Peter Lehmann’s Masterson Shiraz: The Newest ‘Old’ Star Emerging From The Barossa Valley
by Ken Gargett
Peter Lehmann was a legendary figure in the wine world, especially in Australia. For many, he was the very personification of his beloved Barossa Valley and one of the great characters of Aussie wine.
Lehmann was awarded the Order of Australia, named as a founding member of the Barons of the Barossa, and, in 2009, received the International Wine Challenge Lifetime Achievement Award. But this sort of recognition must have seemed further away than the moon back in the 1930s and 1940s in the Barossa Valley in South Australia, a settlement strongly influenced by Silesian and German immigrants.
Lehmann was born in 1930. His family expected him to follow his father as a Lutheran priest, but at 14 he was forced to look for work to support the family when his father, Pastor Franz, died suddenly.
In 1947, Lehmann got a job with a local winery, Yalumba, working with the highly respected Rudi Kronberger. He eventually proved a talented winemaker and in 1960 took over at Saltram Wines as chief winemaker from his good friend, the much-loved Brian Dolan. Over the next two decades he established Saltram as one of Australia’s leading wine producers, helped it to an international reputation, and would presumably have continued in that role for many years but for one of life’s inevitable hiccups.
This particular hiccup came in the form of Saltram’s owners, Dalgety, the multinational pastoral company headquartered in England. Wine was never high on its list of priorities, and in the economic conditions of the late 1970s, and the huge grape surplus of the day, it made the decision to cease buying grapes from local growers in the Barossa.
Dalgety sent Lehmann a letter advising him to, in turn, send the growers a letter informing them of this. Lehmann hit the roof. This was not how he operated. He refused.
Peter Lehmann may have been a relic from the past in certain respects, especially in relation to a man keeping his word. He never worked with written contracts.
Lehmann knew the growers, the vineyards, the families. He had grown up with them. This was his community. Lehmann did his deals with a handshake: growers would come around to the weighbridge for “a schlock and a schnitte” – a glass of local port and a chunk of the sausage so popular in this community of strong German roots.
A deal would be agreed, and a handshake set it in stone. He explained all this to the powers that be, but they’d have none of it. Send the letter or they would.
There was never the slightest possibility that Lehmann would send such a letter. What he did do was to leave Saltram and set up on his own in an attempt to honor his word to all the growers. I’ve never been privy to the exact details of the resignation, but I’d wager Grange to garbage that Lehmann left his erstwhile employer in no doubt as to what he thought of those who went back on their word or tried to force others to do so.
Lehmann borrowed far beyond his means at a time when any debt was a risk, and a local tire company helped with finance. He built his new winery in 1979 – Dalgety had meanwhile sold Saltram to Seagram, a multinational liquor company, but it was no more inclined to accede to Lehmann’s wishes than the former owner.
Actually, whether Dalgety or Seagram is the ultimate bad guy in all of this depends on who one speaks to about the progress of events.
Along with his loyal band of growers – who stuck with him for life and whose descendants knew what Lehmann had done for their families and still today show a similar devotion –several of the Saltram winemakers came with him, most notably his right-hand man, Andrew Wigan, and other now-famous Barossa names like Charlie Melton. They were soon joined by young winemaker Peter Scholz.
And so Lehmann established his own brand, Masterson, taking the name from that ultimate gambler, Sky Masterson from Guys and Dolls.
Lehmann was a keen gambler himself and many thought that leaving the security of Saltram was the biggest gamble of his life. By 1982, he had been convinced to change the name to the more recognizable “Peter Lehmann Wines.” We had not heard the last of Masterson, though.
The growers knew that payment would take time, but they all followed him, regardless. He had put his career and livelihood on the line for them, and they were not about to let him down. Lehmann had intended to sell bulk wine and did so for a while, but soon realized that his only option was the “the glass jungle,” the bottled wine market (the first release was in 1980).
Lehmann has related the story about how soon after all this took place, Dalgety realized that it actually needed some wine to sell and so was forced into the bulk market itself. It soon ended up as one of Lehmann’s biggest customers, an irony I’ll bet the man nicknamed Mudflat for his cracked and craggy face, often split wide with a smile, thoroughly enjoyed.
Peter Lehmann Wines now
There is much more to the story, of course, and it unfolded over the years. Eventually, Lehmann Wines became part of the Hess group and in 2014 was sold to the Casella family.
The Casellas were an overnight success with their Yellowtail label (in the manner of so many “overnight successes,” this followed many years of hard work).
Rightly or wrongly, Lehmann was seen as a premium wine brand while Yellowtail most definitely was not. Extremely successful worldwide, despite some serious show successes it had not managed to crack wine lovers’ psyches as one of our finest.
So when the Casellas purchased Peter Lehmann, there was much rolling of eyes, gnashing of teeth, and muttering about the doom and gloom ahead for a favorite winery.
That was all a touch premature, of course, and the Casella family has worked extremely hard to maintain and improve standards, investing heavily, something Lehmann was rarely in position to do. The Casellas are clearly in the Barossa for the long haul.
Many in the industry will have fond memories of visiting Peter and Margaret, his beloved wife, in the kitchen of their Barossa home. Usually, a fire would be roaring and chairs would be pulled up around the table with Lehmann holding court. There might be two or 20 there, but everyone would have a glass and Lehmann made sure that great wine never stopped flowing, often disappearing down to the cellar below and re-emerging with bottles, old and new.
The walls were stained brown – Peter and Margaret were extremely heavy smokers (so much so that when they were doing tastings interstate, they would usually prefer to spend a couple of days driving rather than be stuck on a plane for just a few hours, unable to smoke). The stories were as good as the wine.
I remember my first encounter with Lehmann, one we discussed in later years. He was at a wine event serving the hoards as they fronted up, glass in hand. I was one of these hoards and I could not believe that such a legend was there in person (he was a rock star of the industry). I hung on his every word, while Lehmann chatted away as though we were old mates. I have no doubt he would have preferred to be anywhere else, but he never showed a hint of it.
A young consumer turned up with his entourage – this was now getting late in the evening – and proceeded to critique Lehmann’s wines, pointing out various faults. Lehmann would never have taken on a consumer just because he didn’t like his wines, but he had one of the best palates in the industry and explained to our new friend that these so-called faults did not exist.
The consumer was having none of that, insisting a wine had excessive volatile acidity (I suspect that the gentleman had just heard the term and wanted to try it out because there was none evident). Eventually, Lehmann had had enough and gave his own critique of the gentleman’s palate in words that perhaps do not belong in fine company.
The best part was that his entourage, obviously sick of the endless pretension from this bloke, erupted in applause. Lehmann was always known as someone who was not afraid to call a spade a bloody shovel.
Casella has been largely quiet since the purchase, working on the wines, which are emerging now. A few of us recently gathered at the estate to celebrate the company’s fortieth anniversary and to have a look at the progress and a range of releases, young and old. We were also treated to a first look of a new and very special wine.
Peter Lehmann wines: re-introducing Masterson
The Wigan and Eden Valley Rieslings have always been sensational wines and continue to be so. Margaret Semillon is one of the few from outside the Hunter Valley to impress and to age as well as those gems. Stonewell Shiraz has long been one of the Barossa’s best. Still is.
Despite all that, the Casella family believed that there were even greater heights to scale. Why on earth did this famous winery not have a wine that rivaled Grange or Hill of Grace? Easier said, of course.
We’ve seen newcomers attempt this. Kick off with a ridiculously expensive wine, usually a Barossa Shiraz from old vines. High alcohol, 100 percent oak embalmed. Heavy bottle. Went well when Aussie Shiraz was the flavor of the month and prices were absurdly inflated, but as soon as a dose of reality arrived most of these disappeared without a trace. Those who’d spent the inheritance on these wines were left with a few bottles worth a fraction of the original price that were not even quite as good to drink as they assumed.
The Peter Lehmann Masterson Shiraz 2015 is in a different league. It is called “the Masterson” in honor of the origins of the company and Lehmann himself. The first release is in magnums only: a total of 1,400 magnums made, 1,000 of them will be released at AUD$2,000 each. The remaining 400 will go into museum stocks for tastings and future events.
So, how do you come up with a wine like this? Thanks to its extensive network of growers still in place, the winemaking team under current chief winemaker Nigel Westblade had some 180 parcels of Shiraz available.
These were tasted blind to ascertain the individual parcel that was “the most complete single parcel of Shiraz.” This was what they wanted for the Masterson, and all future releases will be based on this. Future releases will not necessarily be from the same grower/vineyard.
John Casella, managing director of the family company, sees this wine as not only important for Lehmann’s but also as assisting to lift the profile and reputation of the Barossa, something he takes very seriously.
In 2015, the wine came from the Moppa subregion, the Hammerling Vineyard. The vines are relatively young for the Barossa, planted in 1991, on their own rootstocks. The clone was “1654.”
Pressing by small batches in their basket press into small stainless steel fermenters for two weeks on skins, regular hand pumpovers, before completing malolactic fermentation in French oak hogsheads. The wine then went into a 2,500-liter foudre for 36 months of ageing, then another year in bottle, before we had the chance to taste.
The wine is seriously good, right from the initial encounter. Young, obviously, but with notes of chocolate, beef stock, and coffee beans. Supple, seamless, very fine tannins are abundant but largely melt away.
A fine balance of fruit and acid, and while there is a touch of oak it is not an issue. Glorious texture. A really good finish, this is a classic Barossa Shiraz, a wine that lingers with intent.
For me, 98. It is that good.
Each magnum comes in its own padded and inscribed oak box.
This is a wine definitely worth the search, especially if you enjoy brilliant, rich Barossa Shiraz. It will be available from November 20, 2019, exactly 40 years from the day the foundation stone of the weighbridge at Lehmann’s new winery was laid. Future releases are likely to be in standard 750 ml bottles (at AUD$1,000), so there might be more opportunity to track them down. Try www.casellacellar.com.
Peter Lehmann would have loved it.
For more information please visit www.peterlehmannwines.com.