Sue Hodder is one of Australia’s best-known winemakers, producing world-class wines at Wynns Coonawarra Estate. Quality and heritage are central to her winemaking philosophy, but it’s her forward-looking focus on sustainability and the evolution of Australian cabernet sauvignon that sets her apart.
Synonymous with Coonawarra, Wynns’ cabernet sauvignon and shiraz wines set the benchmark for this world-renowned region. The Wynns story started when Scottish pioneer John Riddoch planted vineyards from 1890, and in 1896 built the famous gabled winery, naming it Chateau Comaum. In 1951, two Melbourne wine merchants, Samuel and David Wynn, recognized the potential of the famous red terra rossa soil and bought the vineyards and winery. Wynns Coonawarra Estate was born and today it’s one of the region’s most distinguished producers.
During her almost three decades of time spent at Wynns, Sue Hodder has been littered with accolades, including Australian Women in Wine Awards Woman of Inspiration award in 2017, and has judged more than 50 wine competitions.
One of her biggest challenges, bar none, is the changing climate. It’s prompted Sue and her team to adopt more sustainable viticulture methods, including better soil moisture management and a bigger focus on vine health.
“Our natural resources are commanding respect as we work out how to preserve our vineyards for the next generations,” says Sue. Along with renowned viticulturist Allen Jenkins, she’s working to rejuvenate the estate’s old vines and reconstruct the vineyards, heralding a new era. And as she builds on the work of previous generations while innovating and planting for the future, Sue is helping to ensure Wynns can thrive for decades to come.
VineRoutes: Terroir is at the forefront of all discussion when it comes to wine. Which of your wines best express or convey the true essence of your terroir?
Sue Hodder: Wynns Coonawarra Estate is a genuine reflection of our unique terroir. The combination of a cooler climate – influenced by the cold southern oceans – and of course, the highly prized terra rossa soils, combine for optimal conditions for grape growing. Our Wynns Cabernet Sauvignon (Black Label) gives us the opportunity to experiment and innovate with new clones, rootstocks and viticultural techniques. In the winery, we have the luxury of being creative with these beautiful parcels of grapes and can do different (or no) yeasts, different fermentations and a range of barrels of all sizes. When we make the final selections for the Wynns Black Label Cabernet to bottle, we have up to 80 different batches to choose from. The experiments that don’t work, don’t get in. In short, the terroir gives us the scope to be creative.
VR: As consumers grow more concerned with environmental practices – and are thus willing to pay a premium for more ethical grapes – do you think sustainable farming is more about showcasing social responsibility, or does it have more to do with better terroir expression leading to better wines?
SH: A focus on looking after our precious vineyards against a backdrop of climate change and changing consumer values is a big part of our daily life in Coonawarra. Our natural resources are commanding respect as we work out how to preserve our vineyards for the next generations and reduce the footprint in doing so. Allen Jenkins, Wynns viticulturist, and his team of vine specialists, collaborate with international and local peers to pursue the latest findings for our – Coonawarra – environment. If the consumer is prepared to pay more, that is a pleasing consequence, but we are doing it anyway. Yes, I believe the wines are better with judicious viticulture.
VR: You make high quality premium wines at Wynns. Is there an art or specific playbook to maturing a wine and knowing when exactly it should be ready to bottle and drink?
SH: When we tasted the 60-year vertical of Wynns Cabernet two years ago, we assembled the notes from the experienced tasters. We have finally published those independent notes and they give a nice perspective on drinking mature wines. Actually, all the wines from 1954 to the 2015 were “drinking well” but of course, they change over time. Personally, I like the wines at around 8-12 years. However, I don’t always adhere to that and a beautiful old Cabernet is something to treasure.
VR: What goals in winemaking are you still working to achieve (be it with Wynns or yourself personally)?
SH: I would love to see Wynns being enjoyed around the world.
VR: What do you find is most rewarding about your role as winemaker for Wynns?
SH: Honestly, the whole cycle of vine growing to drinking Wynns in a Canadian restaurant, for example, is an immense reward that never ceases to amaze me. I’m delighted at how well Wynns travels.
Wynns 2014 Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon
Wynns Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon has long been an estate mainstay and winemaker Sue Hodder maintains that it’s still the most important wine in the Wynns portfolio. When the winemaking team sets out to determine which barrel selections will make up its Black Label each year, there’s usually about 80 different experimental batches to choose from. The ones that don’t work don’t get in. Sue describes Black Label as “a genuine endeavour to maintain the heritage of the label” and this is why the volume varies significantly to reflect the yields of each vintage. And so, this premium cabernet is a result of very disciplined winemaking and it tastes just as good as the efforts put into it. Firm and balanced with black currant fruit, judicious oak – which imparts spicy notes – and a long, supple finish, this is a perpetual cellaring special and it remains affordable. ($34.95)