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Updated: February 19, 2010 16:55 IST

Big on Barossa

MUKUND PADMANABHAN
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The Clancy's, a brawny powerful blend of Shiraz, Cabernet and Merlot, typifies the robustness and confidence that characterises Australian reds

It was a visit to the Barossa Valley three years ago that revived my interest in wine. Wine growing was initiated in the mid-1800s by German immigrants in this stunningly beautiful region, which lies north of Adelaide. Today, the Barossa is home to some of Australia's best-known wineries — ranging from big names such as Wolf Blass, Penfolds, and Jacob's Creek to smaller ones such as Torbreck and Kalleske.

I did not have the opportunity to visit the winery founded by Peter Lehmann, the legendary Australian winemaker, but I was shepherded around Yalumba, Australia's oldest family-owned winery that is fronted by a splendid old stone building, where Lehmann began working in 1947 as an assistant winemaker.

The invitation to a tasting of Peter Lehmann wines stirred up a slew of memories and provided an opportunity to doff an Akubra to the Barossa, which produces some fine whites (particularly, Semillons and Rieslings) and some excellent reds, particularly an iconic version of the Shiraz.

Interestingly, the story of Peter Lehmann, a fifth generation Barossan, is inextricably tied up to great Barossan reds. In 1977, when he was working with the Saltram winery, then a big customer for Barossa grapes, he was ordered to tell growers that the company would not buying next year's harvest. Lehmann, who had forged a close association with growers was “damned” if he was going to break his word. So, he scraped some money together from friends, started a company, bought the grapes, and — against the odds — made a success of it.

His reputation for rescuing Barossa vines consolidated in the middle years of the next decade, when the Australian government initiated a vine pull scheme, under which growers were paid to destroy their vines and encouraged to plant other crops such as lettuce and cabbage. The scheme was devised in the middle of a wine glut, a time when the reputation of Barossan wines had hit a low and the future of vineyards in the region was precarious. Lehmann is credited with rescuing many old vines by reaffirming his faith in the Barossa and saving many old vines by continuing to buy grapes. These old vines are now the pride of the region, many of them responsible for those full and fleshy shirazes that Australian wine has made a reputation on.

The tasting with Lehmann's export director Howard Duncan comprises a couple of whites (an easygoing unoaked Chardonnay and a razor-sharp Riesling) and three very agreeable Shiraz or Shiraz blends. Their legendary Stonewell Shiraz is unfortunately not a part of the offering, but happily the next best — the Art Series Shiraz, of which the 2006 vintage made the Wine Spectator's Top 100 for 2009 — is. The Clancy's, a brawny powerful blend of Shiraz, Cabernet and Merlot, which in some ways typifies the robustness and confidence that characterises Australian reds, particularly impressed me. According to Duncan, it sells for something like $15 in Australia, a steal.

Australian wines are not in fashion the way they were when they caught international attention in the Nineties. In a fickle wine world where taste is driven by the constant need to experiment and drink something ‘different', they may have fallen a little from fashion but not from grace. All it takes is a good Shiraz to convince someone to remain big on Barossa.

(The Lehmann tasting was conducted at Prego, The Taj Coromandel hotel.)

mukund@thehindu.co.in

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