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Daring to dream

Published:  18 January, 2007

When was the last time you sold a bottle of Australian fortified wine? Or the last time you treated yourself to a cheeky glass of luscious Rutherglen Muscat at the end of a fine restaurant meal? When, for that matter, was the last time you saw an Australian fortified being offered by the glass at your favourite restaurant?

I suspect the answer to all three questions is probably Hmmm, can't remember.'

Or even Never.' Let's face it. Australian fortified wine sales are heading in the same direction as sales of many other fortified wines around the world. Down. Fast.

According to Matt Schmidt, global supply chain corporate affairs manager at Fosters Wine Estates, the fortified market is decreasing by 10% each year. Which is, of course, one of the main reasons why Fosters has decided to sell the fabulous old Seppeltsfield winery in the Barossa Valley along with its 100-plus hectares of vineyards and huge stocks of fortified wines - Sherries', Ports', Muscats and Tokays' - currently sold under the Seppelt brand.

If you've never been there, it's hard to convey how spectacular the Seppeltsfield winery is. Originally established by Joseph Seppelt in 1851, its palm-lined driveways, its huge bluestone cellars and its nine million litres of fortified wine (including the legendary Para Port' casks, tiny quantities of which are drawn off and bottled on their 100th birthday) are breathtaking in their beauty.

What's more, the wines - right across the board, from the everyday fino Sherry' to those extravagantly rare Para centenarians - are outstanding examples of the fortified craft, thanks to the dedication and passion of Seppeltsfield winemaker James Godfrey (who surely is covered under the same National Trust covenant which protects the buildings).

The sale (as reported in Harpers, 7 July) is part of

a massive restructuring programme that also

includes the offloading of the Rosemount winery at Denman in the Upper Hunter Valley in New South Wales, and most of the massive Penfolds winemaking factory at Nuriootpa in the Barossa.

This latest round of consolidation makes Fosters' position clear: heritage is only handy when it's profitable. The company is only retaining the cellar door and red winemaking facilities at Nuriootpa, for example, because they help project the required image of Penfolds - a successful, growing brand. Likewise, the company wouldn't dream of offloading Magill Estate in the suburbs of Adelaide: this site is widely touted as the birthplace of Grange', and is enormously useful in the positioning of this icon wine - with all the trickle-down effects that follow.

Seppeltsfield, by contrast, has arguably more intrinsic heritage value than Nuri and Magill combined. But because it's a production centre for daggy old fortified wines, it's dispensible. The rats have decided to abandon this sinking ship.

Like many industry commentators, my initial reaction to the Fosters sale announcement was one of outrage. How could they? Don't they realise what a treasure they have? Surely a company as important as Fosters has an obligation to preserve our common cultural inheritance - to respect and uphold the effort and passion that has gone into building Seppeltsfield over the last century and a half.

On the other hand, though, being flogged could well be the best thing that could possibly happen to both Seppeltsfield in particular and fortified wine in general. If the grand old dame falls into the hands of a company with a deep understanding of the historical importance of the cellars and the wine resting in them - and with even deeper pockets (probably around A$30 million for starters) - its potential as a wine, cultural and tourist centre could be fully realised. Australia's largest booze multinational may not see any future for fortifieds, or any value in unprofitable heritage, but there are plenty of cashed-up wine companies - particularly in Europe - that might.

According to Matt Schmidt, there has been a substantial amount of interest' in Seppeltsfield since the sale was announced, with at least six parties - both Australian and international - sniffing around.

One senior Fosters winemaker put it to me this way: I'm normally opposed to the whole idea of foreign ownership of the Australian wine industry. But in this case, if Seppeltsfield were to go, say, to one of the great Portuguese Port houses - people who really understand the value of the site and the wine - then that would be terrific.'

As Fosters' own Seppelt website ( says: Seppeltsfield's old stone buildings, cellars and the massive date palms still stand as a reminder (to anyone who needs it) that dreams come true.'

Australian fortified wine sales are heading in the same direction as sales of many other fortified wines around the world. Down. Fast.