Wynns legacy spans 50 years

By Jane Faulkner
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Wynnes Coonawarra Estate Winery, Coonawarra

Wynnes Coonawarra Estate Winery, Coonawarra

Wynnes Coonawarra Estate Winery, Coonawarra
Wynnes Coonawarra Estate Winery, Coonawarra

It’s not at all necessary to point out the significance of heritage to Sue Hodder. She gets it. Besides, a tasting of 48 Wynns Coonawarra cabernet sauvignons spanning 50 years has perfectly highlighted that point while also revealing just how beautifully some Australian wines can age.

There would be very few producers who could organise such a line-up; then again, Wynns has a special place in our vinous history. So as chief winemaker, Hodder structured the 2004 tasting as a celebration of the famous black label cabernet sauvignon.

“There’s no doubt that what makes Wynns so special is its heritage. I can’t overstate it,” says Hodder while reflecting on that 2004 tasting. “To have 50 years of single vineyard wines is such a privilege. We can pull out bottles from the ‘50s and invariably those wines are interesting and vinous. It never ceases to amaze me that we still have those vineyards so we should never take them for granted.”

The tasting began with the first commercial release a 1954 (minus the poor vintages of ’61 and ’63 as none was produced) finishing with the 2004. It was unanimous that the 1991 was the highlight but only just pipping the ’54.

While some might have been in awe of the age-ability of these wines, not so Hodder.

“I really love cabernet. It’s such a noble variety that really reflects its terroir; it has such a strong presence with its combination of structure and tannins. It’s an enduring grape and an enduring wine that ages so well.”

The history of Wynns actually started with Scottish pioneer and Penola legend, John Riddoch who planted the vineyards in 1891, then five years later completed the gabled winery. In 1951, two Melbourne wine merchants, Samuel and David Wynn, recognised the potential of that patch of famous terra rossa soil and bought the vineyards and winery. Wynns Coonawarra Estate was born.

There have been some outstanding winemakers since, including the great Norm Walker who made the ’54 (by the way, he’s Nick Walker’s father, from O’Leary Walker fame in the Clare Valley) but Hodder is, perhaps, the one who has really elevated the wines to another level. Finesse is at that core.

While she’s an intuitive winemaker, Hodder is also a highly intelligent one. She knows that success all starts in the vineyard, which is why she’s quick to point out Wynns’ achievements are a joint effort and that means including Allen Jenkins in conversation. He’s the long-standing regional vineyard manager.

The work in the vineyards particularly in the last six years has been the most overarching factor, she says. In part, the prolonged drought has prompted the team to adopt more sustainable viticultural methods including more precise soil moisture management and greater attention to vine health. The hard work being done now, despite uncertain climatic times, will ensure the future survival of these vineyards.

“We just didn’t know how precious our vineyard resources were in the 1990s,” confesses Hodder. “But we do now and we do need to modify our practices to ensure we have these vineyards for another 30 years or more,” she says.

Rejuvenation

Ironically, it was the dreadful ’02 vintage that was the wake-up call. It was one of the coldest on record. One of the most unpleasant wine tastes is unripe cabernet sauvignon where the volatile compound, methoxypyrazine, is accentuated becoming a harsh amalgam of green bitter fruit and tannins most noticeable on the nose as it resembles that herbaceous tomato-leaf character. After that vintage, there was intensive “vineyard renovation” says Hodder that included removing virus-affected vines and dead wood, cutting back old vines and replanting. We are now seeing the results in the wines; even two years later, the old vines produced better quality fruit.

“As a result of all the work in the vineyard and the response of our vines to that rejuvenation, the wines are brighter, have more supple tannins and while they are more drinkable earlier, their cellaring potential won’t be compromised.” Thanks also to Hodder, Wynns is involved in an important tannin study with various organisations including the Australian Wine Research Institute.

While cabernet sauvignon sales haven’t plummeted, the variety has taken a back seat of late partly because of a trend towards wines that are immediately more food friendly such as pinot noir, even the availability of imported wines and varietals, although shiraz still reigns supreme but mostly because cabernet really needs to be aged to fully express itself (Hodder agrees seven years is a fair starting figure) as then tannins mellow becoming silkier, oak softens and the wine becomes more complex and complete. Sure she can appreciate young cabernet, Wynns’ ‘04 and ‘05s are stunning and incredibly approachable, but time does highlight the variety’s inherent beauty.

No doubt cabernet sauvignon dominates the Coonawarra landscape however, Wynns make outstanding shiraz, including the flagship Michael that’s only produced in exceptional vintages akin to the John Riddoch cabernet sauvignon, plus chardonnay and a very smart riesling. It’s only fair to have a refreshing wine to enjoy during the warm Coonawarra summers. Hodder adds that riesling has long been an important part of the Wynns story. 

Red centre start

Her involvement began when she joined in 1993 and became chief winemaker five years later. While Hodder was destined for life on the land, a love of wine came a few years after studying agricultural science at university in Adelaide during the early 80s. She actually grew up in the non-wine growing area of Alice Springs where her father was a scientist with CSIRO and her mother a school teacher. It was during an extended two-year working holiday in London that wine became the focus.

While working at a wine shop, Hodder was exposed to and tasting extensively wines from Europe. Yet only two wines from Australia featured on the shelves – from Rosemount and Brown Brothers. Her path then unfurled rapidly. She finished graduate winemaking studies, won a Penfolds viticultural scholarship, then began working at Seaview with legendary sparkling winemaker Ed Carr (now at Constellation Wines) before spending three years at Seppelt Great Western en route to Wynns. She couldn’t be happier.

Hodder has this rare ability to strike a balance between the scientific rigour of her work with a poetic understanding of Wynns’ legacy and all the while being able to articulate it perfectly. With someone like that at the helm, this Coonawarra producer can only continue to flourish.  
 

 

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  • Coonawarra (SA)

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