‘How much is it?’.
Peter Lehmann winemaker Nigel Westblade chimes in.
‘It’s $2,000 a magnum.’
Silence. Followed by the sound of furious scribbling.
It’s rare to completely quieten a pack of typically loud (and always grumpy) wine critics. But the price for the new Peter Lehmann Masterson Shiraz 2015 really was a shot from the blue.
It’s a lot of money. Especially given that the brand has, until only recently, been going backwards.
Yet maybe that’s the intention. We’re talking about one of the Barossa’s grand old names, enjoying a new lease on life since being purchased by the Casella family in 2014, now looking to reposition. What better way than with a brand-new single vineyard Shiraz super cuvee?
The Barossan launch of this new red was super cuvee-worthy too, with a pack of scribes flown in from all parts to be serenaded by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra playing music matched to the wines.
That’s the sort of next-level grandiosity that once marked the launch of any winery’s new icon release, but with wine writers now an endangered species, it doesn’t happen much anymore.
So this was special. A ramp-up in marketing activity, for a new wine that really ramps up the ambition.
When the Peter Lehmann Masteron Shiraz 2015 was poured the room held it’s breath. Would this be another overwrought winemaker’s indulgence? A wine that makes a statement, but is undrinkable? Would I end up swearing at myself for spending two nights away from my family to taste an oak salesman’s wet dream?
Thankfully, the wine is good. Better than good. It’s the sort of drink that suggests a level head and considered opinions. I even found myself thinking about how easily it would be to drain one of those magnums (of which there will be only 1,000 released when it goes on sale in November), which is rare for a Barossan mega Shiraz of any description.
A key reason for that drinkability is modesty. The oak ageing, for example, is in foudre – a single, 2,500 litre, oval-shaped, big barrel – which Westblade really likes:
‘The surface area to volume ratio of a foudre is much lower than with smaller format barrels, which has allowed the wine to breathe, soften and integrate slowly over time (36 months). A further 12 months of bottle maturation has resulted in a perfectly rounded, complete wine.’
Also of interest, is that the source for this inaugural vintage is Glen Hammerling’s vineyard at Moppa, which may be low-yielding (2.2t/ha) but is less than thirty years old (vines planted in 1990/91).
That’s not the usual Barossa megawine modus operandi!
Westblade views this not-quite-old-vine fruit as giving an extra level of plushness and affability that true old vine fruit can lack. More to the point, it reminds that once vines are established (so more than fifteen years in the ground) it matters less how old they are. If they’re well managed, they’ll deliver beautiful fruit. The end.
You can see all this in the finished product. It’s modern, attractive, polished and glossy. Not heavy. Not tannic. Clever.
Of course, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. The price of the Masterson is hard to get past. Apparently it was influenced by a tasting of Torbreck’s equally ridiculously priced Laird Shiraz and the team decided that the Masterson was better, and so deserved a higher pricetag.
But a big component of the Laird’s price is the ancient Laird vineyard itself (which I incidentally ran past the other day and can confirm it’s not dead, despite reports to the contrary). Masterson, by contrast, is a single vineyard product, but the vineyard source will change each year, so you miss that terroir connection. It’s basically a single vineyard Grange competitor, though without the 60-years of auction results.
When a new wine launches I try and imagine who will buy it. And I’m still not sure of who will purchase a $2,000 magnum of this Barossa Shiraz. It’s a long way from the traditional audience for most of the Peter Lehmann products, that’s for sure.
But maybe I’m missing the point. This Shiraz isn’t a volume driver, it’s a statement from the Casella family about the future of Peter Lehmann Wines. It doesn’t really matter if it sells, it just needs to be good.
Incidentally, I ended up sitting next to John Casella at the launch and it was a fascinating conversation. Casella has been on a famous acquisition path in recent years, hoovering up not just Peter Lehmann, but Brands Laira, Morris and Baileys. Yet he prefers to do business in person, so drives from the NSW Riverina to the Barossa, down to Coonawarra, back to Rutherglen and then home, clocking up thousands of kms in the car, with homemade Casella family salami (which is delicious FYI) as an accompaniment.
It’s not what you expect from the head of a half-billion-dollar company. A vigneron, in other words, not a board-room based CEO.
He’s full of stories too. Casella revealed that he’s just bought the old Lindemans Padthaway vineyard for a sum that is basically just the cost of the land. He sees the south-east as in a better position than most regions to deal with climate change and couldn’t believe that these mature old vines were being sold dirt cheap. Like many producers, he wants Casella Family Brands to be less reliant on growers and more about their own fruit, and the vast, forgotten vineyard expanse in Padthaway is like a gold mine.
Casella also thinks that Barossa Shiraz is underpriced and should never be below $20. Fittingly, one of his first moves after buying Peter Lehmann in 2014 was to cut the private label business and make the future truly premium. Ditch the private label, build the brand.
There’s still a long way to go for Peter Lehmann Wines.
As part of the launch, we tasted verticals of Margaret Semillon, Wigan Riesling plus Stonewell Shiraz and to be honest, the variabilty was maddening. Significantly, all the old wines were kept in a warm shed and looked more forward than expected. Casella next to me was shaking his head, amazed that museum wines were kept this way.
But things are looking up. Said shed is now insulated and cool (that was the first priority for Casella in 2015), and the newest releases look great.
I didn’t know this, but Peter Lehmann Wines was apparently ‘in survival mode’ when Casella bought it. Intriguingly, Margaret Lehmann and family had the option of selling it to CHAMP Private Equity, but sold it for a lower amount to the Casella family to keep the business family-owned. And given the recent turnarounds at Lehmann, Baileys and Brands, it’s a smart choice.
The attraction for Casella goes beyond just another label, and I like this sentiment.
‘I thought the Lehmann story and the Casella story had lots of parallels, both all about honour’ he said.
‘We see Lehmann not as something we own but as something we’re stewarding’.
It’s a very natural notion. But I wonder how you steward a brand and yet take it forward at the same time?
In other words, there is work to be done, and wines like the Masterson are just the start. Indeed, the Masterson is the wine that PLW needed to release, but should be a starting point not the answer, especially given the positioning statement of the price.
Peter Lehmann Masterson Shiraz 2015
Tasted twice – actually, once tasted, the second time a glass. Red maroon coloured, you don’t see the oak, it just folds into the mid palate with vague cocoa powder. Maybe even a little formic on the nose in true Grange-style. Polished and modern palate has that creamy roundness that long oak ageing gives, but it’s fresh and not oaky. Glossy. Moderate. Medium bodied. red fruit rather than purple. texture rather than just fruit. Like a Barossan St Henri, except a little more creamy oak. The only thing missing is that knockout punch – it’s not a dramatic wine at all, and I feel like that’s what the pricetag needs. Entirely drinkable though. Best drinking: Now to twenty years easy. 18.7/20, 95/100. 14.5%, $2,000 a magnum. Would I buy it? Not at that price. I’ll drink it though quite happily.
(I travelled to the Barossa as a guest of Casella Family Brands).