SETTING A SUCCESSFUL RHYTHM FOR THE RIVERLAND AND BEYOND
"In typical pioneering fashion, 919 Wines were the first winery to put “Proudly Riverland Made” on their labels."
MOST people in the wine industry travel along the mainstream path to achieve their goals and/or greatness. Occasionally you come across someone who marches to the beat of a different drum. Such a person is Eric Semmler, of 919 Wines in the Riverland. Eric started out as a horticulturalist before becoming a winemaker. After working for a while at Brown Bros and All Saints in Victoria he became, for many years, the fortified winemaker at BRL Hardy in the Riverland, turning out some pretty impressive fortifieds from that massive winery.
In 2004, Eric and wife Jenny set up 919 Wines in the back blocks of Glossop in the Riverland. From the start they did things differently from the “usual” in the area. Most of the varieties they planted at the time, and since, weren’t being grown in the Riverland as they were Mediterranean varieties which were more heat and drought tolerant – that is more global warming proof than the classic varieties grown in this area. They built their winery out of mud and straw bales and achieved Organic status for the property.
From the outset, rather than produce large quantities of “run of the mill” wines (as most local producers did at the time), Eric focused on handcrafted, small volumes of superb organic wines, each of which was a true reflection of that variety. A great Australian expression of the variety, be it Spanish tempranillo and touriga nacional, Italian vermentino and sangiovese, or French petit manseng and durif (including a cracking sparkling durif).
In typical pioneering fashion, 919 Wines were the first winery to put “Proudly Riverland Made” on their labels. This at a time when “Riverland” was seen as detracting from a wine’s status, thus the local wines were merely labelled as South Australian, rather than broadcast their Riverland provenance.
The wines were elegantly packaged and sold for between two to three times the prices commanded by most of the local wines. Added to this list of achievements, 919 Wines was the first winery to produce a durif in South Australia, in the days when durif was solely the domain of Rutherglen and Griffith.
Their ideas, policies and pricing attracted more than a fair share of critics and sceptics from the outset. However, over time, the dynamic duo of Eric and Jenny have proved them wrong with each vintage of wine selling out and demand far outstripping supply for some of their exceptional handcrafted wines.
In addition, under Jenny’s capable hands the marketing of 919 has always been a little unconventional and often ahead of its times, ranging from art exhibitions through to music festivals and initiating the Riverland’s first ever, “Small Winemakers Exhibition”, where the smallest five winemakers in the area came together to exhibit their wares. The annual “Bath Tub Sale” is another one of Jenny’s clever initiatives, where towards the end of vintage each year, a sale is held to clear the deck of the ‘odds and sods’ left over from prior years – bin ends, part cases, unlabelled bottles (“cause we ended up 30 labels short!”) and so on. This allows complete focus on the wine fermenting away in the winery.
Eric, true to his earlier calling, produces some of the best award winning fortified wines made in South Australia – including a sensational pale dry apera (what we used to call sherry), muscat, tawny and topaque (formerly tokay), all of which have garnered a raft of medals/awards over the years and are positively divine.
Eric is no stranger to Winestate Magazine, having been a judge on a number of the various wine judging panels conducted over recent years. In addition, he won the Winestate Magazine award of “Australian Winemaker of the Year” in 2013, the first Riverland winemaker to do so.
Eric and Jenny’s forward-thinking ideas and attitudes have not only paid off for 919 Wines, but also indirectly led to a number of other local wineries adopting the same philosophy of smaller volumes of handcrafted, higher quality, higher priced wines. Today, there are several premium quality boutique wineries located within the Australian wine industry’s engine room called the Riverland. Some of these wineries are also Organic and many of their wines are today medal winners and proudly showcase the quality of Riverland wines to Australian and overseas wine consumers. By the way, some of these wines were made by Eric who contract produces wine for a number of small, up-and-coming Riverland producers.
The Semmler’s have been an integral part, and to some extent quiet, enthusiastic drivers in the rise in reputation and quality of the Riverland wines, from being considered as being merely cask wines (last century), through to cheap and cheerful bottle wines (start of this century), to today being taken seriously as premium quality Australian wines.