As I’ve returned to Australia, I really need to get back in the swing of things, and today that means a local hero. This wine is more than a little bit special, and not just because it’s an interesting blend. If you don’t live in Australia, it could be one of the best producers you’ve never heard of. I give you the AP Birks Wendouree Cellars Shiraz Malbec 2006.
When I arrived in Australia I quickly became acquainted with the names and labels of the top producers, and managed to visit the cellar doors of some of them, particularly in South Australia. I came across Wendouree as a name well represented on the Langton’s Classification and on auction sites, but as they have no website or cellar door I couldn’t find out a great deal.
As it turns out, they were to be my first encounter with a mailing list winery, which is just what you would think – a producer who sells wine (almost?) exclusively to a set list of customers through the post. It’s quite an enviable situation, where customers are essentially beating a path to your door, and you might think that would make the wines impossible to source.
For better or worse, that’s not so much the case. While some customers on the list buy their allotted bottles and cellar them away, the fact that demand outstrips supply tempts others to sell theirs, often through auction sites. One way or another they turn up in some of the nicer bottle shops and every now and again on a wine list. The “better” part of that is that people who aren’t on the list are able to enjoy the wines, but “worse” is that the prices the wines can command on the secondary market can be multiples of the prices charged by Wendouree. So almost any time such a bottle finds its way into the hands of someone not on the mailing list, there’s someone other than the producer pocketing a hefty markup. While I’ve been fortunate enough to buy some wines direct, I’ve also purchased some second hand. The money I paid was not unreasonable for the wine in question, but it was disappointing knowing so little of it went to the producer.
The term “cult” is often associated with fans of Wendouree, by the likes of Oz Clark, Jamie Goode, and even Langton’s. Being a fan, I have an obvious bias, but I don’t think it’s apt for two reasons. First, I associate cults with a disconnection from logic, where people who are part of them believe themselves to have some insight that those outside do not. While not everyone is a fan of Wendouree for whatever reason, I know of few detractors when it comes to the wines themselves. Second, people who join cults typically have to give up all their money, but the wines of Wendouree are not overly expensive for their quality, particularly if you are on the mailing list.
If you want the classic cult wine, you need look no further than the archetype, Screaming Eagle, which has no end of detractors (based on the hype, obviously not on the wine as so few have ever tried it) and is completely unaffordable on top of being largely unavailable. The disconnect from reality is evident in that they think of themselves as “a grand cru – a Napa first growth.” A tragic case drinking too much of their own Kool-Aid. Jancis Robinson recently tweeted, “Must say I find French wine names outside France really silly.” I think that goes double for French wine classifications.
So what makes Wendouree so special? The winery is a hundred years old, and some of the grapes are off vines planted as far back as 1892. Even with their younger vines, yields are kept very low, and the winery produces only about 1800 cases per year. Everything is harvested by hand, often across multiple passes. The winery itself makes use of open top fermenters, carefully controlled malolactic fermentation in tank, and a mix of new and used French oak. Wines are made for ageing – a few years back they released a 1991 varietal Malbec in magnums some 18 years after vintage (and yes, I managed to bag one). As I write this, there is a 1975 Wendouree Cabernet Malbec Shiraz up for auction with Langtons which I would love to try.
If there’s one aspect, beyond the mailing list, that might make people want to put Wendouree in the category of a cult wine, it’s the somewhat shy nature of the people behind it. Tony and Lita Brady have owned the property since 1974, but their focus has been on the vines and wines. As far as I can tell, they do no promotion, they enter their wines in no shows, and they do not comment publicly about their wines. Only rarely do wine writers grace their office, and then the focus seems as much on technique for producing the best cup of coffee as bottle of wine. There are no tasting notes, and in the case of this bottle, no back label. (
In fact this bottle doesn’t even have an ABV printed – is that legal? I wasn’t looking closely enough – the ABV is there in very, very fine print.) Their wines speak for themselves, and in a world that knows no end of self-promotion, I find that refreshing. More a cloister than a cult.
I hope I can be forgiven for not having much more to say about the Clare Valley, having been there as recently as July with the ArtWine Graciano. As to these grapes, they are well known to this blog both as varietals and as components in blends, but this is the first time we’ve seen them together. In France, no region springs to mind as being known for growing both, though as some Syrah used to make its way into Bordeaux blends from time to time (pre-AC regulations), they’ve certainly been found in the same bottle before. I’m somewhat surprised I haven’t yet come across Syrah Malbec blends in South America because there are a few producers blending them there as well.
As to this wine, in the glass it is clear and bright, dark ruby colour, just starting to edge toward brick red, with quick coloured legs. On the nose I get sweet spice, roses, perfume, blackberries, and caramelized meat that’s just about to be charred. It’s developing and intense. On the palate it’s dry with medium plus acidity, medium body, medium plus alcohol, medium plus intensity, medium plus fine tannins, and a long finish. There are notes of red meat on the palate, black pepper, liquorice, blackberries, and a little charcoal.
This wine is exceptional. It’s rich, intense, and complex. I’m almost certainly enjoying it too young, and at the expense of further development over the next few years.
As I mentioned, there’s no link to the producer’s website because there isn’t one, and there is no cellar door so don’t go knocking on doors near the pin in the map on Wendouree Road without an invitation.