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Why Wirra Wirra is a wine brand to watch

McLaren Vale’s Wirra Wirra is cutting production while spending big on vineyard management in a bid not just to put its brand on the global fine wine map, but its home region too. Patrick Schmitt MW reports on the changes taking place.

It’s rare to witness, but brave and admirable. I’m talking about a decision to turn down customers in an attempt to pursue a long-term strategy of premiumisation. But that’s what quirky Australian producer Wirra Wirra is doing right now, with ambitious plans, based on strong foundations.

And in making such moves, not only is this producer looking to earn the recognition that Wirra Wirra deserves for the quality of its products, but also the reputation McLaren Vale should hold worldwide as a source for exciting fine wines.

The beginnings of Wirra Wirra’s major change can be traced to August 2022, just after the appointment of a new CEO for Wirra Wirra: Matthew Deller MW.

An MW since 2016, Deller brought a new approach to the McLaren Vale business, informed by an extensive career in the world of wine, having held senior roles at a range of impressive businesses, large and small – from New Zealand’s Villa Maria to top Napa Valley producer TOR, along with a position at Constellation Brands, where he developed sales strategy for key wineries, such as Robert Mondavi and Ruffino Estates.

Calling it “a new vision for Wirra Wirra”, he acknowledges that his influence has been built on the back of “an amazing winery”, founded in 1894 by “talented cricketer and prankster” Robert Strangways Wigley, before being taken on by the late Greg Trott in 1969 – a chicken farmer who resurrected the business, buying it when it was practically derelict, and rebuilding it quite literally stone by stone.

Today the business is still owned by the Trotts, along with two other families, including majority shareholder the Simpson’s, who are the descendants of Thomas Hyland Penfold.

Driving a move upmarket at Wirra Wirra may be Deller, but it’s with the support of the owners, who are “multi-generational South Australian families with a multi-generational outlook,” says Dellar, adding, “They want Wirra Wirra to be something they are proud to pass on to their children and grandchildren.”

This means “they think long term and make decisions that might not make sense today,” he adds, referring to the major shift at Wirra Wirra, when Deller decided to reduce the production of the business by 20% from the ‘22 to ‘23 harvest – taking output down from 150,000 to 120,000 cases, a drop that mostly affects the volumes of its entry-point wines – by which I mean those below the £15 Church Block label.

“They are good wines and people still want them, but they are not part of our strategy,” says Deller of labels such as Adelaide and Mrs Wigley, which he’s axing, despite having customers for them.

Indeed, key to the move upmarket for Wirra Wirra is shedding some of its lower-value sales and concentrating on high-end wines. Or, in Deller’s words, “Basically, people are drinking less but better, and our vision is to make less but better.”

Continuing he says, “I love the idea of Church Block being the entry into Wirra Wirra: it’s a lovely wine and represents the diversity of McLaren Vale across Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and a bit of Merlot.”

This change has coincided the appointment of a new winemaker, Emma Wood, who joined Wirra Wirra in July 2022 from Penfolds, where she was senior red winemaker, as well as “more importantly” says Deller, with a role as Treasury’s senior winemaker – viticulture – “which meant that she knows all the growers, and McLaren Vale like the back of her hand.”

He also assures me, “Emma didn’t come to make Penfolds at Wirra Wirra, but to make wine in keeping with Wirra Wirra’s style, which has been elegant, fresh and perfumed since the hiring of Brian Croser as winemaking consultant in 1980 until ‘86.”

As for the improvements, Deller is focused on making wines that are “as natural as can be while still expressing the purity of the variety, and the fruit of the region,” with a focus being augmenting the quality of Church Block, “so you get more wine for the money”. Among many changes-for-the-better have been reducing the lifespan of barrels from eight years to five.

Then there’s been a Aus$2 million investment on vineyard and winery equipment, including the acquisition of a Bucher destemmer and sorter, to mimic the approach employed at TOR in Napa Valley – where Deller ran operations.

Commenting on bringing the lessons learnt in California to McLaren Vale, he says, “I want to take Wirra Wirra to that level of obsessiveness.”

Indeed, he says of his McLaren Vale bottlings, “They have Napa’s quality and plushness without the prices.”

In the vineyard, Wirra Wirra was already impressive in its sustainable management, with its 21.5 hectares farmed organically and biodynamically since 2010, and certified for both in 2014, while a further 20ha of vines that the business leases are sustainably managed.

More generally, Deller, who is proud of Wirra Wirra’s move to regenerative agricultural practices, says that McLaren Vale is “by far” the leader in sustainability in Australia, with the region currently 40% organically-farmed, with 95% of Wirra Wirra growers holding Sustainable Winegrowing Australia certification, which was born out of McLaren Vale’s own template.

Essentially, Deller says he is “really doubling down to produce wines of authenticity, provenance and craft,” adding, “The way we manage the vineyards and go about things is to make wines as naturally as possible.”

Part of this involves a more precise expression of site specifics, with Deller recording that “McLaren Vale is the most geologically diverse region in the world, with incredible climatic diversity too” – the latter influenced by the proximity to the ocean as well as the height and aspect of vineyards on the foothills of the Mount Lofty Ranges.

To do this, Deller has introduced a new single vineyard range, as well as an individual block range including the new House Block Shiraz, which uses fruit from vineyards planted in deep sandy soils in the 60s.

The grapes were previously blended into the flagship RSW – named after winery founder Robert Strangways Wigley – but in 2022 Deller and Wood “picked two barrels to make just 50 cases of the wine.”

Acknowledging that Wirra Wirra already has an individual block wine in Chook Block, which the winery has made since 1998, he says, “It’s crazy that no-one wanted to make any other blocks – it just seemed weird.”

His endeavour is of course to raise the fine wine profile of Wirra Wirra, but in doing so, he also wants to “showcase what McLaren Vale can do – because I really believe in it”.

Continuing he says, “It has phenomenal attributes, and doing something like this” – by which he means high-end individual block expressions – “we are bring McLaren Vale to life.”

As for Wirra Wirra’s role in the region, he wants it to “take a leadership position”, with not just strong quality credentials, but environmental ones too.

He also wants to excite and impress his customers. As a result, summing up his strategy, he says, “My long-term dream is to make wines that inspire others to reach for the stars too.”

What do the wines taste like?

Below is a snapshot from a sampling earlier this year.

Wirra Wirra, Yandra Vineyard, Lenswood Chardonnay, 2023

  • Approximate UK retail price: £25

A magnificent white wine from the outstanding site that is the Yandra Vineyard in Adelaide Hills, this is a serious, precise, slightly-reductive style of Chardonnay, which, considering its quality, sells for an attractive price. Expect an appealing and refreshing mix of grilled lemons and grapefruit pith, mixed with notes of salted peanuts and buttered toast, followed by a hint of struck match, then a dry zesty finish with a chalky taste and texture. Bursting with energy, but, thankfully, not too ‘skinny’, 40% of the Chardonnay goes through malo-lactic, with a 15% new oak component; fermented and aged in French puncheons.

Wirra Wirra, Church Block, 2021

  • Approximate UK retail price: £15

One of the best reds you’ll find for the price, this Cabernet-Shiraz-Merlot blend is rightly a flagship wine for Wirra Wirra. Featuring a delicious combination of upfront fruit flavours from blackcurrant to plum, cherry and raspberry, it instantly satisfies, but it also appeals with lingering additional notes of black olive and eucalyptus, along with sage, capsicum, cedar and vanilla. And while there’s a dry, grippy finish, the core is generous and fleshy. A great wine for £15.

Wirra Wirra, Church Block, 2009

Want to know what a bottle of Church Block tastes like if you leave it under the stairs for more than a decade? Well, it gets better, judging by this ex-cellar sample from the 2009 vintage, which has a wonderful and complex mix of stewed red berry fruit mixed with notes of prune and sweet balsamic, grilled nuts and smoky toast, along with a touch of cedar wood on its dry, grippy, refreshing finish.

Wirra Wirra, Flower Vineyard, McLaren Vale Grenache, 2023

  • Approximate UK retail price: £25

A fine, pure and energetic expression of McLaren Vale Grenache, this refreshing red comes from 130 year-old bush-trained vines anchored in deep sandy soils. Matured in stainless steel, it’s made to capture the lovely flavours of ripe Grenache, with its notes of fleshy strawberry, sweet blueberry and Morello cherry, complemented by a hint of menthol. Surprisingly bright, the finish features a mouth-watering mix of dry, dense tannins and crunchy redcurrant, leaving the palate cleansed and ready for another sip.

Wirra Wirra, Chook Block, 2022

  • Approximate UK retail price: £90

This is a dense, youthful and powerful expression of biodynamically-farmed Shiraz from vines over 60 years old, planted on shallow sandy soils. Among the notes of blackcurrant and sweet plums are flavours of red pepper and black olive along with a hint of dried mint, complemented by barrel-sourced characters of vanilla, toast and dark chocolate. Especially impressive about this intense red is the finish, which is fresh and lively, with some dry, mouth-watering chewy tannins too. Intense, but refreshing – and without the alcohol heat that can beset wines with such concentration – one can be sure this Shiraz will age beautifully.

Wirra Wirra House Block Shiraz 2022

  • Approximate UK retail price: £90

The first vintage of Wirra Wirra’s House Block Shiraz, this 2022 expression harnesses the quality and character of a one-hectare vineyard planted in the 60s in the deep sandy soils of McLaren Vale. Aromatically open and inviting, it’s bursting with ripe, dark berry fruit, chocolate and dried herbs. In the mouth, it’s fleshy and creamy, but also fresh and lively, with a mouth-watering dry, finely-tannic finish. Flavour-wise, there are notes of dark cherry and blackcurrant, toast and tapenade, along with cocoa powder and a touch of spearmint. A really impressive red, that’s delicious now, but clearly one with the potential to age and develop greater complexity with at least another 5 to 10 years in bottle.

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