Exploring the Winning Heights of Coonawarra

Date: 15 February, 2022 / Author: Sumi Sarma

Photo credit: Wynns Coonawarra Estate

‘You are not judged by the height you have risen but from the depth you have climbed.’ Frederick Douglass

During a time when vineyards are reaching for higher heights, Coonawarra stands proudly and firmly with its feet on the ground, producing a range of supremely iconic wines while still located on a relatively flat Australian landscape. The secret to its success lies in the uniqueness of its terroir and the rich social history behind its adaptive wine growing, and has led to an enviably successful position in the world of wines.

Meeting up with Wynns’ senior winemaker, Sue Hodder, through the wizardry of Zoom in an otherwise pandemic-struck world, her introduction to the cool climate of Coonawarra was so vivid that it flew me into a metaverse of oceanic landscape. She explained that with no landmass between Australia’s southeastern coast and Antarctica, regular upwellings in the Pacific Ocean pull in huge surges of cold current from the deepest parts of the ocean floor across the Great Australian Bight, cooling the air above it as it flows towards the land. Coonawarra lies directly in the path of this chilled air and is thus miraculously transformed into a cool climate region. While the rest of Australia bakes at an average of 30˚C, temperatures here usually never go above 20˚C during the growing season. A natural geographical gift that facilitates grape growing.

Terra Rossa soil

And that’s not all. Located on the Limestone Coast of South Australia, the region has a land-shaping history that endows it with great grape-growing qualities. Ancient soils formed during successive ice ages thrust pressure upon each other and eventually transformed into sea beds, then subsequently into layers of fossilized limestone. On top of this, successive weathering deposited clay and loam that oxidized over time, causing a red-coloured top-soil, now famously known as Coonawarra’s ‘Terra Rossa’. Perfectly suited for grape growing, Terra Rossa soil has the capacity to hold water as well as to let it drain deep into the limestone below, forcing vine roots to dig deep down during periods of low rainfall. The result from the vines, subtly stressed in this way, is deeply concentrated fruit. And while the cool climate delays fruit ripening, it also keeps acidity at its peak for much longer.

Wynns is probably one of the few vineyards that has all its vineyards located within Coonawarra’s gifted Terra Rossa soil zone – an epic example of ‘location, location, location’. Who would have thought such a tiny region, only 25 kilometres long and 2km wide, could become famous for its distinctive and age-worthy wines? And further on, if Coonawarra can continue to stand alongside the world’s meritorious wines, credit should go to the hard work of the producers who have got together and forged a focused and passionate growth strategy to bring out the region’s true potential.

I remember Wynns as an already-established brand in Asia, on a par with iconic Bordeaux wines, at Watson’s Wine cellars when I first tasted it in Hong Kong in 2005.

Wynns’ senior winemaker Sue Hodder
Wynns’ senior winemaker Sue Hodder
The tasted three wines
The tasted three wines

Here are three Wynns Cabernet Sauvignon wines that I have tasted recently:

The Sidings 2019, £15
Named after the railway siding built by John Riddoch, the Scottish pioneer and the visionary who laid the foundation for Wynns. Grapes for this wine are picked from a collection of the best vineyards, fermented in stainless steel tanks and then aged for a year in old French oak barrels. This style aims to highlight the fruit component and vibrancy of the region. An easy drinking wine, it certainly classifies as top quality among entry category wines, striking a harmonious balance between baked black cherry fruit and herbal essence of sage and eucalyptus. Acid levels are crisp and tannins are soft and fleshy. A fresh and fruity wine that also displays typicity of the region, the wine is most welcoming with canapés, hors d’oeuvres and with starters such as filo pastries, blini platters and croquettes, complementing subtly to the occasion. Available widely at Tesco, The Winery Collection.

Black Label 2019, £30
Taking it up a notch is Black Label, which, in 2017, celebrated its 64th anniversary with a tasting of back vintages, toasting to the history of the region and the women at Wynn’s who have enriched the land through their contributions. Grapes are picked from 35-year-old vines and from new vines that were replanted in 2003. Rejuvenated with superior clones the new vine habitat has thrived and has bolstered the fruit quality across the board, adding concentration and freshness in the wine. A focused, medium bodied and rounded wine, showing complex notes of pepper, cloves and vanilla from 1.5 years of ageing in a mix of new and old French oak barrels and backed by firm and fine-grained tannins that add muscle to the wine. A delicious deep ruby wine that is tempting with winter-warming dishes such as mushroom ravioli, eggplant parmigiana, baked pork chops and chicken pot pie.

John Riddoch 2018, £100
The John Riddoch wine is the pinnacle of the Wynns range, made in select vintages and displaying the fine craftsmanship of the winemaking team, Sue, Sarah and Chris who work tirelessly through a stringent barrel selection regime to create this top-end wine. For this vintage only two of the best vineyards made it to the final blend.
The wine is multi-dimensional, opening through layers of primary red plum fruit notes, revealing complex vanilla, clove, subtle toast and finishing with savoury tobacco and game savouriness. A powerful yet understated elegance accompanies the graphite-edged texture of this iconic wine. No wonder it has found its way into Bordeaux’s prestigious La Place distribution network – the first Australian wine to do so. You can find the wine at Harvey Nichols, Majestic, Frazier’s Wine Merchants and The Winery Collection. I recommend that it makes it into your cellar for a special occasion!

The social stories associated with this region can also be enjoyed in the book Imagining Coonawarra: The story of John Riddoch Cabernet Sauvignon (2020) by Andrew Caillard MW

Sumita Sarma is a wine buyer and marketing specialist with a decade’s experience of working across Asian and European wine markets. She runs her own publishing and consultancy company, Sumilier, and is an advisor for high net-worth private clients. Besides wine, Sumi also holds a chartered accountancy qualification and is on the board of the Circle of Wine Writers as treasurer.

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