Barossa Valley

Once upon a time it was fashionable to declare that the Barossa Valley had lost its way. Vineyard plantings were dwindling, old shiraz vines were regarded as a liability, grenache and mourvedre were fit only for fortified wine, itself in sharp decline, and only one winemaker appeared willing to stand up and be heard to defend the faith. Even Riesling, South Australia's favourite daughter, was about to be supplanted by Chardonnay.

The low point came in the early 1980's; the wine tourist went to the Clare Valley, the Southern Vales or distant Coonawarra, but why bother with the Barossa? The gravely voice of Peter 'Mudflat' Lehmann provided one answer: this was and is the birthplace of South Australian wine, and South Australia has been the most important wine producing state for over 100 years. Moreover, it is as rich in terms of its innumerable cultural heritage and its characters and people.

For Lehmann the people were the most important: his beloved grape growers from whom he had purchased grapes during his long tenure as chief winemaker at Saltram (1960 to 1979) and for whom he forsook financial security to form Peter Lehmann Wines in 1980, leaping in to a particularly difficult wine market. As the smile added yet more creases to the face which had gained him the 'Mudflat' nickname, his day long presence at the weighbridge (and an inexhaustible supply of wine and port to be shared with all and sundry) provided the inspiration which was to turn the tide for the Barossa Valley and ultimately for his own wine company.

Whether he could have achieved this on his own is a moot point - indeed, whether the Barossa was really in terminal decline can be debated. But in any event, others rallied to the cause, most notably a group whose wineries cluster around Krondorf Road: Bob McLean of St Hallett, Rocky O'Callaghan of Rockford, Graeme 'Charlie' Melton of Charles Melton Wines, and Grant Burge (Grant Burge Wines). These in turn worked closely with Maggie Beer of the then Pheasant Farm Restaurant and the artist (and bon vivant) Rod Schubert. They shared a passionate belief in the valley and a rare ability to communicate that belief through their respective crafts.

McLean had followed a course as economically brave as Lehmann, leaving Petaluma (which he had joined after a long career in charge of Orlando's public relations) to acquire a part ownership of a then little known and relatively sleepy Barossa winery, St Hallett. Known as the Jolly Green Giant because of his enormous frame, his infectious and ever-present laugh, and a striking dark green suit (mercifully since discarded), McLean is known and loved throughout the wine world, a world which in his instance extends to such unlikely places as the wine bars of Ireland.

He is the ultimate wine marketer-cum-entrepreneur; during his time at Orlando the sales of Pol Roger Champagne (then distributed by Orlando) reached an all-time high, due largely to the personal efforts of McLean, whose consumption comfortably exceeded that of the other Pol Roger devotee Sir Winston Churchill. The Jolly Green Giant became Sir Lunchalot as St Hallett moved from obscurity to icon status, its Old Block Shiraz now ranking as one of the greats. And while Stuart Blackwell, the painfully shy winemaker (and fellow shareholder) behind Old Block has been technically responsible for the wine, it was McLean who recognised its potential - potential which even now is still to be fully realised, for demand far exceeds supply.

The bearded McLean is matched by the equally hirsute Rocky O'Callaghan of Basket Press and Black Shiraz fame. The supply/demand ration approaches that of Penfolds Grange in the case of Black Shiraz, an inky purple sparkling wine which in bygone days would have been called Sparkling Burgundy, and might have been given 20 years or so on yeast lees, and then some additional cork age. What Rockford's Black Shiraz might taste like with such age is likely to remain one of life's sweet mysteries, for it is sold while still young and - as far as I have ever been able to determine - immediately and avidly consumed by those fortunate enough to be able to snare a bottle.

On the other side of the road and a few hundred metres further on you can find Charlie Melton in his wooden winery. Almost elf-like after the imposing figures of McLean and O'Callaghan, Melton was one of the prophets who recognised the virtues (and the synergies) of old vine Shiraz, Grenache and Mourvedre. He took these and produced Nine Popes, an irreverent homage to Chateauneuf du Pape, which shares a similar varietal base but which very frequently is nowhere near as good as Nine Popes.

Charlie Melton may not be physically imposing but he is made of stern stuff. He established Charles Melton Wines while still working by day (or night) at Peter Lehmann's, spending the other half of the day at his new venture. He decided to marry wife Virginia in the middle of vintage, not in the Barossa but in Melbourne, driving there and back without sleep and going straight back to his two jobs.

Grant Burge is the smoothie of the group, immaculately dressed in a manner somehow reminiscent of Guys and Dolls. Together with the late Ian Wilson, he was the wunderkid who created Krondorf and who subsequently found the offer from Mildara too good to refuse. He was also more than happy to repurchase the Krondorf vineyards at a time when grapes were in over-supply and vineyards correspondingly cheap, becoming the largest individual holder of vineyards in the Barossa Valley. Flashy dresser he may be, but he has a razor sharp mind and tremendous business acumen.

His particular contribution to the Barossa's vinous palette is Meshach, named in honour of his great grandfather and wrought from Old Vine Shiraz matured in American oak in the manner of Grange, Hill of Grace and Old Block Shiraz.

Maggie Beer closed the Pheasant Farm Restaurant simply because it was too successful, and drained too much from her. Looking at her serene earth mother face you would never guess it, and she has in fact simply found other ways to promote her beloved Valley and showcase her formidable culinary skills through catering, special dinners and through pates and terrines sold throughout Australia made from game grown at the Pheasant Farm which she and her husband still run.

And Rod Schubert? Well, he continues to paint (one of his works adorns the St Hallett Old Block Shiraz label) and does his fair share of reassuring his friends that the wines they make are better than ever.

This article first appeared in Ansett's in-flight magazine, Panorama, in 1996.