Seppeltsfield Winery has been an unchanging part of the Barossa landscape for as long as I can remember. In the western region of the valley, the winery is approached from Tanunda along ten kilometres of winding road bordered on both sides by towering date palms, a legacy of the 1930s. It’s a fittingly impressive entry to this icon of South Australia’s heritage. Everything must change however, and for Seppeltsfield new ownership has seen the introduction of some exciting innovations and somewhat of a facelift for this distinguished member of the Barossa establishment. The sense of history still permeates the place as compellingly as does the musty aroma in the cellars where the aged port barrels are stored, but now there’s an exhilarating new vibe in the air. As part of our recent weekend at Seppeltsfield Vineyard Cottage retreat, we were given a complimentary heritage tour of Seppeltsfield Winery, which is located just around the corner from the cottage. As we were the only “tourists” at the time we arrived, we were lucky enough to have a totally personalised experience. As well, because our tour guide was so knowledgeable and clearly passionate about his job, what was usually a 45 minute experience turned into a considerably longer one. As someone who is somewhat of a history buff, as well as a devotee of classic Barossa wines, I enjoyed every moment.
A potted history of Seppeltsfield
Surrounded by family portraits in the gracious sitting room of the original Seppeltsfield residence, we were easily drawn into the fascinating story of the founding of the winery by Joseph Ernst Seppelt, who migrated to Australia from what was then called Silesia in 1849. He purchased the land that would become Seppeltsfield in 1851, where with his team of workers, he carved the beginnings of the estate from native scrub and pine. His selection of land proved to be judicious, located as it was among rolling hills, fertile valleys and watered by Greenock Creek. Although his intention had been to grow tobacco, it soon became apparent that it was perfect land for viticulture and a vineyard was established. Despite its humble origins in his wife’s dairy, the first cellar soon spawned others and buildings progressively spread down the hillside towards the creek. Although Joseph was the founding father, the present day village of heritage listed stone buildings, cellars, sweeping lawns and manicured gardens really owes its legacy to Joseph’s son, Benno, who at the age of 21 took over following his father’s death in 1868. It was his remarkable energy and entrepreneurial skill that drove the expansion of the winery complex through the late 1870s and 1880s, with the establishment of new distilleries, a vinegar plant and a big new winery. Added to these in the early 1890s were a butchery, a cooperage, a piggery, a smokehouse and a laboratory. Under Benno’s leadership Seppeltsfield became the largest winery in Australia, a thriving enterprise that would spread across the nation and beyond. His contribution to the Australian wine industry, particularly in helping to establish the reputation of Australian wines, cannot be over-estimated. In 1902 the business was registered as a company under the title of B. Seppelt & Sons and the rest of that decade saw further expansion with the purchase of the Rutherglen and Great Western wineries in Victoria and later Chateau Tanunda. After Benno’s death in 1930, a new generation carried on the business, expanding further within South Australia and in Victoria and New South Wales, to take advantage of the post-war boom in table wines.
The dark ages
The 1980s ushered in a change of fortune when the Seppelt family lost control of the company. Symptomatic of that period’s climate of business takeovers and mergers, in 1985 the company was bought by South Australian Brewing, later to become Southcorp. In 2005 Southcorp was bought out by the Foster’s brewing company. Corporate ownership proved disastrous for Seppeltsfield, as epitomised by the phrase “the Rosemounting of Seppeltsfield“, coined by journalist Ben Canaider in a 2002 article in The Age. A company that had been built on the passion and personal commitment of one family was never going to thrive under management that not only valued the bottom line above all, but knew virtually nothing about wine. Ultimately, and probably fortunately for Seppeltsfield, Fosters put it up for sale.
Light at the end of the tunnel
Enter the Seppeltsfield Estate Trust, a consortium of shareholders led by Kilikanoon owner Nathan Waks, which bought the place lock stock and barrel in 2007. The deal included nine million litres of fortified wine along with all the buildings, plant, equipment, intellectual property and 250 acres of mature vineyards. Justifiably impressed by their acquisition, the new owners began what was to become an ongoing restoration. This included recommissioning the nineteenth century gravity-flow winery and the cooperage, reviving Benno’s Kiosk, restoring the gardens and capitalising on tourism potential by providing a range of tours of the property, priced at different levels (with or without tasting). These continue to be offered and are deservedly very popular.
A great tradition
One of these tours, which is definitely on my bucket list, is a nod to the 100 year old tradition started by Benno Seppelt himself in 1878, when he began the practice of putting aside a cask of each year’s port, to be held for 100 years before release. The first of these 100 year old wines, a version of the Para label, was accordingly released in 1978 to great acclaim. The century old wines continue to be released to this day. The “Taste Your Birth Year” tour takes you into the 100 year old cellar where imposing lines of barrels are ranged in dusty glory. These contain the super premium “Paramount Collection” and the Para Vintage Tawny. If that’s not enough to impress, your tour guide will tell you that this is the longest lineage of single vintage wines in the world. Once you’ve found the barrel marked with your birth year, some of the elixir will be drawn out reverently for you to taste. Those who have experienced it, say it’s something to savour and well worth the embarrassment of revealing your age to all and sundry. Perhaps I’ll wait for my own centenary to give the occasion an extra gravitas. (Who am I kidding? I’ll be lucky if I can still lift a glass by then. Besides I’m much too greedy to wait even that short space of time.)
A new broom
In 2009 Warren Randall, one of the largest private owners of vineyards at McLaren Vale, bought Janet Holmes a Court’s share of the Seppeltsfield Estate Trust, giving him 50% ownership of Seppeltsfield. In 2013, following some financial fine tuning, he increased his share to 90%. Some in the know have questioned his motives and the fate of the grand old company under his controlling hand, however, according to an article on the website Best Wines Under $20, he’s been saying all the right things, for example:
Since I worked for the Seppelt family in the 1980′s as the champagne maker at Great Western, I have had a deep respect for Seppeltsfield … as Australia’s iconic wine estate, any owner of Seppeltsfield is purely a custodian guiding her through each decade. It is humbling to know however that Seppeltsfield is now under one family’s private majority shareholding – the first time since the Seppelt family’s era.
He also appears to be doing all the right things and since taking over has lost no time in injecting new life into the complex, with an ambitious and visionary agenda of renewal and revitalisation. His first project was to finalise the restoration and recommissioning of the 1888 Gravity Flow Winery which is now crushing 5000 tonnes of grapes each year. As part of the Seppeltsfield Tourism Master Plan, he then went on to restore the 1850 stables which now house the Jam Factory at Seppeltsfield, a contemporary art and design studio. Opened in November 2013, the Jam Factory boasts a beautiful exhibition gallery and shop and also accommodates a number of artisans in residence. The day we visited, Barry Gardner, cutler (or Baz the knife maker as he is known in the trade) was hard at work crafting his amazing hand forged carbon steel knives, some of which I’d love for my kitchen. (Baz is pictured below and you can see more of his impressive handiwork at http://www.gardnerknives.com).
The major redevelopment, which began in March this year, involves transforming the heritage listed 1900 bottling hall into a new cellar door and regional restaurant, to be called FINO @ Seppeltsfield. An official opening is planned for October this year. And if I don’t make it to the opening, I’ll be dragging HWMBF along soon thereafter. Other projects under way or on the drawing board include major landscaping, to include stone terracing, water features, al-fresco dining areas, improved pedestrian connections and some strategic repositioning of the majestic Canary Island palms. It all sounds like the answer to Benno’s prayers and judging by the excitement in the Barossa community about the changes afoot, it bodes well for a successful reinvigoration of this much loved Barossa treasure.
A Special Commemoration
February this year saw the release of yet another century old vintage Tawny, but one with a difference. Dating from 1914, this one will be included in a Para Tawny World War 1 Commemorative Anthology wine set, one of a hundred collector’s sets to be made available in partnership with the Australian War Memorial, which will comprise 1914, 1915, 1915, 1917 and 1918 wines, to pay tribute to those who served in the First World War.
If you’re keen to see the revitalisation taking place at Seppeltsfield for yourself, or just want an excuse to get away to the Barossa and sample its fine wine and food, August has a special treat in store. Be Consumed, the Barossa Gourmet Weekend is happening again from Friday 15th to Sunday 17th August. Just about everyone involved in food and wine in the Barossa is getting in on the act and you’ll be spoilt for choice in terms of where to go, what to see and most importantly what to eat and drink. As well, the Jam Factory is hosting a special exhibition, Be Consumed: Creative Collaborations from the Barossa, featuring leading artists and designers, together with local food and wine producers. It will explore the relationships between food, wine, art and design; areas which are so closely integrated and mutually complementary, we often take them for granted. The exhibition will run from 18 July to 17 September 2014 and promises to be a feast for all the senses. For Adelaideians, there’s no excuse for not popping up for the day, or even the weekend – it’s a quick and easy drive now on the freeway and if you can’t manage to dob in a designated driver, there’s a range of local accommodation and transport options available. If you live further afield, a weekend (or longer) escape may well be the battery recharging boost you need and deserve. by Anne Green