Coonawarra — almost a sheep paddock

Coonawarra reds fetch a premium today. But behind their reputation lies a twisting, sometimes profitless and often frustrating struggle that stretches back to the 1890s. Indeed, had it not been for the foresight of Samuel and David Wynn in 1951, our most famous cabernet region might be a sheep paddock today.

The ‘estate that made Coonawarra famous’ remained largely unknown, under various guises, for sixty years before the inspired marketing of the Wynns gave an identity and, ultimately, fame, to the area’s unique, elegant table wines – building on a potential that had been recognised half a century earlier.

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 – the icon that still appears on Wynns labels today.

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.

During a tasting of fifty years of Wynns cabernets a few years back, 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 had 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. They ‘batched’ 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.

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

Indeed, Wynns labels were two generations ahead of their time and might teach today’s brand managers a lesson. They were boldly branded, declaring region of origin, wine style and vintage on the front label, and emphasises the region with a clear map on the back label. They spoke the international language of great wine.

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 remained intact for half a century, despite several ownership changes. And what the Wynns established still instructs winemaker Sue Hodder today – in turn, delivering benefits to drinkers.

Watch this space in early July and learn how Sue and her team boosted quality by peering into old Wynns wines for clues.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2007