David and Diana Anderson were quietly riding the ups and downs of running their own vineyard in Heathcote, central Victoria, when in 1999 the future prospects of their enterprise was given an unexpected kick along.
They had planted the first vines for Wild Duck Creek Estate not quite two decades before, but it was in 1999 that their now famous Duck Muck shiraz first came to the attention of the much-followed and extremely influential US wine critic Robert Parker.
Parker gave the 1997 shiraz a 99 out of 100 score in his quarterly publication “The Wine Advocate”, and suddenly every Texas oil baron or Silicon Valley billionaire had to have a bottle of Duck Muck on the dinner table. A $50 bottle achieved more than $1500 at auction soon after Parker gave it the nod.
Wild Duck Creek Estate was certainly put on the map _ but if you’re thinking “overnight success” think again.
In 1980, Diana and David “Duck” Anderson planted their first vines. This was their Alan’s Cabernets vineyard, named after David’s father who helped to plant it. “By about 1984 we made our first small offering,” David says, but he considered it sub-standard, and most of this wine went down the drain _ or as David puts it: “I gave that one to the Board of Works.”
Over the following years a lot of effort went into developing, and experimenting, with wine making. “You go through the motions of making wine alright,” David says, “and you might think you’ve got it by the short and curlys one year, and then the next year you really have to start all over again. Every season is so different.”
Wild Duck Creek became a licensed vineyard in 1993, and by then David was producing some great wines and was pleased with his results. However what was even more satisfying was having his own opinion confirmed by the rest of the world.
It all started one day when a visiting American drove through the front gate. “He just walked in the door,” David says. “I didn’t know him from Adam. And he said he wanted to take our wines to America, so I said fair enough, off you go. So he took 10 cases. That was our ’96 wine. And that’s how we started exporting.” About two years later, their “man in America” managed to get Duck Muck to Robert Parker _ David had never heard of Parker at that stage – and the rest, as they say…”
Now up to 80 per cent of Wild Duck Creek’s wine is exported, to about 15 countries. “The trouble is that you tend to find that we Aussies don’t do the footwork,” David says. “But then we complain when things do go overseas.”
Duck Muck was simply the result, David says, of his attempt to make one of the “biggest” wines he possibly could. “It’s an amplification of everything. Big colour, big alcohol. Big wood. Lot’s of new wood,” he says. “That particular wine (that Parker reviewed) was put in 50 per cent French and 50 per cent American oak.
“And I don’t just mean a thickness or alcoholically big; it’s also big in flavour,” he says. “It’s just my style really. I don’t like wasting my time drinking wimpy wines, something that doesn’t sit well on your palate, that doesn’t last very long. It seems to be a total waste of time doing that. I mean, why bother to pull the cork on something that isn’t good?”
The 11 acres they have under vine only supplies about 25 per cent of their needs, the rest coming from neighbouring growers, some of whom David has known for 40 years.
Not that he doesn’t branch out from the same old formula sometimes. “If you’re not experimenting each time you make wine, you’re not being serious about it,” he says. “You’ve always got to be experimenting. That’s how I found Duck Muck. And it’s made us one vineyard that’s producing something that’s quite different.”
Although it is very hard to analyse why a vineyard will produce something that is so dramatically different, David’s informed position is that there may be something in the fact that the fruit experiences some frosting, which also means they are dealing with less fruit than would otherwise be the case if the vines were in full production.
“What happens is that in spring you get a couple of frosts so that at the end there is a greater leaf to fruit ratio. It tends to happen every year, so maybe the plants are getting used to it,” he says. “And also here we’re very low, so that’s why we get frosted more. It’s below the inversion layer at night, so you get the odd snap cooling conditions, which can have a very dramatic affect on the way the plants set the fruit. The cooling at night may freeze, as it were, and for want of a better way to put it, may freeze the acid into the fruit, at the same time as it ripens.”
But whatever the reason, or combination of reasons, the Wild Duck Creek offerings are a definitive example when it comes to what “big” means in a wine. “We are picking the fruit at well over 15 or 16 per cent and beyond alcohol, or sugar, content. But with an acid as if it were 12 (per cent alcohol/sugar level),” David says. “Most people that try to make big wines end up with something a bit flabby. No acid left, and you wouldn’t want to drink it.”
The Andersons have always aimed to sell their wine to private people who appreciate their efforts. And to simply sell it at a price that’s fair. “If some distributor wants to buy it from me they get it at the same price,” David says. “I’m not involved if they want to sell it for more. I don’t discriminate on that basis. No matter where it goes I get the same money for it.”
It is good to know that as locals we will be able to get some great wines for a fair price. The only trouble is getting our hands on it. Diana says there are no plans to expand from where they are at present, as getting bigger would only mean making compromises not only on lifestyle but on what is distinctive about the wines of Wild Duck Creek. The vineyard maintains a list of clients that are allocated wines as they are available, but interested consumers are invited to try their luck.
“I’ve been told that the Spring Flat wine is too cheap,” David says. “But I’d rather sell someone a bargain if that meant they were going to come back the next year and buy some more. I’d much rather be involved in wine at that level of interest.”
Robert Parker’s tasting notes:
“Sadly, only 70 cases of the terrific 1997 Shiraz Duck Muck (15% alcohol) were produced. Made from 1.3 tons of fruit per acre from a relatively young (15 years) vineyard, there is no doubting the extraordinary character and personality winemaker David Anderson has constructed.
“My tasting notes begin with the words ‘great stuff’. Opaque black purple-colored, with a viscosity resembling vintage port, this thick, chewy Shiraz exhibits a panorama of black fruits intermixed with licorice, tar, roasted herbs, and sweet oak. The acidity and tannin appear to be missing because of the wine’s wealth of fruit, glycerin, and extract.
“It is a surreal, other-worldly style of Shiraz that needs to be sipped rather than gulped given its power and intensity.”
The Wine Advocate, 1999.
This story first appeared in Victorian Lifestyle Property magazine