Seppelt Great Western Vineyard, Great Western James McKenzie

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The Seppelt Great Western is the oldest continuous wine producer in the Grampians region, with the historic winery sitting atop a kilometre and a half of 19th century tunnels used for maturing wine. While Seppelt has other vineyards in the region, along with elsewhere, the 100-odd hectares of mainly shiraz that wrap around the winery is the heart of the Great Western operation, providing fruit for their pinnacle wines, including the benchmark ‘Show Sparkling’ Shiraz’ and flagship ‘St Peters’ Shiraz. Although the vineyard was replanted in the 1960s – meaning there are no ancient vines – it is the heritage clonal material and nuanced management techniques that set the Great Western Vineyard apart. The vineyard has been tended by James McKenzie since 2017

“There’s so much to love about Great Western that it’s hard to pin it down,” says McKenzie. “But you can’t help but be sucked in by the history of the site, the shiraz clonal history and the history of the people that have worked here and continue to work here. I love how this history, dating back to the 1860s, evokes such emotion and fuels you to continue the legacy… That and the amazing wines we produce from these historic clones, from arguably one of the best, while not necessarily best known, shiraz regions in Australia.”

The Seppelt Great Western winery traces its history back to 1865 when it was founded by Joseph Best – his brother also notably planted nearby. The vine material was sourced from the St Peters Vineyard, which was the region’s first, planted just two years prior. Best prospered and commissioned gold miners to dig the underground tunnels, or ‘drives’, that the winery is famous for. Those drives were expanded by Hans Irvine who purchased the estate after Best’s sudden death in 1887 at the age of 57.

“When I tasted our premium shiraz block in my first season at Great Western, I was blown away by the concentration and depth of fruit and the pepper and spice from our St Peter’s clone… and I remember thinking: ‘This is unreal – it’s where I want to be growing shiraz, with the best clones in the most underestimated region in Australia.’”

Irvine also expanded plantings and employed the ex-winemaker from Pommery, Charles Pierlot. At that time, some sparkling wine was being made by Jean-Pierre Trouette and Marie Blampied of St Peter’s, but it was Irvine’s commitment that established the strong tradition in the region. That included what is often credited as the first Sparkling Burgundy, as it used to be called, made from red grapes, while sparkling whites were made from ondenc (once a common Bordeaux grape but now mainly grown in Gaillac), which has naturally high acidity.

By the early 1900s, there were over 1.6 kilometres of drives for cellaring and Great Western was Australia’s largest wine producer. The operation was sold to Benno Seppelt in 1918, who added the family name and expanded the business further. Fast forward to today, and while the winery is no longer in family hands, the traditions are still very much alive.

While Seppelt boast other vineyards in the Grampians, as well as in Heathcote and Henty – the fabled Drumborg site – the core of the Great Western operation is the 118 hectares that surround the historic winery. And while the operation has been continuous, the vines were largely replanted in 1961 to what is known as the St Peters clone of shiraz (from that original material), that is traced back to the Busby Collection of the 1830s.

“In the mid to late 1800s, shiraz was identified as a variety suited to Great Western, and it is the predominant variety grown today,” says McKenzie. “Our shiraz is not as big as a Barossa shiraz, and unlike a Coonawarra or Heathcote. And it’s not trying to be. It is distinctly Great Western – a medium-bodied style driven by dark berry fruit, notable spiciness and long, shaping graphite tannins different to anywhere else in Australia”

And while that regional character holds true whichever clone is employed, McKenzie stresses that their vine material has its own distinct character. It’s something that he says makes him immensely proud to be working with. “Given the timing of when it was brought to Australia and the devastation phylloxera caused in Europe and Australia after it was established in Great Western, it is quite likely that this clone does not exist to any great extent outside of Great Western, let alone anywhere else in the world.”

The vineyard is responsible for the flagship Seppelt ‘St Peters’ Shiraz and the legendary Seppelt ‘Show Sparkling‘ Shiraz (which is only made in exceptional years and spending at least seven years on lees), as well as the Great Western Riesling, in a minor departure from the vineyard’s dominance of shiraz. “The region has had riesling planted for some time now, but it is more recently that it is proving to be quite a successful area for the variety,” says McKenzie.

“I like to think of our vineyard operators as vineyard custodians. Working here you can’t help but be drawn into the history of the site – a history we want to continue to grow. We’re all here to make sure this vineyard is the best it can be, the soil and the surrounding environment is as healthy as it can be, and that it stays that way for a long time into the future. I won’t be managing this vineyard forever, and I want to hand over the reins in the best condition possible.”

One of McKenzie’s main objectives has been to create balance in the vineyard, which has involved adjusting pruning and canopy management techniques and extensive laying down of replacement cordons. This has led to increased uniformity across the vineyard, improved yield at the targeted level of high-quality fruit and a more consistent crop. Satellite vegetation surveys (NDVI) and plant cell density (PCD) assessments are employed to assess lean areas of the vineyard that need particular attention in respect to compost, mulch and irrigation. But McKenzie stresses that these tools that are critical for a larger vineyard are all “ground truthed” by the team before action is taken.

“Vine balance is key to allowing the vineyard to express its terroir in the final wine. Unbalanced vineyards result in wines that stray from the traditional terroir characteristics. We try to keep our vines balanced to allow the location, soil, climate and clonal characteristics to shine through. We do this through constant adjustments to our management techniques and don’t allow a management plan to become the actual plan; you’ve got to adjust to the season within the season.”

That adjustment extends to taking on board feedback from the winemaking team to nuance management strategies for specific outcomes. “I enjoy working with our winemaking team to help shape our vineyard processes and ensure we have a clear target for our fruit. After all, we’re both invested in making the best wine we can from the fruit we grow. We look for pockets of the vineyard to provide a point of difference to our winemaker, whether it be treating a shaly corner of the vineyard a bit differently to see what characteristics that will express, or to vary irrigation schedules or specific canopy management modifications.”

One of McKenzie’s main challenges is access to water, but upgrades to the irrigation system to better use and deliver from their storage dams as well as using treated wastewater from Ararat has mitigated most of the issues. Although when he started in his role in the 2017 vintage, which was relatively wet, some tough and dry years preceding it were evident in the condition of the vines. Improved access to water, targeted applications through monitoring and automated systems and increased soil health through compost applications and targeted fertilisation based on nutritional analysis have helped balance the vineyard, but he stresses that his work is about constant adaption.

“There’s always more to learn about viticulture! I’ve definitely had, and continue to have, ‘aha’ moments every year, only to find it didn’t work quite as well in a different season. That’s what makes growing grapes so challenging and rewarding – you’re continually adapting to the season and learning. The minute you stop, you’ll fall behind the industry.”

And it’s clearly a project that he intends on carrying for some time yet. “When I tasted our premium shiraz block in my first season at Great Western, I was blown away by the concentration and depth of fruit and the pepper and spice from our St Peter’s clone… and I remember thinking: ‘This is unreal – it’s where I want to be growing shiraz, with the best clones in the most underestimated region in Australia.’”

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