WHEN WINEMAKER JOHN Wade made the 1979 Wynns Coonawarra Estate Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon, it was a 12,000 case blend. But not for long. Just before it was bottled, he was ordered to transform that blend into a 30,000 case blend, then forced to stretch that year’s Hermitage (shiraz) to similar limits. That simple anecdote tells a lot of what Wynns cabernet sauvignon is and pretty much always has been: a product of corporate design. When it is said that the Wynns cabernet of today is not what it once was, it is a statement not so much of the wine but of the person saying it. Wynns cabernet today is what it always has been: a commercial blend of remarkable quality, capable of taking a good deal of age, of soaring to impressive heights, and most of all of pleasing a wide spread of the wine marketplace. What it has never been is a limited run, only-the-best-will-do undertaking – it has always been the right product at the right price, and blessed be that truth.
When you sit down and taste through the whole damn lot of Wynns cabernets – all fifty years of them – the effect is simple but significant: it keeps your knees from jerking forward. If you’re worried about the quality or direction of Wynns cabernet today, don’t be. As a sweep of sweeping statements: Wynns cabernet was remarkably good in the 1950s; was even better in the 1960s as it built greater palate weight; fell away in the 1970s as a great reef of newly planted vineyards came on stream; and produced some of its finest wines in the 1980s (1982, 1986); but on the whole through that decade, particularly in the second half of it, was clobbered by oak. After 1991 it underwent the same kind of significant expansion that it had in the 1970s – though this time it better managed the transition to higher volumes, with greater consistency and far, far better management of tannins. By the end of the 1990s and into the early 2000s every vintage was good, though no vintage was outstanding.
This will soon change again. Wynns cabernet has always risen and fallen to the demands of the market: it’s a wine whose quality breathes in and out. It’s now in the process of breathing quality back in, as it did in the 1960s, and the 80s, and the early 90s.
To give a very simple idea though of how important and how remarkable Wynns cabernet is: in 1998, Wynns cabernet sauvignon was an 80,000 case blend, produced off vines with an average vine age of over twenty-five years. I dare say the world doesn’t produce too many 80,000 case cabernets averaging that vine age that need ten to fifteen years bottle age to sing – and which just about everyone can afford to buy. No wonder it holds such a legendary place in Australian wine.
Not that it always seemed this would be the case. Wynns’ first winemaker (under the Wynns name) was the then 21-year-old Ian Hickinbotham, who helped convince David Wynn to buy the estate in the first place. It’s fair to say that making a legendary wine was not in Ian Hickinbotham’s thinking: ‘Wynns had the stink of failure about it, and no one in the local community wanted to even work for it. The only way I could get labour at vintage was that I played footy for Penola, and was able to enlist seventy folk from the footy club to help get the vintage started.’
Hickinbotham picked the grapes not when they were at optimum ripeness, but when he could get the labour to do so. Because it was all hand-picked it also took a good long while to get it all in. Much of the fruit was picked underripe, at low Baume, then aged in big wooden vats. The wines had high natural acidity as a result, which partly explains their longevity. Acidity is a preservative.
Though shortage of labour wasn’t the only challenge.
‘There was no electricity. We had no method of analysis. There was no refrigeration’ – and on that point, not a great deal had changed by 1978, when John Wade arrived. He came to find that refrigeration still hadn’t reached Wynns Coonawarra, which made for very warm ferments – so warm that one year some wag stuck a ‘Monbulk Jam’ sticker onto one of the fermentation vats, because at times it seemed like that’s what they were making.
Wade recalls: ‘We’d go from fourteen Baume to zero in twenty-four hours, that’s how hot the ferments were running. I wasn’t too happy with this of course. And with such short fermentations, there wasn’t much time for the winemaker to try things.’ Wade also admitted that during the late 1970s and early 1980s, the winemaking team at Wynns was ‘champing at the bit’ to get access to new oak, and when it came the team attacked it with relish – to the detriment of some wines, particularly in the John Riddoch line of cabernets. This, of course, does not apply to either the 1982 John Riddoch cabernet or the 1982 Black Label cabernet, both of which are now drinking superbly, in a balanced, low-alcohol style. They are both beacons of what Australian and Coonawarran wine can be.
That word, balance, is the catchcry of today’s Wynns winemaking team, who now have their work cut out to build the wine’s esteem back to its former level. They will do so, but it will be no easy task – the wine market today is not like it has ever been. What Wynns has on its side though is real-life history (the greatest advantage in wine) and a swag of red-soiled vineyards – though why they don’t experiment with organics and biodynamics is beyond me. There is still a sense throughout Coonawarra that economy of scale is both king and queen of the area, which is a great thing but also, as a blanket practice, a waste of some of this country’s greatest vineyard soil. Wynns also has on its side an exceptional winemaker in Sue Hodder, who having been at the helm for ten years now, has the ability to both assert her control and make her mark.
Hodder grew up in Alice Springs. She knows red soils – she moved south, but kept her colours the same. ‘Wynns Black Label should fundamentally be our most important wine. It should be a full-bodied style, based on dark fruit. The absolute number one character though is the tannin profile.’
Drink an aged bottle of the 1991 Wynns Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon. Or a bottle of the current release 2005 Wynns Coonawarra cabernet sauvignon. They make cabernet look easy.
Campbell Mattinson’s book Why The French Hate Us: The Real Story of Australian Wine, will be released on 1 December 2007 (Hardie Grant $28.98)
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Wynns Black Label makes cabernet look easy
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Coonawarra on the comeback