Dream Vertical: Sevenhill
As the Clare Valley’s first vineyards and winery, Sevenhill has contributed much to the region’s prosperity. But its story runs deeper than its wines.
Wine and the Church have always been firm friends and the Church’s close relationship to vine and grain has resulted in it developing some of the finest wines, spirits and beer the world enjoys today.
You would think that for such a contribution, the Church would be on everyone’s friendship list, but in the late 1700s, various monarchies around Europe grew distrustful of the Church’s growing power, wealth and influence.
Soon the biggest order of the Catholic Church, the Jesuits, found themselves persecuted, and so purged themselves from Portugal, France, and Spain, parts of Italy, Austria and Hungary.
Some of these Jesuits ended up in the Barossa’s Tanunda, but soon the Prussian Jesuits started to feel outnumbered by the Lutheran Prussians and so began to look for a new home.
Wine comes to the Clare
In 1848, priest Aloysius Kranewitter and father Maximillian Klinkowstrom explored north and found hilly, fertile land just outside the settlement of Clare that was eventually surveyed, allotted and settled as ‘Sevenhill’, paying homage to the seven hills that form the spiritual heart of Rome.
As Sevenhill grew, so did the need for sacramental wine and in 1851, Brother Schreiner procured and planted vines and the commencement of the Clare as a wine region began. Sevenhill soon gained a reputation for quality sacramental wine and as the need grew, vineyards expanded and underground cellars and a winemaking facility were constructed.
Sevenhill’s wine heart was soon surrounded by St Aloysius’ Church, seminary and college, and became an icon of the Church’s survival and expansion into the new world colonies.
Brother of the Vine
From its conception until the early 2000s, there have been seven Jesuit brothers as winemakers at Sevenhill, with the last being Brother John May, Winemaker Emeritus, SJ, AM.
Brother John, who began his Sevenhill service in 1963 as winemaker and general manager, saw the growth in popularity of table wine, and oversaw the expansion of the cellar door operation as wine tourism grew.
On his retirement in 2003, Brother John was granted the title of ‘Jesuit Winemaker Emeritus’. He was subsequently inducted into the Clare Valley Wine Hall of Fame in 2014, and received an (AM) Order of Australia in recognition of his significant service to winemaking, regional tourism and to the Catholic Church.
A New Chapter Emerges
Sevenhill remains as Australia’s only Jesuit-owned winery, and while sacramental wine represents only 20 per cent of production, a staff of wine professionals now carries the Sevenhill story forward.
General manager Jonathan O’Neill and winemaker Will Shields are combining their experience to add another chapter to the Sevenhill history and at a recent tasting shared their vision for the wines.
"It is a privilege to be working with such a unique business, and I think the future is very exciting for Sevenhill," Jonathan explains. "Our Riesling vineyard blocks are very much about showcasing these site specific wines, and we have started to pick some of our red vineyard blocks a little earlier than we have done in the past, which will bring in some more vibrancy and freshness to our wine styles."
"It’s a great chance to contribute to the region’s reputation," adds Will. "We have a chance to produce wines that reflect the soils and region; slatey, structural, age-worthy and powerful, but all wrapped up in a silky, seamless, fragrant package."
The first range tasted was ‘Inigo’ and as an entry-level range, it represents fantastic value. The Rieslings are delicate with creamy citrus driven aromatics and in the mouth, soft and fine yet, despite having a lower acid profile than most Clare Rieslings, age gracefully as the 2009 showed. Standouts were the 2017 for its elegant delicacy and the 2019 for its structure, balance and potential.
Next was Inigo Shiraz with all wines showing classic Clare intensity and delivering buckets of sweet, complex black and blue fruit aromas and flavours. The 2018 stood representing a stylistic shift from sweet fruits to savoury with less oak influence.
Three Cabernet Sauvignons rounded out the Inigo line-up with each showing that same inky intensity as the Shiraz, reinforcing that when it comes to red wine, the Clare is all about power. All three wines showed balance and varietal character, with the 2015 vintage standing out for its fine-grained mouthfeel and the 2018 for its fresh elegance.
Next we stepped up to the ‘Saints’ range, including some ‘St Frances Xavier’ and ‘St Aloysius’ Rieslings, and a bracket of ‘St Ignatius’ made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec and Cabernet Franc.
The Rieslings were beautiful; detailed and expressive wines that lift the Clare Valley up as a world class Riesling region, yet reinforcing that Sevenhill expressions are quite distinct from their Watervale and Polish Hill cousins. All wines delivered elegant poise with juicy fruits and complex aromatics, but the 2010 was a drink-now favourite with its mouth-watering intensity. The 2019 was a wine that was earmarked for greatness, but has some time to go before its true colours emerge.
The St Ignatius wines are a classic Bordeaux blend crammed with generous, mouth-filling black fruits, herbs and oaky notes. Despite their natural power and intensity, all of these wines, especially the older 2009 and 2013, showed lovely detail and focus. The 2009 was in a lovely spot, demonstrating how intensity can turn to silk over time, with the 2018 and 2017 promoting themselves as great cellar choices that will deliver for those with patience.
Lastly came a batch of ‘Brother John May’ Shiraz. Released as an aged wine, these are flagships and a fitting tribute to the man who shepherded Sevenhill into current times. Exceptionally complex and concentrated, these wines are a pure representation of the old vines at Sevenhill; dark and broody characters lie beneath sweet and perfumed aromas leading to mouthfuls of inky and condensed layers of fleshy blackberries, cherries and graphite. The current release 2014 is an imposing wine with immense power and intensity, while the 2017 is more reserved in terms of intensity and mouthfeel, but still delivers incredible concentration and length.
Through their power and grace, the wines of Sevenhill pay homage to its rich historical past and the identity of the Clare. The future, however, looks very bright with the influence of Will and Jonathan, and the guidance of Brother John bringing extra grace to the wines of Sevenhill.
The wines of the tasting
2009, 2015, 2017, 2019
2013, 2015, 2018
Inigo Cabernet Sauvignon
2013, 2015, 2018
St Frances Riesling
2010, 2014, 2019
St Aloysius Riesling
St Ignatius Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc
2009, 2013, 2017, 2018
Brother John May Reserve Shiraz
2006, 2014, 2017