Wynns Coonawarra Estate winemaker Sue Hodder on Black Label Cabernet & more: Season Three, Episode Three

One of Australia’s best known winemakers, Sue Hodder of Wynns Coonawarra Estate, joins us in this episode of the Drinks Adventures podcast.

Sue has just completed her 27th vintage at Wynns, where she oversees production of some of Australia’s most cellared wines, including Black Label Cabernet.

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Together with Wynns’ renowned viticulturist, Allen Jenkins, Sue has transformed the quality, and subtly redefined the style of the company’s flagship Coonawarra reds.

Sue and Allen were joint winners of the 2010 Gourmet Traveller WINE Winemaker of the Year Award, among many other accolades Sue has picked up in her esteemed career.

Wynns Coonawarra Estate winemaker Sue Hodder
Wynns Coonawarra Estate winemaker Sue Hodder

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Theme music ‘Sandbox’ by Rudists.

More:
Canned wine trend is coming to Australia, says Tom O’Donnell of Riot Wine Co
Penfolds Wines’ evolution with wine writer Jeni Port and fortified winemaker James Godfrey

Wynns Coonawarra Estate winemaker Sue Hodder: Full transcript

JAMES ATKINSON: Sue Hodder, thanks so much for joining me on the Drinks Adventures podcast.

SUE HODDER: Great to be here, James.

JAMES ATKINSON: Wynns Black Label Cabernet, I’ve heard it said often that it’s one of Australia’s most cellared wines. Why do you think that is?

SUE HODDER: Yes. Wynns Coonawarra Estate Black Label Cabernet is one of Australia’s most cellared wines, and I think that’s to do with the fact that people know that it will age. It’s wine that’s available too. It’s not as if it’s scarce or hard to find. A lot of people put it into the cellar every year. We’re always looking for the old Black Label bottles, in particular the 1960s, they’re the ones that are drinking beautifully with a couple of exceptions. They’re of course low oak, moderate alcohol, medium bodied wines, but they’ve just held their fruit so beautifully. They’re really inspirational to us today, because we can drink them and know that they were never big blockbuster styles, but they’ve aged very well. The ’70s was really a era of growth and a lot of planting and young vines and perhaps over cropping, although many of the wines of the ’70s are a bit light and perhaps not as interesting, but in general most of them are still pretty fresh.

JAMES ATKINSON: What happened after that in the ’80s and the ’90s?

SUE HODDER: Well, we love a generalisation about decades and we’ve got to be careful with that as well. As a sweeping statement, when we did this 60 year tasting, we didn’t have any outright duds that are completely past drinkability. Now of course we had some cork variation, bottle variation, et cetera, and we did allow ourselves to check three or four bottles before we did the tasting, but we didn’t just keep opening endless bottles until we found a good one. The 1980s in general, we describe as wines that were more leafy, more obviously Cabernet-like as they say. Then in the ’90s we’d probably describe the wines as being bigger in structure and some more dark fruit. The 1990s were an amazing run of vintages in terms of the growing conditions and the resultant wines are bigger in stature and structure than the 1980s and riper.

Wynns Senior Winemaker Sue Hodder and Viticulturalist Allen Jenkins
Wynns Coonawarra Estate senior winemaker Sue Hodder and viticulturalist Allen Jenkins

SUE HODDER: The turn of the century was a profound time at Wynns Coonawarra Estate in that Allen Jenkins, our viticulturist arrived and he was not impressed to put it bluntly. We had too much dead wood on them. We had some trellises that were falling down. We’d started to rejuvenate this large area of evolving yard, but arguably not quickly enough. We started on that in the year 2000, and we didn’t make our John Riddoch wine for three years while we did that. That process commenced and it’s still ongoing, although nowadays we’re likely to do re-planting and that’s probably a phase that we’re in now.

SUE HODDER: We’ve replanted a third of our vineyards, a lot of vineyards with too much virus and dead wood in them. Also, some of them were all vineyards and not every old vineyard is a good one. The replanting that we’re currently doing is a lot more precise than I saw in the ’90s when we were just about expanding the vineyard area. A lot more alignment of soil type to irrigation and selection of clones and root stocks and trellises. So it’s going to be a pretty exciting time the next 20 years as these young vineyards are starting to come into quality production and we can consider them for Black Label.

JAMES ATKINSON: When you talk about Allen was unimpressed with the state of the vineyards when he got there, was that probably a common thing in that era that wine making companies weren’t investing enough in the viticulture side of the equation?

SUE HODDER: Most certainly, and coming off the ’90s which was a run of optimal growing conditions and vintages, and we had a large area so we had a lot to choose from, when you get some vineyards with very low crops, it’s not always proportional to quality. If you see a tree in the backyard with one apple on it, you think, well, what’s happened to that poor tree and the vine’s the same. Balanced vines have the right canopy to fruit ratio, and that differs from vineyard to vineyard. So we learn about what constitutes good vine balance and we weren’t seeing that when Allen arrived in a number of our old vineyards.

The heritage-listed winery and its famous gables at Wynns Coonawarra Estate
The heritage-listed winery and its famous gables at Wynns Coonawarra Estate

JAMES ATKINSON: It’s probably pretty unique that the team of yourself and Sarah and Allen have all had such long tenures at Wynn’s. Why do you think that is?

SUE HODDER: Yeah, so we’ve been working together for two decades. We do love it and we’ve got some amazing people working with Allen. Ben Harris, a really talented viticulturist, Nick Baverstock, Catherine Kidman, Kerry DeGaris, the latter two are PhDs who have a profound knowledge of viticultural developments and how they apply to our vineyards. And a lot of collaborations with various universities and agencies that we can do to understand what’s happening in our vineyards. We’ve still got a lot to do, but starting with excellent fruit is a very good position to be in.

JAMES ATKINSON: What about the actual wine making practices? You’ve been chief winemaker since ’98 I believe.

SUE HODDER: We’ve done an amazing amount in the vineyard and that’s been well documented, which is great and we’ve still got a lot more to do. But we’ve also done a lot in the winery too. We’ve got some new open fermentors, which we love. It’s an opportunity to keep small parcels separate and press them and evaluate them, which is really important when you’ve got a large area of vineyard with different corners and treatments and opportunities to make small parcels. We also have an optical berry sorter, which we’ve really appreciated, which gives us the opportunity to have a really clean or uniform sample, which is important for Cabernet, which can have the odd green berry popping up or shrivelled berry. We like to be able to select them out.

JAMES ATKINSON: And previously would have just been doing that by eye or manually?

SUE HODDER: Yes. We have selective harvesters, machine harvesters. We also do a bit of hand picking. So that would be done by eye. Yes, but really a lot of it would not have been sorted. So we’re relying on, evenness in the vineyard, which is a bit of an ask. Now we can’t put all our grapes through the berry sorter, but we do love the results on the wines that we do use that for.

JAMES ATKINSON: And so that just means you’re getting a bit more detail and just a higher quality in the fruit that you’re working with.

SUE HODDER: Yes, and with all vineyards, our aim is to have evenness so that we can go out and taste the fruit before picking and make a really confident decision that these grapes are ready to pick, and they’ll be suitable for our Black Label Cabernet. Now if we can do that at moderate sugar levels rather than having to wait for some of the berries, for example, that are green on the bunch to catch up to the others, if we can do that earlier when we think we’ve got evenness here at moderate sugar levels, that’s when we’ll get the style that we want. So we’ll end up with wines that have a reasonable alcohol and we like to be in the 13s or low 14s. They haven’t depleted all their acid yet and they still have a brightness to them. Now if all those things align, it’s great and we feel like we got a better chance of doing that with these older vineyards that are nice and even. Now the berry sorter gives us that added opportunity for evenness.

JAMES ATKINSON: And from what I understand, Wynns Coonawarra Estate is one of very few wineries in Australia that has one of those.

SUE HODDER: Yes. We’re one of the few that have the optical berry sorter. Some have another version of that which is also useful, but I’d like to get another one. I’m heading off to Bordeaux tomorrow and in a couple of weeks time they will have started their vintage and I’ll expect to see a few of those optical berry sorters in action over there.

JAMES ATKINSON: If you were to compare this sort of Cabernet you’re making, Coonawarra with that of Margaret River and that of Bordeaux, what are the sort of contrasts and some similarities that you see in those different styles?

SUE HODDER: If you would’ve asked me to compare the world styles of Cabernet 20 years ago, it was more clear cut. We could say that Napa styles were bigger shouldered wines and darker and the Bordeaux were savoury and even and Coonawarra was perhaps more minty and bright fruit. However, now all those old paradigms with climate change and different viticultural treatments seem to be less defined. And even within Coonawarra now, there’s a lot of variation in the styles that people are making. And I see that in Bordeaux and Margaret River, Napa. It’s probably more about each producer. We describe the Wynns Coonawarra wines as being medium-bodied with this dark cherry character and a fine structure. Now some of our neighbours are making bigger, darker wines, but some of my favourite makers in Margaret River and Bordeaux are making wines that I think would be quite similar to ours in weight and structure, but they have their own character or flavours.

JAMES ATKINSON: Would you say though that Coonawarra Cabernet is a bit bigger in style than Margaret River overall?

SUE HODDER: Bigger? No, I wouldn’t actually. I would say it’s more about flavours rather than weight because I think in both those regions you would see some finer, elegant wines and then bigger wines. I think it would be inaccurate to say that one is bigger. Good Coonawarra Cabernet has a real fruit purity and very bright, precise fruit flavours and aromas. Good Margaret River Cabernet has nice savoury density to it and evenness across the palate. To my mind, that’s how I would describe the differences in the best versions of each.

JAMES ATKINSON: People talk about how Coonawarra and Cabernet as well have both been a bit out of fashion as regions and styles of wine. Are you seeing that the tides starting to turn there a bit? Or maybe you don’t agree with that statement at all.

SUE HODDER: Often what people talk about and what happens are two different things. Cabernet of course is the most widely planted grape variety in the world and arguably in many, many areas it shouldn’t be grown. To grow cabernet in the best sites is really quite difficult, even though it’s a thick skin variety so it’s not vulnerable to diseases. But Cabernet can be plain and hard and green if it’s not grown in the right areas and with good viticulture and wine making. Good Cabernet that is balanced and age worthy has never really been out of fashion. And if you look at the market data and the trends and the great prices at the moment for good quality Cabernet, they’ve never been higher. I think it is inaccurate that it’s out of fashion.

JAMES ATKINSON: That’s one of these narratives that you just see said all the time by wine writers though I would say.

SUE HODDER: Well look, it can be, and I know that there are makers of Cabernet in some areas that are not known for the variety that are struggling to sell theirs. Climate change is not always right for Cabernet if it gets too hot and dry and hard, so I can understand that. But good quality Cabernet is not hard to sell. In fact, it’s in very short supply.

JAMES ATKINSON: We’ve got Wynnsday 2019 coming up. And one of the interesting releases this year is the O’Deas vineyard release, which is a field blend. Well what inspired that choice?

SUE HODDER: Each year we release a single vineyard wine and we have the list of about a dozen that choose from. And in 2016 we made a field blend from the O’Deas vineyard. Now that was planted in the 1980s, and it was a trial vineyard with several kinds of Cabernet and then Merlot Cabernet Franc and Malbec. And it was a warmer year for us and all these varieties miraculously aligned to be right at the same time. And so we picked and fermented them together after berry sorting. And now we have this O’Deas field blend from this nice little vineyard. It’s a three hectare vineyard that’s a genuine field blend of the three varieties, four varieties.

JAMES ATKINSON: Is that a bit of a leap of faith choosing to ferment them together?

SUE HODDER: Yes it is. But of course we don’t decide to bottle it until the last possible minute. So it’s had 12 to 15 months in oak and then we decide, well, this still looks great. It’s a great story. Beautiful little vineyard. Let’s go for it.

JAMES ATKINSON: It was obviously a big move to add a Black Label Shiraz into the Wynns range. What was the decision making process there?

SUE HODDER: Oh James, thanks for raising Shiraz, because it really is an important variety to us. And the oldest vineyards in Coonawarra are in fact Shiraz. The oldest we have is from the 1890s, a little vineyard called Undoolya and in recent decades of course the affinity with Cabernet has overshadowed Shiraz. And every Australian region of course has Shiraz. It’s ubiquitous in Australia, but we believe the best Shiraz vineyards in Coonawarra are equal to anything in Australia. We truly love them.

SUE HODDER: And climate change and a lot more viticultural scrutiny and detail has been really good for our Shiraz. Allen and his team have done an amazing job. They’ve removed some Shiraz vineyards that were in the wrong sites, and we’ve replanted over the last few years. 2010 was an incredible year round Australia and including Coonawarra and we had this beautiful Shiraz from old vineyards, so we bottled it into a Pinot or Syrah-like bottle. It’s an old vine wine, although we’ve only introduced the old vine onto the label in 2016. But we had all these lovely old Shiraz vineyards that we weren’t keeping separate or telling the story of, and the Black Label bottling gave us the opportunity to do that.

JAMES ATKINSON: It’s not a single vineyard wine. It is a combination of a few vineyards.

SUE HODDER: The Black Label Shiraz is not a single vineyard wine. However, we only use vineyards that are older than 50 years. And we have two vineyards, one of them planted in the ’20s and one from the 1890s and they’re the backbone of this blend.

Wynns Coonawarra Estate Luxury Collection 2019
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Luxury Collection 2019

JAMES ATKINSON: All of the wine critics who I follow are all sort of unanimous that the Wynns Coonawarra Estate wines have really continued to improve over recent years. From what you’ve told me about a lot of the work that’s still happening now, is they’re only going to be more improvement in the next decades.

SUE HODDER: Our wines should continue to improve as we seek to understand our vineyards. And we are forever on that endeavour, but also the wine making that we’re doing should continue to improve as we try new approaches with different yeasts and bacteria and natural ferments and what all that means for our wines. For example, yesterday we tasted all the oak trials that we have going on in the winery at the moment. We do these oak trials where we have two different wines that are put into 20 different oak types. And to taste them next to each other is an incredible tasting. It’s amazing the difference that different types of barrels can make, whether they be from different forests or toasting treatments, size of vessel. We work with six different French cooperages. I don’t mind American Oak, but it’s not suitable for our wines.

JAMES ATKINSON: And this coming Wynnsday release, what are some of the other inclusions this year that people should be looking out for?

SUE HODDER: For Wynnsday 2019, we have the 2017 Cabernet. And this was the only Cabernet that we made from that vintage. We didn’t make a John Riddoch or a single vineyard wine. And here we are with the Black Label, which we think will be a really good member of the Heritage lineup of Black Label Cabernet. We also have three wines from 2016 which was a warmer and drier vintage. The wines are quite fruity and rounder and softer. Two contrasting vintages.

JAMES ATKINSON: Well, Sue, thanks so much for joining me on the podcast. It’s been a fascinating chat.

SUE HODDER: Thank you, James.

Author: James Atkinson

Accomplished freelance journalist and copywriter specialising in the food, drink, travel and hospitality arenas. Australian International Beer Awards 2017 Media Award Winner and Certified Cicerone®. Founder Drinks Adventures podcast.

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