Seppelt and Best’s of Great Western
On The Grapevine, July2010
One of the great joys in life is to jump in the car and drive off for the day to one of the historical and picturesque wine regions of Victoria, better still if you can have the whole weekend away. Many of these regions stem back to the gold rush era – (plenty of thirsty miners) and therefore are soaked in our early European history. One of these areas is Great Western in the Grampians region of Western Victoria. Whilst a number of very good vineyards and wineries have sprung up over the last 30 years or so two of my favourite wineries have stood the test of time and have been around for close to 150 years. These are Seppelt and Best’s of Great Western, both vineyards and wineries were originally founded by the two Best brothers, a great early Victorian immigrant success story.
In 1865, Joseph noted the early success of the first wine growers in the district and planted some vines with cuttings from the original St Peter’s vineyard nearby. In the following year, his brother Henry established his own vineyard a couple of miles to the west, named after the Concongella Creek. Henry planted many acres of various grape varieties along two miles of the creek frontage.
By the 1880’s Joseph Best’s wines were winning gold medals in Europe. After Joseph’s sudden death in 1887 the new owner, Hans Irvine, produced the first Champagne in Great Western in 1890. Benno Seppelt purchased the winery from his good friend Hans Irvine in 1918. From that time, Benno Seppelt put Great Western on the map for its magnificent sparkling wines and exceptional table wines, particularly Shiraz. Today Seppelt is part of the giant Fosters empire.
The winery at Great Western is famous for ‘The Drives’ truly one of the most historic and unique treasures of the Australian wine industry. While Joseph Best was building his large winery in 1868 the excavations came across a deep layer of decomposed granite under the winery and he commissioned some unemployed gold-miners to tunnel through the soft rock to create the famed “drives” of today (see below-left).
The atmosphere is eerie in this underground relic of the last century, this silent maze of dimly lit arched tunnels. The miners had built a storage facility with a natural airflow equivalent to that of modern air-conditioning. The temperature is a constant 15 degrees Celsius and the humidity 80 per cent. A silky, black, web-like mould, called aspergillus niger or common French mould, covers every surface in the underground cellars. The mould neither hinders nor helps the maturation process of the wines and withers and dies within seconds of being exposed to strong light. Thick dust and undisturbed cobwebs cover stacks of wine. Occasionally the cellars open out into spaces the size of large rooms. These spaces have on occasion, been used for grand candle lit dinners. A guided tour through the historic drives should not be missed if visiting the winery.
Interestingly many associate Great Western with Champagne style sparkling wines and whilst this style was made at Great Western for many years the grapes were often sourced from other regions. Great Western, like most wine regions north of the divide in western and central Victoria, is predominately ‘red’ country.
The very best of the of the Great Western Seppelt wines are the St Peter’s Grampians shiraz and the uniquely Australian Show Sparkling shiraz, however these are more for the special occasion. The more reasonably priced Chalambar shiraz and Original sparkling shiraz (both usually under $20) are excellent wines and very good value for money.
Joseph and Henry Best immigrated to Australia as children from Surrey, England in 1834. The six month voyage first landed the family in Tasmania, but soon after they moved to Melbourne and the two boys were schooled at St James, West Melbourne. In the 1850’s, the brothers moved west to Ararat, Victoria with the thousands of other fortune seekers caught up in the Victorian Gold Rush. The Best’s saw more profit in looking after the miner’s requirements (rather than competing with them to find gold), so they formed a butchery business supplying meat to the goldfields.
While his knowledge of wine was minimal, Henry’s capacity for work was enormous and his vineyards flourished. He built the original winery and underground cellars, using the skilled labour of local gold miners; both are still in use today and are worth a visit just for the history (see above-right). He made himself a wine press from a tree trunk, a wooden lever thirty feet long and two feet in diameter fixed to two upright posts. Henry Best’s daily journal, dating from 1866, is on display at Best’s Great Western cellar door and shows his meticulous attention to detail, experimentation and desire to find the best grape varieties for his vineyard. His wines became well known in England and Europe in the later 19th century.
After Henry's death, his son Charles sold the enterprise in 1920 to second generation local vigneron Frederick Thomson. The Best’s vineyard and winery has stayed in the Thompson family for five generations.
My favourite Best’s wine is the “Bin O’ shiraz. Shiraz has been produced at Best’s Great Western for around 140 years, although the actual date of the first ‘Bin 0’ Great Western shiraz is not known. This wine is produced from Best’s oldest plantings and selected from the lowest yielding blocks of the historic Concongella vineyard at Great Western. This includes nineteenth century and mid twentieth century plantings of shiraz which result in very low yielding, intense fruit. The fruit is hand-selected, sorted and fermented in small-batches followed by rigorous barrel selection. The ‘Bin 1’ shiraz is not far behind and is a very elegant wine for under $30.
If Great Western were somehow prohibited from growing Shiraz, it would probably be just as famous for its Cabernet Sauvignon. Intense spicy, berry, leafy aromas and long, dense, yet supple flavours and classic structure are hallmarks of Great Western cabernet sauvignon. With age, they develop remarkable finesse and elegance. Best’s cabernet sauvignon is a good example of this style.