Wirra Wirra’s a bit of an all-round good bloke. It blends all the ingredients that give Aussie wine its charm: a respectful nod to tradition, bold vision, high not haughty ambition, unflagging humour and wines that look Australian – and are worth more than you pay for them. It lives up to the sound philosophy of Greg Trott, late founding father of the modern Wirra: “Never give misery an even break, nor bad wine a second sip. You must be serious about quality, dedicated to your task in life, especially winemaking, but this should all be fun.”
A couple of wines at either end of the price spectrum illustrate the point. One needs no introduction – winemaker Paul Carpenter (above; photo by Simon Casson) calls it “the wine we live and breathe by” – but the other demands a lengthy preface, so please bear with me.
Wirra Wirra Whaite Old Block Shiraz 2012 is the winery’s latest release under McLaren Vale’s Scarce Earth project. The first wines to bear the Scarce Earth neck label came from the 2009 vintage and were launched in 2011, a year after the publication of Geology of the McLaren Vale Wine Region. This painstakingly prepared map identified 40-plus geologies varying in age from 15,000 years to more than 550 million.
As well as being a slick piece of marketing, Scarce Earth is an inward- and outward-looking initiative. It gives local winemakers a platform to explore the relative influence on wine style of McLaren Vale’s geology, soil, climate and topography. Tight parameters are in place in an attempt to give the results some meaning. Wines must be made from 100% vintage fruit from Shiraz vines, with at least 95% coming from a single block. A panel comprising three local winemakers and three independent experts, assesses potential releases to ensure they show no signs of overripeness or “overt winemaking influences”.
We drinkers, meanwhile, get to sample the results of their work in progress. And judging by the 2012 wines, work is progressing well. Cradle of Hills Row 23 Shiraz, Battle of Bosworth Bradens Shiraz and Coriole Willunga 1920 Shiraz were among standouts in the $45-$55 bracket, which I mention because I’m writing about the most expensive wine in the range. (Don’t worry, I’m also keeping it real with a bargain built for the broader congregation.)
Carpenter is one of the three local Scarce Earth panellists. He’s spent 10 years at Wirra, split in two by a five-year stint with local giant Hardys. The latter’s blends of fruit from far and wide are as far as you can get from the distilled, single-site ethos of Scarce Earth. “At Hardys we’d taste about 150 Shirazes over a day or two,” says Carpenter. “Over time you develop all these characters from blocks, from sites, from geologies perhaps, and then you sort of chuck them into a big blended Shiraz and never see all those nuances of single sites. That’s the beauty of Scarce Earth.”
It makes a big difference, too, that winemakers are forced to tone down oak and fruit ripeness. “I love that this forces us to make wines that I think consumers want to taste and want to drink,” says Carpenter. “I see in the marketplace that McLaren Vale is sometimes viewed as one dimensional as a style. But having lived there all my life I know it’s much more than that.”
Carpenter and chief Wirra winemaker Paul Smith taste all their blocks after vintage to decide which to send down the Scarce Earth path. In 2012 that was Whaite Old Block, one of the four or five sites that traditionally make up Wirra’s $70 flagship Shiraz, RSW. The fruit is grown on an organically and biodynamically farmed, northeast-facing vineyard planted in 1975. Situated in the north eastern corner of the district, the site comprises deep sand over ironstone and yellow clay at an altitude of 200m, which Carpenter says gives reliably high natural acidity. “It’s my favourite part of the Vale,” he says. “I love perfume and spice and more medium-bodied styles, and for me Blewitt Springs and those deep sands provide that.”
Wirra only made 540 bottles of Whaite Old Block 2012, and at $130 a pop it’s not one for the masses. In the world of Wirra, it’s as far as you can get from Church Block, the fabled blend celebrating its 40th birthday with the current release. “In the early days Trotter (Greg Trott) used to tuck a couple of bottles of Church Block in his kit bag and go visiting retailers and restaurants around the country, and that sort of established a whole folklore around it,” says Carpenter. “I can go to a pub on the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia and there’ll be Church Block, and I can also go to a really good restaurant in Melbourne or Sydney and there’s Church Block on the list. It’s the sort of wine that can appeal to you whether you’re a wine aficionado or just love a nice red wine.”
I applaud the boundary-pushing community spirit of Scarce Earth. But the down-to-earth excellence of Church Block is also something to be celebrated. It’s a wine where what you see is what you get. It has structure, depth and a whiff of authority, while at the same time being utterly easygoing.
“It’s more than half of our production, so it’s really bloody important,” says Carpenter. “When it comes to blending, I get more nervous about Church Block than about (Wirra’s top-flight trio) Absconder, RSW or Angelus.”
Wirra Wirra Whaite Old Block Scarce Earth Shiraz 2012 McLaren Vale
Clear medium to deep ruby with a vibrant crimson rim. The nose is floral, perfumed and youthful, with lifted red to blue fruit and a touch of pencil lead. The attack is graceful and then there’s an effortless flow of firm plum and red/black berries through the medium-bodied palate. Intense and sinewy without ever feeling big. The structure is extremely neat, with fine-grained tannins and linear acidity. There’s a savoury edge but really it’s the transparent fruit that does the talking. It finishes with pippy blackberry fruit, a twist of cracked pepper and lingering perfume.
RRP $130 – Alcohol 14.5% – Tasted 05/05/14
Wirra Wirra Church Block 2012 McLaren Vale
A 49/35/16% split between Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Merlot. Clear deep purple. The nose is fairly pronounced, the blackcurrant Cabernet notes prominent but not drowning out plums, red fruit, mocha and a touch of leather. Blackberries and plum mark the entry, before a fairly soft, rounded and juicy mid-palate of black cherries, berries and chocolate. It’s a little more than medium bodied, and the soft, clingy mesh of tannin and medium acidity draw it to moderate length. The finish is marked by leafy blackcurrant, just slightly tinged with alcohol warmth. A confident, comforting wine with no chinks in its armour.
RRP $20 – Alcohol 14.5% – Tasted 09/03/14 – Sample supplied
Wirra Wirra Woodhenge Shiraz 2012 McLaren Vale
Clear deep purple, crimson purple at the rim. When it opens up the nose displays violets, blueberry, black cherry, dark chocolate and toasted hot cross bun. In the mouth, there’s sweet blueberry, black cherries and cream up front. It’s just a whisker more than medium bodied, smooth and lithe, with chocolate-dusted cherries through the mid palate. It has good weight, energy and fine juicy tannins. Fruitcake, blackberry and spice mark a finish of moderate length. A seamless and hugely pleasurable Shiraz.
RRP $35 – Alcohol 14.5% – Tasted 24/05/14 – Sample supplied