Two Seppeltsfield aperas

Here in Melbourne, in light lockdown, we’re unable to meet at restaurants or share wines with friends. It’s especially difficult to open the strong and/or sweet wines I usually write about – because these styles in particular – are meant to be shared. Instead, I have been spending more time on other pleasures – the movies and documentaries on Kanopy, and a set of music videos on bluescluster. A few Zoom meetings about wine, and on guitar have been diverting. I had just one morning picking Shiraz and another day driving collecting buckets of Shiraz.

Anyway, some impressions of a few recent drinks.

Seppeltsfield DP 116 Aged Flor apera 23%
Seppeltsfield DP38 Vera Viola Rich rare oloroso 21.7%
Australia has a long tradition of making sherry styles (now called apera), with notable exponents Seppeltsfield (based in the Barossa Valley), and a group clustered around Rutherglen – Chambers, Morris, Pfeiffer and others. The style is doomed to be niche, but when cellar-doors re-open, the wines will enliven your taste-buds. In the meantime, check out the bottle shops, and buy one!

These two wines were made by the solera method (based on the Palomino grape, and neutral spirit) , with an average minimum age of 15 and 18 years respectively. Bravo to Seppeltsfield chief winemaker Fiona Donald, and all the crew involved over the many years to sustain this style.

The style thrives as a pre-dinner aperitif, yet has the substance to stand up to a charcuterie platter, a rich soup, or tapas – sardines, whitebait or calamari instantly come to mind; the price for these 500ml bottles – retailing around $30 – is a travesty – jump in! I think the style should be served cool, but I see no need to keep them in the fridge for more than a few minutes. Once opened, they will merrily keep for a few weeks without losing appeal.

seppeltsfield aperas

The aged flor is a bright pale orange/amber colour; it exudes candied orange peel, light honey, cashew, incense and salinity. The palate is concentrated, bracingly fresh, and mouthfilling.
Drink now, 91 points.

The oloroso style is similar in colour, slightly darker amber. More dark honey. Mixed dried fruitcake, mixed nuts, sweet spices, darker fruits, more twang. The palate shows greater vanilla, cream and concentration, with even better length than its sibling. Irresistable!
Drink now, 93 points

For some learning, Ruben Luyten has an amazing site at Sherry Notes; there is a wealth of information about flor yeast, biological aging, the classifications, and digressions to the “en ramas”, almacenistas, and lots more! Highly recommended.

Recent splashes

It seems I have been busy; so just a few quick impressions (of wines tasted blind) before more regular and detailed notes resume…

1988 hardys vp1965 campbells vp

1978 Hardy’s 125th anniversary Vintage Port
McLaren Vale. Raspberry jam and cherry liqueur; very sweet in style with liquorice and plum; terrific length; exceptional spirit integration – whacky bottle I’d never seen either.

Drink to 2030, 94 points

1965 Campbells Vintage Port
Rutherglen. Label clues are Cabernet and Shiraz “will improve for years to come”. Its not often I see a wine older than 50 years. It’s a very viscous, dense wine with its main impressions not fruit; mochas, coffee cream, toffee. This made its style not straightforward to discern- not the florals or richness of muscat or topaque (or acidity), not the rancio of a tawny style. Yet it didn’t look like a VP. IT seemed Australian with its relative sweetness, and brandy spirit. However it remained a lovely drink of indeterminate origin until revealed. Straightforward flavours, but its solidity and age a tribute to the style

Drink now, 91 points

1985 Gould Campbell Vintage port 20%
Despite reviewing this wine very favourably in February 2017, I didn’t identify it when it was served by a member of one of the tasting groups I frequent. Pale ruby colour and the mixed spices plus red and blue fruits indicated Portuguese varieties. Fig, almond, and the voluminous aromatics, albeit with a faint touch of rubber. Not quite as stellar as my last bottle, but still excellent

Drink now to 2027, 93 points

2005 Seppeltsfield Shiraz/touriga Vintage Port (screwcap)
Barossa (74% Shiraz, 23% Touriga, 2% Tinta barocca, 1% Tinta Cao) Abundant spices and almond character, but not the complexity of Portugal (and a bit sweeter too). Drinking well, but straightforward. My notes indicate this wine was purchased as a cleanskin for $8, and I have a few bottles in the cellar for more leisurely contemplation and reflections.

Drink to 2023, 90 points

2016 Crawford river “nektar” Riesling 12% (screwcap)
Henty, Victoria. 152 g/l rs. Very pale light lemon with green flashes, Nettles, sherbet, very sweet and viscous, mixed tropical fruits and lemon peel. Compelling length, a wonderfully realised botrytised wine where pure varietal character is not overwhelmed. Crawford River crafts outstanding dry Rieslings; this wine is still available on their website for a fair price considering its quality,

Drink to 2032, 94 points (and more when it relaxes in a few years)

Two affordable Australian muscats from Rutherglen

These bottles have been lurking, and it’s proper to assess them before they are entirely empty – in itself a recommendation. It’s entirely possible to accompany this rich wine style with foods – hard cheeses suffice – but in cool months an open fire, witty company and a sparkling comedy or “film noir” would be my preference.

These wines are made from Muscat a petit grains Rouge grapes (aka Brown Muscat) picked when ripe, fermented, fortified with neutral spirit and matured in large oak. With time, the wine becomes more concentrated, and complex. The art is again in blending judicious quantities of younger material to keep the wines fresh. Companies can make several different muscats (Morris releases 4 or 5) and the oldest can command prices of over $1000 per bottle. Considering the average age and holding time, this kind of price is not farfetched, but substantial pleasure can still be derived from more basic offerings.

Within Australia, northeast Victoria – particularly around Rutherglen –  is the epicentre of this style, with Glenrowan a significant outlier. This style of Muscat is also made in other areas such as the Barossa Valley, and Swan Valley but I am much less familiar with their wines.

Once opened, the bottles can be kept for several weeks, but its uncommon for open bottles to survive long at my home, unless placed in a cupboard and temporarily forgotten.

two muscats (2)

NV Morris Classic Liqueur Muscat 17.5%
Freely available for $25 – or under.  Bright mahogany in colour, it flaunts its raisin, roses, fruitcake and sweet spices; it’s lush, with some mocha joining the dried fruit flavours; it has a lingering finish that is bright, sweet yet not cloying, insistent on further sampling. Artfully made, with greater complexity than its price would indicate.

Drink now, 92 points

NV Seppeltsfield Grand Muscat DP63 17%
Minimum average ten years, and available for around $30. Similar colour, perhaps with a touch of green olive, and slightly deeper. Mocha, fig, toffee. Greater mouthfeel and viscosity, greater length, greater volume of decadent mocha and cleansing acidity. Another great value buy.

Drink now, 93 points

 

These are both exciting drinks that provide fabulous enjoyment with superb value. A worthwhile exercise is to try blending (bottled) muscats together in varying proportions. One useful tip is that a smidgen of little older material makes much more difference than expected.

Facts behind iconic Australian wine labels

Professor Albert Pedant (MA Hons- Lagos, PhD – Port-au-Prince) – from the online university of Woolloomooloo,  has diligently researched the history of numerous Australian wine brands and labels. “There are extensive gaps in the records; family and staff have often put a spin on history; but meticulous searches through dusty filing cabinets, microfiche, oral histories and numerous interviews  have shown much of the branding is a mixture of spin, myth, mischief and accident; my definitive conclusions are set out below – certain to disturb and dismay the establishment. No black armbands, fake news or alternative facts here!”

Clonakilla
Long-claimed that Clonakilla refers to the name of Dr John Kirk’s Irish grandfather’s dairy farm (translated as the meadow of the church); my scholarship proves the name was inspired by the family’s shared love of ritual and obsessive viewings of World Championship wrestling on their TV. The stunning character of Killer Kowalski, and his trademark manoeuvres – the piledriver and Kowalski claw – stimulated much household study and emulation. There was also an protracted period when winemaker Tim (“Captain”) Kirk channelled the music of another “killer” –  Jerry Lee Lewis – but with guitar rather than piano.

Clonakilla thus epitomises the Kirk clan’s hero worship and Tim’s secret ambition to become a professional wrestler. As chief winemaker, Tim’s career is probably a win for oenology, but a sad loss to the gladiatorial arts.

clonakilla logo

The Clonakilla logo is purportedly taken from the 7th century Irish gospel manuscript the Book of Durrow. But its resemblance to Killer Kowalski’s championship belts is compelling.

It’s no coincidence that the very same wrestler also inspired the label Kilikanoon. Lightning can strike more than once. Certainly, the Killer has left an indelible mark on Australian wine.

Henschke Hill of Grace

henschke hog bottle

The legend insists that the famous Henschke wine Hill of Grace is a translation from the German ‘Gnadenberg’ (a region in Silesia). The truth is more prosaic; although vines were planted on the location in 1860, the site produces an extra-ordinary variety of weeds, thistles and thorns; the biological control agent deliberately introduced – rabbits- did not have the desired outcome. Instead, several different grassy cover crops -both local and imported- were – successfully-  deployed to crowd out the weeds. Thus for many years, the site was known to the family, and neighbours as Hill of Grass”.

This was the intended name for the label, and it was only due to the linguistic misunderstandings, and a degree of hearing impairment of the printer, that Hill of Grace was created. In 1958, When Cyril Henschke saw the newly-printed labels for the first time, he was torn between fury and despair. Owning a cashflow-impaired small business, he could not afford a reprint, and was gracious enough not to hold the printing firm, or the printer- a fellow congregationer -responsible for their error. Thus Hill of Grace was born- now a venerable Australian wine icon.

But the true founder of this Australian label is a long-forgotten, unknown print tradesman of ethnic German descent.

Seppelt (now Seppeltsfield) Para Port
There is no truth that “Para” was derived from the arcana of print and publishing mark-ups.

para labels

The legend attributes this Seppelts (and now Seppeltsfield) brand to the Para river in the Barossa valley; but this is erroneous. The key market for Australian wines – at that time – was England, and the Antipodean approach to branding was to create “critter labels” often featuring emus, kangaroos and other native fauna.

The group tasked with creating the name settled on Parrot Port. Further, the colourful Australian King Parrot was chosen to be depicted on the label. But economics intervened; the quoted cost of multi-coloured printed labels was formidable and weighed decisively against a new market entrant. A plainer label would fail to display the avian magnificence of this ornithological beauty.

Forced to make a hasty decision , the shorter Para was selected. It’s become famous in its variant guises, especially the extra-ordinary 100 year old “port”.

Penfolds Grange Hermitage
The official back-story is that Penfolds’ winemaker Max Schubert travelled to Bordeaux, and after returning to South Australia made the very first – experimental –  “Grange” in 1951. But where did the name come from? This question is far from straightforward.

One proposal – noted in Huon Hooke’s volume “Max Schubert winemaker” – suggested Grange was the name of the Penfold’s cottage inside the Magill vineyard- but alternate explanations surely have greater plausibility than this convenient corporate flim-flam.

penfolds grange

Due to a scarcity of high-quality Cabernet Sauvignon, Max used the grape variety Shiraz (aka Hermitage). Max would have been well aware of the famous Chapel (la Chapelle) on the Hill of Hermitage. Did Max pay direct homage here? – it’s not a huge leap of description between Chapel and Grange.

Grange is not a wordplay on Garage, and it’s not related to 3rd growth St Julian property Chateau Lagrange. It is highly unlikely that Max was aware of the gentlemens’ establishment outside La Grange Texas (also called the Chicken Ranch), brought to widespread notoriety in 1973 by the band ZZ Top.

Max Schubert typically refers to the wine as “Grange”, but he has unwittingly provided several clues, claiming his aim was to produce a wine “capable of improving year by year for a minimum of twenty years …something different and lasting….controversial and individual.”

One serious suggestion is that Max Schubert was inspired by the Australian composer and performer Percy Grainger– best known for his revival of the tune “(English) country gardens” but also a renowned connoisseur and collector of Europe’s finest wines. Could Max have originally referred to his own opus as “the Grainger”, but ultimately tired of explanations to his less-high-browed colleagues, and gradually it became the “Grainge” and then somehow the spelling was corrupted or simplified? Certainly this heritage is controversial, individual and different.  It is unclear, however, if Max was aware of Percy Grainger’s proclivity for self-flagellation and his other sado-masochistic interests.

Grange is a seaside suburb of Adelaide, where Max spent countless hours on his lesser-known pastimes, fishing from the jetty, and imbibing beer – and smoking-  at its numerous attractive hostelries. Like Marcel Proust’s madeleines,  did this humble municipal district and its numerous attractive recreational memories – perhaps a teenage romance? –  inspire Max to pay tribute, and create the wine Grange?

We have a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma; the contenders are numerous, but the true origin of Grange remains a conundrum. Further research is planned, although regrettably the current owners of this brand have so far not co-operated with my endeavours.


As Austrlia’s foremost historian, and while my vinous research is ongoing, (Wendouree and Giaconda are currently under my intense scrutiny), I am honoured to have finally set the record straight on the factual origins of these famous Australian wine brands, and shamed the writers and historians who have uncritically and recklessly promulgated the fantasies behind these labels.

My discoveries will surely impel studies of establishments in Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhone Valley, Rioja, Alsace, Tuscany and Piedmont – just for starters. Heads will roll – Vive la revolution!

1996 Seppeltsfield Para Tawny 19.7%

We are not allowed to use the term “port”, but that’s the style, in this example probably using Grenache, Shiraz and Mourvedre (Mataro). Unusually for a tawny style, this wine is from a single vintage, and aged 21 years before release.
seppelt 1996 para
The Seppeltsfield (and previously Seppelt) Barossa tawny often has some green, or khaki tints- and this wine which is a bright clear amber colour- conforms. Black coffee, almond and some walnut, shortbread biscuit, rancio, and vanilla bean are beguiling scents. The palate manages to be intense and supple, with beautifully integrated brandy spirit, and has tremendous verve, the acidity balancing its rich sweetness, teasing to further tasting. All the flavours come in waves. 22 years old, and what a privilege that it’s available.

At around $80 for $750 ml (retail or at Seppeltsfield – for the 1997 vintage) – this wine is outstanding quality and value.

Decant (to freshen it up), drink now – it will keep, but not change -and 94 points.