Thu 04 May 2017

The Story Behind our Exclusive 88 Growers Label from Australia

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How a desire to ‘do the right thing’ and ‘look out for your mates’ resulted in one of the Australian wine industry’s great success stories…

One of the things I love about my job is finding out about the stories behind our wines. Despite the fact that this member favourite has been on our List for several years now, for some reason the story behind its name had passed me by.

88 Growers is a label exclusive to us and is made for us by the Peter Lehmann winery in the Barossa, South Australia. The name is a reference to how this winery came into being when its founder, Peter Lehmann put his neck on the line to save the independent grape growers of the Barossa Valley.

Affectionately known as ‘the Baron of the Barossa’, the late Peter Lehmann is credited for virtually single-handedly preserving the tradition of grape growing in the valley and thereby rescuing many of its old vineyards from destruction.

Peter Lehmann (far right) and Barossa growers in the 1970s.

Peter Lehmann (right) and Barossa growers in the 1970s.

Going beyond the Barossa, the story is tied in with the history of Australian winemaking itself.

Back in the 1970s when overproduction and a change in consumer tastes away from reds to fruity whites led to something of a wine glut, Peter Lehmann, chief winemaker and manager at Saltram at the time, was instructed by his directors, to renege on agreements to purchase grapes from the network of small family grape growers with whom he had built up close ties over many years.

Peter refused to carry out this instruction, believing that a man’s word should be his bond and recognising that the livelihood of so many of his neighbours depended on the grape harvest. Instead, at great personal risk to his own livelihood, Peter put together a rescue package for the growers, raising funds to buy the fruit and then processing it at Saltram before selling on to other wineries.

Peter was of the view that wine is made in the vineyards and that without growers you have no wine industry. ‘Wine is not made in the boardroom,’ he famously said. With the government offering incentives to the growers to grub up their vines, the wonderful legacy of this region of old vines was also under threat. Peter had the foresight to understand the ‘pendulum’ nature of agriculture and was sure that the trend for red wine would come back again in time.

Saltram allowed this side-project to continue, officially managed by Peter’s wife Margaret. The project was named ‘Masterson’ (after famous gambler Sky Masterson from Guys and Dolls), but unfortunately in 1979, Saltram was sold and the new owners put a halt to the operation.

Taking another massive gamble, Peter decided to resign from Saltram, taking a breakaway team with him that included talented winemakers Andrew Wigan, Charles Melton and Leonie Lange. They were up against a tight deadline with little time to find a new venue to process the estimated 10,000 tonnes of fruit soon coming their way!

They rallied around friends and business contacts to raise funds yet again and by a piece of good luck, a local winery on the outskirts of Tanunda came up for sale just at the right time. Peter and his wife bought the adjoining plot and built a house there where Margaret still lives.

The plan was to process the fruit as before and sell it on to other wineries and this worked well for the first two vintages. However, in the 1980s the industry took another nose dive and the market for bulk wine collapsed.

88 Growers

Peter and the team were forced into the market of selling bottled wines. They also had to come up with a name under which to market their wines – Peter Lehmann Wines made sense to most people, though Peter wasn’t initially that enthusiastic about the name as it didn’t reflect the team effort required to make the whole thing work.

Suffice to say, in 1982 the name was made official and the next stage in the adventure began. Because of the great relationship that Peter had with growers across the Barossa region and his in-depth knowledge of the different sites and micro-climates, he was able to start isolating different plots to bottle separately.

So when in the late 1980s when shiraz started to see a resurgence in popularity both at home and abroad, the old unirrigated vines of the Barossa were particularly valued and Peter and his team had access to some of the best.

Just as Peter had predicted, the pendulum nature of the agricultural industry has indeed been manifest again, with the demand for dry whites in ascendency. Once again, Peter Lehmann wines found themselves in a good position to have access to interesting parcels of grapes from mature vines.

Semillon in particular has become one of their signature grapes and in the early 1990s, Peter and chief winemaker Andrew Wigan went against the current trends for vinifying the it, eschewing oak and picking early to retain freshness and acidity which would allow it to age.

Peter Lehmann wines now have a network of more than 140 families of growers supplying them with grapes, but the label developed exclusively for The Wine Society, is named after the original 88 growers whom Peter Lehmann stood by back in the 1970s.

And when it came to choosing grapes to tell the story, of course, it had to be shiraz for the red and semillon for the white.

Next time you order a bottle, think about the story behind the wine and the bravery, loyalty and commitment of the winery’s founder.

Joanna Goodman
Communications Editor

Browse for more wines on our website from Peter Lehmann Wines

Categories : Australia

Comments

  1. Robin Sutcliffe says:

    I remember the first time I bought Australian wine, it must have been around 1970 and it was revealed to us by an excited Society, I think it was Coonawarra. I thought it was wonderful! I suspect that it was lower in alcohol than we now expect (sadly) of Australian wine and not very oaky. Please correct me if my memory fails me! I thought it was frightfully clever of me as a young man to be so erudite!

  2. john cookson says:

    Fascinating story ,more please of the people behind the wines.

  3. Hi Robin

    I will delve into our archives and see what I can find out. I do know that we had half a dozen Australian wines on our List as early as 1880 along with five wines from Greece and four from Hungary. The information provided on wines (and even labels) was pretty scant, though, and I’m not sure you could totally trust the alcohol level printed on the label (dare I say!), though I’m sure you’re right and the alcohol levels were lower. Winemakers are much more able nowadays to get their fruit fully ripe and fully healthy, which is one of the reasons behind higher alcohol levels.

    Regards

    • Willie McCurdy says:

      Hi,

      I can’t remember the year, but to the best of my memory, it was the Society’s only event at the Studio Hall in the then newish Belfast Waterfront Hall. I tasted a minute amount of each of the 36? wines available that evening and in my opinion the outright winner (out classing every other wine present irrespective of price), that evening was Peter Lehmann’s Seven Surveys. I enjoyed it so much I ended the evening slowly enjoying a couple of glasses this wine.

      Family members who living in Australia, were surprised as they considered Peter Lehmann’s wines to be good but not top quality. I still maintain the Seven Surveys tasted on that night was a top class Aussie red.

      Regards
      Willie McCurdy

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