Should you visit Wendouree in South Australia's Clare Valley, don't be surprised if owner Tony Brady first offers you coffee rather than wine. It's not just that the wines are so rare, it's also a reflection of the outlook and convictions held at this historic estate. Time means little, and the philosophy is a million miles from clinical tastings and hard sell.

Should you visit Wendouree in South Australia’s Clare Valley, don’t be surprised if owner Tony Brady first offers you coffee rather than wine. It’s not just that the wines are so rare, it’s also a reflection of the outlook and convictions held at this historic estate. Time means little, and the philosophy is a million miles from clinical tastings and hard sell.

Wendouree is a national monument whose name in the aboriginal tongue means ‘place of water’. The wines are red, long-ageing and individual. Australian auctioneer Langton’s in its Classification of Australian Wine lists Wendouree Shiraz as ‘exceptional’, one of only seven wines along with the likes of Grange and Henschke Hill of Grace, and classes four other Wendouree wines as ‘outstanding’. These are wines honed in a traditional and uncompromising way.

The estate is the very antithesis of Australia’s modern, market-driven, high-tech industry. Hidden in a clearing of red gums not far from the township of Clare, the old stone cellars, built in 1914, are still in use and almost unaltered today. A basket press that was installed at the same time still operates, running on rails between open-top fermenters. There’s no fax, computer or email, the only concessions to the modern age a small laboratory for analysis, stainless steel to line the fermenters and in tanks for blending, and a tiny bottling line.

The real treasures, though, are the vineyards. In one block a plot of bush-trained Shiraz dates from 1892 and another from 1893, while a parcel of trellised Mataro (Mourvèdre) has been grafted onto vines dating from 1898. Further from the winery, in what is known as the eastern block, there’s more Shiraz planted in 1919 and 1920 and some Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec grafted over but standing on 1920s rootstock. The most recent plantings date from 1975 and the early 1980s. In all there are 12 hectares of vines, an anthology of Clare’s viticultural past.

The instigator of all this was Alfred Percy Birks. He and his brother planted the first vines in 1892, thus establishing AP Birks’ Wendouree Cellars. ‘What’s so extraordinary is the foresight he had in planting Shiraz, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Mataro, varieties that are clearly in harmony with the nature of this environment,’ says Tony Brady. Birks eventually handed over the reins to his son Roly Birks in 1917.

Roly ‘The Gunner’ Birks continued as winemaker and salesman through a long, difficult period from 1917 to 1970. He established the eastern block vineyard and developed sales of dry red and fortified wines in cask to the local trade and hotels. In 1970 he sold the property, but it was disastrous, the purchasing company falling rapidly into liquidation and the vineyards left to run down. A sale by auction attracted little interest as the vines were considered ‘too old’ and eventually the property was divided. In 1974 the winery and main vineyard blocks were sold to Max Liberman, a wealthy Sydney property developer and Tony Brady’s father-in-law.

Tony Brady had studied law in Adelaide and London and knew nothing about wine, but he and his wife Lita were asked to run the estate. ‘We came in without any knowledge but saw ourselves as custodians and so decided to continue in a traditional way,’ he says. Lita took a winemaking course at Charles Sturt University and there was some early consultancy and help from Stephen George but the winemaking now, one suspects, is a connivance between Tony and Lita run on the basis of steadily acquired knowledge and the certitude of what they want to produce.

The vineyard had to be overhauled and enough quality wine produced to sell. A percentage of the vines were either pulled up or grafted over, removing a number of varieties such as Crouchen, Pedro Ximénez and Grenache which had previously been used for bulk white or fortified wines. A bottled wine was successfully produced in 1975 but a fair amount continued to be sold in bulk until the end of the decade.

The vineyards are unirrigated and planted on mainly red loam over limestone or terra rossa soils. There’s also a block on shale and a parcel that has sandier loam. Elevation is at 450–530m at the eastern block but despite this the harvest for reds is typically two weeks earlier at Wendouree than elsewhere in the Clare Valley. Yields turn around just less than 30hl/ha with an average alcohol of 13.5°. ‘We sometimes get slightly higher degrees but we aren’t looking for high alcohol as generally the wines don’t age as well,’ remarks Tony Brady.

The grapes are hand harvested, and fermentation takes place in open-top fermenters with hand plunging of the grape cap. The malolactic fermentation takes place in stainless steel tanks and the wines are then aged in 300-litre fine-grain French oak barrels, 25% new, for a year.

Blending is carried out after the barrel ageing and the wines are bottled with just a light filter. Six months later they are sold through a mailing list. Some 2,200 cases of the five Wendouree reds are produced, with 20% of the initial production selected out and sold off in bulk. ‘Tim Knappstein once told me the more you keep out of the blend the better it will be,’ says Tony with a wry smile.

HEARTS OF STEEL

Judging from a tasting of the 1999 vintage, Wendouree wines have one common denominator, a firm, steely inner core. The ‘exceptional’ Shiraz was deep and intense, full of dark fruits with a soft fleshy texture to smooth over that rock of fine tannins. There was a touch of vanilla oak on both the Shiraz Mataro and the Shiraz Malbec, the former fresh and balanced with plummy fruit and a note of wild herbs, the latter cherry fruit, stern, vigorous, minerally, a little four-square. Both the Cabernet-Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon had blackcurrant and eucalyptus/mint, the Cabernet Malbec with a touch of leafiness and a little sweetness on the palate. The Cabernet Sauvignon was finer in style with balance and length on the finish.

These are wines for the long haul, a little austere but natural, an expression of the fruit and soil of Clare. ‘With such wonderful vineyards it’s difficult to know whether we are doing a good job or if another winemaker could make better wines,’ reflects Tony Brady.
The answer perhaps lies back with that initial offer of coffee. Watch the involvement in those clear blue eyes as he selects the coffee beans and then the slow, measured action as he grinds them in an old metal grinder. There’s no hurry as he puts on the water to boil or allows the coffee to infuse. He’s in his own world, unperturbed by outside influence or the stress of commercial gain.

James Lawther MW is a contributing
editor to Decanter.

Written by JAMES LAWTHER