Wynns Black Label Hits Purple Patch

 

April 2024 Update

When I wrote this post a few years ago, we could still find most of the recent vintages with a bit of hunting around. Last year it became really hard to find any vintage before 2015, mainly because the winery hasn’t released any museum wines for some time. The only consolation was that the new vintages of the black label Cabernet were as good as ever.

Another thorough check has unearthed sources for the 2010, 2012 and 2013 vintages, and we’ve provided reviews of the most recent vintages to complete the update at both ends. So this is as complete and as current a picture you’ll find anywhere on Australia’s most underrated red  wine with a 60 year pedigree (see below).

Closing the historic Coonawarra winery and relocating the team to the Barossa seems to have had little impact on the quality so far. TWE has also pushed the release date forward, which now sees the black label released at 2 years of age.

We have Sue Hodder and her team to thank for the consistent quality of the wines; it’s one of the longest partnerships in Australian wine. Viticulturist Alan Jenkins has worked with Sue for about 3 decades, and winemaker Sarah Pidgeon joined them 23 years ago. Sue says the Black label Cabernet is still the most important wine they make in Coonawarra, even though her team has created a bunch of much more expensive labels.

That’s not propaganda. Huon Hooke posts lists on his website that show his scores of wines from specific varieties, areas and vintage years. His list of Top 2010 Cabernet Sauvignons from Coonawarra has the 2010 black label in second place out of 50, on 97 points, just behind Wynn’s Messenger, and in front of Alex 88, Leconfield, John Riddoch, Penfolds Bin 169 and Yalumba’s Menzies. The John Riddoch is over $100, and the Penfolds over $300. The 2012 black label did even better, scoring 98 points and grabbing the No 1 spot from 56 competitors. 

Miracles Take a Little Longer

The obvious question is: How can a wine made in huge quantities be this good? How can a wine this good cost so little? How can the quality improve without the price going up? How did this winery produce such a consistent style while demands from its owners kept changing? And how come we can buy the last 7 vintages of the Black Label Cabernet for just a few dollars more than the current release? Or less in some cases.

David Wynn established this famous line over 60 years ago, and sold Wynns in the early seventies to focus on the Mountadam Venture with his son Adam. Over the last 50 years, Wynns has had many owners with different agendas. In the new millennium, the company ended up in the vast portfolio of Southcorp / Fosters / Treasury Wine Estates. These days Wynns makes a lot of different wines from its 500 hectares of vineyards in Coonawarra, from the basic white label range to icons like John Riddoch Cabernet and Michael Shiraz (introduced in 1982 and 1990).

From 2010, Sue Hodder introduced a black label Shiraz to keep the Cabernet company, along with a number of single vineyard wines that sell at higher prices, but the black label Cabernet remains the backbone of the enterprise. The wine with one of the most recognizable labels in the business became an institution long ago. These days it is made from the top 20% of Cabernet off Wynns’ terra rossa vineyards. Still, the volume is large and has kept the prices low, and made it easy for Wynns to keep back vintages for regular museum releases.

Lost in the Wilderness

After such a dream run, why has Wynns always been the poor cousin to Penfolds in the TWE family? It’s as if they only had enough people and money to market one brand. The black label is about the most well-known label out there! Then a few years ago, TWE added insult to injury when they moved the winemaking from Coonawarra to Karadoc in the Riverland, and to the Barossa for the ‘Masstige’ labels. Masstige is marketing bullshit for mass-produced, relatively inexpensive goods that are promoted as luxurious or prestigious.

I believe the last decade was the best we’ll ever see at Wynns. Sue Hodder and her team have made a string of great Cabernets, culminating with the great 2019. Huon Hooke gives it a huge wrap and 97 points. Even the super-critical 3 amigos at the Winefront are fans of the Black Label Cabernets, even if their scores rarely match their rave reviews. Chris Shanahan is another fan, who says you can buy the black label for its RRP of $45, if you try really hard.

Right now Wynns is a wine lover’s heaven, with reds that other companies would charge 2 or 3 times as much for.

Bold Vision and Hard Yakka

Over the last 20 years, Sue Hodder and Allen Jenkins have overseen a program of revitalizing and replacing the old vines damaged by excessive machine pruning. Sue and Sarah Pidgeon have developed a consistent style: precise Cabernet expression, bright fruit, seamless oak integration, elegance with depth of flavour, medium-bodied (13.5 – 14%) with great line and length and fine tannins on the finish.

It must be said that Sue Hodder has won many battles over her 25 years at Wynns. She says she was expected to make bigger reds than she wanted to when she started with Wynns, but she returned the style to elegance and lifted fruit, to maturing the wine in French oak barrels to enhance the style; 20% of the wine is aged in new barrels. She also made sure her team got the best winemaking equipment available, including an optical grape sorter. The real winners are we lucky punters, of course.

The Wines

Wynns Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon 2021 – $30 at MyCellars where the freight is free for subscribers on any quantity. A warmer year, but the team has somehow managed to maintain the freshness of fruit, the cool of the mouth feel and the classy style this label is famous for. More reviews at the link.

Wynns Coonawarra Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon 2020 – $35 at United Cellars. This vintage passed me by somehow. Stuart Knox at The Real Review talks about an ‘Ink black core into a deep purple rim. Cassis, dry earth, graphite and dry tobacco aromatics. Medium to full-bodied with an intensity and concentration that is beautifully balanced by fine-grained tannins that drive the palate incredibly long. A seamless wine that will cellar for many years. 95 points. 

Wynns Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon 2019 – $32 at JIMURPHY. A close to perfect vintage that delivered a close to perfect black label. It’s choc-full of seductive dark berries, cassis and cherries, subtle smoky oak and hints of dark chocolate. Seamless integration, great line and length with a fine tannin finish. I love the shape of these wines, the depth of flavour in a medium weight, elegant package. 97 points. Will last for years but will be hard to keep your hands off.

Wynns Black Label Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 – $32 at MyCellars. A little bigger and firmer than thw 2019, a classic black label built for the long haul. Perefct Pitch. 96+points. The wine gets good reviews from others as well. (check the link). 97 points from Huon Hooke, 96 from Jeni Port, and 93 from the scrouges at the Winefront.

Wynns Black Label Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 – $34 at Wine,com.au2017 was a wet year, and no single vineyard wines were made; there will be no John Riddoch either. Huon Hooke’s review says: ‘Very deep, bold red/purple colour, youthful and fresh, as is the bouquet. There are intense, fresh, vibrant ripe blackberry and blackcurrant cabernet aromas galore and oak takes a back-seat. A very smart, elegant, intense and tidily-constructed Cabernet. It shouts “Coonawarra”. 94 points.’  

Wynns Black Label Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 – $36 at JIMURPHY’S. A Cabernet from a warm, dry vintage. Rich, almost opulent, ripe dark cherries, oak in the back seat as usual, good line and length, fine tannins on the finish, but the wine isn’t on song right now. It lacks energy. 93 points. Andrew Caillard gives it 98 points and calls it ‘a brilliant black label with all the hallmarks of a great vintage, reflecting the Coonawarra terroir at its best.’ Best check for yourself.

Wynns Black Label Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 – $38 at Jimurphy. Huon Hooke rates this vintage as one of the best, along with the 2012, and scores it 98 points. It felt big on release but alcohol is right on average at 13.8%. It’s rich and ripe with great depth and length yet elegance and finesse too, and it’s good drinking early in its life My only quibble is some bottle variation I’ve seen over 5 years and about as many bottles. My average score is 95 points.

Wynns Black label Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 2014. This vintage wasn’t on song either when I opened a bottle a couple years ago. A bit angular, and four-square. 92 – 93 points. Huon Hooke likes it though: ‘Very deep, youthful purple colour, with a hi-fi blackcurrant, mulberry nose with a trace of blueberry. It’s all about the fruit. The wine is intense and powerful but also supremely elegant, the tannins super-fine. All elements of the wine are in superb harmony. It just needs time. 95+ points.’

Wynns Black Label Coonawarra Cabernet 2013 – the only source I can find for this wine is as part of a 3-pack, which includes the 2015 and 2016. The price is $130 at wine.com.au. This vintage didn’t grab me when first released, but 8 years later it’s a different story: it’s full-flavoured, rich and concentrated but not heavy. The classic cassis fruit is backed up with subtle pencil shavings oak, good line and length, and fine tannins on the finish. Classic Black Label firing on all cylinders, with years in front of it. 96 points.

Wynns Black Label Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 – $50 at Garnet CellarsIt’s a great release from a great year, with gorgeous dark fruit and seamless oak treatment. It’s medium-bodied but tastes richer than usual, with great depth of flavour and perfect balance. Great drinking now and for the next decade. There are 6 reviews at the link. Huon Hooke gives it 98 points97 points from me. This is my pick of the last decade, with the 2013 hot on its heels.

Wynns Black Label Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 – $65 at Canterbury Wines. The 2010 didn’t grab me in its youth, despite the outstanding vintage, but it’s really opened up and now shows great depth of ripe dark cherry fruit backed by subtle French oak; the fruit is richer and more succulent than usual, and the tannins on the finish softer. Seductive drinking now and the next few years. 95 points.

I never noticed the subtle changes to the classic label over the years until I took this shot.

Some light Reading:

Tasting notes from Chris Shanahan

Insightful Interview with Sue Hodder

Why Wynns Coonawarra Estate is one of Australia’s best-value wineries, indepth piece by Huon Hooke

Wynns Coonawarra – short story – long shot, indepth piece by yours truly

    • James Atkinson

      Thanks for linking to the Drinks Adventures podcast I did with Sue Hodder! I’ll add this article to the media page on my website. Cheers, James Atkinson