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Wirra Wirra, McLaren Vale Anton Groffen

Top Vineyards

Reborn from 19th century ruins by Greg Trott, Wirra Wirra is one of McLaren Vale’s most treasured wineries. The home vineyard has grown from a humble plot of shiraz to occupy over 20 hectares, with cabernet sauvignon, grenache, tempranillo and touriga nacional joining the roster, and all carefully planted across geological nuances that are best suited to each variety. Anton Groffen runs the viticultural operations under biodynamic certification, with the vines supplying the fruit for the flagship shiraz bottlings, the ‘Chook Block’ and ‘RSW’, as well as their iconic ‘Church Block’ red blend, amongst other key lines.

The late – and still much missed – Greg Trott came across the ruins of the old Wirra Wirra winery in the 1960s, consisting of some 1890s slate fermenters and a couple of walls that hadn’t yet succumbed to the ravages of time. A painstaking restoration followed – referencing historical records and grainy images – with the reborn winery now one of McLaren Vale’s most esteemed names.

Today, Wirra Wirra source grapes from across McLaren Vale, as well as venturing to the Adelaide Hills for cool climate varieties – they also now own Hills icon Ashton Hills – but at the heart of the operation is the estate vineyard, which consists of six adjacent blocks. Those blocks still carry the legacy of Trott’s legendary humour and eccentricity, such as the flat and scrub-free Scrubby Rise, Nocowie (named for Trott’s bovine-loathing father) and the Chook Block (he was an avid chicken farmer).

“The heavier silt and clay soils of the old riverbed to the south of the winery we find great for cabernet, while still giving us great character in shiraz, tempranillo and touriga nacional. These canopies hang on for longer and despite the later ripening, we see both depth of flavour and fresh varietal characters persist. Out the back, on the Pirramimma sandstone geology, the shiraz and grenache are suited to the drier and warmer ancient sandhills. While we have the deep clay subsoil we use as a reservoir of soil and nutrients, these blocks show restraint and consistently hit our flagship ‘Chook Block’ and ‘RSW’ wines.”

The vineyard was replanted to shiraz in 1960 by Trott, with vines added or grafted over every decade since, more or less. Now with 21.5 hectares under vine, the shiraz is joined by cabernet sauvignon, grenache, tempranillo and touriga nacional. Anton Groffen oversees the viticultural practices, which have been biodynamic for over a decade, with NASAA certification coming in 2013. Both the vineyard and winery are also certified through Sustainable Winegrowing Australia (having been a SAW – the prior name – member since 2011).

The focus on organic and biodynamic practices as well as sustainability has made Wirra Wirra a leader in a region that has embraced the principles like no other. “We’re incredibly lucky with the progressive grower community here in McLaren Vale,” says Groffen. “With the biggest footprint of sustainable, organic and biodynamic vineyards in the country, this movement has been best practice here for some time and looks set to keep pushing the boundaries.”

Groffen notes, however, that the core principle of growing premium grapes can’t get lost in that process. “We see some vineyards go down the sustainable path and lose sight of the primary objective of growing grapes for winemaking. If a vineyard ticks the environmental, economic and community boxes, and can still deliver the quality of fruit the winemakers need, then that’s what sustainability means.”

The winemaking very much begins in the vineyard, and not just in respect to the fruit health directing the quality, as Groffen manages blocks based on the wines they are intended for, with everything from grafting and replanting to irrigation, canopy management, crop thinning, pruning and picking considered. “To spend time with our winemaking team and look at components, blends and how it all fits in our finished wines is the most important piece of feedback we can get as growers. Our two geologies, to the north and south of Turraparri Creek play a role in both elevation and soil type influencing our varietal choice, management, and wine style,” he says.

“The heavier silt and clay soils of the old riverbed to the south of the winery we find great for cabernet, while still giving us great character in shiraz, tempranillo and touriga nacional. These canopies hang on for longer and despite the later ripening, we see both depth of flavour and fresh varietal characters persist. Out the back, on the Pirramimma sandstone geology, the shiraz and grenache are suited to the drier and warmer ancient sandhills. While we have the deep clay subsoil we use as a reservoir of soil and nutrients, these blocks show restraint and consistently hit our flagship ‘Chook Block’ and ‘RSW’ wines.”

Groffen notes that all of the decisions they make have to factor in the impacts of climate change, with the aim of building long-term resilience in the vines. “Everything from pruning decisions, soil management and composting, to use of alternative varieties and climate modelling is central to our approach,” he says.

“While we face different challenges each season, a trend has developed around wood disease, water security, soil health and sustainable yields… This means evaluating and being realistic with underperformance, reworking and redeveloping where required. With more life in our dirt, the limited amount of water we have becomes better utilised. We’re always thinking about how we can buffer the longer-term climate shifts and shorter-term curveballs by fine-tuning our compost and soil management.”

Above: Anton Groffen harvesting touriga nacional. Opposite: making compost. Images courtesy of Wine Australia.

And compost is a thing that Groffen will happily talk about, almost above anything else. “We love our compost here at Wirra,” he declares. “People laugh about this, but it’s the place I gravitate towards with a shovel whenever we have visitors to show around. …We’ve been fine-tuning the ingredients, blending and timing to get a better outcome. Winemakers often claim this with vintages, but every year it feels like we’ve made the best compost ever!”

With many projects still on the cards, Groffen lists refining the plant species employed in both the mid-row sward and under-vine area as being of a high priority. “There’s some great knowledge being developed about these species, whether it’s perennial native grasses or annual introduced species. We’re yet to fully capitalise on the benefits for vineyard health and management. This overlaps into grazing. We graze a few blocks but need more fencing for cell grazing and animals in the vineyard from autumn to spring.”

Groffen is also keenly aware that no matter how long his tenure and the positive impact his viticulture has on the land and wine quality, Wirra Wirra is both a place of history and one with a long future stretching out in front of it, well beyond his time there.

“The contributing winemakers and viticulturists over the life of these vineyards have taken it towards a growing style which has built resilience into the system. What grows under the vines, what we put in our composts and the careful management of inputs and operations are all combining to ensure we can keep this site sustainable, productive, and hitting our quality targets. We’re only here for a short time, so looking after these vines and this dirt well is important. If we can leave a place in better shape than when we got here, and with a legacy in place for future management, then maybe we’ve succeeded.”