Wynns Coonawarra — great winemaking but the marketing sucks

They say that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Wynns Coonawarra Estate was never broken. In fact, for all but a short period in the seventies, it produced reliable, long-cellaring reds.

But by the late nineties, with winemakers restless to do better, small-scale vineyard restoration began. “From 2000 on”, says winemaker Sue Hodder, “we knew that much work was required. And after the difficult 2002 vintage we realised that the pace was not fast enough”.

Under viticulturist Allen Jenkins, the large-scale work began. It was a massive and still not complete undertaking that included retrellising, chain-saw pruning, developing of a heritage nursery (based on cuttings from time-proven vines), grubbing out tired or diseased vines, replanting, converting from sprinkler to drip irrigation, changing canopy management and introducing new pruning techniques.

This vastly oversimplifies the task, of course. But by the time Allen and his team had passed the half way mark in Wynns massive estate, fruit quality had improved impressively. Tighter management of small vineyard plots gave Sue Hodder and the winemaking team a broader palette of fruit characters to work with. Most importantly it meant generally brighter, more evenly ripened fruit with the soft, velvety tannins that winemakers seek but don’t always find.

Modified winemaking, particularly a gentler hand on oak maturation, in combination with higher quality fruit produced notably better wines across the Wynns range in recent years. The changes were most notable in the re-introduced, revamped flagships, Michael Shiraz and John Riddoch Cabernet Sauvignon.

Despite the quality lift there remained a gap between what the vineyards could deliver and the ability of the winery to capitalise on it. That gap was closed this year with the commissioning of a new small-batch cellar at the western end of the winery.

It’s a self-contained unit with twenty-four ten-tonne, temperature controlled, open fermenters and separate crushing and pressing equipment – designed to process small batches of more-evenly ripened fruit.

The old winery had been geared to process fairly large batches of grapes. And its few smaller fermenters were “always in heavy rotation”, according to Sue’s fellow winemaker, Greg Tilbrook.

Tilbrook says that even though the winemakers and grape growers knew that different sections of a vineyard ripened at different times, there simply weren’t enough small fermenters to partition the crop to the level that they wanted.

The arrival of the new winery meant that in 2008 grapes from a larger block, producing, say, forty to sixty tonnes, might be processed in five or six batches instead of two or three.

The impact that this has on quality lies partly in the batch size and partly in better fruit quality. Sue Hodder says small, small, open fermenters, being more aerobic, give winemakers better control over ‘reduction’ (smelly hydrogen sulphide tends to develop in a closed, or reductive, environment). And harvesting small batches at perfect ripeness, rather than large batches with a range of ripeness, gives “brighter fruit with more evenly ripe, supple tannins’, says Sue.

Processing in multiple, small batches gives the winemakers more components and greater variation than they had in the past. And though it means more work, says Tilbrook, it brings home all the work done in the vineyards over the last decade and will affect the quality of all Wynns wines.

From the components the winemakers and viticulturists can learn which wine styles come from various blocks and clones. They can see where quality lies and also identify where things could be better. This quality and style assessment feeds back into vineyard management, which in turn feeds back into wine quality. Indeed, says Sue, Allen Jenkins knows intimately the wine styles from each of his vineyard plots.
And what are the quality factors in Coonawarra red? How important is the terra rossa soil, vine age and clonal selection?

It’s a complex picture. Sue says that while the best wines do tend to come from the terra rossa (well drained soils derived primarily from decomposition of the underlying limestone), vines from the transitional soils just off the terra rossa and some from the black soils further out have produced good quality during the run of dry seasons.

It seems the moisture holding capacity of these deeper soils, a curse in wet seasons, has been a virtue during prolonged hot, dry spells. Some of the traditionally great, unirrigated vines, on shallow terra rossa have suffered.
Even within one vineyard, says Greg Tilbrook, ripening can vary noticeably because of varying soil depth. During the dry spell, vines in shallow soil tend to ripen early, while those in deeper, moister soil ripen later – hence the need for separate harvesting and winemaking.

Having the right clones is important, too. Sue cites examples of poor genetic material overcoming the benefits of a great site and of clones that work in the Barossa not working in Coonawarra.

Like other winemakers around the world, Wynns used material from time-proven vineyards to propagate new plantings – principally from the ‘Johnsons’ block, planted in the 1920s, and the ‘Redman’ block.

While a lot is made these days of century-old vines, Sue says that the average age of vines used in making the famous Wynns Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon is about twenty-eight years. The flagship John Riddoch vines might be slightly older. The vines were planted mainly in the sixties, seventies and eighties. And there are no centenarians in the mix.

Unquestionably in my mind the wines are good and getting better. I’ve tried them all, back to the early fifties. They’re up there with the best in the world. And it gets back to location (including climate) and all the work of generations of grape growers and winemakers.

It’s a pity that the Foster’s marketers (Foster’s owns Wynns) seem so out of touch that they have to lie about these great wines. It’s silly enough that their current press ads call Wynns Coonawarra Estate ‘far more blessed’ than Vatican City. But it’s simply false when they say ‘It’s the combination of rich, red soil and hundred year old vines that makes Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz arguably the best in the country’.

I wonder who signed-off on the ‘hundred year old vines’ lie? Wynns drinkers deserve better than this.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2008