Wynns Coonawarra — snapshots of the great terra rossa

To the outsider motoring along the Riddoch Highway, Coonawarra looks flat and homogenous – twenty or so kilometres of vines stretching away east and west of the highway.

The highway, bisecting the vines north-south, sits almost imperceptibly above the ground level of the vineyards. But the slight elevation means good drainage, probably explaining why nineteenth century pioneers chose this route across southernmost South Australia.

Wynns, the heir to the region’s original winery, opened by John Riddoch in 1896, holds vineyards the entire length of the famous terra rossa soils, spreading out on either side of the highway.

The vineyards overseen by Wynn’s viticultural chief, Allen Jenkins, comprise holdings amalgamated over many decades: Penfolds joined Wynns in the eighties, then along came Hungerford Hill, Rosemount and, later, the other large landowner in the district, Mildara. It’s all now part of Treasury Wine Estates, the wine arm of Foster’s.

The vines continue to feed into group brands, including the $175-a-bottle Penfolds Bin 707 cabernet sauvignon. But Wynns flies the regional flag. And following major restructuring and replanting of the vineyards over the last decade, now produces a growing suite of individual vineyard wines. The wines reveal different faces of the great terra rossa, within a consistent regional mould.

These new reds join the old favourites: shiraz, first made under the Wynns name in 1952; cabernet sauvignon, made since 1954; cabernet shiraz merlot, originally a blend of leftovers, but now a more deliberate red; John Riddoch cabernet sauvignon, a luxury wine, first made in 1982, now only in the better vintages and highly sought after by wealthy Chinese; and Michael shiraz, a one-off sensation from the 1955 vintage, resurrected in 1990, and now produced in good years.

The new single vineyard wines, representing a collaboration between winemaker Sue Hodder and viticulturist Allen Jenkins, are: Harold Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2001; Johnson’s Block Shiraz Cabernet 2003 and 2004; Messenger Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 and Alex 88 Cabernet Sauvignon 2006.

These have all come and gone. But they’re joined in this year’s release by three wines from blocks spread along V and A Lane, an east-west road traditionally viewed as the divide between northern and southern Coonawarra. Tradition had it that shiraz wouldn’t ripen south of this landmark. (Coonawarra subsequently spread several kilometres south, initially to the northern outskirts of Penola. Then, under the sadly oversized official “geographic indication” declared a few years back, the boundary stretched south of Penola to embrace a couple of isolated vineyards. Wynns sources only from “traditional” Coonawarra.)

V and A Lane began forty years before John Riddoch introduced grape vines to the regions. Surveyed in 1851, it ran from just below Robe on the coast to the Victorian border, marking the boundary between the South Australian electorates of Albert and Victoria.

The surveyor, Eugene Belairs, erected substantial markers every mile. And declares a Wynns brochure, “local legend has it that Chinese immigrants used these landmarks to show the way on their route from Robe across to the Victorian goldfields in 1857”. Those adventurous pedestrians probably created the road later named V and A Lane by the Penola District Council.

Land in the vicinity of V and A Lane formed part of John Riddoch’s Yallum Estate but was carved up after his death. Today, Wynns 160-hectare vineyard bordering the lane comprises the Woods, Glengyle, Childs, Albert and V and A blocks. The blocks are planted mainly to cabernet sauvignon and shiraz planted from 1966. Replanting of some unproductive blocks continues.

The wines released from these blocks this year provide interesting contrasts to the Wynns regular releases. This is part and parcel of a groundswell among Australian winemakers to capture shades and nuances of flavours arriving from various parts of their vineyards.

Wynns Coonawarra Estate Shiraz 2009 ($10–$22) versus Wynns Coonawarra Estate V and A Lane Shiraz 2008 ($35–$43)
Wynns standard shiraz delivers the round, juicy flavours of the vintage with very little apparent impact from its short time maturing in oak. The more expensive V and A Lane, despite coming from the hot 2008 vintage is much more restrained – it’s leaner and tighter, with spicy oak flavours and tannins adding to its great strength and elegance – a wine needing time for tightly wound, very sweet berry fruit flavours to emerge.

Wynns Coonawarra Black Label Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 $19–$34 versus Wynns Coonawarra Estate Glengoyle Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 $35–$43
Again we see contrasting vintages, but a vineyard-based style difference, nevertheless. Black Label seems bigger and more solid than in recent vintages. It’s densely coloured, intensely varietal, with a touch of Coonawarra mint, and firmly structured. The Glengoyle wine is more medium bodied with distinct “black olive” character seen in good cabernet. The palate’s very finely structured, lovely oak flavours and tannins harmonising with the fruit. It’s a strong but elegant wine with years of cellaring in it. Indeed, both wines should cellar very well.

Wynns Coonawarra Estate V and A Lane Cabernet Shiraz 2008 $42.99
There’s no wine in the standard Wynns line up to compare with this one. It’s a traditional and wonderful Coonawarra blend, though not seen all that often these days. The firm, taut structure seems mostly cabernet designed; and the delicious, slightly plumper, spicy palate is surely attributable to the shiraz. Like the other two special releases, it has lots in reserve for the cellar.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2010

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