Wine Icon: Seppeltsfield
In 1970, Joni Mitchell released a song called Big Yellow Taxi. Do you remember it? It was a catchy, folky tune about the march of progress with little regard for the natural environment.
“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot,” she lamented.
Joni’s song reflected growing social concern, and like most great artists, she made her point through simple, relatable sentiment. In this case, it was, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.”
and its stable of fortified treasures is one such rare bird that, without the bravery and foresight of a small few, could have easily slipped away forever.
Seppeltsfield’s importance to Australian wine goes beyond the historical and reflects much of what has defined Australia’s short history. The story, like many great Australian narratives, started with emigration when Joseph Ernst and Johanna Seppelt fled Prussia in 1849.
They came to the Barossa
and started farming wheat, but Joseph soon saw an opportunity to supply the gold rush with fortified wine and spirits. He decided to have a go, planted grapes and began producing Tawny Port, Brandy, Gin and Vermouth. Seppeltsfield soon grew to be a big brand and a place defined by rows of date palms, that give it the look and feel of an oasis.
This wine oasis went on to define what was possible in Australia and eventually grew to contain a massive gravity-fed winery, miles of wine infrastructure, 200 hectares of vines, a distillery, homesteads, stables and an imposing family mausoleum.
Over the next 60+ years, the Seppelt family empire quadrupled and spread into Victoria to become a true wine powerhouse. Holdings included the iconic Seppelt’s Great Western estate and cellars in the Grampians, Mt Ida and Coppermine at Heathcote and the ground-breaking Drumborg vineyards at Henty. The output wines that the family produces soon began to define the taste and flavour of Australian wine.
Gravity fed goodness
In 1867, Joseph started production on a large-scale winery designed by his son Oscar ‘Benno’. The winery was built into the side of a hill as rows of open-topped fermenters, terraced down the hill to take advantage of gravity to move the fruit, without pumping, through the process of turning grape into wine.
Ironically, this practical approach is now aspired to as a ‘minimalist’ winemaking practice as the gentle handling of the fruit is seen to yield the best results for texture and flavour.
Sadly, Joseph died in 1878, so did not get to see the completion of this project. The winery was finished 11 years later and operated for nearly a century as a working symbol of vision, ingenuity and determination.
A Para past
A year before construction on the winery began, Benno began work on a cellar to age and store Seppeltsfield wines. The cellars took 12 years to build and were finished the year Joseph died. To honour his father, Benno began the yearly tradition of laying down a barrel of the finest Seppeltsfield Tawny with instructions that it was not to be bottled for at least 100 years.
That first 1878 barrel still lives in the Seppeltsfield Centennial Cellar as part of the world’s only uninterrupted, drinkable timeline. This 140-barrel vinous time capsule is without doubt Australia’s greatest wine asset.
Just like his father, Benno didn’t get to see the grandeur of his vision, but the collection he created spawned a range of Seppeltsfield wines under the coveted ‘Para’ label.
There have been 400 Seppeltsfield Para variants released since 1922 and today’s Para Centennial, Para Vintage, Para Liqueur, Para Grand and Para Rare are part of Australia’s longest standing, continuous wine label in production.
That first vintage is no longer sold but you can pick up a 100ml bottle of 1879 Para Tawny for $9700 plus tax.
In the 50s and 60s, the dominance of fortifieds faded with the increased popularity of table wine. Fortifieds sales plummeted from 86 percent to only two percent of all wine sold in Australia.
Over the next 20 years, Seppeltsfield became a corporate football as ownership passed from SA Brewing, to Penfolds Wine Group, to Southcorp Wines and from Fosters to Treasury Wine Estates.
Multinationals generally value profit over heritage and the wine market is not immune: when the market shifts and share prices drop, assets get broken down and sold off to recoup investment. As fortified sales bottomed and the business moved from company to company, the future of Seppeltsfield became tenuous. The gravity fed winery was mothballed and parts of the operation fell into disrepair with no plans to restore.
Fortuitously, the precious wine stocks and base materials during this period were under the guardianship of James Godfrey. As one of Australia’s fortified wine experts, James understood the value of what was in barrel and preserved the unbroken line of Seppeltsfield treasures.
A spirited rebirth
Then in 2007, something changed; Janet Holmes à Court, Greg Paramor, Nathan Waks and Bruce Baudinet formed the Seppeltsfield Estate Trust and took over majority shares.
Life started to pump back through Seppeltsfield’s veins, but things sped up two years later when Warren Randall, ex-winemaker for Seppelt Great Western, bought 50 percent of the shares. Warren hired Fiona Donald as Chief Winemaker and kick-started started a full refurb of the gravity fed winery.
Four years later, Warren acquired 96 percent of the business and began renovations across the whole estate. The rejuvenation of Seppeltsfield is now almost complete with the establishment of FINO as the cellar door restaurant and the addition of the Jam Factory: a craft and design collective featuring ceramics, glass, furniture and jewellery, as well as a highly skilled Damascus cutler.
A strong future
The rebirth of Seppeltsfield is in full swing and visitation is tipped to reach 200,000 this year. The winery is in full production mode, FINO is seen as the best cellar door restaurant in the Barossa and a new range of table wines with fresh labelling has recently been released.
Seppeltsfield is now humming and with Chief Winemaker Fiona Donald taking care of the wines, it is clear that wine quality across the entire fortified range is going to get better and better.
While fortifieds still represents less than three percent of sales in Australia, things are looking up. International sales are growing and as cellar door visitation grows, more discover and gain an appreciation for these wines with immense complexity, depth and flavour.
It’s a warming thought that this wine paradise is not going to be pulled down for a parking lot any time soon.