In Food + Drink

The Barossa Valley Wine Tasting That’s Bucket List-Worthy

The Centennial Cellar at Seppeltsfield winery in Adelaide’s Barossa Valley is unusual for several reasons. For starters, you have to go up a set of stairs to reach it after walking through the award-winning onsite restaurant, Fino at Seppeltsfield.

Once you reach the door, you’ll see a lock with a fingerprint scanner that can only be accessed by less than ten people. That system is in place to protect a collection of fortified wine that’s unrivalled not just in Australia, but throughout the entire world.

An unbroken lineage

The Centennial Cellar holds hundreds of barrels, but the name refers to their age rather than quantity. This is the greatest unbroken lineage of single vintage tawny in existence, with every vintage going back to 1878 represented. If there were seven wonders of the wine world, this collection would be among them. And it’s slowly disappearing.

Centennial Cellar

Image: Seppeltsfield

Every year the barrels lose 3 per cent of their contents to evaporation. This is the so-called “angel’s share” and it means that anyone entering the cellar is immediately enveloped in a sweet haze of spices, burnt toffee and fruit cake. For Nigel Thiele, there’s also a hint of something else: “the trademark of Seppeltsfield is a hint of toasted almond.”

As VIP Guest Manager, he spends as much time in the hallowed room as anyone, but he still gets a kick out of it every time he walks in. “There are older wines in the world and there are older wineries,” he says. “But as a collection, it’s totally unique.” And because the precious liquid is still ageing in oak, it continues to get better every year.

Centennial Cellar

Image: SATC / Sven Kovac

On its 100th birthday, each barrel is celebrated with a special release. These bottlings usually sell out immediately, and with good reason – the 1907 vintage was the first-ever wine to receive a 100 point rating from James Halliday when it was released in 2007.

Every subsequent vintage has received the same rating and the 100 Year Old Para Liqueur is still the only wine he’s ever awarded a perfect score to. But perfection doesn’t come cheap: a 375 mL bottle of the 1919 will set you back $2,000.

Respecting tradition

Maintaining that perfect record brings with it a lot of pressure, but senior winemaker Fiona Donald is building on the work of many who came before her. The Seppeltsfield estate was founded in 1851 by Joseph Seppelt, who planted a vineyard on the site and used the family dairy for his first vintage.

Centennial Cellar

Image: Tourism Australia

He died before completing the stone winery building that was to replace it, and it was left to his son to finish the job. That took ten years, by which time there was also an onsite distillery and when Oscar Benno Pedro Seppelt inaugurated the cellar he decreed that the best 100-gallon puncheon of port (as it was then known) should be matured in the barrel for 100 years before being released.

It was a decision that helped ensure the continuing success of the business long after it left Seppelt family hands, and today Thiele says that when tackling any tough decision “one of the things we ask ourselves is ‘what would Benno do?’”

Each year, his memory is honoured when the best tawny from the estate is laid down in the cellar that he built. And rather than a single barrel, Donald now chooses four puncheons so that as liquid evaporates it can be topped up while still maintaining the single vintage.

That greater volume also means that Seppeltsfield can release tawny before it reaches the magical 100-year mark.

Tasting history

As well as bottlings, the vintage fortified is available for onsite tastings and with so many barrels to choose from, there are plenty of options. These include sampling one’s birth year or vintages that represent significant moments in history, like 1969 (the moon landing), 1929 (Wall Street Stock Market Crash) and 1912 (the sinking of the Titanic).

Centennial Cellar

Image: SATC / Sven Kovac

But Thiele’s favourite is the personalised This Is Your Life experience, where guests choose five years special to them. He laughs that “people naturally ask what’s the oldest they can try, which is 1902, so that’s quite a popular one” but guests also choose to commemorate significant events like their graduation, marriage or arrival in the country, as well as the birth of parents and grandparents.

Each 10-15 mL tasting is drawn directly from the barrel, many of which still bear the original winemakers’ notes, and Thiele recommends taking some time to appreciate the thick, golden liquid, “Things like the centenary wine, they’re like rich food,” he explains. “They’re meant to be savoured, for the flavour and the character and the story.”

And if you’d prefer to pair it with food, Thiele recommends matching it with Fino at Seppeltsfield’s signature dessert. “The burnt caramelised toffee shard top of their Crema Catalan matches awesomely with the centenary wine because it has a lot of that bitterness that’s in burnt toffee or really dark bitter chocolate.”

(Lead image: The Centennial Cellar / Tourism Australia)

Published 21 November, 2019