An Old Flame

Common wisdom states that you should never return to a past love, and so it was with a degree of trepidation that I opened a bottle of wine which I had tasted (and loved) only once before, almost twelve years ago to the day.

It all began with a couple of interesting bottles I bought as a gift for my old man whilst I was in Australia, around the end of 1997. One was a 1992 Yalumba Octavius III Shiraz and the other was a 1986 Dorrien Cabernet Sauvignon by Seppelt. Both were around £30 or AU$60, but Australian wines were expensive in Australia at that time and even well known brands cost around 25-30% more than they did back in the UK.

As the older of the two, it was the Dorrien that we tried first, on my birthday as it so happened, way back in 1998. I was nominally studying for my WSET Advanced Certificate at the time, but the sum total of my academic effort had been to write tasting notes about the occasional great, good or interesting bottle I opened. This was one such bottle, hence my accuracy with the tasting date.

To cut an overly long story short, it was a fantastic wine and I actively sought out a UK stockist so that I could buy some more. Walter S. Siegel Limited, then the importer of the Seppelt wines into England, had a few cases of the 1993 and 1994 vintages of Dorrien Cabernet Sauvignon still available, and, before I snapped it all up at the crazy price of £12 per bottle, they very kindly sent me a bottle of the 1993 and a bottle of its sibling 1994 Drumborg Cabernet Sauvignon as samples. The 1993 Dorrien was, and still is, one of my favourite Australian wines, but the Drumborg also left a lasting impression.

I don’t know why I never bought any of the Drumborg, although I suspect it was because I had spent up on the Dorrien after purchasing everything Siegel had left. About that time, the Seppelt agency passed to Matthew Clark and, in 1999, I purchased several cases of the 1996 Dorrien at the even more ludicrous price of just £10 per bottle, receiving with them a mixed half case of samples for my trouble. Three were everyday Seppelt wines that I’m sure were perfectly pleasant but which passed without note; one was a 1996 Dorrien that was tried quite promptly to get a handle on the latest vintage of my new favourite; one was a 1996 Great Northern Shiraz (something of a legendary bottle of Australian wine and so I held onto it, eventually enjoying it greatly a year or two ago) and the final bottle was another 1994 Drumborg Cabernet Sauvignon.

Having been so enchanted by my previous bottle, despite its youth, I decided to cellar this second one and save it for a rainy day. As is so often the case, I never really got round to opening this second Drumborg, but after losing too many bottles recently to the ravages of time, I’m now making a concerted effort to drink up anything that might be passing its peak of maturity.

Seppelt, Drumborg Cabernet Sauvignon 1994

Seppelt, Drumborg Cabernet Sauvignon 1994

My notes from 1999 describe the deep purple 1994 Seppelt Drumborg Cabernet Sauvignon (13% ABV) as having leafy, tobacco, woody and earthy fragrances along with berry fruit and more exotic aromas of mint, eucalyptus and spice. The palate had similarly mint and tobacco infused berry fruit, with earthy notes and fine but firm tannins. I noted a beautiful, cool climate elegance and a very long finish, but also an austerity that needed time to soften.

Skip twelve years and, whilst still an imposingly deep ruby, the brick-tinged hue of the rim suggested maturity. An unmistakable Cabernet Sauvignon nose: dusty cassis fruit laced with herbaceous, green pepper notes that became more celery leaf in character with air. A gentle whiff of oak rounded things off.

Smooth and mellow, bright blackcurrant and bramble fruit merged with delicate oak spice and plummy, cedary flavours. The slightly firm acidity, an indication that the wine might just have been starting to dry out, and the fine-grained, chalky tannins provided a harmonious and elegant frame for the fruit. The finish was still long and sophisticated.

Seppelt pioneered Drumborg as a grape growing region in 1964 when it planted its Drumborg vineyard near Portland in Southern Victoria. Facing the Great Southern Ocean, the area’s southerly latitude, together with icy winds that blow up from the Antarctic, make Drumborg an extremely cool climate region and result in small harvests, often occurring as late as mid May. So marginal is the region that the single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon was not bottled every year, only when the quality of the grapes warranted.

A prolonged period of terrible management of the Seppelt brand by the then owners Southcorp meant that the difficult climate was a perfect excuse to re-allocate the resource of the this vineyard. The last vintage of Drumborg single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon was 1998; regrettably the old vines were then grafted to Riesling. The shame of the matter is that a degree of sense is now returning to Australian wine producers, and elegant, cool climate red wines of 12% ABV are currently their holy grail. The Drumborg Riesling is supposed to be very good, but I’m still mourning what has been lost.

The Dorrien Cabernet Sauvignon suffered similarly from misguided management at this time, and was deleted from the Seppelt portfolio as a single vineyard bottling. What was once an iconic Australian wine, spoken of in the same breath as the finest wines from Penfolds, Henschke et al, sadly saw its last vintage in 1999. Its fruit is now used elsewhere, uncredited in nondescript blends.

I love both the Drumborg and the Dorrien dearly, but, as with whiskies from long-closed Scottish distilleries, I’m torn between a desire to drink and enjoy my remaining bottles, as is their raison d’être, or to respectfully hold onto them as the museum pieces they have now unfortunately become.