Wendouree, Shiraz 1990 is a legend because…

Tony Brady has been crafting intensely flavoured wines from Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Mourvedre (Mataro) since 1974, when he took over running this small Clare Valley property. He has been aided in his project by carefully preserved Shiraz bush vines planted gradually between 1893 and 1920. These vines are still alive. (The property was planted by Alfred Percy Birks, a gentleman farmer, who named the estate after the aboriginal name for ‘place of water’.) As is the case with centenarian vines everywhere, the production is low and generally self-regulating, and yields rarely exceed 30 hectolitres per hectare. This legendary 1990 Shiraz is made from the original Shiraz bush vines (block 24B) and was released only in magnum. Australian critic James Halliday has described Wendouree as a ‘living treasure’.

Looking back

In the 1920s and ’30s about half the wine from Wendouree was based on Muscat of Alexandria and fortified, the remainder being red. It was mostly sold locally to restaurants. Birks’ son Roly had become the winemaker in 1917, and remained active until 1983. He bottled very little wine, but sold grapes to other wineries. This continued into the 1950s and ’60s, although more of the wine was being sent to WJ Seabrook, a Melbourne merchant, where its reputation grew. In 1970 Birks, then in his late 70s, retired. He found a purchaser, but the new owners went bankrupt and the vineyards were all but abandoned, having shrunk from 25ha to 12ha. Then in 1974 businessman Max Liberman bought the decrepit property and entrusted it to his son-in-law, Tony Brady. This saved Wendouree from likely extinction. Brady was a lawyer by training, with no experience of winemaking. Fortunately, his wife Lolita took courses, although it was some years before Wendouree could give up bulk sales and focus on bottling its own wines.

The vintage

After a wet spring, summer was cool in South Australia. But it remained dry, causing some stress, although ancient vines such as those at Wendouree were largely immune. Yields were average and quality high.

The terroir

The vineyards occupy 12ha. They are planted on reddish-brown loam soils over a limestone subsoil and are dry-farmed. This wine was made from the original bush-vine Shiraz vineyard of 0.75ha with a total of 952 vines.

The wine

During harvest the grapes are taken to the stone winery, which was completed in 1903, making it of roughly the same vintage as the venerable vineyard. The grapes are vinified in open-top fermenters of moderate size, and during fermentation it is usual for some of the alcohol to evaporate. An ancient basket press, dating from 1898, is still in use. Malolactic fermentation generally takes place in tanks, while the finished wine is aged in 300-litre barrels, of which no more than 25% are new. This 1990 was released in 900 magnums in 1995 to mark the centenary of the property. (There is another 1990, released in 750ml bottles, but it was made from 1919 trellised Shiraz.) The label, designed in 1900, has been unaltered ever since.

The reaction

Andrew Caillard MW of auction house Langton’s, which classifies Wendouree Shiraz as one of the 21 ‘exceptional’ wines in its Classification of Australian Wine, tasted the 1990 in magnum in 1991. He noted: ‘Very complex, ethereal prune/raspberry and slightly salty/rusty aromas. The palate is strongly flavoured and immensely tannic with developed blackberry/raspberry fruit and rusty leather nuances, massive concentration and lock-jawing, iron-like tannins. Needless to say it finishes extremely firm. Will it soften out?’ Caillard says Wendouree Shiraz ‘offers wine drinkers a window into Australia’s colonial past’. In 1992, noted Australian wine writer and Decanter contributor Huon Hooke was impressed: ‘Loaded with vanilla/cherry tastes and huge tannins but also huge flavour to match. It’s a wine to keep for at least five years and drink for 20 thereafter.’

The facts

Number of bottles produced 900 magnums
Composition of blend 100% Shiraz
Yield (hl/ha) 19hl/ha
Alcohol content 13.8%
Release price AU$100 (about £45 at the time)
Price today £121.60