Sue Hodder

POSTED ON 01/08/2008

Australia likes to make a fuss of its women winemakers and if you’ve got it, why not flaunt the talents of women like Vanya Cullen, Luisa Rose and Susana Fernandez in the pages of the Adelaide Advertiser and the Melbourne Age. Yet despite the fact that she has as much of a claim to column inches as any, one woman whose face is less commonly seen is that of Sue Hodder. Is it because Sue is a bit out of the way in Coonawarra? Or because Wynns, the company she’s been chief winemaker for since 1998, is one of those rare icons that doesn’t jump up and down in a bid to draw attention to itself? As evidence of her no-fuss approach, she calmly scaled Mount Kilimanjaro recently, unfazed by the violence erupting around her in Kenya. Perhaps above all, it’s because Sue herself is one of those unsung quiet achievers whose greatest satisfaction is in getting on with the job.

That’s what she was doing when I found myself in Coonawarra at a remarkable celebration of 50 vintages of Wynns Coonawarra Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon. Rewind to 1950s Australia and we were reminded that 1951, the first planting of three acres of cabernet sauvignon by Samuel and David Wynn, was the year in which Max Schubert made Penfolds first Grange. Presiding over this remarkable day with modesty and dignity, Sue introduced us to a line-up of legends including Black Label’s first winemakers Ian Hickinbotham and Norm Walker. As Ian Hickinbotham told a spellbound audience, the Korean War was on, there was no electricity except 12-volt lighting, steam pumps that could only be started by kicking them and Italian immigrants picking their first vintage in 1952. No wonder Sue prefers to be thought of not as a celebrity winemaker but as the custodian of a great winemaking tradition.

Sue graduated from Roseworthy, starting out assessing Penfolds’ vineyards and tasting and analysing maturing grapes. She made sparkling wines for Seaview in the Barossa Valley and for Seppelt at Great Western in Victoria. But she believes that it was her viticultural experience above all that stood her in good stead for the job at Wynns. Arriving at Wynns’ three-gabled winery for the 1993 vintage, she immediately fell in love with the region and its famous red dirt: terra rossa over porous limestone. Coonawarra’s community took to her with equal enthusiasm. Maybe Sue liked Coonawarra’s isolation too because she grew up in the middle of nowhere at Alice Springs in Australia’s outback.

She immediately spotted the potential for the vine to struggle in Coonawarra’s terra rossa and cool, marginal climate and so to produce the kind of tannic structure and intensely flavoured dark plum fruit flavours she was aiming for in the final product. ‘In cabernet, you want to harvest the grapes at their flavour peak, so for optimum ripeness, nothing beats walking up and down those rows and tasting’, says Sue. With 900 hectares of vineyards, of which 240 are over 30 years old and 100 dry-grown, Wynns is the biggest vineyard holder in the region. This is palette from which Sue, along with viticulturalist Allen Jenkins, applies rigorous vineyard management criteria to achieve the targeted yield, around 8 tons per hectare for Black Label compared to the district average of 11 tons.

Making 80 separate batches for Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon, she’s maintained a remarkable level of consistency of quality in Australia’s best value icon wine, one of the few made with drinking rather than collecting in mind. In the case of Wynns’ top cabernet, John Riddoch, the extra concentration and richness of fruit makes it one of Australia’s most respected and ageworthy cabernet sauvignons. Although Wynns is a part of a big Aussie company, the wines remain steadfastly individual and authentic with none of the negative associations of the big brand. Those were the features I admired on that remarkable day of celebration, and I felt Wynns was lucky to have in Sue a talent to carry the torch in so unassuming a manner.

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