Who Says New World Wines Don't Develop?
By Michael Apstein

The major criticisms of wines from the New World are that they have too much fruit and alcohol and too little subtlety and elegance.  Critics go on to say that these wines are unbalanced and fail to develop complexity and layers of non-fruit flavors as they age.   I have voiced these complaints on a regular basis, especially when tasting through a lineup of 15%+ alcohol wines from California or Australia.

I suspect that this style of in-your-face wine is encouraged and reinforced by current fads in restaurants.  Many establishments prized as much for their ambience as their food, are painfully loud and serve food that is over-the-top with flavor.  Wines in this setting must be flamboyant just to be noticed.  With alcohol levels often hitting 15% and concentration to match, they almost scream.  The era of elegance and restraint in food--and wine--is fading.

So, despite my admitted prejudice, I confess that a recent vertical tasting of Wynns' "Black Label" Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon convinced me that some New World wines can indeed develop as beautifully over time as their Old World counterparts.

Wynns "Black Label" Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon
The tasting spanned five decades, starting with the 1954, which was Wynns' first vintage of the Black Label Cabernet.  The exquisite development of some of the wines was amazing enough, but even more startling was the disclosure that these were inexpensive wines not intended for long term aging.  (The current release, the 2001, costs about $16 a bottle).  Moreover, they were not made in miniscule quantities.  Production averaged roughly 40,000 cases annually, according to Suzanne Hodder, Wynns' Chief Winemaker.  Finally, Black Label Cabernet is not even Wynns' flagship Cabernet.  That distinction goes to the one bottled under the John Riddoch label.   Nevertheless, these wines (especially the 1976) showed enormous complexity and length while retaining their distinctively Australian identity.

John Riddoch, a Scottish pioneer, founded what is now Wynns Coonawarra Estate soon after arriving in South Australia in the middle of the 19th century.  The first to plant vines in Coonawarra, he established the Penola Fruit Company and made his first wines in 1895.  He built the now iconic triple-gabled limestone cellars--Wynns' trademark--two years later.  At the end of the 19th century, he was responsible for having the town named Coonawarra (the Aboriginal word for honeysuckle).  The Coonawarra region, like much of Australia, turned from producing wine to making brandy until after World War II, and was just starting to return to fine wine when Samuel and David Wynn purchased the estate in 1951. 

Coonawarra, located near the coast about 200 miles southeast of Adelaide in the state of South Australia, is today one of that country's most famous viticultural areas.  A cigar shaped strip roughly 15 miles long by a mile wide, Coonawarra is famous for its red (iron laden) soil ("terra rossa") sitting atop limestone, and is widely regarded as the source of Australia's best Cabernets.

According to Hodder, Wynns has the oldest significant Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards in the region.  (Penfolds Kalima 42, a small vineyard, is the oldest plot in Coonawarra).  Wynns was the first to plant Cabernet widely in Coonawarra, which helps explain why the fruit for the Black Label comes from relatively old vines averaging 28 years in age.  Wynns is the largest estate in the region, accounting for a whopping 70% of the vineyards in the terra rossa area.  About 90% of the grapes for their Black Label Cabernet comes from their vineyards scattered throughout Coonawarra, and Hodder regards this as a key for assuring quality.

Barrel aging of the Black Label Cabernet has changed over the decades from large casks to smaller oak barrels.  Since 1985, Wynns has used a combination of small French and America oak barrels, of which only 20% are new.  Hodder says they aim for "oak aging, not oak flavor."

The Wines

Wynns Coonawarra Estate, Coonawarra (Australia) Cabernet Sauvignon "Black Label" 1954 (no longer available commercially):  With a white label bearing the word Cabernet, this 50+ year old wine delivers hints of cedar and tobacco, but the exotic, gamey aromas and flavors tell you you're not in Bordeaux.  Not surprisingly, it fades in the glass and the acid shows, but it's still a remarkable wine.  86

Wynns Coonawarra Estate, Coonawarra (Australia) Cabernet Sauvignon "Black Label" 1958 (no longer available commercially):  Even though it tasted older than the '54, its tannic structure was more apparent.  Nonetheless, it was similarly exotic with an attractive leathery character.  This one and the 1954 were clearly past their prime, but it took little imagination to see what they would have been like 10 or 20 years earlier.  84

Wynns Coonawarra Estate, Coonawarra (Australia) Cabernet Sauvignon "Black Label" 1976 (no longer available commercially): Hodder tells me that 1976 was a great vintage in Coonawarra.  There's no question about that--judging from this fabulous wine.  An alluring nose is followed by an intriguing combination of fresh and dried fruit, leather, and earth flavors.  Perfectly balanced, it is long and complex.  Ken Ward, the winemaker at the time, said that this was simply made as a wine for everyday drinking.  Hodder attributes part of its splendor to a greater focus on quality in general as the Australian wine market became more sophisticated.  Wynns also had just switched from using large casks for aging to small old oak barrels.  96

Wynns Coonawarra Estate, Coonawarra (Australia) Cabernet Sauvignon "Black Label" 1980 (no longer available commercially):  Herbal, leafy aromas and a vegetal hint suggested this wine was made from under-ripe grapes. Hodder noted that they moved away from this style during the 1980s.  80

Wynns Coonawarra Estate, Coonawarra (Australia) Cabernet Sauvignon "Black Label" 1994 (no longer available commercially):  Ripe and lush, this still-youthful wine shows considerable development in the glass.  Big, yet wonderfully balanced with a long finish, it should continue to evolve for at least another decade, but it is quite delicious now.  94

Wynns Coonawarra Estate, Coonawarra (Australia) Cabernet Sauvignon "Black Label" 1996 (no longer available commercially): Another great success, the 1996 is similar to the '94, with aromas of tobacco that unfold in the glass.  Succulent, juicy black fruit flavors, balanced beautifully by fine tannins, persist into a long finish.  The '94 and '96 certainly support Hodder's preference for drinking these wines when they are 8 to 12 years old.  94

Wynns Coonawarra Estate, Coonawarra (Australia) Cabernet Sauvignon "Black Label" 2001 ($16, Foster's Wine Estates):  A warmer year produced this opulent but classy wine. Loaded with primary black fruit flavors, yet still balanced by supple tannins, it is easy to see why consumers enjoy Black Label in its youth.  An excellent value!  92

Wynns Coonawarra Estate, Coonawarra (Australia) Cabernet Sauvignon "Black Label" 2002 (Not yet released):  Not quite as plush as the 2001, the 2002 reflects a slightly cooler growing season.  Still a big, intense wine, the firmer tannins would make this a good match for steak or rack of lamb.  87

Wynns Coonawarra Estate, Coonawarra (Australia) Cabernet Sauvignon "Black Label" 2004 (A representative, but not final, barrel sample):  Wynns started a vine rejuvenation program in the 1990s and intensified it after the 2002 vintage.  The objective was to save old vineyards by severe pruning and new trellising.  The 2004 is a product of this concerted effort.  Although what I tasted was a barrel sample, it showed terrific promise with juicy, lively red and black fruit elements followed by a supple, harmonious finish.  It already has balance, which seems the hallmark of Black Label Cabernet.

Is Lower Alcohol the Key?

These Black Label Cabernets have aged and developed beautifully.  But up until the 2001 vintage, none had alcohol levels above 13.5% (the 1976 weighed in at 13%).  Time will tell whether the current releases, with more alcohol (the 2001 and 2002 hold 14%) will develop similarly.  Hodder noted that they selected these vintages not because they were the best, but because they "show styles and trends in winemaking even though you think you're style-immune."  Let's hope the current trend of 15+% alcohol wines goes the way of the vegetal, under-ripe style.