Good Country: Honouring the Maker at Sevenhill

The Clare Valley is widely celebrated for its viticulture, but the history of Sevenhill is fundamentally connected to winemaking. And Jesuits.

The first Jesuits in Australia had fled religious persecution in Prussia. On their voyage to Port Adelaide in 1848, their ship was pursued and fired on by a Danish warship. One of the priests from this journey, Father Kranewitter, purchased land and resided in a slab house in 1851 – the origins of Sevenhill. Jesuits named this township Sevenhill after the seven hills of Rome, hoping the village would become a centre for Catholicism in the region.

Also in 1851, Brother Schreiner planted vine cuttings on the site of the present vineyard, making Sevenhill Cellars the oldest winery in the Clare Valley. The purpose of planting the vines was to provide altar wine when the batch from Europe ran out. The Sevenhill winery would later supply altar wine to many countries and become the only Australian winery to specialise in altar wine.

Apart from the winery, Sevenhill also produced a sublime church, St Aloysius (completed in 1875); a secondary school; and a college for priests including Donald MacKillop, Saint Mary MacKillop’s brother. Saint MacKillop herself stayed at Sevenhill during her excommunication. The church remains functional, and people looking for peace can stay in the college building. And, of course, the award-winning winery is still alive and picking.

St Aloysius' Church (Photo: Michael X Savvas)
St Aloysius’ Church (Photo: Michael X Savvas)

Mike Christophersen, general manager of Sevenhill Cellars, explains why both their altar and table wines are so special: “Some of the blocks are old by world standards. Also, South Australia has never been afflicted with the disease phylloxera. This is why South Australia enjoys some of the oldest vines in the world. And heights and temperatures are good for taste. The property here is 500 metres above sea level. With the height, the temperatures can shift between warm days and cool nights. The cool nights ripen the grapes.”

The Sevenhill wine is also special because of the hard work and craftsmanship of the legendary Brother John May, who was the Sevenhill winemaker for 33 years and now holds the title of Jesuit Winemaker Emeritus (yes, that’s a thing). Jayne Price, an affable seller at the cellar door, knows Brother John: “He’s just a lovely gentleman that has the ability to tap into anyone and everyone.”

Marian Shrine (Photo: Michael X Savvas)
The Marian Shrine (Photo: Michael X Savvas)

According to Christophersen, “Brother May dedicated his life to the place, and during his time the cellar door grew and improved greatly. The wine that he was most proud of was the Saint Ignatius. Brother May decided to plant this variety, and it’s become our flagship wine.”

Another wine of interest is the barbera, which Brother May planted in 2002. If, like me, you enjoy discovering a wine that’s not widely distributed outside a cellar door, the barbera might be for you. Price describes the barbera as a “popular and versatile wine. It mixes with lots of different foods and different occasions. You can chill it too”.

I always found it quaint that one of our school excursions was to the Sevenhill winery. At that stage of my life, the only barbera that concerned me was the Hanna-Barbera cartoons such as Top Cat that I watched on Saturday mornings. How times have changed.

Maysie the cat (Photo: Michael X Savvas)

Speaking of cats, Sevenhill’s second-most-famous daughter is Maysie. This content-looking and underworked white cat sleeps on a bed of straw in a partial wine barrel inside the cellar door. She was named after Brother May, who used to feed her cheese. She soon acquired the taste. “Now we have to be careful when we have cheese platters, as she’ll eat them,” says Price.

One time, Maysie bit the back of Brother May’s hand, which left him hospitalised for three days. Naturally, Brother May forgave Maysie. And Maysie forgave herself. Brother May says of forgiveness, “You should never let the sun go down on your wrath. If I can say sorry to someone I’ve offended, then I can sleep better at night.” People like Brother May are rare. But like the vines that produce the Brother John May Reserve Release Shiraz that honours its maker, low-yield vines produce quality grapes.

Dedicated to my ‘top cat’, Kelvo, who helped me write.

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