John Riddoch Cabernet – making a Coonawarra blue-blood

It may seem hard to believe, but one of Australia’s most respected reds internationally did not see light of day until 1982. Wynns Coonawarra Estate John Riddoch Cabernet Sauvignon was made in that year by John Wade but not released until 1985, shortly after Penfolds acquired Wynns from Allied Vintners.

Australian consumers recognised Riddoch’s superior qualities snapping up that first vintage within weeks of its release. The instant success was all the more striking considering its price of around $13 to $14 a bottle. That may seem quite modest for a top flight Coonawarra today, but in 1985 there were few other wines fetching that sort of money.

Sheer quality fanned the wine drinker’s enthusiasm for John Riddoch. Here, after almost a century of grape growing in Coonawarra, strutted the great cabernet everyone knew the area was capable of making. Successive vintages added to the wine’s prestige and led within a couple of vintages to an international awe of its impressive power and depth of colour, aroma, and flavour.

1983 was a rotten year for Coonawarra and there was no John Riddoch produced. 1984, generally regarded as a year of lighter and fruitier reds than usual, produced a surprisingly robust wine still with years of cellar life ahead. 1985 was a solid wine, too, but eclipsed by the amazing richness of the 1986. That was a wonderful vintage… the first for wine maker Peter Douglas. He says he still can’t believe his own good luck.

Cool vintage conditions in 1987 produced a John Riddoch less voluptuous than either the 1986 before it or the 1988 afterwards. Despite having less ripe aromas and flavours the 1987 won international acclaim, as did the 1988. 1989 was another hard year and no John Riddoch was made.

Since the release of the first vintage in 1985, John Riddoch has been a top auction performer. In a classification of Australian wines based on long-term prices, auctioneers Langton’s last year rated John Riddoch amongst a small group of reds consistently out-priced only by Grange Hermitage.

The others in this elite group are Henschke’s Hill of Grace, Mount Mary Cabernets, Penfold’s Cabernet Sauvignon Bin 707, Petaluma Coonawarra, and Yarra Yering Dry Red Wine No.1. Of these, in my view, only Bin 707 approaches John Riddoch in quality. None equals its growing international status.

That status is about to be boosted by the release this week of the 1990 vintage. It was a brilliant year across South Eastern Australia and especially in Coonawarra. But nothing from the vintage released to date approaches John Riddoch. Quite simply, it’s one of the greatest reds ever made in Australia.

It’s unlikely other Coonawarra makers will scale the same heights as John Riddoch. Even given equal wine making skills, the resources at Wynns’ disposal may prove unbeatable. They not only own the oldest vines in Coonawarra but the most as well, with a good part of their holdings on the plum ‘terra rossa’ soil in the northern part of the region.

Crushing around 15,000 tonnes of grapes annually, Peter Douglas carefully fractionates the various batches of reds coming into the winery. With individual fermenting tanks holding just 20 tonnes apiece, he and the other wine makers classify batches according to quality. The best cabernets are earmarked for John Riddoch and Penfolds bin 707.

Those selected for Bin 707 finish their ferments in new American oak before being pumped into tanks for trucking to the Barossa for extended oak maturation and, finally, blending with components from other regions.

John Riddoch components are fermented completely dry in tanks before going into new French oak casks for two years or more of maturation in the huge insulated cask sheds behind the famous triple-gabled winery.

Under Penfolds end use evaluation scheme, records are kept of which wine every batch of grapes goes into. Thus, the group has a clear picture of the styles of wine produced by thousands of plots and sub plots across southern Australia.

From this data, Peter Douglas says that the backbone of John Riddoch stems consistently from certain plots scattered around Coonawarra. What the sites have in common is old vines, low yields, and very thin ‘terra rossa’ soil over limestone.

The fact that 1990 John Riddoch will be more talked about than consumed (production was small and the price is around $30 a bottle) does not matter. It will become a legend both here and overseas. In the process it will become a flagship for all Australian wines, drawing attention far out of proportion to its tiny production. As Len Evans said to me in the Hunter last week, American and English wine writers soon grow bored with Bin 65 Chardonnay. They want excitement, and they’re about to get it.

When that happens, I can easily see John Riddoch becoming international currency like Grange. And with that will come a much higher price tag.