James Halliday reflects on Coonawarra and Wynns Coonawarra Estate
“From 1910 to 1950, you can write failure across the face of Coonawarra”– so declared Bill Redman, who had been the sole winemaker in Coonawarra for those 40 years. The magnificent stone winery built by John Riddoch between 1891 and 1897, and the 52 hectares of vineyard, had been purchased by Adelaide distiller Milne & Co in 1917 for the purpose of making brandy.
e sole client of the Redman family winery and vineyards was Woodley’s, an Adelaide wine merchant, which bought the wine in bulk, then bottled and labelled it under names such as St Adele Claret. Coonawarra today is still a remote wine region, and back then it was doubly so.
In 1945, the South Australian government commissioned a report on the suitability of land near Coonawarra for a large soldier settlement scheme for grape growing
(having introduced a vine-pull scheme nine years earlier). e advice was sought from JL ‘Jock’ Williams, longterm lecturer in viticulture at Roseworthy Agriculture. Woodley’s wanted Redmans to continue making wine for them, and urged the winery to preserve the status quo. An impasse resulted.
Jock Williams wasted no time. He knew that Samuel Wynn was building his far-reaching wine business and on Christmas Eve, Jock wrote to Samuel proposing a joint venture to acquire the Riddoch winery and vineyards. In his letter he said, “I consider Coonawarra is destined to become Australia’s premier dry wine area” (as opposed to forti ed wine). Samuel decided to use his nancial and human resources to the development of his then-large Modbury facility in the suburbs of Adelaide. He was overseas in 1951 when an advertisement appeared in the Australian Brewing and Wine Journal o ering a vineyard, wine cellar and distillery for sale. Son David Wynn commissioned a report from
Jock, winemaker Ken Ward and recent Roseworthy graduate Ian Hickinbotham. Apart from pointing out that the business
had never generated a pro t, they wrote: “In view of the difficulties of management and labour associated with wine growing in the area, together with the hazards of frost and downy mildew, the property cannot be considered as suitable for viticulture” – a remarkable about-face by Jock. David Wynn trusted his instincts and decided to proceed and buy the business in July 1951, prompting his father to send a three-word telegram: “Admiring your courage.”
And so Wynns Coonawarra Estate was born.
The rest is not just history; Wynns and the Coonawarra region have had their ups and downs, the problems of management and labour identified in the 1951 report at times acute. But it’s in a good place now in its true role as mother of Coonawarra.
Sue Hodder heads its winemaking team, having arrived in 1993, becoming chief winemaker in 1998 – the same year Sarah Pidgeon joined as winemaker. e duo works closely with quietly spoken viticulturist Allen Jenkins, who is responsible for all Treasury Wine Estates vineyards on the Limestone Coast.
Each time I visit Wynns, I learn about the advances being made in understanding how literally every vine in their 500 hectares of plantings is ripening its grapes
(the area in bearing is less than 500ha due to replanting). Aerial infrared photography seemed to provide so much information of the growth patterns in each block of vines there was little further one could go. It’s still useful, but the use of solar panels in the vineyard now provides a continuous ow of temperature on a minute-by-minute basis, 24/7. Drones are now collecting intricate data that would have been impossible and/or endishly expensive ve years ago. Thermography is the new buzzword and advances in bud dissection are yielding another level of understanding what the coming vintage holds in store. When the grapes arrive at the winery, they are individually sorted by an optical sensor that blows a minute burst of compressed air at any diseased, unripe or overripe grape, blowing it o a conveyor belt of the destemmed but not crushed grapes. Wynns is one of only two wineries in Australia that currently has the equipment; the other is Margaret River’s Cape Mentelle. e selection of new French oak is no longer ‘hit and miss’, but a carefully planned selection of di erent coopers, forests and degrees of toast.
Over the past 30-plus years, I have participated in a number of vertical tastings of Wynns cabernets and shiraz, which have borne witness to vintage conditions/variations; to di erences in managing the vineyards and the winery; to changes in public taste; and to miracles that occur every now and then. e 1955 Wynns Michael Hermitage is one of the great wines of the 20th century; the 1963 Mildara Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon (nicknamed Peppermint Pattie) was simply extraordinary in its prime.
e broader message of these vertical tastings (notably the 50-vintage event in 2004, and the 60-vintage follow-up this year) puts beyond doubt the fact that the wines of today are better than those that have come before, and the wines to come will be better still. At the most basic level, the adoption of screwcaps has given a cast-iron guarantee of far greater and far longer assured quality. And indeed the English wine trade saying of bygone years that “ ere are no great old wines, only great old bottles” was proved again and again with the pre-screwcap wines. Wynns progressively moved to screwcap between 2004 and 2006, and the wines tasted were cork-sealed until 2006. e ratings (independent of closures) paint a vivid picture of the impact of the move. But I have four di erent series of tasting notes for many of the wines, so I have created a snapshot of each vintage derived from tastings over time. For verticals of this nature I use a ve-star system, not points.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate recently held a tasting to mark 60 vintages of its Black Label Cabernet, prompting James Halliday to re ect on the history of the region and this winery.
“Over the past 30-plus years, I have participated in a number of vertical tastings of Wynns cabernets and shiraz, which have borne witness to vintage conditions/variations; to di erences in managing the vineyards and the winery; to changes in public taste; and to miracles that occur every now and then.”