Seppelt culture thrives inside Southcorp

It’s easy to imagine when wine company’s merge that a new, homogenised culture evolves. But in the case of Southcorp, where several major companies coalesced over a period of five years, the individual winemaking cultures appear, if anything, stronger and more entrenched. The smaller cultures refused to be swamped by the larger.

Seppelts, that formerly staid old South Australian family company, for instance, not only weathered its amalgamation with Penfolds, Tollana, Kaiser Stuhl, Wynns, Tulloch, Lindemans and Seaview, but now blossoms on a base established by the Seppelt family a generation and more ago.

Under wine maker Ian McKenzie, the old culture has been carried forward, underpinned by a distinctive Seppelt wine making style and, more importantly, by continued use of Seppelt-owned vineyards acquired or planted over the past century.

Seppelt’s reputation was built largely on great fortified wines produced at Seppeltsfield in the Barossa and sparkling wines from Great Western, Victoria. But by the time of Seppelt’s acquisition by South Australian Brewing Holdings in the early 1980s, the Seppelt family, most notably Karl Seppelt, had laid a base for exciting table wines that only now are making a mark in the minds of consumers.

With remarkable prescience – for who could have foreseen in the early 1960s how enthusiastically beer-drinking Australians would embrace wine in the years ahead – the Seppelt family pioneered new areas, establishing table-wine vineyards at a time when we drank little wine, and most of that was fortified.

Perhaps the smartest move, in retrospect, was establishing broad acres at Padthaway, an hour’s drive north of Coonawarra. Not a single vine stood there when Seppelts arrived in the sixties. Thirty years on, Padthaway produces around 30,000 tonnes a year (4 million dozen 750ml bottles) of premium wine.

If Padthaway, with its big yields of high quality grapes, brought home the bacon quickly, two other vineyard developments championed by Karl Seppelt were several decades in the making.

Who has ever heard of Drumborg, a dot on the Victorian map, well south of Great Western and roughly in the vicinity of Portland? Having heard of it, who would plant a vineyard there a decade before the search for cool climate grapes took hold.

The Seppelt family did. But as Ian McKenzie told me on a visit to Great Western last week, “They didn’t have the viticultural know-how to make it work at the time.”

Thirty years after its establishment and with great viticultural expertise to hand, Drumborg, one of the most southerly vineyards on the mainland, now regularly produces exceptionally high quality pinot noir and chardonnay for Seppelt top-shelf sparkling wine, Salinger.

As well, in exceptional years, Drumborg produces superb one-off sparkling wines and fine table wines with aromas and flavours far removed from those we see from warmer vineyards to the north.

Drumborg pinot noir sometimes leaps from sparkling-wine to table-wine quality and, about one year in three, cabernet sauvignon ripens fully to make a memorable full-bodied but elegant, refined red. More on that later.

The other Seppelt family vineyard now making its mark after two decades is at Partalunga, high up in Mount Lofty ranges (a range of hills running from McLaren Vale in the south to the Clare Valley in the north).

Partalunga was on better-trodden ground than cold Drumborg and the only real challenge now, given the great chardonnays and cabernets emerging from the vineyard, is a marketing one. In a crowded market, even trophy winners don’t always get the consumer’s attention.

Before Drumborg and Partalunga were conceived, Seppelts developed a reputation for making long-lived, highly distinctive shirazes made from vineyards in Great Western. Under wine maker Colin Preece, these wines achieved a legendary status.

From these were spawned an equally distinctive sparkling burgundy whose youth and freshness in great age stunned wine critics following the discovery of a treasure trove of old vintages at Great Western in the early eighties.

The shiraz tradition, both still and sparkling, is alive and well at Great Western. Seppelts release two central Victorian Shirazes, one labelled simply as Seppelts Great Western Shiraz, the other as Seppelt Chalambar shiraz.

And the sparkling burgundies, now labelled as sparkling shiraz, are still made much as they were in Colin Preece’s day.

In fact, demand for still and sparkling shiraz has spawned a large new vineyard development at Elmhurst, about half and hour’s drive from Great Western. We’ll look at that and a range of Seppelt Victorian wines next week.