How a treasure trove of sparkling ‘burgundy’ in Seppelts Great Western cellars saw light of day

For decades a great treasure trove of sparkling burgundy lay entombed in Seppelt’s underground drives at Great Western, Victoria. Wines from vintages 1954 to 1972 rested in peace until the appointment of winemaker Warren Randall in 1982.

Just 25, full of enthusiasm and eager to stake out his new domain, Warren set out with one of the old Great Western hands to explore the 2.5 kilometres of underground tunnels.

It was a step back in time and not simply because the tunnels dated from gold rushes of the 1860’s. His first surprise was in finding a stack of dusty old bottles sealed with tirage corks and metal clips…a sealing method long since replaced by the rest of the world with crown seals. When Randall observed, “They’re tirage corks!”, the old hand muttered, “That’s pretty good young fella.”

For the rest of the tour Randall was marked as a young man with a peculiar ability to state the obvious. The stack, noted Warren, was covered in dust and draped in black fungus. A grimy blackboard carried chalk marks “SSB 54/1”. Warren enquired and was told that stood for ‘show sparkling burgundy, 1954 vintage, stack 1’. So when he stopped at successive stacks, looked at blackboards, and declared “This is 1957 show sparkling burgundy” and so on through a range of vintages covering eighteen years, the old hand just shook his head. The new winemaker was a beauty.

Randall was stunned by the range and depth of sparkling burgundy in the drives. He was even more stunned to find it did not exist in the company’s books. The locals knew all about it. But elsewhere in Seppelt’s far-flung wine empire it was unknown. So, when Randall sent a stock take to Seppelt boss Ross Jenkins in Adelaide, it ruffled a few feathers.

It also presented Seppelt’s marketing department with a wonderful opportunity…one they failed to grasp. Here was an historic cache – in commercial quantities – of mature wines spanning two and a bit decades.

Randall says “It was a great privilege at 25 to be in charge of those wines.”

For him it was a labour of love to prepare these wines for the market. And doing so inspired him to re-start production. Thus, in 1982 he made base wines for the first Seppelt sparkling burgundies to be laid down since 1972.

At the same time he put an end to the bad habit of tipping ullaged bottles of these old gems down the drain. As he sorted through the stacks, ullaged bottles still more than half full were tipped into 1982 blends. Which gave birth to three special bottlings from that year. The one I recall was a 65/82 blend.

Many of the old wines reeked of hydrogen sulphide and ‘mercaptan’, the smelly amalgam of sulphur with tannin. Beneath the barnyard smells, though, was the wonderful richness of mature shiraz sourced mainly from Great Western, but with some material also from Rutherglen and the Barossa Valley.

Randall set to work disgorging sediment from the bottles…a labour intensive task that left him exhausted and stained red from head to toe. Before re-corking the bottles he topped them up with a mix of wine, sugar, and a cocktail of copper and silver salts to kill off the hydrogen sulphide smells.

Thus, Australian wine drinkers were given a rare treat: fully mature wines from the 1954, 1957, 1961, 1963, 1964, 1967, and 1972 vintages. Prices simply did not reflect production and holding costs. But the labeling was a disgrace to the then Seppelt marketing department, revealing a complete lack of imagination or any sympathy with the extreme historical value of the wines.

Those who bought the wines did well. Imagine picking up a 1954 red in perfect condition for about $10 a bottle.

The discovery and marketing of these old gems engendered the making of a new generation of sparkling burgundies. Randall makes them these days for Andrew Garrett, using mainly McLaren Vale Shiraz.

And winemaker Ian McKenzie tells me the Seppelt Show Reserve wines are now sourced entirely from the same Great Western Shiraz vines that contributed most to those now famous old blends.

The current release 1983 is in the mould of those originals: a big, solid, mature-tasting red with bubbles in it. But with pressure on wineries to release wines young, the trend from other companies seems to be towards a lighter, fruitier sparkling burgundy, lower in tannin, and, therefore, less ‘burgundy’ and more sparkling.

Seppelt will be joined in the traditional style soon, I believe, with a Lindeman Hunter Shiraz version, and a McLaren Vale/Barossa blend from the Penfold Group.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1992 & 2007