Most people in Australia know the name Max Schubert, the creator of Grange, but only a handful will have heard of John Vickery. In a nutshell, John did for Aussie Riesling what Max did for Aussie Shiraz: he set a standard that still serves as lighthouse for younger winemakers today.
In 2003 John Vickery was voted Australia’s greatest living winemaker by a panel of peers. John is still very much alive 13 years later, and is once more making wine with Phil Lehmann at WD Wines.
Photo credit: John Krüger
John made his name with the Leo Buring label, at Chateau Leonay near Tanunda in the Barossa Valley. He started making wine there in 1955, and he had access to the best Riesling fruit in the Barossa, Eden and Clare Valleys. It was a time when hundreds of growers supplied the big wineries with grapes, and it was a time when hardly anybody drank Riesling.
Sherry was the fashion drink of the day, soon to be replaced by cheap and sweet sparkling wines like Barossa Pearl and Rhinegold. In the early fifties, the Germans came up with several new technologies that revolutionised white wine making. One of these was fermentation in pressure tanks, another was perfecting the Charmat method for making cheap bubblies in large volume..
Max Schubert’s main contribution to Australian reds – and his big learning curve – was maturation in new small oak barrels. John Vickery had much more to learn: pressure fermentation and refrigeration, in conjunction with more gentle airbag presses and carbon-dioxide reticulation, produced much fresher, more aromatic wines.
This was the technology that transformed Rieslings into the wines we enjoy today, along with short-term storage in stainless steel tanks instead of big old wooden casks. All this equipment was expensive, and John received most of it in instalments during the sixties after Lindemans had bought Chateau Leonay following Leo Buring’s death in 1961.
Colin Gramp of Orlando was the first to import pressure tanks from Germany, along with Gunter Prass who later became Orlando’s chief winemaker. Orlando’s Barossa Riesling 1953 was the first Australian Riesling made with the new technology.
By the time the corporate raiders had finished their wholesale destruction of Lindemans in the eighties – for details see Lindemans, Death by a Thousand Cuts – Australia’s greatest Riesling maker found himself making wine for French conglomerate Pernod Ricard. More of that below.
Riesling, Moselle and Rosé
The new style of Aussie Riesling was a winner for the cognoscenti but virtually no one else drank Riesling . I suspect it was a winemaker’s wine that saw John Vickery, Guenther Prass and Rudi Kronberger at Yalumba compete for a purist’s crown.
In the late fifties and early sixties, people weren’t drinking Riesling but designer wines – styles designed to lure then away from sherry and Barossa Pearl and get them to drink table wine. The early leader was Hamilton’s Ewell Moselle, an off-dry white made from Pedro Ximines and Verdelho – Sherry and Madera grapes – that became Australia’s biggest selling wine with a production of 350,000 cases a year at its peak.
The crafty blend was the brainchild of Sydney Hamilton who founded Leconfield at Coonawarra when he was in his mid-seventies. The wine ruled the roost until it was knocked off the number 1 spot by Lindemans Ben Ean in the early 1970s. Ewell Moselle became part of our folklore and spawned this unique line: ‘If you weren’t weaned on it, then you were probably conceived on it.’
Then there was Mateus Rosé, that ghastly concoction from Portugal in the pretty bottle.
A few wineries were making serious dry whites, but there wasn’t a lot of Semillon and Riesling planted. They were the only quality white table wine grapes winemakers had to work with before Chardonnay and the rest arrived in the seventies and eighties. Sherry was the drink du jour in the early sixties, and Pedro Ximines was the king of grapes, followed by Palomino and Muscat.
In the table wine boom of the sixties, our winemakers were caught with their vineyards planted to all the wrong varieties. The famous Florita vineyard in the Clare was planted to Pedro which was the source of Leo Buring Florita Fino until Ray Kidd replanted it to Riesling in the sixties. Blending varieties was common practice down under, and reached a pinnacle with wines like Mildara’s Golden Bower Riesling. Others like Cyril Henschke made dry Frontignac from Muscat grapes.
Golden Bower Riesling was a blend of Hunter Semillon and Barossa Riesling from memory, and it was a cracker in the late sixties. By now Riesling had become more popular but its name was often taken in vain: Semillon form the Hunter Valley was called Hunter Riesling and Crouchen from the Clare was called Clare Riesling, so the genuine article ended up labelled Rhine Riesling. No wonder people became confused and dived into Chardonnay when it became available.
Without the latest equipment, John Vickery had to rely on traditional ways of winemaking in the sixties, such as keeping everything in the winery squeaky clean. ‘John has incredibly high standards,’ Phil Lehman told Wine & Dine’s David Sly. ‘He is a strong gatekeeper of his own legacy … he’s fussy for a reason.’
‘Modern winemakers don’t understand just what they have at their disposal ,’ Vickery told Sly. ‘All the bells and whistles we could never dream of … to get our wines bottled before 1970, they had to travel in 4000 litre steel railway carriages from the Barossa to Sydney.’ These carriages were open to the weather, only covered with a blanket of inert CO2.
The few Leo Buring wines I’ve tasted from the late sixties show no signs of such treatment, and were still very much alive a quarter of a century later.
In the early seventies, the farsighted Ray Kidd had begun laying down some of Lindemans’ best wines in the cellars of the company’s Nyrang St, Auburn headquarters. Lindemans Nyrang Hermitage and Auburn Burgundy paid an interesting tribute to the company’s location and vast cellars. In the eighties, Lindemans began releasing some of these wines in regular tranches.
There were two levels of releases: Classic and Fine Aged Premium. The Classics were expensive but included the great Hunter Semillons made by Karl Stockhausen and the great Rieslings made by John Vickery in the late sixties and early seventies – that golden era which produced wines like none before or since. Here’s a later piece from Chris Shanahan on this topic, with more details.
The program was such a success that Ray Kidd wanted to expand the cellars at Auburn but the cost accountants at Philip Morris put an end to that idea. In 1986, they decided to move the cellars to Karadoc and just leave the offices at Auburn. More Here. Ray retired a couple of years later, then Southcorp bought Lindemans.
Travelling Cellar Doors
John Vickery, Australia’s greatest Riesling maker, faced an uncertain future until he witnessed a remarkable transformation, and ended up making wine under the Richmond Grove label. That winery had begun life as a Hunter Valley winery until it was swallowed by Orlando-Wyndham and both ended up in Pernod Ricard Australia’s big arms in the early nineties. Now a miracle happened: Richmond Grove’s cellar door miraculously reappeared at Chateau Leonay in the Barossa.
John Vickery’s old boss Phil Laffer joined Orlando as head winemaker in the early nineties, and re-installed John as winemaker at Richmond Grove, the new name for Chateau Leonay. From 1994 on, Vickery returned to making Riesling from Watervale, Barossa Valle and Eden Valley fruit. He retired in 2005, after he’d won some 50 trophies and 400 gold medals for his employers in over 50 years of wine making.
Closing the Loop
You’d think that’d be enough for any winemaker, but John has gone back to work for WD Wines where he is helping Phil Lehmann make Rieslings under his own label. The short story is that John Vickery got bored doing nothing.
Phil is the late Peter Lehmann’s youngest son, and is the chief winemaker at WD Wines which is owned by the Hesketh family in Adelaide. This is the same family that financed Peter Lehmann decades ago after Saltram fell into the hands of Dalgetty. The new owners told Peter to cut Saltram’s growers loose, but he told Dalgetty to jump and started Masterson Wines which later became Peter Lehmann Wines.
The Masterson label came about because Peter was a great fan of Damon Runyon’s Guys and Dolls stories from the 1920s and 30s. They featured gangsters, gamblers and other characters of the New York underworld, and Sky Masterson was one of these: a gambler willing to bet on anything.
The final twist in this nostalgia piece is that my Dad was a mad keen fan of Damon Runyon’s stories. I loved them too, despite reading them in their German translation (I grew up in Germany). It boggles the mind how any writer can capture New York slang in a German translation but this one had succeeded. I’d love to find a copy of the book somewhere.