Ron Liebich walks into Liebichwein’s Cellar Door, wearing shorts, tee-shirt and trademark pair of snips clipped to his leather belt.
He’s somewhat chirpy today because this Rowland Flat winemaker/grapegrower has just completed his 54th vintage and he reckons it’s a good one too.
He’d know, his grape-stained hands reveal a lifetime of dedication to an industry that has been part of his bloodline for generations, since his grandfather, Benno Liebich started making wine in 1919.
When Ron speaks to The Barossa Mag, he’s just finished picking Muscat, the last grapes to ripen perfectly in his 12 hectares of vineyard planted with a fruit salad of different varieties.
Semillon, Frontignac, Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Shiraz also grow on the family property plus numerous table grape varieties that surrounds he and wife Janet’s home, located a stone’s throw from their winery and Cellar Door.
“I’ve also planted a bit of Mataro, a bit of Petit Verdot, some Tempranillo, two acres of Pinot Noir because I love Pinot… a bit of everything really,” lists Ron who admits he loves eating “all types of fruit” especially grapes.
“That’s why I wanted to become a boutique winemaker, I love making everything.”
Yet Fortifieds are his forte and they’ve been a passion since he began his winemaking career as a 21 year old, encouraged into the trade by uncles, Clarence “Darkie” and Mick Liebich.
Their eldest brother and business partner, “Lofty” (Ron’s father) sadly died when Ron was just seven.
“I didn’t really know what I was going to do in my early teens, I was almost thinking of being a minister of religion!” Ron muses.
“Uncle Darkie pushed me to go to Roseworthy because he wanted someone to go into winemaking so that’s where I ended up…The first wine I handled was a ’67 he’d made.”
Ron and his three brothers all worked in the business. “That was the best part about it,” he says fondly.
It was Darkie who coined the name “Rovalley Wines” and a golden era followed. Business was booming and because Ron was the only winemaker, he was busy.
“The most we crushed was 3,000 tonnes. We were doing all bulk fortifields and bulk table wines too. We were putting some in flagons, then some in bottles, premium reds and whites. I don’t know how I did it because I did all the lab work too. That’s probably why I’m frazzled!” he laughs.
“Darkie got Wolf Blass in to advise on starting sparkling wine… Rovalley Sparkling Charmane became huge! We did a Spumante, Brut, a pink and red sparkling Charmane.
“We were right up there with the biggest and the best.”
Ron found himself making a wide variety of wines and he enjoyed the challenges and discoveries made along the way.
“I made the first Rosé at Rovalley too. But the big thing was Cobweb Port – that was my baby,” he says with pride.
“We just had a unique mix of barrels down there, quite large, not just small barrels. They had this old developed rancio character in them from the 1920s and 30s all the way through. We had that base wine to work on and it was a special, unique blend that I think no one else was doing.”
There’s a tinge of sadness as Ron describes the demise of Rovalley, despite he and his brothers’ best efforts in keeping the generational wine business going.
Rovalley Wines closed in 1985. However, with its sale came the opportunity for Ron and Janet to buy back the family’s Steingarten Road property which they’ve called home ever since.
Taking a job working at the tank farm for Vinpac created a period Ron likes to call “the missing seven years” in his winemaking career.
“I was responsible for unloading all the wine that came in and I saw all the different labels going down the line and got a few ideas,” he says.
Those ideas grew and in 1992, Liebichwein began after Ron, who never stopped dabbling in winemaking, and his late brother, Garnet bought in some Grenache to make a tawny style port which was stored in barrels at their other brother, Trevor’s place.
“From there, a producer’s licence was granted, we started selling off bulk port and the winery started.”
For someone who says he’s a “fly by the seat of your pants” kind of winemaker, there is no doubt Ron knows exactly what he’s doing.
His descriptions of the flavours that develop the longer fruit is left on the vine, and those achieved each year in historic barrels are so detailed, you can almost taste the final product before a bottle is even opened.
“The key is picking at the right time,” Ron says.
He compares cork to screwcaps and how they impact a wine’s longevity; has a detailed knowledge of how fruit from bush vines differ from those grown on trellis and says his aim as a winemaker is for each grape variety to “speak for itself”.
At 76 years of age, he’s obviously been listening intently and the wide range of fine wines featured in the Liebichwein Cellar Door surely talk volumes.
So when Ron says, “This vintage is the best year I’ve had since ’96,” it’s wise to pay attention.
“It’s been more of what I’d call a ‘normal’ year, no extreme heat. I think we only had four days nudging 40.”
Ron has travelled the world to discover the finest fortifieds, but he still firmly believes that because of the growing conditions here in the Barossa, those produced by Liebichwein are up there with the best.
“I had to go to Madiera Island because I love the wine style, Ron says. “Their wines are not a patch on what we can make here, they don’t have the same power. And I think our Semillon stands up to anything that Spain can make and the Muscat too.”
Like his collection of museum fortifieds and table wines, Ron is maturing well. However, he knows age will eventually catch up with him, even though he’s not keen on hanging up his snips anytime soon.
“I have quietened down a bit, I do try and relax more.”
He’s thankful daughter, Briony Liebich – a sensory analyst – finds the time in her busy schedule to help with Liebichwein’s marketing whenever she can while Janet, whom he married in 1971, works in Cellar Door and behind the scenes.
Janet dreams of stepping back from the business sooner rather than later, even though Ron is a little reluctant.
“I love what I do and I can’t see myself fully retiring, but Janet wants to go fishing!” he laughs.
Looking back, does he regret not becoming a Lutheran minister?
“Faith has played a big part in my life, it’s given me the strength to do the things I wanted to,” is his reply.
“But no, my voice isn’t loud enough, I would have been terrible!”