How Sue Hodder’s history lesson improved Wynns’ Coonawarra reds

The old adage that the only thing we learn from history is that we don’t learn anything from history is bunk. At Wynns Coonawarra Estate, a close study of historic wines taught Sue Hodder and her winemaking team plenty about Coonawarra wines.

A decade on from two retrospective Wynns shiraz and cabernet tastings — stretching back to the 1950s — Sue’s new-release reds demonstrate that the past can influence current winemaker thinking.

In the tastings – featuring Wynns’ shiraz back to vintage 1953 in 1997 and cabernet sauvignon back to 1954 in 2004 – some of the very old comparatively low-alcohol, low-tannin, low-oak wines surpassed more recent wines, and completely eclipsed those of the late seventies.

The tasting proved the great longevity of Coonawarra reds – like the 1955 Michael Hermitage (shiraz) and 1954 cabernet sauvignon. And it revealed several distinct style eras in the estate’s history.

In simple terms we might see the early fifties to the seventies as straightforward – pick the grapes not too ripe, crush, ferment, press to tank, let the malo-lactic fermentation rip, and then mature the wine in older oak for a while before bottling.

In the late seventies – and we might call this the bean-counter era – fruit ripeness and consequent wine flavour declined as vineyard yields rose. This was in part a company thing (the high yields) and, in part, historical, as several other makers sought to produce ‘elegant’ wines by harvesting unripe grapes. Older drinkers still view the word ‘elegant’ as euphemism for thin and green.

The economic imperative took a different shape in the eighties as minimal pruning and mechanical harvesting reduced costs without sacrificing ripeness. Minimal pruning, in particular, created problems of its own to be addressed more than a decade later.

Although the eighties was a period of growth and rising demand for premium reds, margins were often squeezed in a mainly domestically focused industry. In this period Coonawarra reds tended to become riper and more influenced by maturation in new oak – with mixed success as winemakers learned the ropes.

It was, overall for Coonawarra, a period of great quality improvement. And for Wynns, this included the introduction of a new flagship red in 1982, named after pioneer John Riddoch. Made by John Wade, John Riddoch 1982 is to my taste one of the greatest cabernets yet made in this country.

Meanwhile good old Wynns Black Label cabernet carried on, perhaps a tad riper and a little oakier than in the old days, but, as the retrospective tasting showed, always purely varietal and almost invariably with the stuffing to age for decades.

In the late eighties and nineties the flagship John Riddoch cabernet was always denser, more powerful and oaky than the cheaper Black Label, but not always more revered by consumers.

Similarly, a powerful reserve shiraz resurrected the ‘Michael’ name in 1990, there having been only one vintage – 1955 – in the past. This, too, showed intense fruit and assertive oak.

By the late nineties the Wynns cabernets in particular were showing silkier tannins, without losing varietal flavour and intensity – and Sue and the team had begun rethinking how things ought to be done.
The re-think led to a rejuvenation of the older vines, including the removal of dense clusters of dead wood – a result of twenty years’ minimal pruning.

Launching this year’s releases last week, Sue said that what the tasting of older wines had taught her was that Coonawarra reds don’t have to be big tannic monsters to age well. It was clear that elegant, refined styles, without any new oak, still delivered great drinking pleasure after half a century.

Sue said that she’d also learned that a bit of ‘pepper’ in Coonawarra shiraz was nothing to be afraid of. This simply recognises that Coonawarra is a cool growing region, that cool-grown shiraz has a peppery note and it loses this when over ripe.

During the vineyard renovation and re-thing of winemaking styles, Sue’s team stopped making John Riddoch Cabernet Sauvignon and Michael Shiraz altogether for a couple of vintages. Declining sales surely played a part in the decision, but it was a much need breathing space.

While the by-now older John Riddochs and Michaels were ageing well – and some are just glorious – Sue has now demonstrated in the new-release 2004s that the style could be bettered.

The new wines still have exceptional fruit intensity, but oak intrudes less and the true elegance that was apparent in many of the old wines in the retrospective tasting is apparent.

The glory of the old styles, it seems, gave Sue the confidence to make changes for the better.

The 2004 Michael Shiraz, in particular, shows the benefit of the softer touch and rejuvenated vineyards. This wine captures the fragrance, unique berry and pepper character and elegant structure that Coonawarra can deliver – as it did in the original Michael in 1955.

The changes are there but more subtle in recent vintages of the White label Shiraz and Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon and the re-introduced John Riddoch Cabernet Sauvignon.

Indeed, the estate that made Coonawarra famous is quietly, through quality and value, reasserting its status. See this website on July 16 for reviews of the new releases.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan