his skills under Roger Warren, winemaking director at Thomas Hardy’s. Names to watch? Irvine suggested Rolf Binder, ‘under all the bluster’.

Grant Burge

Having cannily bought up vineyards in the 1980s when others were discarding them, and earlier this year, having repurchased the Krondorf winery from Mildara, Burge now lays claim to being the largest private vineyard owner in the Barossa Valley.

With 32 years of experience, and an enthusiasm for site selection, Burge produces a fabulous Meshach and Filsell, along with the peppery, plummy Holy Trinity (Grenache, Mourvèdre and Shiraz). He is another winemaker steeped in the community and remembers well the tough times they all went through together.

Robert ‘Rocky’ O’Callaghan

A proud proponent of the ‘old fashioned, 1920s school of winemaking – low yielding, hand picking, open fermentation, a basket press – anyone with a phobia for sterile

stainless steel uniformity should spend time with this man. A small-time, quality winemaker during the troubled early 1980s, Rocky borrowed money to buy grapes at a price that would keep growers from pulling out their vines. His accounts of these times are interspersed with tales of motorbike rides through the cellars, and ‘accidently’ feeding barrels of 90% proof brandy to the local librarian society. He only sells wine through private sales or cellar doors, and as a self-confessed golf fanatic, ensures some lucky players on the international circuit are on his mailing list.

Charlie Melton

Melton’s wines, the antithesis of ubiquitous, anonymous brands, are unfiltered and from dry-grown vines; these produce more intense fruit, genuinely reflecting the vintage: ‘I won’t even out the bumps’. Another of the quality, independent winemakers, Melton has made his name by focusing on quality and pushing boundaries with his Grenache, Shiraz, Mourvèdre blend, Nine Popes. He is another credited with supporting the Valley and its growers through tougher times.

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