Sevenhill's wines of distinction
More than fifty years ago, one of Australia’s oldest sacramental winemakers faced a threat to their business continuity, but determination saw the vineyard expand to become a respected producer of exceptional table wines.
Established by the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) in 1851, Sevenhill Cellars was originally started to produce sacramental wine, and carry on The Jesuit Mission in South Australia’s Clare Valley.
For a short period in the 1960s however, the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) encouraged all Religious Orders to return to their original commitment to the service of the people of God. The vines might have withered if not for a strategic decision by the Jesuits in the Clare Valley to produce table wines. Expanding ensured the protection and sustainability of Sevenhill’s wine business, and helped preserve the Jesuit mission in the outpost.
Mike Christophersen is Sevenhill’s General Manager, overseeing the business today. He says the cellar sees an average 50,000 visitors each year, with sacramental wine accounting for 30 per cent of production. The distinctive regional style of the wines has given the Clare Valley an international reputation for its table wines. Leading Australian wine critic James Halliday recognised the quality of its premium wines by awarding a five-star rating, in his 2018 Wine Companion.
“Winemaking is a very traditional process,” says Christophersen. “It’s a time-honoured way to get the character you are seeking to create within the wine”.
Modern winemaking skills and premium vineyards are integral to Sevenhill’s philosophy of producing exceptional wines, and ensure business continues to grow in markets overseas.
Sevenhill’s 95 hectares of vineyards, which are home to vines among the oldest in the Clare Valley, produce high-quality fruit that is rich and concentrated, qualities that flow through the elegant character of the wines.
“We focus on gentle handling of the fruit and low intervention during winemaking. This approach is what I think of as the Ignatian spirit of winemaking.”
Sevenhill’s wines are readily identifiable through their strong links with Sevenhill’s Jesuit heritage.
Their flagship wine is the Brother John May Reserve Release Shiraz, and made from the best parcel of Shiraz when vintages offer outstanding fruit. This wine honours Brother John May, SJ, who served as winemaker from 1972 until his retirement in early 2003.
“The Ignatian spirit is the Vine that ties together the three works at Sevenhill, the Branches of the winery, the retreat house and the parish.”
From the book, The Vine and the Branches, The fruits of the Sevenhill Mission by Michael Head SJ, Paul McKee and Paul Fyfe SJ
In the vanguard of progress is harvesting technology in the horticultural sector, designed to increase picking efficiencies. Together with demand for revenue growth, there is a risk modern intervention could disrupt a time-honoured process for winemakers, but Christophersen thinks modernisation is more likely to have an impact on large-scale growers.
“Sevenhill is a very small (boutique) producer so we do not tend to engage in particularly sophisticated technology that has application to larger growing operations,” he says.
And what about other factors that may impact on the business of a winemaker, such as how well Australian vines stand up to the impact of climate change for example?
Sevenhill’s vineyard is likely to weather industry changes, but ensuring readiness for imposed tariff changes could spell trouble for all winemakers who rely on exports for business sustainability.
“The Australian wine industry has seen significant growth in exports to China, particularly in the last 12 months. It is hoped that in time these may flow on to Sevenhill. So far we have only exported very small amounts to China.”
Key factors in Sevenhill’s continuity has been the spread of sales across several channels, according to Christophersen who explains the importance of ensuring the winery is not dependent on any one particular sales route.
“Firstly, Sevenhill has a busy and popular Cellar Door selling directly to the public. There are also sales directly to our wine club members, mostly made over the phone. There are sales via our domestic distributors in each of the capital cities. There are also export sales. Then there is the portion of grapes we sell directly to other wine companies on long term contracts. The benefit of this is that risk is mitigated by the sales being spread over several different sales channels.”
The winemaking roles at Sevenhill Cellars are now filled by lay staff, with an established Jesuit tradition of winemaking continuing to flourish under the strategic direction of an advisory group, in which both Jesuits and lay people work together. It’s a partnership that preserves Sevenhill’s heritage in making outstanding wines, and meets the goals of the Australian Jesuit Province while addressing business challenges of the future.
The Jesuit Mission continues today, with the Sevenhill Parish and St Aloysius’ Church where mass is held each Saturday and during significant religious festivals such as Easter and Christmas.
Sevenhill’s Centre of Ignatian Spirituality provides an extensive program, offering retreats for all denominations in a rural setting considered perfect for discussion, prayer and contemplation.
These historic buildings are another reason for Sevenhill’s popularity as a tourist destination.
“Visitors not only enjoy the wine experience but also take the opportunity to appreciate Sevenhill’s spiritual and historic character,” explains Chistophersen.
Br John received the Jubilee Medal from the Australian Jesuits in 2006 and his contribution to the wine industry was recognised with life membership of the Winemakers’ Federation of Australia in 2004. He also received the Harry Dowling Award for excellence in regional tourism at the 2005 South Australian Tourism Awards. In 2014, he was named by the Clare Valley Winemakers’ Association as an inaugural member of the Clare Valley Wine Hall of Fame. Br John was admitted to the General Division of the Order of Australia (AM) in 2016 in recognition of his significant service to winemaking, through contributions to professional associations, to regional tourism and to the Catholic Church in Australia.