Wynns to re-launch John Riddoch Cabernet and Michael Shiraz

After a half-decade absence, Wynns Coonawarra flagship reds are to be re-launched in March.

Once headline grabbers and eagerly sought by collectors, Wynns John Riddoch Cabernet Sauvignon and Wynns Michael Shiraz fizzled and faded at the height of the red-wine boom, giving up the game to a flood of new, mostly unknown $50 to $100 hopefuls.

Management’s response was to terminate production of Michael and John Riddoch after the 1998 and 1999 vintages respectively.

However, the stock problem proved intractable and in 2001, following parent company Southcorp’s acquisition of Rosemount, new management slashed the wholesale price and offered rebates to retailers sitting on large back-vintage stocks. The retail price fell from around $100 a bottle to $50 and sales resumed.

These were dark days for a great brand. However, over in Coonawarra, winemaker Sue Hodder and vineyard manager Allen Jenkins continued working on vineyard rejuvenation projects and a fine-tuning of winemaking techniques.

Though production of John Riddoch and Michael had stopped, individual components continued to be made and kept separate — to learn more of progress in the vineyards – prior to blending into the standard Wynns cabernet and shiraz.

y this time, too, Sue and the winemaking team had developed a new vision for the flagship reds, based partly on observations of older vintages.  In 1997 a tasting of Wynns Shirazes, embracing the 1953 to 1995 vintages, revealed the lovely elegance and keeping ability of the earliest vintages – wines notably lower in alcohol and oak than the modern wines, especially Michael.

The soon-to-be-released Wynns Michael Shiraz 2003 and John Riddoch Cabernet Sauvignon 2003, tasted in Coonawarra last October, crystallise that vision.

At the Coonawarra tasting, winemaker Sarah Pidgeon emphasised that both came largely from the same old vineyards in Coonawarra but that rejuvenation of the vineyards had resulted in the same ‘dense, dark fruit character but more supple tannins’.

Combine this with slightly earlier picking, hand harvesting of some components and a reduction of the proportion of new oak used in maturation and we have Wynns flagships that are big on elegant Coonawarra fruit yet more velvety and supple in structure than earlier vintages.

While these are earlier to love as young wines than most of the earlier wines, I believe they still have the essential fruit concentration and tannin structure to evolve with long-term cellaring. The low-oak, lower-alcohol wines of the fifties confirm the staying power of this fruit.

This was demonstrated yet again in 2004 with a tasting of all the cabernets from 1954 to 2004.

That tasting and other experiences with the more burly John Riddoch and Michael vintages revealed, too, that the essential elegance of the Coonawarra fruit tended to prevail over time – but that the tannins and oak ought, in general, to be more refined – as they are in the forthcoming 2003’s.

With continuing work on Wynns great old vineyards and in the winery, Sue and the team are on track to produce the truly great, long-lived elegant reds that Coonawarra has, to date, thrown up only occasionally — but often enough to know what can be achieved.

Wines of the calibre of Michael Shiraz 1955 and John Riddoch 1982 remain as unforgettable models. I have no doubt that over time these will be equalled and surpassed by Wynns. With the right commitment from Foster’s, the new owner of Wynns, Coonawarra could lead Australia into the super premium segments of the world markets.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2006 & 2007