Celebrating a Century of Excellence: A Review of the 1924 Seppeltsfield Para Vintage Tawny

By | 23 May 2024

Nick Ryan on a great Australian fortified that is part of the world’s vinous patrimony.

By Nick Ryan

Nick Ryan is enchanted by the astonishingly viscous marvel that is 1924 Seppeltsfield Para Vintage Tawny.

The University of Queensland’s School of Mathematics and Physics is home to the world’s longest-running laboratory experiment. The experiment consists simply of a glass funnel filled with pitch. Pitch is a viscoelastic polymer, a tar-like substance with a viscosity 100 billion times greater than water. At room temperature, it appears, in every way, to be a solid. It can be shattered with a hammer blow. But as the experiment has proven, it is actually the most languid liquid in existence.

In 1927, a Professor Parnell heated a quantity of this dysphoric substance and poured it into a glass funnel with a sealed stem. He gave the pitch three whole years to cool and settle before cutting the stem. Then he waited. And waited. And waited.

It was eight years before the first drop managed to separate itself from the mass. For reasons unrecorded, Professor Parnell missed it. In fact, he never saw a drip in his lifetime. Nor did his successor, a Professor John Mainstone, who supervised the experiment for 52 years without ever witnessing the liberation of a single drop. In fact, not one of the nine drops seduced by gravity since the experiment began has been witnessed in real time.

If you’re wondering where all this going—and it’s a reasonable question to ask—the answer lies in the small glass on my desk as I type. It contains what could well be the second most viscous liquid on earth.

Earlier this year, the 1924 Seppeltsfield Para Vintage Tawny was released. This is the most recent addition to the bonkers yet beautiful commitment of the Barossa Valley estate’s impressive vision. Benno Seppelt, a second-generation immigrant from Prussia, was dedicated in 1878 to transforming his family’s unsuccessful tobacco farm into the biggest southern hemisphere wine production site.

He constructed a large maturation cellar as part of his goal and he decided to reserve a puncheon of the estate’s finest Tawny only to be sampled on the 100th year since the cellar’s inauguration. It’s a marvelously insane notion that only becomes more brilliant and crazier with each passing year. Subsequently, this procedure has been performed annually since 1878 and a wine matured for a century has been presented to the world every year since 1978.

We believe that the 1924 batch was brewed predominantly from Grenache, with a little bit of Mataro and Shiraz, picked a few weeks post the demise of Lenin. The price of a 10cl bottle, A$1,650 (£850 or US$1,075), makes it Australia’s priciest wine at the time of its release. Yet, it could still be considered not costly enough.

Take a moment to consider the continuous series of successes that allowed us the chance to taste these wines. Over the course of over 14 decades, it makes one wonder how many times did someone ponder, “Why are we keeping up with this?” Even though it’s a financially imprudent approach, it upholds a promise to the past, actualizes a vision that was set by a man who knew he wouldn’t live to see it, and unveils a wine that was crafted by unseen hands.

Fiona Donald, the winemaker presently in charge of maintaining the legacy, sheds light on crafting a style of Tawny that’s more accessible than usual. This is a wine that accommodates the condensation that comes with the passage of time. Having tasted many of these wines down the years—back to the pioneering 1878 batch—I’m repeatedly reminded about the uniqueness of their characteristics.

These wines are not merely tasted but experienced in their totality. Attempting to pen down tasting notes often results in beautifully ornate descriptions, while the more artistically inclined often create vivid and fantastical imageries. If a wine somehow conveys the sensation of plummeting into a black vortex filled with paneforté and espresso, dried orange peel coated in chocolate, ecclesiastical smoke, and the aroma of a spice merchant’s cellar, then it has achieved its purpose.

For a multitude of reasons, this wine necessitates thoughtful consideration. Primarily because the physicality of the liquid commands your attention. Whole continents seem to move faster than the speed at which these ancient Tawnys pour. The way they adhere to the surface of the glass is reminiscent of a potter’s glaze. No other wine in the world gets tasted off the tasters’ fingers as much as a century-old Seppeltsfield Para Vintage Tawny does.

These wines count among the most exceptional wines of Australia. They form a integral part of the global vino heritage. They bear testimony to European aspirations in a new world and a story of how persistence, hard work, and a small measure of stubbornness have protected this legacy.

And they make pretty good birth-year wines, too.

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