A 17-year winemaking partnership

Sue Hodder and Sarah Pidgeon, winemakers for Wynns Coonawarra Estate, were jointly named the 'Winemaker of the Year' at the 2016 Australian Society of Viticulture and Oenology (ASVO) Awards for Excellence in November last year. The award recognises the work that the two have done particularly with Cabernet Sauvignon, and their contribution back to the local community in which they live and work, and to the broader wine community in Australia and internationally.

In summing up their selection for the prestigious award, ASVO president Mardi Longbottom said, 'Sue and Sarah have demonstrated enormous commitment to the pursuit of winemaking excellence from the vineyard, through the winery, in their wines and through their engagement with the broader wine community.'

The two winemakers have worked together at Wynns for 17 years. Hodder started with Wynns in 1993, and Pidgeon arrived in 1999.

For both women, it is a working relationship firmly based on mutual respect, a shared passion, and a clear, focussed strategy on where they want to take the Wynns wine styles into the future and how they are going to do it.

After interviewing both women recently, their passion for what they do and for Wynns, and the deep respect they hold for each other's winemaking abilities and skills, shone through brightly. A real sense of achievement from both of them is apparent in their voices, as is pride in what they have achieved and excitement about what is coming up in the next few years at Wynns. Both acknowledge the contribution of the company's viticulturist Allan Jenkins, who is guiding the massive task of rejuvenating and replanting large sections of the Wynns vineyards that started in 2004.

After 17 years of working together, there have been many memorable moments. Pidgeon rates working alongside Hodder to introduce the first single vineyard wine in 2001 from the Harold Vineyard as one of her favourite moments. This wine also happened to be a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon wine. Hodder continued, 'There have been memorable moments with these 'skinny old guys', as we call them, and it has been finding out how to coax out the best in these heritage vineyards.' Pidgeon added, 'They are hard to make until you find the best way, a bit like cracking the safe code then opening the safe to find exquisite treasures inside.' She said, 'Making good wines from younger vineyards is easier; the wines are juicier and more forgiving, easier to make, but are less complex. The key is realising the potential and not missing it in these wines from the Heritage vineyards, and realising the need to be patient and give the wines a chance.'

Hodder continued, 'There is no definitive, singular factor that has lead us down the path we are currently travelling. It's a matrix of factors that has contributed to the paradigm shift that we are going through at Wynns. The catalyst for us both was in 2004 with our 50-year tasting that took us through until the current vintage of the time, which was our 2004 which was still in barrel. The 50-year tasting coincided with the need to rejuvenate some of our vineyards. Combine this with the fact that Allen Jenkins joined our team in 2001, and the first serious acknowledgement that climate change was real and that it was happening now.'

The winemakers' 'light bulb moment' came when they were tasting the 1960s Cabernets during the 50-year tastings. They were medium bodied, not big from a tannin aspect, and aged gracefully and elegantly. This gave Hodder and Pidgeon the confidence to change the style direction of future Wynns Cabernets, and gave the team as a whole the confidence to start the rejuvenation of the old Wynns vineyards.

Pidgeon said, 'By conducting the 50 years of Cabernet tasting in 2004 and being able to taste the full set, both winemakers learnt so much and ended up with some very significant findings and lots of ideas for change. At that time of the tasting, the 1954 wine, which was the first wine tasted, was still amazing and received lots of votes for the best wine of the 1950s and 1960s. Another standout was the 1991, which also received lots of votes, but both of these also had solid wines around each of them.

'The Cabernet tasting took in significant changes over the decades with overlapping winemaking trends and differing practices being used in the vineyards,' Pidgeon continued. 'In the 1970s, there was a planting boom and a new winery was built, which were both large and significant changes at Wynns at that time. What shone out though for me at the end of the tasting was the ageability of these wines and this enduring quality in each of the wines which was more important than the winemaking techniques used. There were differences in oak and winemaking, and you can see the style differences from winemaker to winemaker, but the basic age ability of the wines didn't change.'

Hodder added that the findings from the 50-year tasting 'also coincided with the Australia-wide interest in the marketplace in the international red wine styles which were leaner and more elegant in style'.

'Having someone like Allan as our viticulturist, who could assess the Wynns vineyards with a fresh set of eyes and also knew the history of the region, and recognised that not all of the older, loved vineyards were good, was also the key,' Hodder said. She explained Jenkins had developed a vineyard rejuvenation strategy that 'encompasses utilising the best old vineyards, replanting some vineyards, changing row orientations, reworking minimally pruned vineyards, changing trellising systems, changing pruning practices, planting new clones and using new rootstocks'. It's an ambitious project which will take many years to complete.

Both winemakers are eagerly looking forward to Wynns 60 years of Cabernet tasting in mid 2018, which is timed to coincide with the release of the 60th vintage and will be the catalyst for the next crop of ideas and inspiration.

'It is good to have concise and accurate data to refer back to,' Hodder said. 'The '90s, when we both started here, are now a long time ago and our memories of each vintage are certainly not as accurate as our written vintage dairies and vineyard records. The way in which we compare one vintage to another is now very different. We used to talk about the number of heat degree days; now it's maximum and minimum temperatures and the conditions during the ripening period which are the key ripening factors. We have far more precise data collection and interpretation and discussion around our vintage data records now than ever before.'

The 50-year tasting also showed that the weight, ripeness and ultimately alcohol have not changed much at Wynns and have been reasonably stable, with no huge fluctuations. With tannins, Hodder said, 'We have so many more analytical tools at our disposal now, as well as greatly improved and fine-tuned management techniques in the vineyard, and new technologies in the winery. There are now better viticultural practices to pick when the tannins are riper, and at their best for optimal ripe flavours. Tannin analysis has made a big difference to the quality of the tannins in our wines.'

Pidgeon explained Wynns had supplied samples to the AWRI of every bottle from the 50-year tasting which were analysed for tannin and colour. The results from these 50 wines will be used to formulate theories about ageing and make up a very important part of the AWRI Tannin Project.

The complete version of this article first appeared in the Jan/Feb edition of the Wine & Viticulture Journal. Not a subscriber? Visit www.winetitlesbookstore.com.au/shop/wvj or email [email protected] to access Australia's specialist wine industry publication, dedicated to covering all aspects of winemaking and technology, viticulture, wine business and marketing — from vine to market.

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