Courtesy of Mornington Peninsula Vignerons

Consistent Coonawarra

A new vintage of Wynns Coonawarra Estate John Riddoch Cabernet Sauvignon prompts Andrew Caillard MW to explore the region’s fascinating history.
Andrew Caillard MW

Wynns Coonawarra Estate John Riddoch Cabernet Sauvignon is regarded by most wine collectors as an Australian First Growth with a distinguished track record of critical acclaim and secondary wine market performance.

The wine, based on the finest parcels of fruit, was imagined by winemaker John Wade (who later founded Howard Park) after a visit to Bordeaux. The first vintage in 1982 created a sensation around Australia and promised to reinvigorate Coonawarra.

It was (and still is) plush, supple and beautifully integrated with a high proportion of new oak. While it was different to all that preceded it, the 1982 Wynns John Riddoch now belongs to a lineage of landmark Coonawarra vintages that go back to the late 19th century.

When the 1895 Coonawarra Vineyards Claret was produced at the newly built Coonawarra Cellars it began a modern Australian wine tradition based on science, commerce and community spirit. Isolated from the political and social centres of colonial Australia the Coonawarra Fruit Colony struggled against the odds.

The lack of decent infrastructure and political backbone guaranteed that the region would fail during the first half of the 20th century. Nonetheless producers, particularly Woodley’s, sourced wine secretly from the region for decades.

The 1933 Woodley’s St Adele Claret, which won the best claret at the 1936 Brewers’ Exhibition in London, was entirely a Coonawarra wine. The lighter style reds of the region polarised opinion but after the Second World War a new outlook prevailed particularly with the influx of new immigrants and returned soldiers.

The development of modern claret styles, particularly Grange and St Henri, inevitably led Penfolds to Coonawarra. Encouraged by Bill Redman (who had single-handedly kept Coonawarra’s wine aspirations in play), Max Schubert experimented with cabernet sauvignon and shiraz, famously producing the historic 1962 Penfolds Bin 60A Coonawarra Cabernet Kalimna Shiraz.

But it was David Wynn, with the support of his father Samuel Wynn, who brought a sense of destiny and aesthetics to the Coonawarra region after buying Chateau Comaum and vineyards from Woodley’s in 1951.

Aside from the enduring Richard Beck-designed labels, ground breaking back-label regional map and superb marketing, David Wynn also encouraged winemaking imagination. The Estate’s first winemaker Ian Hickinbotham was the first person to induce malolactic fermentation in Australian commercial winemaking.

Wynns Coonawarra Estate was increasingly linked to the growing reputation of cabernet sauvignon; especially during the 1970s. Because of longstanding quarantine restrictions imposed by South Australia from 1875 (to prevent the spread of phylloxera and other pests and diseases), new vine stock was sourced from within the state including the valuable 19th-century Reynell selection cabernet sauvignon and other heritage assortments. Coonawarra reds increasingly improved.

In 1973 Penfolds nearly released another Bin 60A type wine, but corporate shenanigans saw that project die. Wynns cracked the Jimmy Watson Trophy with its spectacular 1976 vintage. This wine showed the sublime combination of terra rossa soils, technical advancement, skilled winemaking, investment in oak barrels and the class of cabernet sauvignon. Around this time Coonawarra became famous among international observers as “the Medoc of the Southern Hemisphere”.

During the 1990s the region lost its compass. The public dispute between winemakers surrounding the Coonawarra boundary was a wrestle between corporate egos, protectionists and scaremongers. The precious weathered limestone terra rossa soils and the exemplary Coonawarra reputation were put at risk. Machine-managed vineyards, mass production and cheap red wines, many based on inferior black soils and infused with overt minty eucalyptus notes, proliferated.

Wynns John Riddoch, on the other hand, has always been consistently in tune with Coonawarra’s fine wine aspirations. The investment in precision viticulture, and the extraordinary work of Allen Jenkins and the winemaking team of Sue Hodder and Sarah Pidgeon during the 2000s are a textbook example of how ingenuity and contemporary intuition respectfully build on the vintages, efforts and knowledge of previous generations.

Generous, supple and all elements beautifully integrated, the 2015 and 2016 John Riddoch vintages are back-to-back gems that resoundingly resonate the scent, voice and heart of Coonawarra. These are lovely wines with superb cellaring potential.