Balancing life in small batches


Balancing life in small batches

words Heidi HELBIG
>> Phil Lehmann of Max & Me Wines

Like the wines he nurtures in the cool climate of Eden Valley, Phil Lehmann’s style is understated and unassuming, but undeniably compelling.

While the son of Peter Lehmann might walk in the footsteps of giants, he is the architect of his own story, making his mark with Max & Me Wines and leading a life of simple pleasures, seasonality and generosity.

Phil is most at home with wife, Sarah on their stunningly beautiful piece of Barossa farmland, where they make small batch wines, olive oil and sourdough, and watch the seasons change with children, Lewis and Olive.

However the journey has been anything but scripted for Phil, who admits he “fought” the pedigree and the winemaking path laid before him. 

He eschewed an oenology degree in favour of electrical engineering, before wanderlust took him across the world in his 20s.

It included sojourns in the Napa Valley with Michael Scholz and in Stellenbosch with Ben Radford, before Phil landed in Burgundy for a cultural immersion that was life-changing.

“Because of dad, there was such a big shadow; he was such a figure in the Barossa, I did feel the weight of it,” Phil says.

“But it all sort of crystallised in Burgundy. They’ve been growing grapes for hundreds of years; it’s a job with seasons and loads of reflection time. It’s good, clean work.

“It’s all about the vineyard in France. Take making Clos Vougeot; about 80 different owners each have a few rows and they sell the wine as a Clos Vougeot, not as a winemaker.”

Phil and Sarah reflect this philosophy in their own 25-acre vineyard, describing themselves as “farmers” and applying a light touch with minimal intervention that is closely aligned to biodynamic in terms of biodiversity and soil health.

“The Barossa in the ‘70s and ‘80s was all about the winemaker rockstar who could turn anyone’s grapes into a super red,” Phil says.

“As time goes by it’s become a celebration of where it’s grown. More and more I try and get out of the way, be less heavy-handed. 

“When you let what happens naturally in the vineyard happen, the wines have so much more depth and complexity.”

Phil also owes much to Kym Teusner, for encouraging his sense of experimentation at a crucial time in his career. After emerging from stints at Yalumba and the Lehmann family winery – by then owned by the Hess Group – Phil was at something of a crossroads. 

“Kym Teusner bought me a beer one day and said ‘Lehmo, why don’t you come and be my winemaker’,” says Phil.

“It was loose, somewhere between genius and crazy.

“To take a history and artsy approach to winemaking when I wanted to apply science and logical progression, it really changed the way I made wine.

“I developed a love of small batches and became less inclined to tweak things. Rather than making each year look a bit like the previous year, I let it tell its story I suppose.”

>> Olive, Phil, Lewis and Sarah Lehmann.

Today, that story is reflected in a range of boutique wine styles that are estate-grown and available in the Eden Valley Hotel and selected local restaurants and bottle shops. 

Phil, who finally did study oenology, says the signature Riesling is “full flavoured” and pays tribute to the stewardship of John Vickery, a great friend of his father’s.

Conversely, Sarah describes their Max & Me Shiraz as “fragrant and pretty”, largely due to the higher altitudes and thinner soils of eastern Eden Valley.

“Our Shiraz is our real hero. It smells beautiful – it’s really perfumed,” says Phil. “Where there’s dark plums and cherries on the Valley floor, it’s more mulberries and musk up here.”

“Dad was a really normal bloke. He treated people nice and I use that as a life lesson.

- Phil Lehmann

The couple has nothing but gratitude for the experiences and people who have shaped their journey, including the biggest influence of all, the inimitable Peter Lehmann.

“Dad was a really normal bloke. He treated people nice and I use that as a life lesson,” Phil says.

“He was equally comfortable around the farmers as the bookmakers – it wasn’t unusual to come in and find growers or a gang of Chilean pruners around the table having a glass of wine.”

But perhaps Peter is best remembered by those who loved him as a larrikin.

“He had a way of dropping clangers that didn’t cause offence – it was total ratbaggery. He would choose all the wrong words on purpose,” says Phil. “And then you’d see those blue eyes sparkling!” adds Sarah.

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