AP Birks Wendouree Cellars Shiraz Malbec 2006

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AP Birks Wendouree Cellars Shiraz Malbec 2006

AP Birks Wendouree Cellars Shiraz Malbec 2006

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.

De Martino El León Maule Valley Single Vineyard Carignan 2006

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De Martino El León Muale Valley Single Vineyard Carignan 2006

De Martino El León Muale Valley Single Vineyard Carignan 2006

February 29th is apparently Carignan Day.  I know what you’re thinking – how is it that this has not been on the front page of every newspaper in the world?  I’m not sure either.  But it’s here, and to jump on the bandwagon, I’ve decided to go with the De Martino El León Maule Valley Single Vineyard Carignan 2006.

So what about Carignan is so inspiring that some people think it deserves a day of its own, albeit only every four years.  I think if it had been proposed a few years ago, it would have been seen as ironic.  Some, I’m sure, see it that way now, for Carignan is a much maligned grape, described in the OCW as “the bane of the European wine industry”.

First, the facts about the grape.  It is black, late budding and late ripening, which makes it suited to the warmer areas of the Mediterranean, including North Africa.  It is difficult to train for machine harvesting, and is susceptible to a number of blights, including powdery mildew, downy mildew, rot, and grape worms.  (Grape worms?  Who knew there was such a thing?)  It produces a wine with high levels of colour, acid and tannins.  So far, pretty ordinary.  What made it popular was its ability to produce very high yields.  At rates as high as 200 HL/HA, it’s hard to beat the vast quantity of wine that could be produced from it.

The problem is the wine produced could typically not be described as quality.  The colour, acidity, and tannin levels were matched only by its bitterness.  The wine produced was not one to be consumed young, but nor was it good enough to age.  Nevertheless, the vine was planted widely in the south of France to replace the grape Aramon, which suffered greatly from late frosts, something the late blossoming Carignan could handle.  Between the mid-1960s and the late 1990s, Carignan became the most planted vine in France, contributing greatly to the EU wine lake, though vine pull schemes through the 1980s and 1990s put a big dent in the area under vine and Merlot surpassed it around 2000.

For all the Carignan hate, there are actually some very nice wines made from Carignan.  Old vines on poor soil with low yields can produce varietals of significant character.  Carbonic maceration has also been a technique in the winery that takes the edge off the product at a younger age.  It can also serve as an important component in a blend, given its colour, tannins and acidity.

In addition to the south of France, Carignan is also found in Spain (called Mazuelo or Cariñena) as the major component in the wines of Priorat, and as a minor element of the wines of of Rioja, Costers del Segre, Penedès, Tarragona and Terra Alta.  It’s also found in the Americas, in minor amounts in California, Mexico, Uruguay, Argentina, and in the case of this bottle, in Chile.

Speaking of Chile, we’re back, having been once before to try some Sauvignon Gris.  This time we’re in another valley, the Maule Valley, further south and in from the coast than on our first visit to the San Antonio Valley.  The Central Valley is the overriding DO, with Maule Valley being a region which in turn has at least six subregions.  Being one of the more southerly regions, it is cooler than most wine areas of Chile, as well as cloudier.  The climate is Mediterranean, and the soils are generally clay-loam, and often lack nitrogen and sometimes potassium.

The area is considered the one of Chile’s most traditional areas of wine production, with Pais having been planted by Spanish conquistadors, with that variety making up roughly 25% of the area under vines.  Bush vines in dry grown vineyards are the traditional style of viticulture, though newer plantings are trained to wires and irrigated.  Cabernet Sauvignon plantings have eclipsed those of Pais, with smaller shares of the remaining 45% going to Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Carmenère, and Chardonnay.  While I can’t find any figures for the percentage of Carignan, there are a number of other producers using it in their wines.

Speaking of producers, De Martino is a family-run winery founded in 1934 and currently on its 3rd and 4th generation of contributors.  They have vineyards from Elqui in the north of the wine growing range all the way down to Bio Bio, which is the second most southerly Chilean wine region.  The were the first producer to release a wine labeled Carmenère after DNA profiling established that much of what had been thought to be Merlot in Chile was not.  They produce a wide range of wines, including an impressive collection of single vineyard releases.  Their vineyards are farmed organically, though they have not been certified.  They are also all planted on original roots instead of being grafted onto phylloxera resistant rootstocks, which fortunately has not been a problem in Chile.

So this wine in particular is from a dry-grown, bush vineyard, planted in the 1950s on granite soil, with a dry growing season but plenty of rain in the winter.  The vineyard has small amount of Carmenère and Malbec, in addition to Carignan.  I’m slightly disappointed, in that I really want to tick the varietal Carignan box for my century, but alas the tasting notes for the 2007 indicate 5% each of Carmenère and Malbec, and I have no reason to believe they’d have skipped them for this 2006.  The wine saw over a year in French oak.

None shall pass

None shall pass

I decanted the wine, and I know the photo isn’t going to do it justice, but the cork is an absolute hero, with maybe 1mm of darkening.  It could have been put in the bottle this morning.  Not a lot of sediment, but I only bought this bottle over the weekend so while it’s been stood up ever since, it could perhaps have used a few more days.

The colour is a deep ruby, showing very little sign of development.  The nose is slightly hot, with dried red fruit and spice in a potpourri style.  There’s a hint of wood and even vanilla which I wasn’t expecting given the oak treatment was French.  On the palate, the fruit is much fresher, almost juicy, and still red.  The spices shift from sweet to green peppercorn, and dried herbs. The acidity for which Carignan is known is certainly there, but in the context of the full flavours and reasonably full body, it works.  The tannins are well integrated, to the point that I really have to concentrate to pull them out.  There’s some black pepper and liquorice on the finish, and the length is well above average.

This is an very good wine, and I’m not just saying that because it’s Carignan Day.  It has a serious intensity, as well as good complexity of flavours on the palate.  I really think this is one for the cellar, in that I while it’s not overly young, I expect some very interesting secondary characters to start emerging over the next five to ten years.

As with so many larger producers, the point on the map is their address/cellar door, and sadly is quite a distance from the location of the actual vineyard.  However, on their detail page for this wine, their is a cute popup map that shows the vineyard location.  I really would love to find a way to display both the winery pin and a polygon detailing the wine region, even if it would increase the amount of work I’d have to do per post by 100% (until I’d made maps for every region).