Last week, as part of a cost cutting drive related to its acquisition of Southcorp, Fosters Group announced the sale of one of Australia’s most cherished and visited wine estates, Seppeltsfield.
The 185-hectare property is a treasury of Barossa winemaking history dating to the early 1850s. Visitors to the site drive through an avenue of date palms – established to keep workers employed during the depression – to the complex of cellars, dwellings and National Trust listed Seppelt family homestead.
Five generations of the Seppelt family established this sprawling village before the company floated in 1970 and subsequently passed, intact, through successive ownerships by South Australian Brewing Holdings, Adsteam, Southcorp and Fosters.
Perhaps the most direct links to the past, with continuing relevance to wine today, are the 108-hectares of vines and around nine million litres of fortified wine stored in an estimated thirty thousand barrels – each in need of TLC.
With the market for fortified wine all but dead, who will take on such a colossal volume, even if it is some of the best material in the world?
It’s easier to imagine would-be buyers eyeing the beautiful old grenache, shiraz and mourvedre bush vines and thinking red rather than fortified.
But those nine million litres of fortified wine won’t simply evaporate. And the fact that Fosters is offering for sale the Seppeltsfield fortified brands as well as the stock means that their continuation is not beyond imagination.
Could a luxury goods business – such as Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy, already with substantial wine and spirit assets – be tempted? If anyone knows how to crack luxury markets, the French do?
Look, for example, how they’ve created the Chandon sparkling business in the Yarra and at the importance of the magnificent winery, restaurant, cellar door complex in the marketing of it. Could they attempt this with fortifieds and with a similar icon in the Barossa?
Another possibility is to find an extremely wealthy family or private company prepared to become custodian of this priceless asset. They’d need to love wine more than they love money.
But that has been the case historically with wine and wealthy people. The pursuit of great wines can supplant normal commercial judgement – or live side by side with it in the situation where a profitable business supports a lofty wine ambition.
Those of us who love those irreplaceable Seppeltsfield fortifieds certainly hope a suitable new owner can be found. And I’m sure James Godfrey does, too.
For many years now James has presided over this extraordinary collection of wine, including an unbroken line of Para Liqueurs stretching back to 1878.
His is a demanding and highly specialised skill. Each year he makes and adds new wines to the barrels while taking off carefully judged portions of older material for blending and bottling.
The range is wide and includes pale, delicate fino, aged-amontillado and luscious old oloroso ‘sherry’ styles; tawny ‘port’ styles of various ages, up to and including the sublime DP 90; luscious, aged
Rutherglen muscats and tokays; and the unique single-vintage Para 100-year-old – the first barrel of this having been laid down by Benno Seppelt in 1878 with instructions – duly followed – that it be bottled in 1978.
Whatever commercial possibilities Seppeltsfield possesses, this unique fortified collection will hopefully endure. It’s the heart and soul of Seppeltsfield – a national treasure that ought not gather dust, nor be discarded. Rather, it demands to live on giving every generation a taste of the past, present and future in every glass.
Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2006 & 2007