Wynns Coonawarra Estate Black Label Cabernet 60th Anniversary Vertical
First made in 1954, Wynns Coonawarra Estate Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon celebrated its 60th release – the 2015 vintage – this year. The Coonawarra stalwart marked the occasion with an extensive vertical in Australia and an abridged tasting of wines from each decade in London. “The biggest tastings of my career,” said Chief Winemaker Sue Hodder who, the following week, was named Inspirational Woman of the Year at The Australian Women in Wine Awards 2017. Well deserved.
Having attended a 50th anniversary vertical in 2004 and tasted the odd older bottle here and there, I know just how well Black Label ages. It punches well above its weight for the price point. Back then, the ’82 & ’66 were memorable. At the 60th, the oldest, from 1957 showed great regional/varietal typicity, while the 1965 (from magnum) had additionally held on to its fruit rather well. As you can see from the photo, Black Label was originally bottled with white labels.
I asked Hodder if Wynns Black Label would originally have been positioned as a wine to cellar for decades? Although conceived as a premium wine, she said “Wynns didn’t have such grand aspirations…people were only just starting to drink table wines.” Still, having founded the winery/estate in 1951, Melbourne wine merchants Samuel and David Wynn wasted no time promoting both wines and region with a distinctly educational bent. A map of Coonawarra appeared on the back label and, said Hodder, Wynns was one of the first to do food and wine matching. Wynns also took the unusual step of appointing (trained) winemakers, including Pam Durnsford, Australia’s first female oenology graduate. Progressive.
Within the theme of wines from each decade, Hodder (who joined Wynns in 1993) selected vintages that “had something to say for themselves.” If you have ‘done the math,’ you’ll have picked up that Black Label was not made every year. Frost did for the ’61 and there was no Black label either in ’63, a wet year. “A dagger to my heart” said Hodder, with no little feeling.
The older wines were opened shortly before the tasting. With only two bottles of each vintage to hand, Hodder described it as a “warts and all tasting.” None of the bottles had been re-corked and yet the older wines held up very well. Unfortunately, both bottles of the ’91 were advanced, deflating the classic debate about shoulder vintages (though ’91 produced impressive wines, it has tended to live in the shadow of the much feted ’90).
Wynns Black Label 1957 (Coonawarra)
Wynns would have had few older Cabernet vineyards in the 1950s (planted in the 1920s when it was distilled, most older vineyards comprised Shiraz). However, Hodder pointed out that Wynns got planting pretty quickly once they arrived.
The ’57 is a burgundy hue with a bricky rim. On nose and palate the aromas and flavours are distinctly tertiary/umami, but distinctly Coonawarra – tufa (Loire chalk cellars/raw porcini), with leather, earth and roast chestnut. A touch of wattle seed/coffee too. It retains freshness and line and, with air, shows medicinal iodine, pot pourri and oyster shell. Persistent with unwavering focus still. An upstanding example of mature Cabernet from a cool climate.
Wynns Black Label 1965 (Coonawarra)
For Hodder, generally speaking (her emphasis) the wines of the 60s “were really beautiful – medium-bodied, with nice fruit and low in oak. They were never big and tannic when young, but they have aged so gracefully. It gives us confidence and an impetus to make medium-bodied wines and know they will age well and reflect this chapter of history.”
The ’65, the first to have a black label, is a case in point. It has good depth and brightness of colour (crimson), with not much difference between rim and core given this wine’s age (albeit from magnum). The fruit (blackberry) remains very much present, bringing more flesh – a certain suppleness/sweetness – to the mouth relative to the ‘57. The palate – medium-bodied – shows notes of fine polished leather, resonant star anise, incipient iodine/kelp and, going back, black olive. Firm tannins and chalky mineral acidity bring line and length. The chalky clean/firm/sluicing mineral acidity put me in mind of my visit with Portugal’s Baga Friends earlier that month. Like Coonawarra’s ‘cigar strip’ Cabernets, Bairrada’s Baga is sourced from limestone soils. Interesting! I’ve brought a couple of bottles of Quinta das Bageiras Garrafeira 2009 to Australia with me to share at the Limestone Coast Show, where I judge next week.
Wynns Black Label 1975
Hodder reported that the 70s was “a big expansion era” for Wynns and Coonawarra. Penfolds and Mildara started buying land there and [local producers] Redman and Brands [Laira] started their own labels. “Some of the best vineyards of today were planted then,” she added, though they would have been young “and, in many cases, over-cropped” at that time. Incidentally, the expansion didn’t revolve solely around reds. This was a period of popularity for white wines such as so-called Australian ‘Hock’ and ‘Chablis;’ Wynns had a high percentage of Rhine Riesling. Returning to the red wines of the seventies, Hodder reckons that they are “generally lighter…less inspirational than those from the ‘60s, but they have still aged very slowly and gracefully; still very fresh.” The ‘76 (not shown] – a Pam Durnsford wine – won the Jimmy Watson Trophy which, said Hodder “said a huge deal for the region.”
The ’75 is a burgundy hue, with notable opacity and a more marked bricky rim than the ’65. It is quite vegetal on the nose and palate, which is also spicier and leaner than the ’65. Which means that, though it has Coonawarra’s fresh, mineral chalky acidity, it lacks a bit of stuffing, making for a finish which is a little thin and reedy with a lick of boot polish. Going back, it is fading, with Bovril/beef tea notes building, the tannins a touch astringent.
Wynns Black Label 1986
Hodder told us that an analysis of Coonawarra Cabernets from the 80s confirms a notable presence of methoxypyrazenes, which account for a greenness in the region’s wines from this period. She attributes this to a period during which canopies were bigger. There was a stylistic shift too. This was the first vintage of Peter Douglas (who took over from John Wade). Douglas was at Roseworthy with Hodder and, according to her, was keen to put his own stamp on the wine having worked a vintage in Bordeaux. He took the Cabernets in a leafier, minty direction, reflecting a popular trend of this decade (though, for Hodder, Wynns’ wines were less leafy than others with, she said, no greenness on the palate/green tannins).
By 1986, the Cabernet vines planted by the Wynns had matured and, in the winery, small format oak from France, the USA and Hungary was introduced – “there was all sorts in there,” said Hodder. The 1986 retains a brightness of hue. It has a striking, chalky minerality with lovely freshness and persistence to its ripe blackcurrant and black olive fruit. Lingering. Very good, with real depth of flavour and lovely balance. Going back, mint and kid glove notes emerge, together with panforte. A touch of chocolate and citrus too. Plenty of entertainment for the taste buds.
Wynns Black Label 1988
Continuing on the methoxypyrazine theme, Hodder said Wynns did not practice minimal pruning, “but probably could have done better pruning.” These days, the amount of leaf cover and timing of de-leafing is key to good results. “There’s a lot to be said for leaf cover,” she said – “too many pyrazenes is not good but so is pruny cooked fruit and lack of brightness.” It’s a balancing act. You can read more about Wynn’s viticultural practices and trials here.
A burgundy hue with a brown/bricky rim. The tannins are unresolved, a little drying and blocky. Though its mintiness and chalky, mineral acidity are suggestive of freshness, the palate is drying out too, showing savoury bouillon and biscuit/bone meal white noise. Lacks purity and concentration.
Wynns Black Label 1990
Hodder describes the 90s as “a dreamy decade climatically,” where the vines were a nice age too. During this period she noted that the tannins tended to be more assertive and acidification was higher – “it didn’t matter if you couldn’t drink them as young wines.” She selected 4 wines from this decade. The 90 and 91 were chosen because of the rivalry between these vintages. Hodder recalled that the 94 was quite closed as a young wine, the 96 was “more berryish” from a cooler year, while the 99 was an important wine for her personally because, when Douglas left to go to the States in 1999, she was promoted to Chief Winemaker.
The 1990 has lovely colour and fluidity in the glass. The nose is quite restrained and spicy, with liquorice which lingers on the palate. Firm, granular tannins assert themselves on the palate, engaging well with its concentrated core of panforte fruit. Deep and long with a burnish of leather, black olive and, as it opens up, tufa and pot pourri. An ambitious, well-structured Cabernet which is drinking very well now and has the (chalky) acid/tannin structure and density of fruit to keep going for some years yet. Very good.
Wynns Black Label 1991
Both bottles of the ‘91 looked and tasted a good deal more evolved than the ’90. Out of condition bottles. Shame.
Wynns Black Label 1994
The ’94 retains impressively youthful vigour. This is a powerful, quite butch wine whose solid core of juicy, perfumed blackcurrant pastille fruit is well supported by firm tannins. It has hints of black olive, leather, smoky iodine and camphor. Chalky acidity and a plume of fine if firm tannins carry a long finish. Plenty in the tank.
Wynns Black Label 1996
A deep, bright, crimson hue with a firm palate, the tannins even more assertive/imposing than in 1994. I like the chalk-sluiced acidity but there is a hint of harder, citrus acidity too and a lick of boot polish/volatile acidity. I’m not convinced this wine will come out the other side once those tannins mellow.
Wynns Black Label 1999
In a decade which was focused on big-shouldered, full-bodied wines, the 99 Black Label was very tannic as a young wine. Describing it as “a revealing vintage,” Hodder said yields had got lower and lower in the 90s, which was not necessarily a good thing. Wynns started to work with the AWRI on grape tannin quality. In 2001, the company appointed Allen Jenkins to the position of Chief Viticulturist with a view to re-structuring the vineyards to improve vine balance. Describing it as “a time of self-reflection,” the winemaker said Jenkins was appalled by the build up of dead wood and falling down trellises. The ’99 is a deep, opaque hue. A mellow mid-palate shows chocolate cherry truffle, plum, black olive and earthy celeriac notes with a dash of lemon juice. But overall, this vintage is a little hard and hollow, without the persistence and follow through of the best wines.
Wynns Black Label 2001
A charismatic wine, with great depth of colour and flavour to the palate. It has a lovely concentration of fleshy plum, black berry and currant, with savoury nuances of earthy celeriac/tufa, roast chestnut and chocolate going through. Powerful, ripe tannins and chalky, mineral-sluiced acidity lends plenty of support and persistence. Very impressive, with time on its side.
Wynns Black Label 2008
Hodder describes this vintage as the first in which Coonawarra experienced real heat. While the 2001 reeks of attitude, the 2008 is all about amplitude. It put me in mind of a Barossa Cabernet with its plush, sweet cassis and savoury black olive undertones; a touch of paraffin/engine oil too (flavour and viscosity). Satisfying if lacking the precision and finesse of top wines.
Wynns Black Label 2010
A classic 2010, with great black currant and berry fruit bounce and purity and fine but present tannins. Distinctly medium-bodied, with lovely fluidity/drinkability, polish and persistence. A super supple, balanced Cabernet with a hint of mint. Practically perfect.
Wynns Black Label 2012
Tighter and juicier than the ‘10, with fresh blackcurrant, a subtle leafy edge, fine, rising tannins and a dynamic chalky minerality/acidity. Long, very persistent, fresh and slyph-like, with a great sense of levity, raciness, translucency even, though I reckon it has the intensity and tannin structure/quality to last for decades. Impeccable balance. My pick of the vertical.
Wynns Black Label 2015
The 60th release is sourced from 17 vineyards, around 30% from the north of Coonawarra’s terra rossa cigar strip, 20% from the south and the rest from the centre. It was aged for 18 months in French oak from 8 different cooper – barriques, vats and puncheons. Twenty percent of the oak was new (which is where it has pretty much stayed since Hodder became Chief Winemaker). This is a rich but supple Black Label with concentrated, glossy cassis and juicier, fresh blackcurrant. Exuberant – very expressive already, with a sheen of ripe, polished tannins. Very good.