Wirra Wirra: a McLaren Vale winery on the fine wine transformation path

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.

Matt Deller

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.’

They are fortunate because at Wirra Wirrra, they already have most of what they need to achieve this in place. The shareholders are supportive of this change in direction. ‘They approved 2 million dollars for me to spend on vineyard and winery equipment in the past 12 months.’

They are doing more vineyard management themselves, moving away from contractors.

Prior to a spell at Villa Maria in New Zealand, Matt was chief operating officer for Tor Winery in Napa Valley. In the winery he has replicated the reception set-up they had at Tor, with hand-picked grapes going into a Bucher Oscillys destemmer, then being fed by gravity into a Bucher shaker/sorter. After this, the intact ‘caviar’ berries go into 20 two-ton open-top fermenters, a size ideal for making high-quality reds. After fermentation, pressing is gentle, with a basket press.

What must happen next to get Wirra Wirra from where they are now to where they want to be? ‘We knew we needed to front-load the wine side, because there is such a delay between what we do this vintage and when those wines will be released,’ says Matt. ‘If we have a 10 year vision to be globally recognized as an iconic fine wine producer, we need to be making the fine wines that we want to be known for in 2023 and 2024.’

The other part of this is the portfolio. ‘Everything below Church Block is being eliminated,’ he says. The UK is already well on this journey because the cheaper brands, Scrubby Rise and Mrs Wigley, were never really in the UK. ‘The UK already starts with Church Block, which is in Waitrose and Sainsbury’s. Then it is parcelling out the rest of the portfolio to smaller accounts that make sense.’

Has the image of McLaren Vale changed in recent years? ‘It’s having a renaissance, for a number of reasons,’ he says. ‘One is climate change: McLaren Vale is more climate change resistant because it is maritime. Secondly, because in change in consumer preferences.’

Also, 40% of McLaren Vale vineyards are organically certified, which is a lot. Wirra Wirra’s 21.5 ha estate vineyards are biodynamically farmed, which gives them 15% of their grape intake. The rest they contract. ‘We are constantly looking for vineyards to buy,’ says Matt.

On the winemaking side, chief winemaker Emma Wood started at the same time as Matt. She came from Penfolds, where she was senior red winemaker. Prior to that she worked for Seppelts Great Western. ‘It has probably taken us 50 years to be fashionable,’ jokes Matt. ‘In 1980 when Brian Croser was brought on as consultant winemaker, he set the house style.’

‘Emma and I tasted through all the Museum wines over our first six months. We concluded that the house style of Wirra Wirra is classical, fresh, elegant, perfumed but with the generosity of a Mediterranean climate.’

Another conculsion they made was that they age extremely well. ‘We had a 1996 Church Block the other day,’ says Matt, ‘and it was drinking beautifully.’ He adds, ‘Church Block is the everyday fine wine, not a premium commercial wine. Particularly in Australia, when people are considering Church Block, a lot of the wine in their consideration set are premium commercial wines.’


Wirra Wirra 12th Man Chardonnay 2022 Adelaide Hills, Australia
Lenswood and Piccadilly. Hand picked, whole bunch pressed, cloudy juice to puncheons, wild ferment. This is bright and lively with powerful citrus fruit and some complex meal and toast notes. Real energy with fruit purity and keen acidity. Such a bracing style with real precision. 94/100 (UK retail c £22)

Wirra Wirra Church Block Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz Merlot 2021 McLaren Vale, Australia
14.5% alcohol. 50:41:9 blend. This is fresh, supple and shows lovely fruit with some nice green hints and a core of bright blackcurrant and blackberry fruit, with a chalky edge to the fruit. This was a warm vintage and so there’s a bit more fruit sweetness, but this should age really well. The Shiraz works well to fill the hole in the mid-palate that Cabernet often has. 91/100 (£15 in the UK, in Waitrose and Sainsbury’s)

Wirra Wirra Church Block Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz Merlot 2009 McLaren Vale, Australia
14.5% alcohol. 51:29:20 blend. Nice spicy, slightly earthy development on the nose. This has a lovely concentrated, mellow palate with ripe black fruits, a nice sweet core, subtle earth and leather, with a hint of mint. Ripe and delicious, and has evolved really well. 92/100

Wirra Wirra Catapult Shiraz 2022 McLaren Vale, Australia
14.5% alcohol. There’s a full-sized Medeival catapault at the winery. This is about Shiraz from the foothill vineyards with gully winds and a bit of elevation giving a cooler climate. This has some Blewitt Springs, Aldinga and McLaren Flat (which is actually elevated). No new oak. Fresh and vivid with ripe blackberry and cherry fruit, showing good acidity and some floral character. Has some crunch here too, offsetting the sweet ripe fruit. Hints of olive and cured meat, too, and finishes fresh. 93/100

Wirra Wirra MVCG Cabernet Sauvignon 2022 McLaren Vale, Australia
14.5% alcohol. Gregg wanted to build a world class cricket ground in McLaren Vale, and it didn’t come off, but this wine is named after that fun idea. First vintage of this wine was 2021. A good portion comes from the biodynamically farmed Bell Tower vineyard with alluvial clay soils. Lovely fresh, supple blackcurrant fruit here with a twist of nice green providing freshness. Has a slight saltiness here with some beautiful grainy, chalky notes adding interest. Lovely stuff. 93/100

Wirra Wirra The Absconder Grenache 2016 McLaren Vale, Australia
This is from the flagship range. In 2016 this was from the Blagrove vineyard on the McLaren Flat, planted in 1920, bush vines. And also the Waite Vineyard in the Onkaparinga Gorge. No new oak here and just 5% whole bunch. Complex nose of mint, spice and earth with a savoury twist to the sweet berry fruits. Powerful but with some freshness and elegance showing a spicy, minty edge to the vibrant berry and cherry fruits. Has some ginger exoticism, and there’s some tannin here. Lovely in a very distinctive, bold style. 94/100

Wirra Wirra Dead Ringer Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 McLaren Vale, Australia
This wine has always been called the Angelus in Australia (after the name of the 750 kg bell that Greg Trott hung at the winery). But a name change was needed for Europe, and so this was called the Dead Ringer, and now in the rest of the world it’s called the Vintage Bell. From the Heinze vineyard on the Paringa Gorge, quite high into the hills towards the Adelaide Hills border. A cool site for Cabernet Sauvignon, on a north facing hillside. Powerful and intense with bright, focused blackcurrant fruit. This has good concentration with nice bright blackcurrant and some red berry and cherry notes, with fine green hints supporting the lovely, tightwound fruit. Good structure here with oak right in the background. A serious Cabernet Sauvignon with great ageing potential. 95/100

Wirra Wirra RSW Shiraz 2015 McLaren Vale, Australia
This comes from three vineyard blocks: the house block (1960) and the 1973 block of the Sandhill vineyard that they own. Classic sandstone soils. And the third block is a dry farmed block in Blewitt Springs. Great concentration to this wine but also freshness, structure and focus. There’s bright black cherry and blackberry, with hints of dark chocolate and char-grilled steak, leading to a juicy red berry and black cherry fruit-fresh mid-palate. Covers a wide dynamic range. Some notes of iodine and seaweed on the finish. Lovely complexity here. Big but fine with a future ahead of it. 95/100

Older notes, from a visit in 2017

Wirra Wirra is one of those wineries that we sometimes take for granted. They’ve been there for (seemingly) ever, making good wines in reasonable quantities, but don’t often get the headlines. But the great thing about wineries like this is that they connect with lots of people, and you can find the wines pretty much everywhere. So I was pleased to visit.

The late Greg Trott was the man behind Wirra Wirra. The actual vineyard, though, dates back to the early days of winegrowing here. Robert Strangeway Wrigley came here from Adelaide in 1894. He was a bachelor who played cricket for south Australia, and was getting his family’s reputation into trouble in the city, so he came out to the McLaren Vale to grow grapes and make fortified wine. He died in the 1920s with no heirs, and the property was effectively left to ruin for 40 years.

Then Gregg Trott came along in 1969. A failed worm farmer, oliver grower and chicken farmer, he took over Wirra Wirra and rebuilt the old buildings stone by stone. He set about making wine, and as with many of his projects, it was on the ambitious side, but with the help of regular injections of cash from investors, over the next few decades developed a reputation for premium red wines. Trott died in 2005, but he eccentricities and love of cricket are stamped all over this venture.

A third of Wirra Wirra’s needs are provided by their estate vineyards: they have 21 hectares in the estate vineyards and another 30 just outside the GI, all of which are now farmed biodynamically.

The winery looks pretty old school, but it has a lovely row of two ton open top red fermenters that makes working parcel by parcel a possibility.

Wirra Wirra Lost Watch Riesling 2017 Adelaide Hills, Australia
This is from two vineyards in the hills. It’s hand picked, gently pressed and fermented dry. Pristine with lively lemony fruit. Fresh with a slight herbal edge to the lime and green apple characters. Fresh, quite elegant, fruit-driven style. 90/100

Wirra Wirra 12th Man Chardonnay 2016 Adelaide Hills, Australia
Vineyards in Lenswood and Lobethal supply the grapes for this fresh, balanced Chardonnay. It’s fine and fresh with lovely citrus fruits and some pronounced, nutty, toasty oak. There’s a savoury cedary edge. Showing nice restraint, this is a linear wine with lovely citrus fruit, and the oak will settle down with time. 91/100

Wirra Wirra Original Blend 2016 McLaren Vale, Australia
Since 1972, Trott’s debut vintage, Wirra Wirra’s main wine was the Church Block, a Grenache/Shiraz blend with the emphasis on the Grenache. The recipe was tweaked to include Cabernet Sauvignon after some consultancy from Brian Croser, so this wine carries the legacy of the original blend of the Church Block red. Fermented in small open top fermenters with the Grenache picked a little early to keep freshness, and matured in old oak. It’s pretty and vivid with jammy raspberry and cherry fruit. Lovely freshness and purity here. It’s a fruit-driven style that’s harmonious and balanced. 91/100 (A$25)

Wirra Wirra Church Block 2015 McLaren Vale, Australia
This is 51% Cabernet Sauvignon, 36% Shiraz and 13% Merlot. Distinctive, fresh, supple blackcurrant fruit with delicious spicy notes and some bright raspberry character. Hints of tar and mint here, with fine-grained tannins. Fruit driven and vivid. 90/100

Wirra Wirra Catapult Shiraz 2016 McLaren Vale, Australia
This is an interesting wine, with a meaty, olive edge and a bit of pepper complementing the blackberry and black cherry fruit. Has richness and focus with nice freshness. Perfumed, bright and elegant. 93/100

Wirra Wirra Woodhenge Shiraz 2015 McLaren Vale, Australia
This comes from vineyards closer to the sea: these are warmer sites but have limestone subsoil. 40% new oak, a 50/50 mix of French and American. Complex, warm, broad and spicy with vivid olive, black pepper and blackcurrand notes, as well as a cedar twist from the oak. Ripe and intense with some tarriness, and maybe even some smoky notes. Powerful and complex in a rich style. 91/100

Wirra Wirra RSW Shiraz 2014 McLaren Vale, Australia
This is from old, low-yielding bocks, fermented in open fermenters and aged in tight-grained French oak for 17 months. Leathery and earthy with a tarry edge to the black fruits. Very concentrated and intense with sweet dark fruits and some smoky, spicy oak character. There’s freshness as well as concentration. Dense and weighty, with burly tannins, and a hint of aniseed. Needs time. 93/100