Wirra Wirra is changing direction with a new CEO in Matt Deller MW and an ex-Penfolds chief winemaker in Emma Wood. Leona de Pasquale caught up with Deller and discovered how he intends to build on the success of this Adelaide-based wine estate, a producer most famous for making Church Block. Deller intends to expand the company’s international reach, dial up the premium wines, continue its fully-certified sustainability programmes, work more closely with indigenous peoples and also acquire more vineyards in cooler areas – releasing more single block wines in small quantities.
“Since I joined the team, I have been really impressed with how passionate and caring the team is. The culture here is truly special,” says Deller.
If the story of a brand is one of the most valuable attributes in wine marketing, Wirra Wirra has every chance to continue its success.
Founded by the prank-loving cricketer Robert Strangeways Wigley when in exile in McLaren Vale in 1894, and rebuilt from ruins in 1969 by equally eccentric and visionary Richard Greg Trott, Wirra Wirra has grown from strength to strength ever since. Its most famous wine Church Block will soon celebrate its 50th anniversary and the winery has established itself as one that helps shape McLaren Vale’s classic styles.
In 2022, Wirra Wirra is turning a new page by hiring Matt Deller MW as its new CEO and Emma Wood from Penfolds as chief winemaker. The pair, together with the whole team, is gearing up to take Wirra Wirra to the next level.
A new strategic direction
Wirra Wirra is located in the south of Adelaide and on the traditional lands of the indigenous Kaurna people. The generally held belief has always been that Wirra Wirra means “amongst the gum trees” in Kaurna language as the property is home to many large old gum trees, some that are over 200 years old.
“With such a long history, we are naturally a story-rich winery. Some are pretty humorous and we like to tell them,” says Matt Deller MW. Born in Australia, Deller grew up in New Zealand and became one of the 414 MWs in 2016 and joined the Wirra Wirra team in 2022. Deller is tenacious. He first attempted the MW exam between 1996 and 1998 but did not get through it before it lapsed. He had to repeat the whole study programme from scratch in 2011 and passed the MW exams in 2016.
“I am not someone who gives up easily,” Deller explained, “and even my two children were born during those five years. This means I had to have extremely good time management.” Getting up at 4am and studying between travels are just examples of how he achieved his goal. Such determination is also shown when setting Wirra Wirra’s strategic direction.
For Deller, keeping things status quo is out of the question and premiumisation is his top priority. To take Wirra Wirra through a journey of fine wine transformation, they have invested heavily in upgrading their winery equipment.
“They are high-end machines, but not high-tech”, explains Deller, as he doesn’t believe the latter necessarily translates to high-quality wines.
Wirra Wirra buys grapes from growers but also owns 21.5 ha of vineyard, certified biodynamic since 2014. In view of climate change, they are looking to purchase more vineyards in cooler areas such as Blewitt Springs, McLaren Flat and Willunga, as well as vineyards with good access to water. The plan is to make more single vineyard and single block wines in small quantities because Deller firmly believes that there will always be a market for great wine with a sense of place.
Further investment and sustainability
Further investment in the brand is another area that Deller is working on. They have tripled the marketing spend with the ultimate goal of increasing their global reach.
“Australia is by far our most important market, followed by the UK and Canada. Singapore has become very important for us and we have just entered the US market, but we would like to expand our global distribution network even more,” says Deller. Equipped with bags of international experience from previous top roles at Villa Maria Estates, TOR Wines and Constellation Brands, Deller’s knowledge will no doubt be massively beneficial in this area.
For a biodynamic and organic winery, sustainability has always been a key focus for Wirra Wirra. The winery is certified with Sustainable Winegrowing Australia (SWA) and is pledged to achieve Carbon Net Zero by 2030. There are over 5,200 native trees on the estate, and all the liquid waste from the winery is treated and used to irrigate native plantings. All the grape marc is composted on site and used on the estate vineyards and they have 400 solar panels providing 30% of the electricity.
A sense of community
Apart from being a good guardian of the land, Deller also stresses the importance of investing in people and connecting with the local indigenous community so everyone is working in harmony.
“Since I joined the team, I have been really impressed with how passionate and caring the team is. The culture here is truly special,” says Deller. It is equally important to him, to continue to develop the team as well as building the relationship with the community
As a winery with a name taken from the Kaurna language, Wirra Wirra is committed to deepening the appreciation of indigenous cultures. In 2022, they started working with Reconciliation Australia to create a Reflect Reconciliation Action Plan which provides a framework that all staff can commit to and understand.
“For us, it is imperative to respect and recognise the history and to connect with the local Kaurna culture. Even though currently we do not have any staff from the Kaurna people in the team, we want to learn more about them and their language,” Deller explains. As a result, they support various indigenous causes which help them to build relationships.
So what about the new Wirra Wirra wines?
Such harmony seems to be a common theme across Wirra Wirra’s wines. The alcohol level of all their reds maintains at around 14-14.5% ABV throughout the years. For them, this strikes the right balance point, allowing the reds to keep the perfumed, fresh and elegant characteristics that define Wirra Wirra’s style.
MVCG 2022 (around RRP£16) is a new Cabernet Sauvignon-dominant wine (with 10% of Shiraz to fill the mid-palate) from an unstable, low-yield vintage. Cassis, blackberry, bramble, and dark chocolate on the nose is followed by fresh acidity with a drizzle of lifting, fresh mint and green bell pepper notes. The name of the wine refers to McLaren Vale Cricket Ground (MVCG), which was founder Greg Trott’s dream to build a world-class oval to attract the world’s finest cricketers to play in his village. Though fiscal realities prevented it from happening, the story of the dream stays on the label.
Farmer’s Heart 2021 (around £16) is 100% Grenache, from some vines that are over 100 years old. This wine is fresh and fragrant, with beautiful silky tannins; a wine that offers great value for money. The name, again, refers to the late Greg Trott who had an entrepreneur’s eye and a farmer’s heart and consistently fought for the protection of McLaren Vale as agricultural land until his passing in 2005.
On to the whites, the delicious and summer-perfect 2022 Sauvignon Blanc is called Hiding Champion 2022 (around £12). Sourced from Lenswood and Piccadilly Valley in Adelaide Hills, with 12.5% ABV, the wine is delicate and refreshing, but with charming passion fruit and a hint of grassy notes. The name speaks of Trott’s ‘wanderer’ nature as he could easily turn a simple run to the local shops into an interstate luncheon without informing anyone – and even disappeared to England once for a cricket game!
Wirra Wirra’s Church Block is well distributed in the UK off trade in the supermarket sectors and indies. However, with the winery making a total of 32 wines in its portfolio, there is a lot of potential to fill gaps in both the on and off trade. Wines such as the Hiding Champion can easily compete with a very good New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, whilst both the MVCG and Farmer’s Heart are gastronomic, with high quality and very competitive pricing.
For the super-premium category, the single vineyard 2019 Chook Block Shiraz has recently won Best In Show in the 2023 Decanter World Wine Awards and is on allocation in the UK as there are only 120 cases made. Most importantly, good wines with great stories sell. Wirra Wirra, a story-rich winery with a new direction, has certainly made it easy for the trade.
Wirra Wirra wines are imported and sold in the UK by Gonzales Byass UK.