Five Decades of Wendouree

Wendouree is my favourite Australian booze. I have eagerly collected it all my wine drinking life. So when it was my chance to host our groups annual wine dinner, it was an apt opportunity to dig into that Wendouree collection and present five decades of these marvellous cuvees. Wendouree surely delivered … and as per usual, so did Scopri – – Anthony, Alison and chef Salvatore bring passion and precision to dinner.

Five decades of Wendouree

Wendouree is an Australian wine time capsule. Unswayed by fad or fashion, Tony and Lita are fair dinkum custodians. Think Wendouree; think 100+ years, genuine fruit and perfume, structure and equilibrium, acid and tension, power and finesse.


In 1892 Alfred Percy Birks and his brother planted a 0.2-ha block of cabernet sauvignon, and made a few gallons of wine from grapes purchased from other growers in the Clare Valley district of South Australia. In 1893 an additional 1.2 ha of shiraz were planted (the vines derived from the original James Busby Collection via the Adelaide Botanical Gardens). In 1896 a further 0.5 ha of shiraz were planted. All remain in production. By 1903 the Birks brothers had built a small winery. They were unable to turn all their grapes into wine, but made 4,550 litres and sold both them and their surplus grapes to the Stanley Wine Company. For the next 20 years Stanley remained their sole customer, either reselling the wine to the London market, or using it to bolster some of their own lighter bodied wines.

In 1914, with production around 18,000 litres a year, it was time to construct a proper wine cellar and expand. The first stone section of the cellars, which remains in use almost unaltered to this day, was built. A large basket press was installed on rails set in cement running between open fermenters. In 1917, failing health caused Alfred Birks to hand over winemaking responsibilities to his son Roly, who then started a winemaking career which was to span 65 vintages.

The vineyards were expanded again; the Eastern Vineyard was purchased and planted over the winters of 1919 and 1920. Part of this survives: two large blocks of shiraz of 1.6 and 0.8 ha respectively, and 0.2 ha of bush-pruned mataro. The other two blocks have been grafted to cabernet sauvignon and malbec respectively, but the 1920 rootstocks remain. The cellars were once again extended, and equipment was upgraded with one of the first must pumps in the district.

From 1925 Roly Birks and his brother would load up a truck with casks and kegs of varying sizes and set off on a round trip selling to hotels. In the years up to World War II output stayed roughly constant, at 50% full-bodied dry red and 50% fortified wine. In the years after the war, Wendouree also built up a business supplying substantial quantities of base wine for the then-infant sparkling wine production of Wynns. By the early 1950s this had grown to between 55,000 and 65,000 litres a year.

In the 1950s Melbourne wine merchant, WJ Seabrook & Son, began purchasing substantial quantities of Wendouree wines, making a specialty of Birks’ ‘pressings’ red. Although the wines were bought in cask by Doug Seabrook and matured for a period of time before bottling, the maker was always specified on the label – refer to our dinners 1967.

In 1970, aged 77, Roly Birks decided to sell Wendouree, but unfortunately found a purchaser who had neither the capital nor the winemaking ability to do anything other than rapidly run down the business to the point where, in 1974, only 10 tonnes of grapes were crushed. The properties were then split up and offered for sale by the mortgagee. The two principal vineyard blocks (which included the old house and winery) were purchased by Sydney businessman Max Liberman, and son-in-law, Tony Brady, together with wife Lita, were installed as managers. Roly Birks was retained as a consultant, and a close and enduring friendship was forged between the Bradys and the Birks. The Bradys regarded it as their duty to rejuvenate the old vineyards. There are now 12 ha of vineyard planted to cabernet sauvignon, malbec, shiraz, mataro and a little muscat gordo blanco, most with different blocks of different ages. Production seldom exceeds 60 tonnes a year, and is often less. Even at its maximum this is only 2 tonnes per acre.

For several decades the wines have been made with the assistance of Stephen George, who is the owner/winemaker of Ashton Hills in the Adelaide Hills.

The Wendouree odyssey continues …

1)      2002 Sparkling Shiraz – Stephen George’s Galah Label with Wendouree fruit … Arancini di Roso

Persistent foam, dark red with a brown tinge, chocolate, fruit cake and a touch of mint. In the vein of grower champagne, perfectly balanced, low dosage and a tad rustic. A serious persons sparkling shiraz. Perfectly matched with meat sugo laced rice balls.

2)      1967 Shiraz Mataro (Seabrook Bottling), 1975 Shiraz, and 1986 Shiraz MataroInsalata di Bresaola

This highly anticipated bracket did not disappoint. A touch of bottle stink blew off to reveal a stunning set of wines. The 67’ rich, thick and persistent, velvet and earth; a beautiful wine. The 75’ was balanced power; tannin, acid and fruit. A wine of perfect structure and grace; years to live. The 86’ showed the mataro complexity, a dash of spice, milo, old boot leather and bright red fruits. The wagyu beef bresaola with rocket and parmesan a subtle side show.

3)      1986 Cabernet Sauvignon and 1988 Pressings (red label) … Quaglia Arrostita con Lenticchie

The first cabernet of the evening showed liquorice, cassis, mint, chocolate and dark fruits. Concentration and length but with surprising elegance and femininity. Wow! The Pressings was a manifestation of tannin, acid and raisiny dark spiced fruit. A much more masculine companion.  The earthy pan seared quail with lentil ragu combined wonderfully.

4)      1996 Cabernet Malbec and 1996 Shiraz MalbecRisotto alla Milanese con Ragu di Cervo

The malbec component being the common thread (along with vintage) in this bracket bringing perfume, spice and fleshy fruit. The cabernet is youthfully structured with red fruits, rose petals and cassis in the background with tremendous length. The shiraz was darker, brooding with deeper richness and a tad balsamic and salt. The creamy saffron risotto with venison osso buco ragu suitably lined the belly and softened the structure.

5)      2001 Shiraz, 2001 Shiraz Mataro and 2001 Shiraz MalbecSpiedini di Cervo con Marmelata di Cipolla Rossa

The three shiraz cuvees of the same year. The straight shiraz was immense and complex. It stood out from the pack with a balanced array of primary fruit, richness, fine tannins and mild oak – the quintessential Australian shiraz before the industry was seduced into producing alcoholic over oaked fruit bombs – Wendouree has stuck true to its roots. The Mataro had more spice, meat and savoury sweetness; a top drink. The malbec was perfumed with roses and malt, acid and tannin; great length. Roasted venison on rosemary skewers with red onion jam … smoke, game and jam – a top foodie combo to showcase three great Aussie wines.

6)      2008 Cabernet and 2008 Cabernet MalbecBrasato di Guancia al Vino Rosso

The straight cabernet is plush and elegant. Curranty dark intense fruits persist in length and structure. Young but eminently drinkable, a wine of vast poise. The Malbec addition again brings perfume, rose returns with pretty red fruits. Wendouree structure and equilibrium.  Super stuff. And a superb food partner; slow braised beef cheeks in red wine – thick rich dark meat of great texture.

7)      2002 Muscat of AlexandriaBocconotto alle Amarene

A touch of fig and prune, orange peel and marmalade. Acid and structure hold it together. A pleasant calming drink to reflect of the astounding reds just savoured. A petite baked custard and sour cherry pie makes full a wholesome companion.

8)      1975 Vintage PortFormaggio

Good old Gran’s fruit cake in a glass. Dark, big and powerful.

An awesome evening of classic Australian booze. Wendouree epitomises the pursuit of honest tradition.

By Matthew Wilson | Profiled Wineries | Related to: ,

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Five Decades of Wendouree