Morris Wines in Rutherglen and Seppeltsfield in the Barossa Valley are two iconic Australian wineries that both make premium Aussie fortified wine, have recently changed ownership and hail from the Nineteenth Century. The Buyer took to the road and visited both wineries and sampled some extraordinary fortified wines.
Morris Wines in Rutherglen and Seppeltsfield in Barossa are approaching life under new owners with very different strategies. What is common, however, is that both are still making magnificent Aussie fortified wine.
Mick Morris handed me the glass with what looked like a sample of treacle in it.
I sipped some of the ancient dark brown fortified wine and had never tasted anything with so much concentration. And for good reason, for this was some pre-phylloxera Muscat that dated back to the 1880s before the aphid struck Victoria in the next decade.
It was almost too concentrated to taste, and Mick, now in his late 80s and a legend of Rutherglen fortifieds, gestured to his son, David, to pour some of the Morris Classic Liqueur Muscat NV (average age 12 years) and add a dash of the 1890s Muscat.
The Classic Muscat is a superb entry-point fortified in its own right, but the addition of the ancient Muscat transformed it into something superlative. It was a lesson not just in the art of blending but also how extraordinary the 19th century wine still was.
“Not bad is it mate,” Morris senior quipped. “Every 20 years or so, we have to top up the 1890s barrel with some younger stuff due to the evaporation. If we didn’t, it would turn to mud. This way, we can make it last for another century hopefully.”
Aiming for a richer style of Aussie fortified
David Morris is the fifth generation head winemaker of the family at the Mia Mia Vineyard in north-eastern Victoria, having taken over from his father in 1993.
“I suppose we aim for the richer style of fortified wine in Rutherglen,” he said. “The likes of Stanton & Killeen, whose wines I really like, are at the more elegant end style-wise.”
The future of the Morris winery, one of the great fortified producers of Australia, was in serious doubt last year when then owners Pernod Ricard sought to offload their Australian holdings. Casella Family Brands, including Yellow Tail, stepped in at the eleventh hour and bought the winery six months ago to see off the asset-strippers.
David Morris does not hide his relief. Gratifyingly, his own son, Madden has just been taken on as one of Casella Family Brands’ winemakers at their Riverina HQ in New South Wales.
Seppeltsfield is now aiming to attract 250,000 visitors per year
Another iconic Australian fortified producer, Seppeltsfield, in the Barossa Valley, is likewise enjoying a renaissance after itself being bought out by Warren Randall in 2009.
Randall, one of those larger-than-life characters who is never short of ideas, has transformed the magnificent old estate, whose cellar was completed in 1878, the year the first barrel of Seppeltsfield’s legendary Para Liqueur was laid down.
That, and barrels of every subsequent year, are neatly laid down in the cellar.
Seppeltsfield gets 150,000 visitors per year, a massive increase on the 90,000 who came three years ago.
Randall’s target is a quarter of a million per annum, and he hopes to lure more Chinese visitors after China became the number one supplier of tourists to Australia last year.
“I want Seppeltsfield to become an international tourist destination,” he told The Buyer when I visited in late January.
“In my opinion, you have to have a destination restaurant, which we do in ‘Fino.’ We now make more still table wine than fortifieds as that’s what young people want.”
All sorts of extra-curricular activity takes place at Seppeltsfield, none of which is more popular than the annual “Shakespeare in the Vines” performance just after every Australia Day.
Laid on by the Seppeltsfield Road Business Alliance, which is run by Sally Pfeiffer, co-owner of Whistler Wines, it features a different play each year by the Bard, with a Melbourne theatre company supplying the actors.
This year, Much Ado About Nothing was performed in front of a sellout 400-strong audience. Next year, it is Twelfth Night.