Wynns unleashes Coonawarra’s diversity

A few weeks back this column looked at the massive decline in value of Foster’s wine assets over the past decade. Despite the carnage, however, the business maintains a pulse. And within the newly named Treasury Wine Estates some of the key Australian brands remain intact from a grape-growing and winemaking perspective – albeit savaged by commercial blunders and the global financial crisis.

Despite serious write-downs, Treasury remains a large operation, “with over 12,000 hectares of vineyards, sales totalling 35 million cases of wine annually and revenue of over $2 billion” and employing over 4,000 people in 12 countries.

Its brands include Beringer, Chateau St Jean, Etude and Stags Leap in the United States; Matua Valley in New Zealand; Castello di Gabbiano in Italy; and, in Australia, Lindemans, Wolf Blass, Penfolds, Rosemount Estate, Wynns Coonawarra Estate, Seppelt, Coldstream Hills, Devil’s Lair, Annie’s Lane, Black Opal, Heemskerk, Ingoldby, Jamiesons Run, Killawarra, Leo Buring, Mildara, Pepperjack, Rothbury Estate, Robertson’s Well, Metala, Saltram, Seaview, St Huberts, T’Gallant, Little Penguin, Tollana and Yellowglen.

If once-great brands like Lindemans and Rosemount seem almost invisible, others retain clear style identities – based on surprisingly resilient winemaking cultures, backed by distinctive grape sourcing. Almost miraculously, it seems, great old brands, for example Penfolds, Wynns, Wolf Blass and Seppelt escaped the corporate blending vat. Thankfully, the quest for back-office synergies didn’t (or hasn’t yet) devastated these individual cultures as it did their sales and marketing arms.

The resilience demonstrates how top makers build their reputations on the types of wine they make. And a wine’s style always gets back to regions, grape varieties and human interaction with them – usually over great spans of time. This is the international vocabulary of fine wine.

Success never has been, never will be driven by glib marketing or brand management of the fast-moving-consumer-goods mould. With wine, the brand starts with the product and the rest – packaging, logos, advertising, promotional activities – all grow from it.

No one markets wine as well as the winemaker. Australia’s boutique industry demonstrates this consistently. And even in a declining Foster’s wine arm, the makers drove the marketing – taking their message to wine drinkers through the media and wine events.

In recent months, for example, we’ve seen Penfolds chief winemaker, Peter Gago, on his annual road show presenting the new vintages. He preceded the Wynns’ double act of winemaker Sue Hodder and viticulturist Allen Jenkins. And in the last week or two we’ve seen the Wolf Blass team out and about, led by chief winemaker Chris Hatcher.

We hope to visit the Barossa winemaking headquarters soon to piece together the bits behind all of Treasury Estate’s key brands. But in the meantime, let’s consider the extraordinary contribution Sue Hodder and Allen Jenkins made to Wynns Coonawarra wines over the last decade. They’ve effectively restructured the region’s biggest vineyard holding, spread over Coonawarra’s entire north-south, east-west spread.

Sue and Allen knew that while Coonawarra might look flat and homogenous, its subtle variations produce wines of surprising diversity. Ripening time varies by a couple of weeks from north to south – and even vary markedly within a single row of the same vineyard. Different clones of a variety produce different results, as do different soils. And a single soil type produces different grapes according to the season.

They studied vine behaviour and grape characteristics, following this through to the finished wine. Allen’s team rejuvenated old vineyards. Some, for example, after being “minimally pruned” for decades had thickly thatched crowns. Often these were lopped off completely and the vine trained up to new trellising.

Their work began early in the decade and progressed steadily under Southcorp ownership, Southcorp-Rosemount ownership and, ultimately, under Fosters. The focus was always to make better wine by producing better grapes.

Then in 2004 Sue conducted a tasting of all the Wynns cabernets back to the original of 1954, having done the same with the shiraz a few years earlier. While the tastings confirmed the great longevity and elegance of the Wynns style, they also gave Sue and Allen and their team’s great insights into the changing styles over the decades and ways to meld the best of the old days with modern practice.

As work progressed in the vineyards, Sue modified some winemaking practices and made the best of the segmented batches coming to the winery.

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 in 2008 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 couldn’t meet demand.

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 from 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. In other words, grapes could be picked at perfect ripeness.

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 it brings home all the work done in the vineyards over the last decade and already affects the quality and diversity of Wynns wines.

So, when a Wynns release comes around now, we’re treated not just to the long-established styles – like grey-label shiraz and black-label cabernet sauvignon – but a changing feast of wines from individual vineyards.

Each of these is made in small batches and has its own tailored oak-maturation. This year, for example, the release includes two reds from the V&A Lane vineyards – a shiraz and a cabernet shiraz blend and cabernet sauvignon from the Glengyle vineyard.

There’s a story behind each of these beautiful wines. And we’ll look at them next week.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2010