Majella of Coonawarra — from sheep farming to winemaking

At Chateau Shanahan we’ve experienced cellaring joy and disappointments over the years. But consistent pleasure in older bottles of Majella Coonawarra cabernet sauvignon and The Malleea cabernet shiraz, reminded us of this marvellous winery’s interesting transition from farming to grape growing to winemaking.

When brothers Brian and Anthony Lynn made the first Majella wine in 1991, they’d been growing grapes in Coonawarra for twenty-three years. They’d lived all their lives in the area. They’d grown fat lambs and wool long before vines took root on the family farm in 1968. Yet their first step into winemaking was, perhaps, even more tentative than their first step into grape growing had been two decades earlier.

Then, at least, there was a pre-arranged buyer for the grapes. Eric Brand, a good mate of George Lynn (Brian’s and Anthony’s late father), encouraged the planting of six acres of shiraz and agreed to buy the grapes to help satisfy a winemaking contract with Hardys.

The first Majella wine, a 1991 Coonawarra Shiraz, however, had no guaranteed buyers. If you’d asked Brian or Anthony where the business was headed when the wine was released in 1993, they’d not have foreseen Majella’s complete transition from contract grape grower to leading wine estate in just ten years.

People ask, were we visionary?” says Brian ‘Prof’ Lynn. “And I say, not really”. But Majella’s huge success wasn’t just blind luck either. It’s a success that grew from strong, deep roots in the Coonawarra landscape and community, fertilised by experience, skill, imagination, good management and – during it’s first decade of winemaking at least – by impeccable timing.

The release of Majella’s 1991 shiraz in 1993 came at the beginning of the unprecedented global red-wine boom. The wine was, and still is, a brilliant drop, beautifully packaged (designed by Barbara Harkness) and realistically priced.

I recall my first taste of it on a wine-buying trip to Coonawarra with David Farmer in September, 1993. At a little cook-your-own steakhouse, Nibs – owned at the time by Bill Brand and ‘Prof’ Lynn – the new Majella label caught our eye amongst all the familiar names on display. Who the hell was this we wondered? Nice label.

Nice wine, too – a classy drop, packed with Coonawarra’s unique ripe-berry flavour. Whether it was our huge grins or the label that prompted Patricia Lynn (Prof’s and Anthony’s mum) to approach us, I’ll never know, because we never met again. She died a few years after our visit.

But this former mayor of Penola (the little town at Coonawarra’s southern tip) turned on the warmth and charm for her Canberra visitors with tales of wartime Canberra. “I was the minutes secretary to the Minister’s secretary’, she told us of her job with the Minister for Supply. She knew ‘Chif’ and Nugget Coombs and that “after the bombing of Leeds, that Lithgow was the only remaining .303 manufacturing plant in the allied group”.

And she told us of Majella. In the post war years she met and married George Lynn, moved to the Coonawarra area where they produced wool on a property just to the south of Penola. One night Patricia told George she wanted to name the property ‘Majellan’ – after St Gerard Majellan, the catholic patron saint of mothers. She’d lost her first child and wanted another.

George’s response was pragmatic. ‘Majellan’ was too long to stamp on a wool bale. End of conversation – although a memorable night in other ways, recalled Patricia. Next morning, George offered a solution. Drop the “n”. And so Majella was born as a wool farm. In 1960 it became a fat lamb farm, too, when George bought his uncle Frank’s block in the heart of Coonawarra. In 1968 Majella became a vineyard. And in 1991, a wine name.

The Lynn family’s move into grape growing, recalls Prof, followed a high school geography project on Coonawarra viticulture. With luminaries such as Bill and Jock Redman, Eric Brand and Phil Laffer advising him, the young Prof’s interest shifted from the theoretical to the practical.

With advice and encouragement from Eric Brand of Laira vineyards, Prof and his dad planted six acres of shiraz in 1968. The propagated the vines from cuttings taken, on Bill Redman’s advice, from Arthur Hoffman’s ‘North Block’ (now Redmans). Prof remembers Bill Redman saying, “I’ll take you to Hoffman’s, because they’re the best shiraz in Coonawarra”.

Similarly, when the Lynns decided to add cabernet sauvignon to the mix old Jock Redman of Wynns advised them to take cuttings from vines he’d marked with white paint. These, he said, produced the best wine.

With a steady contract to supply grapes to Eric Brand, the Lynns were happy with those early grape-growing years. But in 1974 George became ill. By the time he died in 1976, the Brand contract had ended and nobody wanted Coonawarra shiraz – only cabernet, which made up only one third of the Majella plantings.

If we didn’t have wool, we would’ve gone broke”, says Prof. Business improved in the early eighties when Majella began selling grapes to Wynns – an arrangement that lasted until vintage 2001. And it was grapes that saved the Lynns in the wool crash of the late eighties and early nineties. “We would’ve gone broke without grapes, then”, laughs Prof.

So, by the time Majella made its first wine in 1991, it had served a long, tough apprenticeship learning how to grow high-quality wine grapes good enough to sell even in tough times.

Mature red vines on a good Coonawarra plot, and the ability to produce top grapes, says Prof, is the family’s biggest asset – entrusted, in the early days, to his old mates, the Brands and their talented winemaker, Bruce Gregory.

Then in 1999 Gregory joined the Lynn family full time at Majella’s new winery, next to the cellar door, opened in 1996.

Following its complete transition to winemaking a decade ago, Majella cemented its reputation as one of the region’s great winemakers. The wines all bear the regional style stamp.

Not surprisingly cabernet sauvignon ($33), Coonawarra’s great specialty, now sparks more interest than the shiraz ($30) that blazed the way for the label from the 1991 vintage. And the $75 long-lived flagship, The Malleea, a cabernet shiraz blend, hits profound heights. The same blend, in the $18 The Musician label , provides drink-now pleasure without diminishing the Coonawarra signature.

As the world’s wealthiest people pay ever greater prices for Bordeaux’s cabernet-based reds, we can get on quietly drinking estate-made Majella, and other Coonawarra and Margaret River reds, of comparable quality, at a fraction of the price.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2011