Redman — 100 years in Coonawarra

Fourteen-year-old Bill Redman arrived in Coonawarra in 1901with his older brother, Dick. They’d heard that work was available at John Riddoch’s cellars, says Bill’s grandson, Bruce. ‘Bill was small and they put him to work in the cellar (he could fit into barrels’, adds Bruce, ‘but his brother was bigger and was put to work in the vineyards’.

Dick left Coonawarra, but Bill remained, buying land from John Riddoch’s executors in 1908 and ultimately becoming one of the significant wine figures of the area.  ‘He learned by apprenticeship, not study’, Bruce comments, and made wines very similar in style to those made by Bruce and his brother Malcolm today as the family celebrates 100 years of Coonawarra winemaking.

Bill’s long life linked today’s winemaking with the earliest pioneering times of John Riddoch. As his vineyards planted in the early 1890s came on stream, John Riddoch appointed Ewen F McBain as winemaker in 1898. He was the first qualified winemaker in Coonawarra and became mentor to the young Bill Redman, promoting him to chief cellarman in 1907 or 1908.

Bruce says that Bill made his first wine in 1909 and continued to learn by trial and error. Presumably by the time his son Owen joined him in 1936, Bill’s approach to Coonawarra grape growing and winemaking was well established – though his most celebrated wines, the legendary, extraordinarily long-lived Woodleys Treasure Chest series, were made between 1946 and 1956.

By this time Owen had returned from World War II and the family’s Rouge Homme wines had been in production since 1950. Although we know Coonawarra today as mainly a cabernet sauvignon region, Bruce recalls that his grandfather considered the area’s ideal red was a blend of two-thirds cabernet and one-third shiraz.

In 1965 as large wine companies clamoured for red wine, the Redmans sold the Rouge Homme winery, vineyards and name to Lindemans. Immediately afterwards, though, Owen Redman purchased about nine hectares of old shiraz vines from another district pioneer, Arthur Hoffman, and in 1966 (the year that Bill stepped down), made the first wine for the Redman label.

A straight shiraz, it was released as ‘Redmans Claret’, following the generic labelling style of the day. Owen introduced a straight cabernet sauvignon in 1970 and it was not until 1990 that his sons, Bruce and Malcolm, introduced a cabernet sauvignon merlot blend to the range.

Bruce, the family’s first qualified winemaker, took over from his father in 1982 (Owen died in 1989, just ten years after Bill’s death) but maintained the winemaking style developed by his grandfather and father.
Bruce says that he still follows the principles drummed into him by the older generations: keep the winery spotlessly clean, pick grapes on flavour (neither green nor over ripe, but just right) and not the hydrometer; and let the wines make themselves, without a lot of manipulation.

This approach across the generations has given the Redmans an unusually consistent style in a region that’s passed through many winemaking phases. Having tasted a Bill Redman wines from 1919, several from the 1940s and early fifties; Owen’s wines of the sixties and seventies; Bruce’s wines from 1982 on; and all of the Wynns’ 1950s and 1960s, my feeling is that these were all of a style – medium bodied and elegant, with delightful berry fruit flavours, no obvious oak flavours and an ability to age.

Redmans stuck with this style, not deviating to the shocking green, unripe styles adopted by some makers in the late seventies and early eighties; nor to the sweet and sour styles that resulted from misguided pruning practices of the eighties; nor to the too-ripe, too-tannic, too-oaky styles that emerged in the late eighties and into the nineties.

Indeed, the Redman wines stand out as distinct, elegant examples of Coonawarra. There’s a deliberate philosophy behind their making; a clear understanding of what the alternative styles might be; and that century-long family familiarity with Coonawarra and its wines.

Bruce Redman intentionally makes the ‘elegant’ rather than the international style and says he approaches wine making much the way his father Owen — and before that Owen’s father — the legendary Bill Redman did.

The Redman’s 34 hectares of mature vines, towards the northern end of Coonawarra, are hand pruned and trellised to avoid the ‘hedging’ effect common with mechanical pruning.

Bruce says this gives his berries good sun exposure and hence a measure of protection against disease while developing ripe flavours a tad earlier than shaded grapes — an important factor in Coonawarra where autumn rain often threatens a late crop.

Timing of harvest is the key to the Redman wine style. Bruce says that in Coonawarra ripe flavours develop in grapes at comparatively low sugar (and hence potential alcohol) levels. Where some wine makers aim for grapes with an alcohol potential of 13.5 per cent or more, he picks on flavour backed up by chemical analysis.

Thus, the Redman wines tend to be lower in alcohol than most Coonawarra wines and deliver lovely, delicate, ripe-berry flavours. But, adds Bruce, in unusually hot years like 2005 and 2008, there’s little choice but to harvest at higher sugar (and hence alcohol) levels as the wines would otherwise have green tannins.

In the winery, ferments are conducted in small open vats and the cap of skins is hand plunged three times a day to aid colour and flavour extraction. This gentle technique, combined with a warm ferment (20-25 degrees Celsius) gives good flavour, colour and tannin extraction without harshness.

Oak maturation plays an important role in mellowing grape tannins and adding structure to the wine. ‘We use oak as a tool to enhance fruit flavour’, says Bruce. He adds that Redmans have always used oak, that what they have used over time has reflected what they could afford – but that even now new oak makes up only 10–15 per cent of the total, with the new French oak being used for the cabernet and the new American barrels for shiraz.

And in a salute to the heritage, in 2002 Bruce assembled a special blend for release in this, the centenary year. He says he started with Bill’s old two-thirds shiraz, one-third cabernet blend in mind, but arrived at a blend that’s half cabernet and one quarter each of shiraz and merlot – a variety not available to his father and grandfather.

Bruce reckons that too much good red is drunk when it’s too young, but winemakers can’t afford to hold onto it. Hence this blend, just 200 cases of it, arrives to market at good maturity. It’s a superb drop, in the intense, fine Redmans style. It’s available for $70 at the cellar door. And there’ll be follow up vintages.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2008