Wynns of Coonawarra: Where Cabernet Soars Solo

By David Lawrason

David Lawrason

David Lawrason

For all its fame and glory, cabernet sauvignon can be difficult to love. Yes, it can sport great aromatics and tannic structure – making it age-worthy and collectible – but in most cases and places, its gruff tannic exterior and penchant for greenness needs tempering, either by blending other grapes like merlot, and/or liberal oak ageing. There are few places in the world where it flies solo, and though many wineries attempt it, few do it well.

One of those successful places is in Coonawarra in South Australia, and one of those few wineries is Wynns, making their 100 percent cabernet Black Label for 60 years.

Winemaker Sue Hodder was recently touring Canada, pouring Black Label and other wines for enthusiasts and trade. We got a good look at the 2013 vintage Black Label, plus the famed John Riddoch Cabernet Sauvignon, the super-premium plot and barrel selection only made in better vintages.

What impressed me about both was their sense of purity and cohesion, their refinement within the context of cabernet’s thick skin. Cabernet’s blackcurrant was in perfect form, not underripe redcurrant, not overripe jam. There was a genteel minty greenness, not strident eucalyptus. There was subtle ferrous/graphite minerality. The tannins were firm but fine.

So the evening we spent with Sue Hodder in Toronto at least, and in other cities as well I suspect, was a great opportunity to try to understand more about her unparalled Oz success with cabernet. Earlier in the day, we sat down with Sue to capture her remarks on video:

The simple answer is that Coonawarra, situated in a remote southern semi-coastal area of South Australia, has the ideal climate for ripening this late-ripening variety. It is one of the cooler regions of Australia – prone to frost – but obviously plenty warm during the growing season. It fits cabernet’s growing cycle like a glove.

But so do other regions like Margaret River in West Australia, Alto Maipo in Chile, mid-Napa Valley in California and various aspects within the mountain slopes of Stellenbosch, South Africa. And let’s add the mid-Medoc of Bordeaux, the classic homeland of cabernet sauvignon. All make great cabernet-based wines, but even in these regions, merlot is often used to flesh them out.

Thus, the reason that Coonawarra can do solo cabernet so well must lie below ground, in its vein of famed terra rossa soil that pushes up close to surface, creating a cigar-shaped mound with elevation barely perceptible to the naked eye. Just below the unremarkable-looking surface lies a layer of red oxidized limestone that was once under the sea. And below that lies white pure limestone. All of these strata are close enough to the surface to be penetrated by the vine roots.

Sue Hodder - Wynns Coonawarra Estate

But what does the soil relationship mean for the wine? I asked Sue Hodder what the terra rossa is delivering – the minerality, that ferrous character? Nope. She simply said “balance”, the secret structural ingredient that cabernet misses in so many other places. It is created by the way the terra rossa mitigates water retention and vine vigour, growing balanced grapes, and in turn, produces balanced wines.

Perhaps the most measurable aspect of balance is the natural and consistent 13% alcohol level that shows up in the wines. Wynns wines are rarely “hot”, and in an era when climate change and consumer preference has been driving alcohol levels higher and higher, this is a welcome relief.

When Sue Hodder arrived to make wine in Coonawarra in 1993, fresh from viticultural work with Penfolds and a graduate degree in agriculture from Roseworthy, the vineyards at Wynns were already decades old. There were some great old vines, but management of the vines over the years had not been optimal. By the time she assumed the chief winemaker role in 1998 it was obvious to her that a major vineyard rejuvenation project was required. She enlisted the help of viticultural specialist Alan Jenkins and they set about replanting, employing new rootstocks, re-aligning, re-trellising and fine tuning the vines to become better conduits of the balance that the soils so naturally provided.

Wynns Coonawarra Estate

That process of tweaking and improving and learning about the soil relationship continues unabated today, partially to engineer the vineyard for global warming, but also to create even more complex and interesting wines.

“Even within the terra rossa zone we are identifying subtle soil differences” Sue explained. “It is leading us into projects like the V & A Lane Cabernet, and other single plot wines”. Another wine in the cabernet line-up is called The Siding, a younger vine, somewhat juicier, less structured cabernet that will be appearing in Canada this year.

Cabernet is the lynchpin of Wynns, but other varieties are also on the docket. A more supple shiraz, a grand single plot shiraz called Michael, a complex cabernet-shiraz called The Gables, the iconic re-striped cabernet-merlot-shiraz, a very fine riesling, and an effortless, fresh chardonnay that nowadays is showing very little oak.

Wynns Coonawarra Estate Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon 2013Wynns Coonawarra Estate John Riddoch Cabernet Sauvignon Limited Release 2010Wynns Coonawarra Estate V & A Lane Cabernet Shiraz 2012Wynns Coonawarra Estate The Siding Cabernet Sauvignon 2011Wynns Coonawarra Estate The Gables 2013

But the Black Label is the real storyteller for Wynns. A couple of years ago during the blind tasting challenge called So, You Think You Know Wine?, I was able to deduce this wine as a Coonawarra cabernet, right down to the correct vintage. But I missed a perfect 10 score by over-estimating the price by about $10. Not only is it an excellent wine and an excellent cabernet, it is an affordable lesson and pleasure.

Affordable enough to be the bedrock cabernet sauvignon in not only a budget minded cellar, but any wine lover’s cellar.



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