A LITTLE SWEETNESS
THIS 170-YEAR-OLD BAROSSA GEM HAS SURVIVED UNCERTAIN TIMES TO FLOURISH AGAIN.
Surely one of the most stunning wineries in Australia is Seppeltsfield, on Seppeltsfield Road in the Barossa Valley. Canary Island date palms line the roads, vast gardens and trails that meander around this extensive property, all offset by 19th and 20th-century heritage-listed architectural beauties.
Nearby a Greco-Roman-inspired mausoleum casts its eye over the surrounding hills – it’s the final resting place for some of the property’s original long-time owners from the Seppelt family. Yet while Seppeltsfield is a historic treasure for the Barossa and Australian wine as a whole, in recent decades its future has become increasingly uncertain.
Established in 1851 by Silesian immigrants Joseph and Johanna Seppelt, the winery rode the ebbs and flows of the industry for over 130 years, remaining family owned until 1985. During that time, grand buildings were constructed on the original property and two significant and successful regional expansions were made to Rutherglen and Great Western in Victoria.
At the turn of the 19th century Seppeltsfield was not only the Barossa’s largest producer but for many its greatest, and it also played a vital part in the local community. During the Depression workers at Seppeltsfield planted the palms around the property to thank the Seppelt family for their continuing employment in desperate times.
Perhaps Seppeltsfield’s finest legacy was created in 1878 when the founder’s oldest son Benno, to celebrate the opening of a fortified wine cellar, put down a cask of that vintage’s finest port, not to be bottled until it had reached its 100th birthday. Fortified wines and spirits were the staple for many Australian wineries at the time – ports, brandies, muscats, sherries, gins, vermouths and even health tonics were the order of the day at Seppeltsfield and dry table wines were rarely seen.
While many other wineries have veered towards drier styles, Seppeltsfield has continued that tradition of crafting fortified wines of the highest quality. Time is key: ageing the finest wine parcels for decades allows the spirit to integrate and flavours to mellow. At Seppeltsfield there is a library of wines going back over a century. To this day Seppelt Vintage Para Ports from the 1930s and beyond offer some of the nation’s finest drinking experiences. There are few, if any, more ageworthy wines in the country.
But ownership changes and fluctuations in the global palate over the past 30 years have threatened to destroy that legacy. In 1985 control of the company was wrested from the Seppelt family in a corporate takeover, the label finally finding itself in a large portfolio of brands alongside its longtime Barossa competitor Penfolds – these were some of the winery’s darkest days.
Mercifully in 2007, after 20 years in limbo, this hallowed Barossa name was returned to private hands. These were investors who not only wanted to bring Seppeltsfield back to its past glories but also recognised the worth of the immense trove of unique, ancient wines sitting in its cellars.
Amid falling fortified wine sales these investors bravely put their faith in these old wines, trusting that they would flourish on an international stage. It was a gamble that the current majority owner wrestled with for seven months before agreeing to take the plunge.
No doubt it would have pleased the winery’s founders to see its ownership pass to the likes of Warren Randall. A trained winemaker and viticulturist who has worked at many wineries, including Wynns, Lindemans and Seppelt, before owning and managing a range of businesses, there are few better qualified winemakers to return Seppeltsfield to its former greatness, nor who so well appreciate its importance to Australian wine.
Under Randall, Seppeltsfield is going from strength to strength, although the winemaker sees himself more as a custodian of this grand old Barossa institution and the Seppelt family legacy. In addition to the company’s range of fortified wines are an increasing number of impressive dry styles, showcasing Barossa strengths while still in keeping with the company’s traditional roots. It seems that a Barossa icon is well and truly back.