Not many vintners anywhere age wines for 100 years before bottling them, but that’s just one aspect of an Australian treasure that’s getting a new life thanks to new owners. Seppeltsfield, once one of the true icons of Australian wine, had fallen under the radar when the Barossa Valley winery with extraordinary stocks of old fortified wines passed through the ownership of Southcorp and then to Foster's, the multinational wine company that also owns Penfolds, Wolf Blass and Beringer.
Locals and Australian wine fans feared that Foster’s would break up the property, sell off the vineyards or let it fall apart. Seppeltsfield is unique. Founded in 1851, it's virtually a walled town, with palm-lined avenues, structures of Moorish design, a gravity-flow winery and a cellar containing more than 3 million liters of Australian Ports, Sherries, Muscats and Muscadelles.
Seppeltsfield (not to be confused with Seppelt, a brand still owned by Foster’s) is most famous for its Para Ports. The rarest of the rare, the vintage-dated 100-year-old, is packaged to order in 100- or 375-milliliter bottles and shipped by FedEx to the buyer. Anyone can order as little as one 100-ml bottle and they'll tap it off from the cask for you. Technically, it’s a tawny, but the color is more like molasses. The smaller bottles go for $400, the larger for $1,200 in the US. The winery also makes an extensive line of fortifieds, most of which are excellent examples of wines that Australia does about as well as anyone. Maybe better.
“Foster’s just didn't know what to do with it,” says Nathan Waks, CEO of the partnership that purchased the property last year. “Fortified wines did not fit into their business plan. They wanted to find someone who would love the property, and we do.”
Waks is a partner and CEO of Kilikanoon, a medium-sized winery based in Clare Valley that makes some outstanding wines of its own. The Kilikanoon folks took a deep breath and plunged into the deal, knowing that it would be a big reclamation project, not to mention a challenge selling dessert wines, which are not exactly the darlings of today’s wine drinkers.
The stocks of old fortified wines are intact. James Godfrey, who has been the winemaker since 1978, remains in charge, ensuring consistency. “He even hid some stocks from the previous owners,” Waks chuckles, “to make some special wines.”
The core of Seppeltsfield’s annual production is Tawny Port made from Barossa Grenache, Mourvèdre and Shiraz, plus fortified Muscats and Muscadelles (which used to be called Liqueur Tokay) made from Rutherglen grapes. Entry-level bottlings sell for $20. Some of them are outstanding, and the higher level can rise even higher.
Waks brought along samples in tiny vials packed in a 19th-century traveling salesman's case that belonged to founder Benno Seppelt. (See my video.) Included were 50-year-old amontillado and oloroso Sherries, 70-year old Muscat and 87-year-old Tokay, and several vintages of the 100-year-old Tawny.
It was fascinating to taste the differences among the century codgers. 1909, the current vintage, was dark, rich with coffee and roasted nut character, smoky, with a distinct crème brûlée character that was more brûlée than crème. 1903 had more acid, reminiscent of an old Madeira, with more coffee and cherry notes and seemed less grand. 1890 showed distinct dried pineapple and strong tea notes, and 1888 was more like dried cherries and mint. None of them were very sweet, but so concentrated they could be drizzled over strawberries or cheese like aged balsamic (not the vinegar) from Italy. (Waks says he likes to do exactly that.)
For my own taste, I liked the old Muscat and Tokay (Muscadelle) better. They were sweeter, and seemed more refined and complex, long and powerful without tremendous weight. They were just sticky.
One of the more inventive wines is the Paramount Tawny. Casks holding the old stocks leave a thick residue behind when decanted into smaller barrels, as the angels get too much of their share (winespeak for evaporation). To loosen up this sludge, Godfrey uses some younger material to dissolve it and capture the flavors. This mixture goes into a special solera, and what comes out is this wine. I found it very tangy and complex. “It’s the story of Seppeltsfield in one bottle,” says Waks.
A more modern invention is a new fortified rosé of Grenache, basically a pink Port, called Ruby. It’s fortified to 16 percent alcohol (as opposed to 20 percent for the regular Ports), and is being sold in Australia (but not yet in the US.) for $20 for a 750-ml bottle. It's delicious and refreshing by itself chilled, over ice and/or with a squirt of lime. I can see creative bartenders lining up to fashion drinks with it.
The new owners have plans for Seppeltsfield. They want to spruce up the visitors' center, add a small resort hotel to the village, and plant the currently fallow sections of the 250 acres of hilly vineyards surrounding the winery alongside the many rows of old Grenache, Shiraz, Mourvèdre and Touriga for the Ports and Palomino for the Sherries.
Waks wants to expand Seppeltsfield's production of table wines, and to that end a new partner as joined the team. Just last week Warren Randall, who makes wine in McLaren Vale, bought out several silent partners to get access to Seppeltsfield's 120 small-batch, wax-lined concrete fermenters and gravity flow winery, "the holy grail today," laughs Waks.
Randall's current business, Tinlins, makes wines from independent growers for upscale brands such as The Old Faithful, Blackbilly and James Haselgrove (the latter not sold in the US). He also brokers wines from old-vine parcels that, under the radar, can find their way into such Penfolds labels as Grange and St. Henri. It looks like a good fit, especially if Randall’s expertise (and sources) can give the new Seppeltsfield wines a leg up.
Richard Gangel — San Francisco — August 7, 2009 4:24pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — August 8, 2009 1:30am ET
Fred Brown — Maryland — August 8, 2009 9:34am ET
Angela Medeiros Slade — Oakland, CA — August 9, 2009 8:34am ET
Bob Brack — Canada — August 9, 2009 5:21pm ET
Johnny Espinoza Esquivel — Wine World — August 10, 2009 2:00pm ET
Nathan Waks — Barossa Valley Australia — August 11, 2009 10:45pm ET
Sips & Tips | Wine & Healthy Living
Video Theater | Collecting & Auctions