Current Issue #488

Seppeltsfield at the table

Seppeltsfield Barossa Garden of Eden

After almost a double century of winemaking, you would think there was not much that hadn’t yet been done at Seppeltsfield – but you’d be wrong.

The big money’s been spent, the tourists have flocked in– up to 150,000 a year pre-virus– and there’s nearly 170 years of history and winemaking heritage to draw on and honour.

Now there’s the next big challenge, to create a range of table wines that lives up to all this, carrying one of the most famous names in Australian wine making history – yet a new brand all the same.

That’s the challenge facing Seppeltsfield chief winemaker Fiona Donald and her team responsible for one of Australia’s most iconic winery estates.

One of the marketing hurdles she faces is that until recently the Seppeltsfield trademark was owned by former Seppeltsfield owner Treasury Wine Estates, so a little history is necessary to explain why it is that although Donald’s first Seppeltsfield table wines were made in 2010, they could be sold only at cellar door. It took until 2017 for Seppeltsfield owner Warren Randall to win back the trademark allowing him to launch table wines under the Seppeltsfield brand the following year.

Seppeltsfield has been through a sort of corporate washing machine like no other winery in Australia, and somehow it has neither shrunk nor fallen apart.

At the turn of the 20th century, Seppeltsfield was the largest winery in the southern hemisphere, if not the world. It accounted for one third of the entire wine production of the Barossa Valley. But by 1971, when the family lacked the money to continue its expansion and modernise its wineries, it became a public company. In 1984 it was bought by South Australian Brewing which, six years later, also bought Adelaide Steamship’s wine business – which included Penfolds and a string of major wineries.

In no time this expanded entity became Australia’s biggest winemaker, its name was changed to Southcorp and it had more wine brands than it knew what to do with – and some of them were starting to die for lack of attention, Seppeltsfield among them. Little wonder that Southcorp became known as the graveyard of wine brands. Fosters bought Southcorp in 2005 and in 2011 got out of the wine business altogether by creating a new corporate entity called Treasury Wine Estates, which of course still continues today with Penfolds as its flagship brand.

Along the way a small miracle occurred. In 2007 Seppeltsfield was sold by Fosters to the Seppeltsfield Estate Trust. A year later, in December 2008, Randall received a call asking if he’d be interested in buying half of Seppeltsfield, owned jointly by Janet Holmes à Court and then-Mirvac Group CEO Greg Paramor. In 2013 Randall bought the rest – including most of the 9 million litres of Seppelt fortified wines stored there.

“Warren had a really strong association with the Seppelt family from the 1980s, when he was sparkling winemaker at Seppelts Great Western, and he always had his eye on the jewel in the crown, Seppeltsfield,” Donald says. “He couldn’t resist the opportunity to buy it.”

Randall was by then the largest supplier of high-end bulk wine in Australia and soon to become the largest private vineyard owner in South Australia, so it was handy the Seppeltsfield deal included a modern winery built by previous owners Fosters in the 1980s.

Perhaps most tellingly, it is not the opening of the $3 million cellar door development and recreation of the Seppeltsfield “village” that has given Randall most pride: it is the full restoration of Seppeltsfield’s famed gravity winery, built in 1888 and a museum since 1984.

Fiona Donald, who’d built a stellar career over 30 years, most recently at Hardy’s/Constellation Wines, was hired by Randall in 2009 as chief winemaker– initially to oversee the bulk premium wine production and manage the revered fortified stock.

“But the main drive from Warren was to resurrect the gravity winery and make premium small batch red wine,” Donald says. “That was his absolute drive for our first vintage in 2010.”

Seppeltsfield Winemaking Team
Seppeltsfield winemaking team

With its original 40 waxed concrete open fermenters and 60 slate-topped storage tanks, the winery enables gentle gravity-led downhill flow of the wine rather than harsh pumping.

“Warren removed the roof, pulled out the slate, lined all the tanks with stainless steel and created 120 eight-tonne open fermenters,” Donald says, adding that, although eight-tonne fermenters might sound like a lot of grapes, “for a very large winery it’s small, enabling vineyards to be carved up into rows and small parcels of grapes fermented individually”.

A little technical perhaps, but she adds that the surface to volume ratio of these fermenters is ideal, giving just the right amount of skin contact with the juice, enabling her and her winemaking team to calibrate the winemaking process very specifically.

A third unique asset Randall had acquired – the first being the fortifieds, the second the gravity winery – was the 90 hectares of vineyards surrounding Seppeltsfield. These included what they call the “great terraced vineyard”, of contour-planted old bush vine grenache, replanted in the 1960s from cuttings dating back to the original grenache plantings in the 1850s.

These are also the vines that made possible an irreplaceable and unbroken lineage of Para tawny port every vintage from 1878, making Seppeltsfield the only winery in the world to release a 100-yearold, single vintage wine each year.

Some of those grapes went into that first 2010 vintage, in a grenache rosé, along with a riesling and a shiraz that was released the following year. “Warren was very excited,” Donald says. “Now we had Barossa wines, from our own grapes, our winemakers – it was a turning point.”

But none of them was able to be sold off site, which might have remained so had not a very tenacious Randall managed to cut a deal with Treasury to get the trademark back. First up in 2018 was a range of Village wines, all priced at $25 and all Barossa or Eden Valley single varietals, including a riesling, grenache and shiraz, plus a range of “exotics” – vermentino, mataro, touriga and nero dAvola.

Fiona Donald now had access to a wide range of vineyards. From the start Randall had hired Paul Georgiadis as grape supply manager, who negotiated deals with local grapegrowers. Another 100 hectares or so of Eden Valley vineyards were bought, and then more than 1000 hectares of the defunct Barossa Vines vineyards.

The winemaking team also had to expand. Viticulturist Kingsley Fuller had joined Seppeltsfield at the same time as Donald. More recently, senior winemakers Matthew Pick and Charlie Seppelt, a fifth generation member of the winery’s founding family, who previously had worked closely with Donald at Hardy’s, have joined Seppeltsfield. Donald sees their winemaking strategy as very much a team effort, with Randall at its head.

The release in August of two new ranges of reds show that this team is now really getting down to business. The Bench blends (all $45) include a 2018 ‘No. EC4’ Barossa Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz, and a 2019 ‘No. EC3’ Barossa Tinta Cao, Tinta Amarela, Touriga – from very early plantings in Australia of these traditional Portuguese varieties. The EC refers to East Cellar, an early Seppelt designation.

Then there’s a considerable step up to the Grounds range, both 2018 single vineyard shiraz – The Easting (from Eden Valley) and The Westing (Barossa)– at $70, focusing on the specific terroir of each vineyard. While these are powerful wines there’s a restraint that Donald says really stems from their approach to making fortified wines, the Para tawny in particular – medium weight, aromatic, ethereal, delicious.

“Our approach to table wine is contemporary but based on the house style of our tawnies,” Donald says. “A large part of our team discussion on our table wines draws on our history, because we have so much of it, and how to use it without being slavish to it.”

Much of their discussion is also about what’s next, and being evaluated closely right now is a hero grenache from that vineyard, an icon wine for Seppeltsfield. If the 100-year-old Para tawny is Seppeltsfield’s liquid DNA, then this grenache could be rightly described as the essence of Seppeltsfield. Stay patient.

Nigel Hopkins

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