Wynns wine legend turns 60

Wynns Coonawarra Estate cellar door (Photo: Via Wikipedia)

I was surprised to see leading Sydney sommelier Franck Moreau on the plane down to Coonawarra for the 60-vintage, 60th anniversary tasting of Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine might be a legend, but it’s not a wine that’s often seen on the wine lists of high-end restaurants, let alone wine bars. But Franck works for Merivale and its flagship restaurant, Est, always has some Wynns on the list. “The customers want the wine,” Franck told me.

Probably older vintages, I’m guessing: one problem restaurants have with wines like Wynns is the price contrast: diners would notice it’s as little as AUD $30 in large retail chains but at least AUD $60 and as much as AUD $90 on a wine list. It looks poor value. The other reason is neither cabernet, Wynns nor Coonawarra are high fashion these days. They’re not groovy enough for the trendy eateries. This is doubly tragic.

All the other invited guests at this extraordinary event – a leisurely two-day tasting of every vintage from 2016 back to the very first, the 1954 – were wine writers. It was presided over by chief winemaker Sue Hodder (who this year celebrated 25 vintages at Wynns), winemaker Sarah Pidgeon (who has worked with Sue at Wynns for 19 vintages), Wynns’ eminent viticulturist Allen Jenkins, and vineyard manager Ben Harris.

The fact is that Wynns Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon is one of Australia’s greatest wines, and followers of fashion ignore it at their peril. It’s also one of our greatest value for money wines. There is never an off vintage these days (even the 2011 is excellent), and in the great vintages, such as 1982, ’90, ’91, ’96, ’06, ’12 and the next release 2015, it is outstanding value for money, even if you pay the full retail price of around AUD $45 (does anyone pay that?!).

The wines age superbly, and even the inaugural vintage 1954 was still drinking well, although bottle variation is inevitable with corks and time. The ’59 was a surprise package, tasting superb and better than expected, while the famous ’62 was in great nick and ditto the ’66. The famous Jimmy Watson Trophy winning ’76 was also lovely, one bottle (I think three were opened in all) being extraordinary. With the improvements in viticulture and winemaking, coupled with the superior screwcap closure (since the 2006 vintage), the wine is more consistently good than ever.

In a future article, I will discuss the improvements in viticulture and winemaking, but the latest quality acquisition at Wynns is an optical grape sorting machine, one of only three in Australia, says Sue Hodder.

One benefit of tasting 60 vintages of the one wine is that we can chart the industry’s fashions: the low-alcohol and rather herbaceous wines of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s (although on this occasion the 1980 was the only wine from this period clearly showing the malaise), contrasting with the riper, juicier, higher-alcohol wines of the nineties and early noughties; the large-vat-matured (no small oak) wines of the 1950s and ‘60s contrasting with the more oaky (barrique and hogshead aged) wines of the ‘90s, then the wines of the Hodder era, which sensibly revert back to more subtle, better-balanced oak.

The quality across the 60 years was quite outstanding, but it has to be said that since 2006 the wines have been of a more consistently high level of quality (the 2011 a slight exception, but even that still managed to score 93 from me – the same as I scored it on release in 2013).

Why was 2011 such a triumph, from the wettest, most dismal season in living memory? Because Wynns has access to the best vineyards in the region. These are predominantly focused along the central cigar-shaped strip, or limestone ridge: the highest land with the best red terra rossa soil over limestone, well-drained and providing the best conditions for the cabernet sauvignon vines. No doubt the barrel selection was also especially strict, and Wynns has more barrels to choose from than other people.

My tasting notes for all 60 vintages are now on the website. There was no 1961 or 1963, and the 2016 was a barrel sample, so not reviewed. The ’55 and ’56 were cabernet shiraz blends labelled ‘Claret’, and the ’69 was a cabernet hermitage (in each case, no black label cabernet sauvignon was produced. There was a shortage of cabernet in those days). Wynns today takes the liberty of calling the wine ‘black label’ since the start, but in fact, the first few vintages had white labels!

(I expect to publish more articles here in following weeks, looking at what Wynns is doing to improve its Coonawarra wines even further.)

6 thoughts on “Wynns wine legend turns 60”

  1. Paul Coghlan says:

    Three years ago, I presented former PM Paul Keating with a bottle of the 1996 Black Label. It was a thank you for doing a Q&A session with HSC Economics teachers. I chose this vintage as it was the last year of his primeministership and I knew it was also an excellent vintage. He was also the best vintage PM we have had.

  2. Mahmoud Ali says:

    I first noticed the Wynn’s Black Label here in Canada with the 1996 vintage. I was eying it before heading to Australia for a holiday and saw that it was something like A$25 at the duty free in Melbourne. Recalling that it was selling for C$13.50 (the Canadian dollar being on par with the Australian dollar) I called home and got my mother to pick up 4 bottles. Being an enthusiast of older, mature wines, and the stellar reputation of the 1996 vintage (the ’96 Koonunga Hill was still a pup when a decade old) I still have those bottles and have added the occasional bottles from the ’97, ’98, ’00, ’01, and ’05 vintages. I am envious of you Huon for having tasted so many older vintages of the Black Label. Thanks for the write up.

    1. Huon Hooke
      Huon Hooke says:

      Glad you enjoy them. Wines like these don’t get much press these days, with the focus firmly on the newest and grooviest.

  3. Craig Phillips says:

    Thanks Huon, a great article…my all time favourite with wines from the 60s onwards in the cellar. Lucky to have tasted the 15…its a beauty and a couple of cases are on the way. Must see if i can track down an ’11…at the time of release thought it most weedy, green and thin.
    Cheers Craig Phillips

  4. Geoff Weaver says:

    Couldn’t agree more Huon. I recently opened the 93 Black label and it was superb. Also recently the 82 John Roddoch which was still vibrant and youthful. The fact is you don’t need to pay the earth for the finest wines in the country. You need to select carefully and be patient. Excellent article Huon.

  5. Andrew says:

    I’ll be backing up the truck on Wynnsday 🙂

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