Dr Richard Hamilton and Paul Gordon continue to nurture the ’old soldiers’ of the Centurion vines.

The decision of B Seppelt & Sons to plant riesling vines in the cool, south-western corner of Victoria in the early 1960s was indeed serendipitous. Drumborg riesling, first made in the ’70s, is unique, with its mesmerisingly intense flavours, razor-like acidity, astonishing palate depth and seemingly endless length. It is austere and delicate in its youth, yet incredibly powerful with age. In a good vintage, it can live for decades.

The half-century-old vineyard has been described as remarkable, even mystical, regarding its capacity to produce wines of incredible beauty despite the rugged, challenging and sometimes precarious, nature of the climate.

Larry Sadler is viticulturist at Seppelt’s challenging Drumborg vineyard.
Larry Sadler is viticulturist at Seppelt’s challenging Drumborg vineyard.

History

Blustering winds from the southern Indian Ocean and long, wet winters are not what springs to mind when selecting new vineyard land. But that is precisely what was chosen by the Seppelts. Third-generation family member Karl Seppelt graduated from Roseworthy and began managing the vineyards at the family winery in South Australia. B Seppelt & Sons were well known for their fortified wines, however, the market of the day was changing and there was a new need for table wine grapes.

According to an interview by Peter Lin in 2000, Karl Seppelt learnt about European table wine clones after attending a summer school at the University of California, Davis. Despite his keen interest in these varieties, the South Australian phylloxera quarantine restrictions of the day prevented the importation of vine material into the state.

Fortunately, B Seppelt & Sons owned a winery at Great Western in Victoria, and a gently undulating 190ha land parcel was purchased in 1964 at Drumborg, 200km from the winery.

It was cooler and had more rain than Great Western, and its southerly aspect exposed it to the full weight of the south-westerly weather fronts. There were, unsurprisingly, no other vineyards around.

One suspects that the Great Western winery’s focus on sparkling wines was a factor in choosing such a cool site. That said, the Seppelts were well before their time, embarking on cool-climate viticulture before it was fashionable.

Drumborg is now one of a handful of vineyards in the region known as Henty. There are many different varieties planted at the site, including chardonnay and pinot noir, though riesling was the first variety planted. The original clone is unknown though it is suspected to be GM198 imported from Geisenheim.

Seppelt’s Drumborg vineyard produces unique riesling.
Seppelt’s Drumborg vineyard produces unique riesling.

Viticulture

Drumborg riesling grapes are sourced from four blocks. The original, wide-spaced, 55-year-old plantings – known as Block 12 – consistently produce the best fruit and make up the backbone of the wine.

Seppelt vineyard manager Larry Sadler, who has worked on the block for a quarter of a century, describes the fruit from these original vines as having lemon sherbet and Tahitian lime flavours, with purity, length, minerality and structure.

Block 2 was planted in 1976 and was grafted from rose cross to riesling in 2001. This portion adds pure lemon, acidity, chalkiness and length to the wine. Block 24, planted in 1989, contributes depth, grapefruit and floral aromatics. Block 21, established in 1990 and 2010, carries the classic elements of Drumborg’s acid length, structure and flavour, despite being younger.

Crop levels vary widely, due to the wind impacting fruit-set, and seasonal variation affects the proportion of each block in the finished wine. The slow accumulation of flavours during ripening is the secret of the site.

Sadler says soil fertility is fair to good, with its structure naturally crumbly. The predominant soil type is red-brown clay loam over deep red clay. The topsoils vary in their content of ironstone buckshot and, in specific locations, there’s a gravel layer between the topsoil and subsoil, which helps carry the water away when the soils are full. This is important as average annual rainfall is a generous 775mm.

The cool maritime climate means that there’s little diurnal variation, with extremely hot and cold days both rare. The average HDD (heat degree days) is 1,285. Overcast days are common, and the VSP trellis system promotes light into the canopy.

Sadler takes his custodianship of the vineyard very seriously.

“Tasting fruit through the full length of the ripening process is one of the great privileges of managing the Drumborg Vineyard,” he says.

“I taste the grapes from before the birds are interested – when the acid is eye-watering; through the waves of ripening, until the last of the golden-orange berries, left after harvest, have been cleaned from the vines.”

There have been only five vineyard managers since the 1960s, despite the multiple changes of ownership. Before Sadler, Allen McLean – a true storyteller – worked the block for more than 30 years. It’s clear that the place gets into one’s soul, even if it’s whipped there by the wind.

A hint of sweetness has always been part of the plan.
A hint of sweetness has always been part of the plan.

Winemaking

The label on the 1972 Seppelt GD106 Rhine Riesling claims that it was made from the “first commercial crop of Rhine Riesling grapes grown on the Seppelt Drumborg vineyards”. It also mentions that the grapes were picked in late autumn to retain their natural sweetness in order to enhance the delicate flavour. This indicates that leaving a touch of sweetness in the wine, balancing the high acidity and low pH, was part of the style from the beginning.

The fruit arrives at the winery with Baumé levels ranging between 11.1 and 12.4, acids between 9 and 11.5g/L, and pH around 3.0 or just below. The fruit is crushed, settled and cool fermented with the inclusion of a small portion of solids, and the fermentation is stopped just before dryness. The simple, almost hands-off approach of the winemaking allows for the vineyard signature to be fully expressed.

There is a long list of winemakers who have been part of the Drumborg story but none more than Ian McKenzie. Emma Wood, Jo Marsh and Adam Carnaby have been among the
recent custodians.

Tasting Notes

The Drumborg riesling vineyards are a precious part of Australia’s viticultural history, producing timeless wines.

2005 – Winemaker: Emma Wood
A gorgeous wine that shows intense honey and gunflint notes plus extraordinary mid-palate depth. Decanting is recommended. Drink now. Season: Cool summer; pH 2.95; TA 7.5g/L; ABV 12.5%

2011 – Winemaker: Jo Marsh
Tightly bound with a long palate and dramatic lime flavours enhanced by
a defined line of stony acidity. Almost Germanic in intensity with a long future. Season: Wet, cold winter. Wet spring. Mild summer; pH 2.88; TA 9.6g/L; ABV 11%; RS 4.9g/L

2012 – Winemaker: Adam Carnaby
Generous, succulent grapefruit flavours, a weighty mid-palate and excellent acidity. Decanting reveals nuances of toast and citrus pith peel. Drink now or cellar. Season: Slightly warmer than average. Low yields; pH 2.83; TA 7.8g/L; ABV 12%; RS: 6.6g/L

2014 – Winemakers: Adam Carnaby & Melanie Chester
Concentrated honey and lime notes, plus good length reflective of the low yielding year. Drink now or cellar. Season: Wet winter. Cold, windy spring with poor fruit set; pH 2.91; TA 8.5g/L; ABV 11.5%; RS 7.8g/L

2019 – Winemaker: Adam Carnaby
Stunning in its fragrance, vibrancy, length and purity. Preserved lemon and grapefruit notes with an impressive acid/flavour attack. Utterly delicious. Drink now or cellar. Season: Cool winter and warm summer; pH 2.92; TA 7.5 g/L; ABV 11.5%; RS 6g/L

2020 – Winemaker: Adam Carnaby
Newly released and still a little shy. Delicate white blossoms, a rounded mid-palate, moderate length and good acidity. Needs time, though I suspect it will be an earlier drinking style. Drink from 2021 or cellar; pH 3.12; TA 7.5g/L; ABV 11.5%; RS 7.5g/L