Top Cabernet Sauvignon From The Famous Red Soil Of Coonawarra In Australia

Wynns Coonawarra Estate will release its prestige wine John Riddoch Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 at La Place de Bordeaux in September. It is one of the top wines in Australia, made in small quantities from the estate’s best cabernet sauvignon grapes. We tasted the wine and also had a chat with head winemaker Sue Hodder.

Coonawarra was one of the regions that first gained a reputation for making high-quality wines in Australia. It is located on the southernmost tip of South Australia. “It is far away from most things”, says Sue. “It is five hours by car from Melbourne and also five hours from Adelaide.”

The comparison with Bordeaux is not farfetched. The climate is more moderate than in many Australian wine regions. It is actually similar to Bordeaux, says Sue. “In Coonawarra, we are cooled by the Southern Ocean as there is no land mass between us and the Antarctic.” The mean temperature during the hottest month of the year (January and July, respectively) is the same in Coonawarra and Bordeaux.

The famous soil of Coonawarra is called the terra rossa. It is an exceptional red soil, made up of limestone and about one-third clay. The limestone has weathered for thousands of years and has been coloured red by iron oxide. Sue attests to its importance for the quality of the vines. The topsoil is thin, and half a meter down, there is a layer of limestone, and further down, the vine’s roots find water which enables it to survive dry seasons.

Cabernet sauvignon is the famous grape variety of Coonawarra. The region makes some of Australia’s best. With the moderate climate and the free-draining soil, it thrives. 55 % of the vineyard surface in Coonawarra is cabernet sauvignon. “Cabernet sauvignon is a late ripening variety, so we often pick later than the cooler areas that grow pinot noir and chardonnay.”

John Riddoch is named after a pioneer in Coonawarra. In the late 1800s, John Riddoch planted the region’s first vines, mostly cabernet sauvignon and shiraz. After being plagued by problems in the first half of the 20th century, Coonawarra got a fresh start in 1951 when David Wynn and his father Samuel, a wine merchant, bought John Riddoch’s old abandoned estate and founded Wynn’s Coonawarra Estate.

The wine: John Riddoch Cabernet Sauvignon 2019

The first thing that comes to mind is balance. It has a good body, it is savoury but not overwhelming, it is structured with fine tannins, and there is a balance between all the components. In the aromas, there are black currants, tobacco and dark chocolate. Yes, Bordeaux definitely comes to mind.

It is delicious to drink already. And Sue agrees. “Yes, it can be drunk now; we want people to be able to drink it; there are no harsh tannins. It ages slowly and will have a long life if you want to keep it.”

The freshness is also quite remarkable. It has a high acidity for red wine (6,5 g/l), and the alcohol is a pleasant 13,5 %. “For John Riddoch, we use old vines, and they ripen with moderate sugar level. 13,5 % alcohol is normal for us although, of course, it doesn’t always add up.”

The choice of barrels is a vital component. “As in Bordeaux, we nowadays use less new oak to get a better balance. Usually, we use 20-30 % new oak.”

Sales through La Place de Bordeaux

John Riddoch 2019 will be released at La Place de Bordeaux in September. La Place de Bordeaux is the somewhat confusing name for around 300 wine merchants (négociants) that sell Bordeaux wines in France and abroad (Bordeaux chateaux mostly don’t sell their wines directly).

2016 was the first vintage of John Riddoch to be sold through this channel which Sue thinks is a perfect way to distribute the wine in Europe and the rest of the world. John Riddoch is a well-known top wine in Australia, and this is a way to make it more famous in other countries. A few more non-Bordeaux wines are present at la Place de Bordeaux; not many, though, but the number is growing.

Changes and challenges

“Climate change is a big challenge,” says Sue. “I work closely with our three viticulturists; they are very conscious. We are doing what we can to minimize the input, improve soil structure, drive our tractors less, and do soil mapping to more precisely determine the need for the separate plots.”

Wynns is certified sustainable, but Sue is not convinced that organic is the best thing. She is a bit hesitant about copper spraying. They do get downy and powdery mildew occasionally, but it doesn’t seem to be a huge problem.

All vintages are not perfect, though, and Sue has seen a definite improvement in quality since they invested in an optical sorter, the kind you often see nowadays at the big Bordeaux estates. “It makes a big difference; we get an even and clean fruit.”

What you don’t see much in Bordeaux, though, are screw caps. But Sue uses them for John Riddoch, which may surprise some people. She started using screw caps for John Riddoch to show that she believes in this closure and that it is not something that should be associated with inexpensive wines. John Riddoch was one of the first premium wines in Australia with a screw cap. She is not anti-cork though. But she tired of broken corks following an extensive tasting with several vintages.

Sue Hodder is a well-known winemaker in Australia, and she has been working at Wynns for 30 years. She started in 1993, which was actually around the time when the export of Australian wines started to increase. She must have experienced a great many changes over the years. Yes, absolutely, she says. “Not least the consumers have changed.”

30 years ago, people wanted powerful, oaky wines, not the medium body and the balance that many are looking for today. “Both John Riddoch and Black Label (one step down from JR) had tighter tannins then. We have learned since. They still have tannins but more refreshing fruit. You still get heavy wines from Australia. Parts of Australia, Barossa, for instance, are much warmer than Coonawarra. But still, now it is different; there is more focus on elegance and refinement. With medium-bodied wines, you can do pairing with fish and vegetarian dishes. “

Time for people to realise that Australian reds are not all made for barbecues.

Also, Sue adds, a novelty is the making of single vineyard wine. They add value to the wine. “People want the history behind the wine, the stories.”

—Britt Karlsson

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