Wynns Coonawarra — vignettes of the great terra rossa

Wynns Coonawarra Estate winemaker Sarah Pidgeon flashed through Canberra recently, judging at the Winewise Small Vignerons Awards, but taking time out to show-off her new releases – some of the best drinking and most cellarable reds in the country.

Pidgeon works alongside chief winemaker, Sue Hodder. And together, since 2001, they’ve collaborated closely with Coonawarra vineyard manager Allen Jenkins, polishing the wines of Coonawarra’s best-known and biggest brand to a dazzling sheen.

They started with a makeover of the vineyards, then in time for the 2008 vintage, commissioned a new small-batch winery. The latter finally allowed separate harvesting and processing of small batches of grapes from the potentially thousands of sections of what is now Treasury Wine Estates’ 900-odd hectares in Coonawarra.

Those vast holding service Penfolds, Lindemans and Rosemount, as well as Wynns – so the benefits of segmenting the crop potentially flows through to those brands, too.

But for Treasury Wine Estates (formerly Foster’s), Wynns remains the main game in Coonawarra, with its big volume white label shiraz and black label cabernet, icon wines, Michael shiraz and John Riddoch cabernet, and a growing range of specialty, sometimes one-off reds, showcasing various sections of the vineyard.

Harold Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2001 was the first of these one-off specialties. It’s followed this year by a 2009 cabernet sauvignon from the Davis vineyard and new releases of shiraz and a cabernet shiraz blend from vineyards sprinkled along V and A Lane – Coonawarra’s traditional north-south dividing line.

Wynns’ eight new-release reds come from the 2008, 2009 and 2010 vintages – all good years in Coonawarra. It is, quite simply, a stunning line up, ranging from the charming, easy-drinking white label shiraz 2010 (with proven long-term cellaring ability) to the profound Michael Shiraz 2008 and John Riddoch 2008.

I review each of the wines below, based on a tasting with Sarah Pidgeon. The price range for any individual wine can be very wide. The lower prices are a combination of estimates, based on discounting of the previous vintages, or actual advertised prices of the new releases. The higher prices are Treasury Wine Estates’ recommended retail prices.

Given intense retail interest, especially in the white label shiraz and black label cabernet, we’re almost certain to see intermittent discount wars – so it pays to shop around. For example, the 2009 vintage of the shiraz recently specialled at $8.75 a bottle – an absurdly low price for a wine with proven capacity to cellar for decades.

Wynns Coonawarra Estate Shiraz 2010 $8.75–$23
Sarah Pidgeon says, “I was pleased to be there for 2010, it was such a wonderful vintage”. She describes it as an “even” year, without the temperature spikes of 2008 and 2009, with warm temperatures at flowering and veraison (when the berries change colour and begin to soften) and more moderate temperatures during the ripening period.

The wine’s probably a touch better even than the very good 2008 and 2009 vintages. And it continues in the same bright, pure and fruity style – a result of the vineyard overhaul, harvesting times and tweaking in the cellar, especially in regard to oak maturation.

Pidgeon says only about 10 per cent of the barrels are new, with the remainder two to three years old, and roughly one fifth of the wine not oaked at all – to provide “freshness and purity”.

And that’s what the wine has – a heady, floral aroma and freshness and purity of Coonawarra red berry flavours with a delicious, deep, silky texture. It’s medium bodied, seductively fruity and easy to drink now. But it has the substance to age gracefully for many years.

Wynns Coonawarra Estate V and A Lane Shiraz 2009 $40–$50
This is a selection of more powerful shiraz from vineyards along the east-west running V and A Lane. Here we see the benefit of the new small-batch winery, says Pidgeon. It enabled progressive harvesting and fermentation of fruit and consequent maturation in a range of different types of oak barrels. This gave the winemakers greater blending options.

The wine’s dense, crimson-rimmed colour points to its power and ripeness – a deeper, denser more brooding wine than the white label shiraz. It still has vibrancy and freshness, but spicy oak flavours and tannins weave through the fruit. But despite its greater dimension, the wine retains signature Coonawarra elegance.

Wynns Coonawarra Estate Michael Shiraz 2008 $69.35–$90
Pidgeon says the winemaking and grape growing teams think long and hard about what goes into Michael. It has to be “the best, perfect and the pinnacle” she says. It’s based on a couple of key vineyards on the eastern side of the Riddoch Highway, near the winery and “others we keep our eye on”, she says.

It’s an extraordinary wine – somewhat less chunky than the ones made in the nineties, more refined, but still deep and powerful. It’s aromatic and based on deep, sweet, blueberry-like fruit flavours, mingled with beautiful, cedary oak – a wine of rare dimension needing time to evolve. While the tannins are strong, they’re integrated with the fruit flavours, fine-grained and soft.

Wynns Coonawarra Estate V and A Lane Cabernet Shiraz 2009 $38–$50
Like the shiraz from V and A Lane, this wine presents a strong face of Coonawarra – a blend of many parts, including components matured in a range of oak from different areas and coopers. The oak gives a cedary note, but the cabernet drives the wine with its blackcurrant flavour and strong, fine, elegant structure – fleshed out subtly by the shiraz. This is another strong but elegant red.

Wynns Coonawarra Estate “The Siding” Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 $10.95–$23
Introduced to the range from the 2009 vintage, “The Siding” is an aromatic cabernet made specifically for early drinking. It captures a spectrum Coonawarra cabernet flavours from red-berry to cassis and even a slight touch of leafiness. Like the white label shiraz, some components see no oak and provide a purity and freshness that puts fruit to the fore. It’s very Coonawarra, very cabernet and very drinkable – right now.

Wynns Coonawarra Estate Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 $25–$35
Black Label is deeper coloured than “The Sidings”, but still limpid. It presents a deeper side of cabernet, including black-olive and cassis-like flavours, bound up in sweet, spicy oak. It’s a buoyant, balanced cabernet – generous but elegant, with fine, firm tannins. It remains one of Australia’s best value, long-term cellaring wines. It’s probably better now than it’s ever been. Watch for the discounting as occasionally dips below $20.

Wynns Coonawarra Estate “Davis” Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 $40–$50
The Davis vineyard, located just south of the winery, was planted to cabernet sauvignon in 1957. In 2008 wine from the vineyard “stood up as different”, says Pidgeon, so they kept it aside for individual bottling. This is an opulent and powerful cabernet, combining black olive and cassis varietal flavours with a particularly juicy, ripe, supple mid palate and powerful but soft tannins – opulence and elegance combined. An outstanding and potentially long-lived wine.

Wynns Coonawarra Estate John Riddoch Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 $69.35–$90
Sarah Pidgeon says the flagship cabernet comes from a diversity of vineyards sprinkled around Coonawarra, principally in the north, but can include southern vineyards in warmer years. Since John Riddoch’s reintroduction under Hodder and Pidgeon, the style has retained its power and intensity but become softer. The current release is densely coloured with a brilliant crimson rim – a deep and brooding wine in which the cabernet fruit and oak really sing in harmony. This is a great cabernet.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2011
First published 27 July 2011 in The Canberra Times