Peter Lehmann Stonewell Shiraz

Peter Lehmann‘s Stonewell Shiraz (tastings) is one of the benchmarks among the full-throttle, rich, flagship red wines of South Australia’s warmer regions. There are many of these ‘pedestal wines’, but relatively few that I actually enjoy drinking. Distressingly common are wines made from overripe grapes, with their porty, raisiny aromas (‘dead fruit’ at its extreme), syrupy palates and excessive alcohol levels. Stonewell has never been that kind of shiraz. Indeed, Peter Lehmann the man and Andrew Wigan, the company’s chief winemaker, profess not to like those wines. Amen to that!

One could also level the complaint that many Barossa flagship shirazes are too oaky. Stonewell may have been on the woody side in some early vintages, but I would not make that accusation today. More about the barrel regime later.

But, what of the origin of Stonewell?

The beginnings of what became Peter Lehmann Wines sprang up in the vintage of 1979, when Lehmann and Wigan were the winemakers at Saltram, whose then owner Seagram decided to turn its grapegrowers away because there was a grape surplus and a downturn in wine sales. Lehmann, ever loyal to the growers – many of whom were his friends and had been his father’s parishioners – could not bring himself to do this. Instead, he set up a kind of defacto cooperative to receive and vinify all of the grapes, later selling most of the wine in bulk. Lehmann and Wigan quit Saltram and set up the Masterson label, which morphed into the now world-famous Peter Lehmann brand.

Wigan has worked with ‘PL’ all his career, starting at Saltram in 1976. “We both reckon it was one of the best decisions we’ve ever made,” quips Wigan.

Times were tough and it was a battle just to keep the business alive, let alone put special effort into making small parcels of great wine. “For the first seven years we struggled, made losses, couldn’t afford new barrels, and didn’t make a Stonewell,” says Wigan. “Then one day PL said to me ‘You know Wigs, it’s about time we made a show dry red’. For years at Saltram he’d done that; the wines were bottled in champagne bottles and sold only at cellar door, and there were some great wines.

“We made the first show dry red in 1987. It was simply a selection, made after vintage, of the best shiraz of the harvest. By 1989, we’d started to sell some wine and make some money, and we could afford to buy some new barrels. We also tried out some barrel fermentation. Then we started to do some fruit selection in the vineyards. We knew Penfolds were doing that. There were some grapes coming in from old vines at Stonewell (a north-western sub-region of the Barossa) which were blue-black in colour with very concentrated flavour. We decided to keep them separate.”

The rest is history. The ’89 Stonewell won the Jimmy Watson Trophy, which really put it on the map, plus another trophy in Adelaide and nine gold medals around Australia between 1990 and ’94. It is still drinking superbly and is one of the best Stonewell vintages – so much for Jimmy Watson winners not being ageworthy wines!

The growers

Peter Lehmann Wines has always been more interested in the welfare of grapegrowers than most other wineries. This is demonstrated in the Stonewell Growers’ Hall of Fame, where every grower who supplied grapes to each vintage of Stonewell is recorded. The names that appear most often are Ralph Schrapel, of Ebenezer (12 times in the first 20 vintages), Ron Andriske, of Stonewell (11), Bob Burdon, of Greenock (10), Ian Becker, of Koonunga and Greenock (9), Wayne and Shirley Standish, of Freeling (9), and Peter and Margaret Lehmann, Stonewell (7). Thirty-nine other growers make an appearance.

Apart from those above, other sub-regions to have figured in the blends are Eden Valley, Light Pass, Marananga, Angaston, Tanunda, Moppa, Nuriootpa, Dorrien, and Kabiningie, with Lyndoch only appearing once and Eden Valley not used since the first two vintages. Looking through the grower lists, the sub-regions that dominate are in the north-east Barossa, ie. Stonewell, Greenock, Marananga, and northern areas Ebenezer, Koonunga and Moppa. The emphasis on these sub-regions is pivotal to the style of Stonewell: full-bodied, rich and concentrated, with supple tannins and dark colour. The wine, after all, was named Stonewell because, as Wigan says, it was “the district (Peter and I) believed showed the characters we admired in the best of Barossa shiraz”. There’s a notable exception in recent times, though. The last three vintages (’04, ‘5 and ‘6) saw the arrival of John Russell’s vineyard at Kabiningie (off Krondorf Rd, behind Charles Melton), which rocketed straight to the top of the list each of those years.

Yields and grape prices

“Very low yield is what typifies the vineyards used for Stonewell,” says Wigan. They crop at between one and two tonnes per acre. “It is not easy to grow great fruit. You have to reward excellence, and the price we pay (per tonne of grapes) reflects that. “Whereas we might be paying $1,500 a tonne for shiraz that goes into Peter Lehmann Shiraz or Clancy’s, we pay $8,000 to the Stonewell growers.”

Tannin extraction

It’s not uncommon in the Barossa to add tannin to red wines, in the form of powdered ‘oenotannin’. But Wigan doesn’t see the point.

“We are blessed to have very soft tannins in the Barossa Valley,” he says, “and we use no special equipment – everything goes through a continuous press, and we squeeze the bejesus out of the skins and add all of the pressings straight back into the free-run. We don’t add powdered tannins, like others do. The tannins we get are fine and powdery: never harsh, bitter or green.”

Oak treatment

Some new oak was used from the beginning in 1987 – all American – but 1989 was the first year of 100% new American oak. “Then we noticed the American oak became more obvious as the wine aged and the primary fruit fell away,” says Wigan. “In 1996 we began to use some French oak, and quickly began using more. But we still use 10% American, for old time’s sake, and to add a spicy difference. In latter years, trying to make wines of balance, we’ve reduced the time in barrel, with the result that the wine has less overt oak, is more fruit-driven, and more elegant – if that’s possible in the Barossa!”

Alcohol strength

“We’re very against high alcohol wines of 15.5 or 16% or more,” says Wigan. “14 to 14.5% is where we think Barossa Valley shiraz should sit.”

Cork versus screwcap

All Stonewell was sealed with natural cork up to and including the 2004 vintage. The ’05 and ’06 in this tasting were screwcapped. Says Wigan: “I wish to hell they’d all been put under screwcaps.”

The vintages

Stonewell has been produced every year since inception, although in problem years such as 2000 and 2003 the quantity was much-reduced. No doubt the fact that PLW has more than 200 growers spread across the Barossa helps them source some top fruit every year. On the other hand, some years supply an embarrassment of riches: “1998 was one of the really great wines, and we had a hell of a lot of shiraz in the winery that could have made Stonewell, it was just such a great year with so much great fruit.” While professing to have no favourites, Wigan says he loves the ’96, ’92 and ’06. He also admits 2000 and ’93 are atypical vintages – “They don’t show the characters we expect in the Barossa. The ’93 is slightly cabernet-like and ’00 has slightly herbaceous notes.”

The tasting

1987

Fully mature, brick-red colour, starting to fade; quite complex bouquet. Soft, savoury and mellow in the mouth. Drink up. 16.0/20, 87/100

1988

Vanilla, rum-and-raisin chocolate. More concentration than ’87 and more firmness. But a touch mono-dimensional. 16.75, 89/100

1989

Barbecued meats/charred beef aromas; rich in fruit; a touch of peppermint later. Rose-petals and violets too. Very complex, lovely wine, still fruit-sweet, drinking beautifully now. The liberal oak has been swallowed up by 20 years of aging. 18.0, 93/100

1990

Acrid, wet-wool smell: some volatility? Grainy, rasping tannins. Not a good bottle? (Wigan doesn’t disagree, rating it a less successful year than its reputation.) Others liked this bottle more than me. 14.0, 84/100

1991

Superb toasty, roasted-nut aromas, very complex and rich palate; fruit-sweet and lush – even sumptuous – texture and flavour. Profound and delicious: a great Stonewell. 19.0, 96/100

1992

I did not like this wine, despite the very high regard in which it’s held at PLW. The nose was animal and a touch musty, while the palate seemed damaged and hollow with unbalanced tannin astringency, a lack of mid-palate fruit and a disjointed structure. Other bottles may be better. 14.5, 85/100

1993

A strange Stonewell, unusually vegetal for Barossa shiraz with asparagus and green-pea aromas, while the palate is disjointed and lacks ‘line’. Does not appear to be going anywhere from here. 15.0, 85/100

1994

A meaty, gamy developed nose with some sweaty aspects, with chocolate running through it and emerging more strongly on the palate. It’s muscular, almost chewy, deep, rich and fleshy, with drying tannins. Not especially complex, but should live for many years. 16.0, 88/100

1995

A rather stolid Stonewell with dark, blackish colour and lots of density, concentration and muscle, but no real elegance. A whopper, it’s grippy, chunky and loaded with drying tannins, perhaps a touch unbalanced. Should live on, but may not get any better. 16.5, 89/100

1996

A great vintage and a great Stonewell. Good purple hues; bright vanilla, chocolate and blackberry aromas laced with peppermint. In the mouth it’s deep, rich and plush, with density and masses of tannin to go with prominent oak and massive fruit. Another whopper but well-balanced and a long liver. Drink now to 2020+. 18.5, 95/100

1997

Vanilla-dominant nose with eucalyptus-mint and a medium bodied palate with a tight, firm, almost lean structure. A firm, sinewy wine that’s still youthful and has plenty of years left. Now to 2015. 17.0, 90/100

1998

From a year rated one of the best-ever for Barossa reds, this is a huge wine that should out-last most of us, although you do need to be a lover of big, gutsy wines. Coffee, vanilla, oaky and prune-like with a trace of vegetal/spice, it is tightly packed, dense and grippingly tannic in the mouth. Very full-bodied, formidably structured and very robust. Drink for at least 20 more years. 18.5, 95/100

1999

This is an excellent and quite stylish Stonewell from a vintage perhaps overshadowed by ’98. Deep, dark colour; lots of charcoal savoury oak-derived aromas; spicy too and with a lick of licorice/mint. A big wine with thickly laid-on tannins. Needs more time! Drink till at least 2020. 18.5,95/100

2000

A strange wine from an aberrant Barossa vintage. Mulchy, silage, green-pea, vegetal aromas together with jam, port and coffee-grounds. Grippy rustic tannins; roughly textured and lacks elegance. A pleasant enough jammy style on its own, but not a good Stonewell. 15.5, 86/100

2001

Prune and raisin aromas typical of the hotter Barossa summers, with a touch of the licorice/anise typical of this vintage across the valley. Vanilla and chocolate as well: fleshy, smooth and succulently fruit-sweet in the mouth. Tannins are smooth and balanced. Generously flavoured if not exactly elegant wine. Now to 8+ years. 18.0, 93/100

2002

It’s ironic that this aberrant year, with the coolest summer on record, produced a wine that Wigan calls “an amazing wine that makes a very strong case to be considered the best Stonewell to date.” It is nonetheless still a classic Barossa shiraz, albeit a more spicy, minty, elegant ‘cooler’ version thereof. It’s tight, youthful, elegant, tautly structured and finely textured, with great harmony, concentration and amazing length. Peppermint dominates the nose; it’s youthful and appears to be slow-aging. Now to 20+ years. 18.75+, 95/100

2003

A triumph from a difficult year, when the quantity of Stonewell was way down. Good colour: deep chocolate and plum aromas, plus prune and raisin in the mouth, Tight, firm tannins. Just starting to enter its drinking window. Far better colour, tannin balance and aging prospects than most ’03 Barossa reds. 17.5, 91/100

2004

Very deep red-purple colour; deep, lush blackberry, blueberry and mint aromas with oak playing a back-seat role. Rich, essency and concentrated in the mouth, espresso coffee chiming in. Very powerful and long, still very young and will be long-lived. Now to 15+ years. 18.25+, 94/100

2005

A very stylish wine, remarkably approachable at this age. Deep, blackish colour; cedary French oak shows together with lots of spice, leather and some vegetal aromas. An elegant, intense wine of fine balance and generous – almost essency – plum, cherry and blackberry fruit. Marvellous harmony. Already a pleasure to drink. Now to 2020. 18.5, 95/100

2006

Another excellent Barossa vintage and a top Stonewell in the making. Concentrated peppermint, aniseed, blackberry aromas on both nose and palate. Lush flavour and fine but persuasive tannins; fruit to the fore again and oak very background. Great balance and length: a class act and a delicious wine all-round. Best 2011 to 2026+. 18.75+, 96/100

(Full list of tastings)


First published in Gourmet Traveller Wine – Jun-Jul 2009.

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