Exploring Wirra Wirra’s Journey Toward Fine Wine Transformation in McLaren Vale

By | 12 March 2024

Website: https://wirrawirra.com/

Wirra Wirra is a long-established winery in Australia’s McLaren Vale. For many years it has had a reputation for great quality, well priced wines, but is now looking to shift in a more premium direction. I met with chief executive officer Matt Deller who took over in 2022, to taste through the wines and hear more about these changes.

In terms of ownership, Wirra Wirra is well placed to take a long-term view. It’s owned by three families with the Simpson family as majority owners. Interestingly, they are the current descendants of Thomas Hyland Penfold. ‘They have a strong passion for wine but they aren’t in the wine business, and they don’t want to manage it themselves,’ says Matt. ‘The brilliant thing is that all three families have a multigenerational perspective on Wirra Wirra so we can make decisions now for the future.’

The way Matt puts the current journey is that they are on the fine wine transformation path. ‘We are recalibrating the portfolio. We have a vision to be globally recognised as an iconic fine wine producer of Australia.’

At Wirra Wirra, they are fortunate to already have most of the required infrastructure for reaching their goals. A vote of confidence from shareholders approved a budget of 2 million dollars for vineyard and winery equipment over the past year.

They are transitioning towards managing more of the vineyard work in-house, reducing their reliance on contractors.

Following a stint at Villa Maria in New Zealand, Matt served as the COO at Tor Winery in Napa Valley. He has mirrored the reception system at Tor in his own winery, with hand-selected grapes entering a Bucher Oscillys destemmer, before being gently guided into a Bucher shaker/sorter by gravity. After this procedure, the perfectly intact ‘caviar’ berries are placed into 20 two-ton open-top fermenters, an ideal size for producing premium red wines. The pressing procedure ensures minimal strain, utilizing a basket press.

What are the next steps for Wirra Wirra to transition from their current state to their aspirations? ‘Acknowledging the long delay from vintage to release, we knew we had to prioritise the wine production,’ Matt explains, ‘If we aspire to be globally recognized as an iconic fine wine producer over the next decade, we need to produce the high-quality wines that we plan to be known for, as early as 2023 and 2024.’

The portfolio forms the other part of this. ‘We’re eliminating everything below Church Block,’ he reveals. In the UK, the switch is already significantly underway as the less expensive brands such as Scrubby Rise and Mrs Wigley, didn’t have strong footprints. ‘In the UK, we start with Church Block found in Waitrose and Sainsbury’s. Then we’re assigning the remainder of portfolio to smaller suitable accounts.’

Has McLaren Vale’s image undergone a transformation in recent years? ‘It’s experiencing a renaissance, for several reasons,’ he asserts. ‘First, climate change: McLaren Vale’s resistance to climate change is better due to its coastal location. Then, there’s the shift in customer taste.’

Besides, about 40% of the vineyards in McLaren Vale are certified organic, which is a substantial percentage. Wirra Wirra’s 21.5 ha premise vineyards adopt a biodynamic farming approach providing them with 15% of their grape yield. They contract the balance. ‘We’re perpetually exploring opportunities to buy vineyards,’ expresses Matt.

A propos of winemaking, chief winemaker Emma Wood commenced her tenure alongside Matt. Her experience includes working as a senior red winemaker at Penfolds and earlier at Seppelts Great Western. ‘Being considered trendy has probably come with a 50-year lag,’ Matt quips. ‘Brian Croser formalized the house style when he came on board as a consulting winemaker back in 1980.’

Emma and I taste-tested all the Museum wines over our initial six-month period. Our observation resulted in identifying Wirra Wirra’s house style as classic, refreshing, elegant, aromatic yet generous due to its Mediterranean climate influence.

Another discovery was their extraordinary aging capacity. As Matt comments, ‘We had a 1996 Church Block just recently, and it was delightful to the palate.’ He includes, ‘Church Block represents the common luxurious wine, not a costly commercial wine. Especially in Australia, when Church Block is in consideration, many equate it with high-end commercial wines.’

Wirra Wirra 12th Man Chardonnay 2022 Adelaide Hills, Australia
Grown in Lenswood and Piccadilly. Hand-picked, whole bunch pressed, cloudy juice fermented in puncheons, wild ferment. Exhibiting bright and sprightly character with powerful citrusy flavor along with some complex toasty and meal notes. Real dynamism with fruity purity and sharp acidity. A truly challenging style endowed with actual precision. 94/100 (Retailing around £22 in the UK)

Wirra Wirra Church Block Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz Merlot 2021 McLaren Vale, Australia
Featuring 14.5% alcohol content. A blend of 50:41:9 ratio. It’s characterized by freshness, suppleness, and lovely fruitiness with some interesting green hints and a heart of bright blackcurrant and blackberry fruit, with a chalky edge to the fruit. The vintage was warm, resulting in a tad more fruit sweetness, but it has excellent aging potential. Shiraz fills the void in the mid-palate that Cabernet usually leaves. 91/100 (Available for £15 in the UK, at Waitrose and Sainsbury’s)

Wirra Wirra Church Block Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz Merlot 2009 McLaren Vale, Australia
14.5% alcohol. 51:29:20 blend. The aroma promises a nice spicy slightly earthy development. The palate is lovely, concentrated, and mellow with ripe black fruits, a sweet core, subtle earth and leather, and a hint of mint. The wine is ripe, delicious, and well-evolved. 92/100

Wirra Wirra Catapult Shiraz 2022 McLaren Vale, Australia
14.5% alcohol. A full-sized Medieval catapult can be spotted at the winery. This Shiraz is from the foothill vineyards which experience gully winds and a bit of elevation resulting in a cooler climate. It includes some from Blewitt Springs, Aldinga and McLaren Flat (which is actually elevated) with no new oak. It boasts ripe blackberry and cherry fruit, good acidity, and some floral character with a crunch that offsets the sweet ripe fruit. There are hints of olive and cured meat that finish the taste off nicely. 93/100

Wirra Wirra MVCG Cabernet Sauvignon 2022 McLaren Vale, Australia
14.5% alcohol. The idea was to build a world-class cricket ground in McLaren Vale which didn’t come to fruition, but this wine was named after that fun concept. The first vintage was in 2021. It originates from the biodynamically farmed Bell Tower vineyard with alluvial clay soils. The wine offers lovely fresh, supple blackcurrant fruit with a twist of nice green that provides freshness. A slight saltiness and beautiful grainy, chalky notes add to the interest. 93/100

Wirra Wirra The Absconder Grenache 2016 McLaren Vale, Australia
This wine is from the flagship range. In 2016, it was from the Blagrove vineyard on the McLaren Flat, planted in 1920, bush vines included. Also from the Waite Vineyard in the Onkaparinga Gorge. There’s no new oak here and just 5% whole bunch. The complex nose of mint, spice and earth adds a savoury twist to the sweet berry fruits. It’s powerful but with some freshness and elegance showing a spicy, minty edge to the vibrant berry and cherry fruits. There’s an element of ginger exoticism, and there’s some tannin here. The wine is lovely with a very distinctive, bold style. 94/100

Wirra Wirra Dead Ringer Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 McLaren Vale, Australia
This wine, originally known as the Angelus in Australia for the 750 kg bell at the winery, needed a new global name. Hence, the Dead Ringer was born and later got labelled as the Vintage Bell. This wine comes from the Heinze vineyard, a cool site for Cabernet Sauvignon. It exhibits powerful and intense flavours with bright, focused blackcurrant fruit, nice bright blackcurrant, and some red berry and cherry notes. The wine has a good structural support with a backdrop of oak. This Cabernet Sauvignon has the potential for great ageing. 95/100

Wirra Wirra RSW Shiraz 2015 McLaren Vale, Australia
This wine originates from three vineyard blocks; the house block (1960), the 1973 block of the Sandhill vineyard they own, and a dry farmed block in Blewitt Springs. Exhibiting great concentration, freshness, and structure, it impresses with bright black cherry and blackberry flavors with hints of dark chocolate and char-grilled steak. It transitions smoothly into a juicy red berry and black cherry fruit flavour in the mid-palate. Some notes of iodine and seaweed on the finish add a unique complexity. Though big, the wine is fine and holds a promising future. 95/100

Here are some older notes from a 2017 visit:

We often overlook wineries like Wirra Wirra, which consistently produces good wines in reasonable quantities. However, the accessibility and ubiquity of their products make them a favourite among many. My visit to their winery was indeed pleasing.

The revered Greg Trott is known as the driving force behind Wirra Wirra. However, this vineyard actually traces its roots to the early beginnings of viticulture in the region. It was Robert Strangeway Wrigley, a bachelor from Adelaide and a cricket player for South Australia, who made the move to the McLaren Vale in 1894. With his family’s reputation at stake in the city, he embarked on grapes cultivation and fortified wine making in this locale. His demise in the 1920s without successors left the estate in decades of neglect and dilapidation.

In 1969, the narrative took a dramatic turn with the arrival of Gregg Trott. Deemed a failed worm farmer, olive cultivator, and poultry breeder, Trott took the reins of Wirra Wirra and painstakingly restored the ancient edifices block by block. He delved into wine making, embarking on a rather ambitious journey, but thanks to periodic infusions of capital from backers, he carved out a niche for Wirra Wirra in premium red wines over several decades. Trott’s death in 2005 did not extinguish his flamboyantly eccentric spirit and passion for cricket—these traits conspicuously pervade the entire venture even today.

Their estate vineyards fulfill a third of Wirra Wirra’s requirements. They own 21 hectares within the estate along with an additional 30 beyond the geographical indication limits, all cultivated following biodynamic farming practices.

Despite its seemingly antiquated facade, the winery houses an impressive line-up of two-ton open-top red fermenters that allow for parcel-by-parcel production.

Wirra Wirra Lost Watch Riesling 2017 Adelaide Hills, Australia

This is from two vineyards in the hills. It’s handpicked, gently pressed, and fermented dry. It comes with a lively lemony taste. It’s fresh with a slight herbal hint to the green apple and lime flavours. The style is fresh, quite elegant, and fruit-driven. It scores a 90/100.

Wirra Wirra 12th Man Chardonnay 2016 Adelaide Hills, Australia

This wine originates from vineyards in Lenswood and Lobethal, the grapes make it fresh and balanced. It’s fine, fresh, with lovely citrus fruits and some pronounced, nutty, toasty oak. There’s a savoury cedary edge. It shows nice restraint and is a linear wine with lovely citrus fruit, the oak will settle down in time. It scores 91/100.

Wirra Wirra Original Blend 2016 McLaren Vale, Australia

Since 1972, the debut vintage of Trott, the primary wine of Wirra Wirra was Church Block, a blend of Grenache/Shiraz with Grenache in more proportion. The recipe was tweaked to include Cabernet Sauvignon after some consultancy from Brian Croser, so this wine carries the legacy of the original Church Block red mix. It’s fermented in small open-top fermenters, the Grenache is picked a bit early to keep it fresh, and it’s matured in old oak. It’s vivid and pretty with the jammy cherry and raspberry fruit taste. Lovely freshness and purity are present here. It’s a harmonious and balanced style driven by its fruit taste. It scores 91/100 and sells for A$25.

Wirra Wirra Church Block 2015 McLaren Vale, Australia

This is a blend of 51% Cabernet Sauvignon, 36% Shiraz and 13% Merlot. It comes with fresh and distinctive supple blackcurrant fruit taste with delicious spicy notes and a bright raspberry character. Hints of tar and mint are also present, along with fine-grained tannins. It’s vivid and driven by fruit taste. The wine scores 90/100.

Wirra Wirra Catapult Shiraz 2016 McLaren Vale, Australia
This is a fascinating wine, having a meaty, olive tang and a dash of pepper enhancing the blackberry and black cherry essence. It boasts richness and precision with appealing freshness. Aromatic, bright and sophisticated. 93/100

Wirra Wirra Woodhenge Shiraz 2015 McLaren Vale, Australia
Originating from vineyards nearer to the ocean, these are warmer locations but possess limestone subsoil. 40% new oak, a balanced blend of French and American. Intricate, warm, broad, and spicy with pronounced olive, black pepper and blackcurrant notes, including a cedar twist from the oak. Ripe and intense with some signs of tarriness, and perhaps some smoky undertones. Strong and complicated in a rich style. 91/100

Wirra Wirra RSW Shiraz 2014 McLaren Vale, Australia
Deriving from old, low-yield blocks, fermented in open fermenters and matured in tight-grained French oak for 17 months. Leather-like and earthy with a tarry nuance to the black fruits. Highly concentrated and intense with sweet dark fruits and some smoky, spicy oak personality. There’s vibrancy as well as richness. Dense and hefty, with robust tannins, and a touch of anise. Requires time. 93/100

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