Putting the Great back into Great Western

Going underground: one of the famous drives at Seppelt's Winery. Picture: Peter Pickering.

Going underground: one of the famous drives at Seppelt's Winery. Picture: Peter Pickering.

There’s a mystery at the heart of the establishment of Great Western. Did two Frenchmen secretly bring root stock from the fabled Hermitage wine region to the western district in the early 1860s?

The tiny town (population 650) with the grand name would like to think so. Renowned for producing great quality wines ever since, and with heritage-listed and astonishing kilometres of drives latticing the earth beneath the vineyards, Great Western is seeking to establish itself as a premier destination for the food and wine aficionados of Adelaide and Melbourne.

The Courier spent a day in Great Western exploring the town’s history and the venues that are seeking to give new vigour to the region’s reputation.

RENEWED DRIVE

Daniel Ahchow leads the way deep beneath the earth under the Seppelt vineyards, through the maze of tunnels that comprise the famous ‘drives’ or underground cellars of Great Western.

Hand-hewn by Cornish miners from 1868 onward, there are over three kilometres of dark, mould-coated drives filled with bottles dating back to the late Nineteenth Century.

Vintage vintage: ancient bottles of wine line the Seppelt's drive. Picture: Peter Pickering.

Vintage vintage: ancient bottles of wine line the Seppelt's drive. Picture: Peter Pickering.

Ahchow is the managing director of Great Western Enterprises, which has taken over the running of the drives as a tourist venue from Treasury Wines, owner of Seppelt Wines.

“We were aware that Treasury was a wine business; that’s their core business. We saw a real opportunity to take a hospitality angle and focus on people coming to the site,” says Ahchow.

He is trying to build on the 20,000 visitors a year that the drives attract with underground dinners, venue hire and accommodation, including the new fad for ‘glamping’ – glamorous camping, which involves large old-style bell tents and modern heating.

Using the hashtag #destinationgreatwestern, Ahchow and other businesses in the town are seeking to stamp a new reputation for Great Western, building on its tradition of fine wine-making.

“We’ve seen a real rejuvenation here in the past couple of years,” says Ahchow.

“Great Western has always been known for its wine and we have some fantastic food people here now – Steelcutter’s Cottage, Salinger’s Cafe, the Great Western Hotel are chipping in, and of course ourselves with our underground dining events.”

Top drop: Daniel Ahchow of Great Western Enterprises. Picture: Peter Pickering.

Top drop: Daniel Ahchow of Great Western Enterprises. Picture: Peter Pickering.

One of the most impressive things Ahchow sees in a town the size of Great Western is its determination to stay at the forefront of the wine-making industry for over 150 years.

“These days everything in life is so ‘NOW, NOW NOW’. Here is something of historic importance that is still producing a product as good today as it was all that time ago.”

The sparkling shiraz that was an accidental discovery over 100 years ago is now one of Seppelt’s most renowned wines.

FROM FITNESS TO A REFIT

When former fitness trainers Marlene and Rohan Erard bought the blacksmith’s cottage in the main street of Great Western four years ago, they were only the third owners to have lived there.

It had been the town smithy’s home in 1911. The importance of the blacksmith to farming in the area is commemorated in an installation in Great Western’s Memorial Park, and Rohan Erard decided the name of the food venture should also reflect that heritage – hence Steelcutter’s Cottage.

A new venture: Marlene and Rohan Erard of Steelcutter's Cottage. Picture: Peter Pickering.

A new venture: Marlene and Rohan Erard of Steelcutter's Cottage. Picture: Peter Pickering.

Originally planning to use the house as accommodation, the couple found themselves increasingly being asked to cook for guests, which in time led to long table events, says Marlene.

“Eventually we decided to get bigger. We sold our other house and moved into the cottage and set about creating a food venue next to the house.”

The Erards constructed their small restaurant and deli, opening the front half in September 2016 and the rear just a few weeks ago. Seating 20, the Erards have taken it upon themselves to retrain as chefs to cook for their venture, and attempt to source their produce locally if it is possible.

“We also have an extensive range of very, very regional wines,” says Rohan Erard.

THE COFFEE’S ALL READY

Salinger’s cafe has been open for 18 months. It’s the latest of many incarnations for the historic 1862 building, says freehold owner Rob Martin.

“We fell in love with the building,” says Martin. “Originally it was a merchant’s store built by Emmanuel Salinger, who was one of the founders of the wine industry here. We’ve put our own stamp on the building, though.”

Historic: Salinger's cafe in the main street of Great Western. Picture: Peter Pickering.

Historic: Salinger's cafe in the main street of Great Western. Picture: Peter Pickering.

He says the reaction to the business from the larger towns on either side of Great Western, Stawell and Ararat, has been very positive.

“And we have regulars who drop in all the time, doing the Melbourne to Adelaide trip. We’re here seven days a week and we’ve done it on our own,” says Martin.

“We feel like we’ve led the way here. We employ as many locals as we can; we have B&Bs as well, so we’re getting international tourists as well.”

A NAME SYNONYMOUS WITH GREAT WESTERN

Anthony Jones is the commercial manager with Best’s Great Western Wines, a name that has its roots in the beginnings of Great Western.

The Best and Thomson families have maintained control of the famous vineyard since Henry Best first planted vines in Concongella in 1867. Purchased by Frederick Thomson in 1920, his descendants still make the range of wines Best’s are known for today.

A very stable business: Anthony Jones in the former stables of Best's Great Western winery. Picture: Peter Pickering.

A very stable business: Anthony Jones in the former stables of Best's Great Western winery. Picture: Peter Pickering.

“It’s been very busy for us,” says Jones. “We are dealing with the local businesses, such as Steelcutter’s Cottage and Salingers, to match food to wine, to advise them on what might be a good match.

Like Seppelt’s, Best’s Great Western have also taken advantage of the region’s granitic stone’s ability to be worked to make underground cellars for their wine.

“It’s always 12 to 15 degrees (Celsius) underground, which ideal for cellaring and maturing wine,” says Jones. “We have self-guided tours here; people are welcome to go down and have a look for themselves.”