Just like that, we arrived at Wendouree.
For years, I’ve been waiting to get to this almost mythical Clare Valley winery, never making it further than the gnarled old vines at the end of the driveway.
But this time, we just drove up to the front gate. A mini bus full of wine writers, already in the Clare Valley groove after a multi-vintage warmup of Jim Barry Riesling (before launching into Australia’s first Assyrtiko), delivered to Wendouree for a surprise wine tasting.
That’s a very rare surprise tasting.
As welcoming as they are, Tony & Lita Brady genuinely don’t like attention. There is no Wendouree cellar door. No Wendouree website. No distribution network, marketing department, salespeople. Nothing. Not even an email address. To communicate with the Bradys you need to either call or write a letter. A letter!
They don’t want attention so much that they actively discourage it. Tony Brady once told fellow scribe Tim White that he would be delighted if Tim ‘never wrote about Wendouree ever again’. The only way we (a bus full of wine writers) were able to visit at all was because Peter Barry went over and had coffee and cake with the Bradys to soften them up first…
Fittingly (perhaps infamously), the wines are also sold in a thoroughly old-fashioned mode – by mail order. Tony has a (paper) file with everyone’s details and sends out a (paper) mailer each year. The most loyal customers end up with generous allocations of each wine (usually 6 of each), though most people I know just put in what they want to order and hope that desperately something, anything, will turn up. Entertainingly, order forms can also have different colour markings on them, which may or may not correspond with how much wine you’ll get. Fun times.
While such an approach to selling wine can seem like pure luddism, the Bradys are anything but backward countryfolk. Instead – and here is where the interest begins – they are famously well-read and astute, even despite a profound lack of love for the ‘net.
Throwaway comments illustrate that perfectly. Tony, for example, believes that he would never want to make Pinot Noir, as ‘you need (undesirable) aberrations for Pinot’. Or how he thinks the best years in the Clare are often the big cropping years, as then ‘everything gets ripe and there is no stress’.
The quintessential old and new Wendouree paradox doesn’t stop at the selling – it continues throughout the business. The Wendouree winery is hardly a gleaming tribute to modern technology (still plenty of open vats here), but stainless is the norm, temperature control utilised and a shiny new bottling line – working with the ‘Guala’ screwcaps – sits in the corner. Notably, the only time Tony felt comfortable posing was with his speccy new Massey tractor in the driveway and Huon had a fun conversation about Tony’s new carbon fibre pitchfork.
For all that new bling, the mailing list price of the Wendouree wines has remained very fair, with the current releases selling for just $45-$55. Given that this is very much a single vineyard operation, using low yielding, dry-grown and ancient (most were planted in the 1890s/early 1900s) vines, that $55 mark seems very reasonable. Especially when Tony could probably double his prices and still sell the entire production with ease.
What is intriguing is how the Wendouree style has changed over the last decade or so. When I first landed in the wine industry 15 odd years ago, Wendouree made red wines to last forever. Brutally tannic, dry, and at times unforgiving, they were talking point wines – where everyone tried to work out when/if they’d ever be at ‘peak drinking’. More recently (circa 2003 vintage), the tannins have become softer, the extraction wound back and the generosity increased, arguably producing more enjoyable wines than ever. The emphasis on longevity remains, and the alcohols, refreshingly, are all at gloriously moderate levels, with the net result some of the best balanced wines around.
I’m a big fan.
Still, I was very hesitant about publishing these notes. It feels almost like an omerta with Wendouree, where every scribe is encouraged not to talk about it. But these wines are so good, and the whole model of the business so genuine and interesting, that merely sitting on the notes feels disingenuous.
We need more wines and wineries like Wendouree, not less, and cracking open the mystique is part of the key to that. Tony probably won’t like reading these words regardless…
These 2013 releases are now all sold out, but the secondary market has some available. I’d buy some.
Some extra bits in italics here, with rare quotes from Tony when available.
Wendouree Shiraz Mataro 2013
‘It fluctuates a bit as to this blend’. It can be 80/20. ‘More about the blend’. 70% Shiraz, 30% Mataro.
Slick purple fruit nose. Deep purple black fruit, oak tannin aplenty, silky tannins. Maybe a bit warm? Lovely purple black fruit. Really quite modern. Has a dark fruit richness to it, if quite gently. A fraction jubey, but pretty too. Long and gentle, if not majestic like some of the wine. 18/20, 93/100. 13.7%, $45
Wendouree Shiraz Malbec 2013
‘It’s fruitier. Hides the alcohol’. 50% Shiraz, 40% Malbec.
Indeed this is much fruitier than the Shiraz Mataro. But the finish is more elegant, as it just gets longer and blacker, even with a dash of leaf. More purple fruit to start, but drier to finish. Classy wine, if an odd blend. Hedonism meets savoury Malbec. Clever. 18.3/20, 93/100. 14%, $45.
Wendouree Shiraz 2013
1/4 new oak, the rest 1 and 2 year old. From the 1898 plantings.
Lovely gentle purple fruit. This feels the most special of all the Shiraz wines. Soft coating of tannin and a warm finish. There’s a definite blackness – fruit cake and cooked plum – to the finish. Super smooth and fine boned, it’s spicy but moderate, all about tannins and coiled power. Archetype Clare Shiraz, with the extra generosity really tipping it from ‘very good’ into ‘special’. Absolute top shelf wine. While many will prefer the Cabernets, this is the wine everyone will want to drink. 18.7/20, 95/100. 14%, $55.
Wendouree Malbec 2013
Soft and initially gently purple fruity, the oak seems to plump this up just a bit. No hiding the ‘fruits of the forest’ Malbecness about it. Such a moderate, restrained style in the context of the ultra inky super Argentinians, if still with wisps of a warm finish. An absolute benchmark, if not as complete as the Cab Malbec blend. 18.5/20, 94/100. 13.4%, $45.
Wendouree Cabernet Sauvignon 2013
Loads of pyrazine here. Doesn’t hide its variety! Mid weight, driven by just enough ripeness and absolute in its acidity. Very much an old school eucalypt Clare Cabernet nose, but doesn’t taste unripe. Plenty of acidity though and driving tannins, both of which suggest this will be very long-lived. There’s a hard edge though, and this wine needs more time than anything else in this lineup. Still long as hell. Not Bordeaux. Clare Cab. 18.5/20, 94/100+. 13.8%, $55.
Wendouree Cabernet Malbec 2013
50% Cabernet, 50% Malbec.
Eucalypt oil of the Cabernet immediately apparent, but the flesh of the Malbec makes this much more palatable, and even quite profound. A test piece on the value of blending, it wavers between being affable and then challenging, the tannins dry, the acid up there too. A complete Clare Cabernet, all mint and chocolate and blackberry and tannins! If the straight Cab is severe, this is the Goldilocks wine. Profoundly good, savoury, long and real Australian red wine. More please. 18.9/20, 96/100. 13.8%, $55.