There are many icons in the world of wine, and it takes a little luck and the right connections to meet them. I’d been intrigued by Wendouree Cellars in Clare Valley for some time. In a region known for its mouthwatering rieslings, Wendouree is known for its deep and tightly wound reds. The vineyard has its origins beginning in the late 1800’s, and it has Shiraz vines still under cultivation from that era. The steward of this historic estate for decades now is winemaker Tony Brady. His red wines, and that’s all they do, are described as an “iron fist in a velvet glove”. All of the wines need 10 years plus to mature, and sell out exclusively through a mailing list that has a 3 year wait to get on it. So it probably comes as no surprise that he doesn’t see a lot of people.
I’d been meaning to go up to Clare for some time now, and the other day I took a day off from pruning vines and made the trip. After a great lamb dinner the night before at Chris Ringland’s home in the Barossa, and a taste of 1994 and the potentially legendary 2004 Rockford Basket Press Shirazes, I got on the road early the next day for Clare.
Clare Valley is about an hour and a half north of the Barossa. The landscape is similar to the Barossa, rolling hills punctuated with massive gum trees, and herds of grazing sheep and cattle. The biggest difference is the climate. Clare is significantly cooler with large swaths of limestone creating a specific terroir for spine tingling rieslings, chablis style chards, and earthy cabernet and shiraz.
I had heard that Tony Brady at Wendouree was difficult to see on a moment’s notice, since he wanted his visitors to book in advance. Advance bookings meant that only serious guests would take up his time, and because he never had any wine to sell them, he could pick and choose who he wanted to see. I knew his consulting winemaker, Stephen George, and had Tony’s mobile number, so I thought I’d give him a try. I got lucky; he had a free hour or so, and since I called him from the town of Clare, I was only minutes away. He gave me instructions and said I’d see the Wendouree sign. He chuckled that I should ignore the “Closed” placard since it’s permanently closed to the general public. The 100-year-old stone winery is virtually unchanged from the year it was built; this is in every sense a treasure beyond price. Tony, and his wife Lita, see themselves as custodians of this priceless treasure. Tony is a slight man in his late 50’s with piercing blue eyes. He met me outside the winery and we talked about his vineyard. It’s seriously old, with roots forced deep into the hills from his refusal to irrigate. The drought of the 2007 vintage produced cabernet with a light color, and he decided to scratch the vintage. In his 30 odd years of experience, the 1972 vintage was the only other year he didn’t release a wine, so he figured he was still way ahead of the curve. It’s a very rare winery that can afford to skip a year, but the level of quality at Wendouree would have been compromised.
I was soaking up the ambience of the place as he showed me around the production area and barrel room. He only makes small lots of wine, 2000 total cases, and said it’s sold out before he even harvests. Normally, I would have asked to try a barrel sample, but in this case I didn’t dare. The mere fact that I was even there was enough to satisfy me. The night before at Chris Ringland’s, Chris gave me a taste of his highly prized ’07 shiraz in barrel. His assistant, Nathan Burly, told me later that he never does that, and the only person to taste it besides me was his business partner, Dan Philips. It was a tremendous honor, one that was still resonating in my mind when I was standing with Tony Brady. I think my reverent attitude must have pleased him (he even allowed me to photograph him, a request he normally declines), since before I left he gave me a bottle of his 1989 Shiraz-Mataro saying that “this one should be ready to drink”.
I’ve been safeguarding that bottle ever since, and can’t wait to open it with Chris, Dan, and Nathan. Sharing rare wine from hallowed ground with good friends with great palates is one of life’s richest rewards.