Learning lessons from the past to create inspired wines of the future is what gives one of the country’s premium wine regions its lasting advantage

Hip winemakers setting trends from the many new vineyards lining city fringes may arguably be the way of the future but, in the Coonawarra, there is a clear advantage to producing wines, says Wynns winemaker Sue Hodder. And that is the ability to learn from the lessons of the past.

“We’re so fortunate at Wynns that we can be inspired by our wines of the past by tasting the wines of the 1960s and 1950s,” she says. “We can really learn something about our vineyards and what we can do differently.”

The Coonawarra, halfway between Adelaide and Melbourne, is among Australia’s most famous cool climate regions for cabernet sauvignon. The isolated and relatively small wine region, just 5500ha, is covered by a narrow band of terra rossa soil. The iron-rich, red clays hide a valuable treasure, laid down millions of years ago when the flat region was still a shallow seabed – limestone. It’s a base benefiting only a few wine regions around the world. Among them are the internationally renowned Champagne and Chablis.

The soil condition is a perfect prerequisite for medium-bodied wine that retains the region’s famed capacity for ageing, says Hodder. “We think the terra rossa soil just has the right balance of physical and mineral properties to be able to grow nicely concentrated red wines, in particular, that age gracefully,” she says.

Many names on the bottles that come from the Coonawarra have been there for generations. Most are family businesses with some corporate exceptions, such as Wynns. Hodder, 53, who has moved from one red centre, Alice Springs, where she was born, to another, says the Coonawarra is a tight-knit community. “We live in a small farming community and that’s important to us here as well as to our wines because, for example, we tend to know what’s happening agriculturally around our region,” she says.

The Coonawarra plays an integral part in the early chapters of Australia’s winemaking story. John Riddoch, a Scotsman who made his fortune as a goldminer and, later, shopkeeper and wine merchant, took up a large landholding in the area in 1861 to produce wool. In 1891, the first vines were planted and Riddoch started selling land to aspiring grapegrowers from whom he would buy fruit. He built the Chateau Comaum, a large three-gabled stone winery which is now a national landmark, to process the fruit but, for most of the early 19th century, the fruit was considered fit only for generic port blends.

It wasn’t until 1951 when prominent Melbourne wine retailer David Wynn bought the old Comaum winery that the region’s fortunes turned around. The bottle labels still feature the same woodcut of the winery frontage that Wynn once commissioned.

Today, Wynns is one of Australia’s most-revered wineries, with an enviable collection spanning 60 vintages. Every year, the vineyard releases a much anticipated “black label”.

It’s a heritage Australian label which produced enough wine in the past that people will still be able to taste it far into the future. “Everyone who drinks wine knows Wynns,” Hodder says.

The winemaker, who has been at Wynns for 26 years, is proud that the winery is steeped in tradition. But only “as long as they are the right traditions,” she says. The winemaking team at Wynns, led by Hodder, fellow winemaker Sarah Pidgeon and viticulturist Luke Skeer, work endlessly to rejuvenate and improve their wines and, more recently, replanted huge tracts of vineyard. “We’re still in the wine region at the same winery but there’s been climate change and the vineyards have changed,” Hodder says. “We’ve changed our approaches in the vineyard. We’ve got better equipment in the winery.”

Hodder, who grew a passion for wine while working at London’s Oddbins in her early 20s, won the Woman of Inspiration category in the 2017 Australian Women in Wine Awards, announced in London in September. She and Pidgeon are still a rare sight in an industry crippled by a massive gender gap. Figures show women make up only 9 per cent of Australia’s formally trained winemakers. Among wine business owner-operators, the proportion of women is about 38 per cent.

But Hodder says the Coonawarra is different. Pam Dunsford, one of the country’s most accomplished winemakers, once called the region home. Others include winemaker Sheryl Henriks as well as viticulturist Cath Kidman. Nicole Reschke runs Koonara Wines, while Emma Raidis from Raidis Estate was a finalist in the owner/operator of the year category in this year’s Australian Women in Wine Awards.

Female migrants from Calabria and the Ukraine who had just arrived in Australia with little English and a need to make ends meet were tasked to plant some of the early vines in the region. One of those, Francesca Zema of the Zema Estate, is still a neighbour of Wynns. She arrived from Calabria in the 1950s and picked grapes for decades before she and husband Demetrio were able to afford their own 8ha vineyard in 1981.

The long history of women in the Coonawarra is another lesson of the past from which Hodder happily learns. “I admire them immensely,” she says. “I imagine they would have stamina.”

Hodder says the decade-long gender balance in Coonawarra has benefited the winemaking industry from early on. “I just feel it reflects real life better,” she says. “I don’t feel as if I’m working in a bubble at the winery. We’re working with a range of different approaches from men, women, different ages and different backgrounds and that’s good. It brings something different to what we do every day.”

WORDS – Nadja Fleet


Top tastes from the Coonawarra wine region

Raidis Estate 2017 Pinot Gris

We are seeing the 2017 new vintage whites and roses looking pretty keen and vibrant this year due to a cooler, lengthened harvest season. This sits in a lovely spot between both styles. The reason: while PGs are mostly white-neutral in colour, this has forged a place now as a pale pink version derived from the “gris” (bronze/grey) pigments in the grape skins. Understandably, this is very youthful and fresh-faced but already there is some body and presence building in the palate that will suit all manner of casual wine moments. $24

Di Giorgio Family 2016 Chardonnay

Welcome to one of the Coonawarra’s white secrets, its better chardonnay, here in a most pleasing outing where sensitive winemaking nous has brought the best out of the region’s cool climate fruit. White blossom, cut stone fruit and wafts of roasted cashew all begin proceedings, returning the favours when tasting; wild fermentation-induced characters and texture adding their support with a subtle darker spice and lightly grippy finish. Lovely styling and excellent value, and perfect with white creamy cheeses. $26

Majella 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon

Majella is a great family-owned producer now into its fourth generation, deeply connected to its vineyards and traditional wine styles. This displays all the aromatic markings of Coonawarra cabernet, with its cassis and blackberry notes that here have an added thrill in a lift of mint and a dark rose petal, while a seam of earthy forest leaf and fine, friendly tannins adds sophisticated complexities. This is ready to drink with pleasure now, and will only gather more character and depth over the next 5-10 years. $35

Penfolds 2015 Bin 128 Shiraz

While the region is best known for its cabernet, shiraz should not be dismissed, given that it will display cooler climate styling compared to more traditionally accepted warmer regions. This Penfolds Bin is one of the best-value reds in its latest set of releases, sensuous with dark fleshy smells and a licorice-lifted bouquet, which reveals itself again as you sip. Pure-fruited, dark-plum palate feels drive this totally delicious, rich, satisfying wine tinged with herb and spice reverbs in the finish. $45

Wynns Black Label 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon

This 60th anniversary release of one of the region’s most famous reds is the epitome of modern Australian cabernet: fragrant with crushed crimson to purple berries, then flowing through as you taste with juicy fruits and peppery notes, classic varietal leafiness and soft, delicate tannins supporting a long flavoursome finish. It’s an exciting, medium-bodied, mid-alcohol level (13.8%), modern cabernet that strikes a supreme balance of aromatics, fruit intensity and acidity, and structural tannin support. $45

Brands Laira One Seven One 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon

Recently coming under the Casella family umbrella as the Yellowtail owner broadens its reach into premium and regional winemaking, this flagship cabernet has in previous vintages cleaned up many Limestone Coast wine show trophies. Just released, this may follow suit, given its glorious precision and purity without too much of the regional mint influence often seen in other Coonawarra reds. Here, the cassis and blackberry also add a juicy and fleshy blueberry note to its fruit spectrum, with sage and thyme herbal elements, earthy backdrops and dusty tannins adding to its mesh of refinement. $80

WORDS – Tony Love