“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”

DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland)

Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin

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25 March 2013

PETER LEHMANN: SWISS MISS POINT


Lehmann: three cheap red songs
Modest value; little provenance
Hess family follows itself down
by PHILIP WHITE

I’ve been thinking about Lehmann.   

A six-pack Peter Lehmann Eight Songs Shiraz box appeared this week, containing three of the new wave of Art’n’Soul wines.  These cost between $12 and $14 a bottle. They seem to have no particular source.  Eight Songs, properly gorgeous Barossa Shiraz, launched to celebrate the Mad King George III at the Barossa Music Festival in 1993, used to be about $50. There were no Eight Songs wines in the box.

“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” saith the preacher.

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The image of King George III, and this opening Randolph Stowe verse come from Rod Schubert's hand-made program for his exhibition Eight Songs For A Mad King, held at Peter Lehmann Winery at the Barossa Music Festival in 1993.  The opening coincided with a barrel-hall performance of Eight Songs For A Mad King, a musical recital written by Stowe and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies.  The performance was a sell-out; Peter Lehmann bought all the paintings to hang in his cellar tasting and sales area.





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Peter Lehmann has lent his name to some astonishing bargains in his long and wonderful life.  I’ve been privileged to share some bits of it. My time in his company has always been the foundation of mighty steaming piles of myth, legend and bullshit, even if I do say so myself.  

So I approached this trio with respect, and spent many hours with them.  They hold an important story of the modern Australian wine industry. They are made by the Hess family company, a big outfit from Switzerland.  When Peter once met Mr Hess on a plane, they swapped cards.

First, a comment on points scored.  Some folks say I point high.  But I often fill a wheelie bin with industrial empties before I discover a wine over ninety points.  I struggle to find you those over-nineties.  And you should regard my 70/100 as 7/10, which is not too bad. My average point over a week is probably around 60. 

Second: the Lehmann bottle.  When Peter’s people invented this bottle, I could never quite work out why it unsettled me.  Now I know.  Back then, in the dikso epoch, the Grace Jones bottle was all the go.  It was six foot sixteen tall. 
Away up there above the wide padded shoulders o’ Gracie, she wore the same Flat-Top ’do from the crook called Flat Top in the Dick Tracey comics, and then she went teetering and tapering all the way down to the bottom of those ten-inch platforms, and it cost, like $18.50, which was a lot when you could get Lehmann’s wine for well under half of that, maybe even $6. 

Peter’s people discovered the average bottle-o bottle-stacker could not abide the impossible-to-stack nature of the tapered expensive Grace Jones shape bottle.  Huge piles of stock might collapse on some lady’s shoes.  So they put a little ridge, or footing, at the bottom of their Lehmann taper to make it the same width as the shoulders so it would stack neat.  This compromised the design, but it stuck on the grounds of that neat stackability. 

But then, those big shoulders give the drinker a false sense of security.  You open this bottle, right?  When you get to pour the bit from the broadest part of the bottle, get a big percentage of wine in your first glass.  But then, especially when you’re drinking alone, you notice the rate of disappearance of the wine accelerates as you drink through the tapering shrinkage of the bottom part of the bottle.  It’s a real old-fashioned feeling, like teetering home all the way down that lane on them ten-inchers as the Quaaludes kick em out from under you.  There is nobody else to grunt at.  Damn bottle gets emptier faster.  And then, right at the very end of the last glass, you get a little extra.  That’s really weird. Like as far as a feeling goes.  Like drinking the goldfish out of your heel, where it had been swimming around all night with that flouro thing, looking, looking. 

So guess which wine I tasted last?  The Cabernet Merlot, of course.  Which is why we’re starting on the second-last one I opened.  2011 was the wettest vintage in Australian winemaking history, but in the Lehmann press release, the ex-Yalumba boss vitiguru Nigel Blieschke who now manages grower liason at PL maintains he picked the fruit for this red trio from 140 vineyards of less than two hectares each on average [before the mess of mildews and botrytis settled in and buggered nearly everything else – my brackets].

This would be typical Lehmann.


 
If you’re in the club at Lehmann’s, you can get Peter Lehmann Art’n’Soul Shiraz Grenache 2011 for $12.  So I’m discussing it at that level. It’s like a real good blend from Languedoc, in the sunny, ever-warming south of France.  If the Gallo family and Constellation had imported a Languedoc blend of this quality and composition into the USA and innocently sold it as Red Bicyclette Pinot Noir instead of that bullshit Merlot they got in trouble with when the Frogs bullshitted them, nobody woulda got charged.  Here, it’s honestly labeled as Shiraz and Grenache, and the latter grape has been treated pretty much like raspberry to cheer up some glum Shiraz.  The wine has that typical south-of-France sunshine and natural botrytis glycerol, and it sort of resembles the least expensive south of France reds you’d find in many profitable Paris bistros this summer.  Wouldn’t that be cool! 

The label says “Hess Family – Terroir Wines Crafted On Four Continents”, which is probly why it doesn’t say Barossa, not even in the winery address.

If there’s a fighter one can count on in a scrap in this trio, the Shiraz-Cab should be it. And it is.  It has some sooty Barossa fireplace oak from A. P. John Cooperage, with woodfire stove blackberry jam business underway, and it has that sweet jamminess of the Shiraz gradually getting lost in the black tea of the Cabernet.  It has none of true Shiraz soulfulness Lehmann made his reputation on, but it has none of that company, either.  They’re all gone.  Apart from that stalwart winemaker-general, Andrew Wigan, no Lehmann works at Lehmann’s anymore.

Join the club, buy this Cabernet Merlot for about $1:30 per standard schl├╝ck, and where exactly is one?  Well, one’s there, to start with.  This is probably a better place to be than many. But if one were to expect a glimmer of the Cabernet and Merlot blend of Bordeaux in this bottle, one would be wondering.  This is not Bordeaux.  And it’s not Barossa.  It has dear Peter’s profile dripping off it : that patronage is obvious.  So what is it?  A cleanly, reliable dry red wine of about the highest standard one has come to expect to be served at art exhibitions that are not at Lehmann’s.  Maybe it’s just romance, but in my fondest memories, Lehmanns always served much better wines than this at their exhibitions. 

I have watched Kevin Foley enjoy wine like this at exhibitions.

It is a sad thing that the quality of our “quaffers” has lost so much sense of source.  If you want the real Lehmanns, keep your nose on the heart’n’soul of anything from that crafty shedman David Franz, and follow his brother Philip, who makes exemplary wines at Teusner.

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