Fifty years of Wynns Coonawarra cabernet sauvignon

A tasting of 50 years of Wynns Coonawarra Estate cabernet sauvignons last week highlighted what a long, twisting, sometimes profitless and often frustrating struggle lies behind the emergence of significant wines.

The ‘estate that made Coonawarra famous’ remained largely unknown, under various guises, for sixty years before the inspired marketing of the Wynn family gave an identity and, ultimately, fame, to the area’s unique, elegant table wines.

That Coonawarra could produce good wine had been glimpsed since the earliest days.

In 1899, W. Catton Grasby, editor of ‘Garden and Field’ wrote ‘As long as grapes mature properly, the more gradual the process the better, so that the conditions are as favourable, if not more so, at Coonawarra than anywhere else in Australia for making very high-class, light, dry wine. The results are bearing out the theoretical statement of what should be, and Coonawarra claret promises to have a very high and wide reputation—indeed, there is no doubt but that it will be a beautiful wine of good body, fine colour, delicate bouquet, and low alcoholic strength”.

Grasby’s words followed a visit to John Riddoch’s Coonawarra fruit colony and, presumably, a tasting of the first few vintages made in Riddoch’s imposing, triple-gabled, Coonawarra Wine Cellars.

Grasby notes the first vine plantings in 1891 and an expansion of the area under vine by 1899 to about 140 hectares — 89 owned by ‘blockers’ on the fruit colony and 51 hectares belonging to Riddoch — consisting principally of shiraz and cabernet sauvignon with smaller plantings of malbec and pinot noir, the latter not faring well.

According to James Halliday (‘Wine Compendium’ 1985), production from these vineyards exceeded 300 thousand litres per annum from 1903 until 1909 with John Riddoch actively seeking markets for the wine in Australia and in Great Britain.

However, after Riddoch’s death at about this time, Coonawarra’s famous estate turned to distilling its ever-accumulating wine stocks — a practice that continued through two changes of ownership until Woodleys purchased the triple-gabled winery and 58 hectares of vineyards in 1946.

Woodley’s owner, Tony Nelson, installed as winemakers, at what was now ‘Chateau Comaum’, Bill and Owen Redman – from whom he’d been buying Coonawarra wine for many years. Although the arrangement fell over a few years later, at least, after a break of 37 years, Coonawarra’s original winery was once again making table wine.

In 1951 Samuel Wynn and his son David bought the vineyards and Chateau Comaum, renamed it Wynns Coonawarra Estate, and installed 22-year-old Roseworthy graduate Ian Hickinbotham as manager. The Estate was set to make Coonawarra famous.

At last week’s tasting in Coonawarra, Ian recalled ‘the stink of failure’ that hung over the area’s tiny wine industry when he arrived in late 1951.  And he recalled the disdain felt for it by a remote community riding the Korean war wool boom.

As the first qualified winemaker to arrive in Coonawarra since John Riddoch hired Ewen Ferguson McBain in 1898, Ian confronted the challenges of isolation, labour shortages and the most rudimentary winemaking equipment. Roads and transport were poor, there was no electricity and the winery still relied on steam power to drive its pumps.

In that first year Ian brought to Coonawarra six Roseworthy students to help with the pruning, all batching with him in a little shack near the winery.

A gifted Aussie rules player, Ian then called on 70 mates from the local footy club for the heavy work of pulling the cuttings from the vineyards.

By vintage time, David Wynn had fixed the labour problem by bringing in a group of Italian immigrants. A mixed lot – professionals, craftsmen, workers and even a chef – they proved themselves cheerful and skilled as grape pickers and cellar hands.

As soon as the manual press began turning, they bust into song’ Ian recalls. And that set the tone for the 1952 vintage.

Although most of the 1952 vintage was sold in bulk, it also marked the birth of the famous label depicting John Riddoch’s triple-gabled, limestone winery.

Indeed, Wynns labels were a generation ahead of their time, boldly branded, declaring region of origin, wine style and vintage on the front label, and emphasising the region with a clear map on the back label.

Samuel and David put their judgement on the line in choosing little known, isolated Coonawarra back in 1951. That they were on the money shows in the string of superb, long-lived wines created from 1952 on. It’s a fascinating story that’s still delivering benefits to drinkers today – as we’ll see next week.

Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1954 to 2004
5 December 2004

In 1951, the same year that Max Schubert created Grange, Samuel Wynn and his son David bought Chateau Comaum from Tony Nelson’s Woodleys wines. As we learned last week, this was some 60 years after John Riddoch founded the Coonawarra Fruit Colony, it was more than 50 years after the construction of the famous triple-gabled winery and followed 37 years in which the bulk of the winery’s production had been distilled.

Despite the comparatively slow evolution of the region’s winemaking and the primitive facilities available (electricity, for example, arrived in Coonawarra just a few months before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon) the Wynns made superb, age-worthy wines from the very beginning.

In tastings of Wynns Coonawarra shiraz back to the 1953 vintage in 1997 and of cabernet sauvignons back to 1954 just two weeks ago, some of the oldest wines performed best of all. And in both tastings the seventies vintages appeared weaker, in general, than the other decades – coinciding with the period when Wynns belonged to Allied Vintners.

In both tastings, too, the eighties showed a strengthening performance. The nineties exploded onto the scene with the powerful but atypical 1990, followed by the sublime 1991. The shiraz tasting stopped at the 1995 vintage. But the cabernet line up revealed the strength and elegance of the 1996 vintage, another outstanding and powerful wine in the 1998 vintage and then a return to typical Coonawarra elegance in 1999.

With the exception of the 1992, all of the nineties cabernets showed consistently ripe fruit character (unripe, green notes mar some Coonawarras) and velvety smooth tannins. The intensity of fruit and silkiness of the tannins seemed to lift towards the end of the nineties, culminating in a run of exceptional wines in the bottled 2000, 2001 and 2002 vintages and barrel samples of the still-maturing 2003 and 2004 vintages.

At the shiraz tasting we also tasted the legendary 1955 ‘Michael’ – a fabulous old red that lent its name to a new flagship shiraz created in the 1990 vintage and produced in most years since. In that 1997 tasting, the 1990 was a blockbuster, needing years more in the bottle, while the 1991 stood out for its intense, sweet fruit and elegance.

On the evening before the 50 years of cabernet tasting, we saw the all the vintages of the cabernet flagship  ‘John Riddoch’. It was a bit like having the honeymoon before the wedding. From this line up, the inaugural 1982 vintage, made by John Wade, towered above the others – a very great Aussie red that’s still evolving.

Winemaker Sarah Pidgeon tells me that of the Black Label cabernet sauvignons tasted two weeks ago by our panel of 30 tasters — made up of present and past winemakers, a viticulturist, local and international writers, Bruce Redman (representing the family that kept Coonawarra winemaking alive in the first half of last century) and a few company executives – 1954, 1991 and 1996 rated as the top three wines.

That was my own rating, too. But, there were many other wonderful wines, rating bronze, silver and gold medal scores. Indeed, very few failed to make the grade.

Wynns cabernet vintages that appealed strongly to me, in chronological order were: 1954, 1955 (a cabernet shiraz blend labelled as ‘Claret’), 1959, 1962, 1965, 1966,1968, 1970, 1971, 1973, 1976, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002.

The tasting revealed the inherent worth of Coonawarra cabernet and the reliability of Wynns Black Label as a realistically priced red for the cellar. But the impressive strength of the more recent vintages showed that the average quality ought to be higher in the future and that the quality of future great vintages – successors to the 1996, 1991, 1954 and 1982 John Riddoch – may move a notch or two higher.

The quality of Wynns Black Label rests on the company’s unequalled vineyard holdings in Coonawarra — about 950 of the 5600 hectares planted in the region. Cabernet plantings alone stand at 450 hectares and the Black Label is drawn primarily from 240 hectares of vines over 30 years of age – a key quality factor.

Chief winemaker Sue Hodder attributes the more even and complete ripeness seen in recent vintages to a major vineyard rejuvenation project now well under way among those older plantings. And those lovely, velvety tannins, she says, spring from that ripe fruit in conjunction with a slightly more aerobic approach to winemaking and the use of extended skin contact.

That may seem arcane to the casual sipper. But it translates to a tasty quality boost to a wine that already had the capacity to age 50 years.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2004 and 2009