Coonawarra, with its famed terra rossa soil on a prized limestone base, has been recognised for decades as one of the world’s best regions for producing cabernet sauvignon. But understanding how to optimise the terroir to produce the best quality fruit has not always been easy. Coonawarra cabernet sauvignons of the 1980s and 1990s, for example, were often criticised for being too herbal or green in character. Paradoxically, as wine critic Huon Hooke explains, they often tasted herbaceous and overripe at the same time! (Coonawarra on the March by Huon Hooke, HuonHOOKE.com)
The dynamic team at Wynns Coonawarra Estate, led by Chief Winemaker Sue Hodder and Regional Vineyard Manager Allen Jenkins, realised that getting on top of the quality issue meant taking a close look at what was happening in the vineyard. And the way they approached the problem was interesting because it highlighted the benefits of marrying the latest vineyard management technologies with a return to some old fashioned, traditional practices like hand-pruning and hand-harvesting.
Inspired by the pure, ripe fruit flavours of Wynns cabernet sauvignons from the 1960s, Hodder knew that they needed to bring the older vineyards back into balance. Minimal pruning or imprecise machine pruning was replaced with focused hand-pruning that got rid of the dead wood and positioned the vines for more even fruit ripening. In some cases, radical surgery was required with some vines being chainsawed half way down their roots. (Who dares Wynns by Huon Hooke, Sydney Morning Herald, 10 August 2010)
Sophisticated techniques such as bud dissection analysis have made it possible to predict the next year’s crop load from the current harvest. Consequently, when yields are predicted to be high, the vines are bunch-thinned to improve fruit quality and lower the yields. Other high tech tools like near infrared aerial photography have made it possible to map vegetation density in the vineyard and determine how soil variation affects the ripening period. Consequently, even in a single vineyard, the fruit may be picked at different times and only when it is perfectly ripe.
In the winery, the processing facilities have been updated. Small batch fermenters have been introduced to allow for the separate fermentation of individual vineyards or plots within vineyards – a technique that further helps to preserve the nuances of terroir. Since 2001, single vineyards have been acknowledged on the labels in recognition of their unique character. Hodder estimates that up to 20 individual vineyards will eventually have label recognition. The current single vineyard release, the seventh in the series, is the Davis Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, a vineyard that in the past has been an important contributor of fruit for the iconic John Riddoch Cabernet Sauvignon.
In 2010 Hodder and Jenkins were named Australian Wine Gourmet Traveller’s Winemakers of the Year in recognition of the outstanding results they have achieved though substantial improvements both in the vineyard and the winery. In recent years high praise for the entire Wynns Coonawarra Estate range has gone a long way in restoring Coonawarra’s world class reputation for cabernet sauvignon.