Some of Australia’s finest winemakers are women, but their influence has not always been so strong. For publication in the week starting 9 October 2017.
Men tend to dominate the wine business around the world, and until recently that was very much the case in Australia. The Australian Women in Wine Awards announced in London are an attempt to balance the situation.
It was the first time the awards, announced late last month, have been held outside Australia. Event founder Jane Thomson said the industry was still regarded as very macho. This contributed to the high attrition rate among women wine graduates in many parts of the globe.
Brian Walsh of Wine Australia was quoted in various media as saying only about half of women wine graduates in Australia joined the industry after they qualified. And within a decade the proportion of them employed in the wine industry was down to 9 per cent.
One of the major awards known as Woman of Inspiration, sponsored by Irvine Wines, is designed to recognise a woman whose contribution and achievement have had a major impact on the Australian wine community. Entries do not need to be submitted because the advisory board of Wine Australia and the Australian Women in Wine Awards chooses the winner.
This year the award went to Sue Hodder, chief winemaker at Wynns of Coonawarra, in South Australia.
Hodder studied agricultural science at Roseworthy College, Australia’s first agricultural college, between 1981 and 1983. Roseworthy became part of the University of Adelaide in 1991 and continues to be regarded as the best place to learn the wine business in Australia. Hodder’s contemporaries included Peter Bright and David Baverstock, noted Australian winemakers based in Portugal, from where this column is being written.
Soon after graduating Hodder accepted a Penfolds scholarship to study the vineyards of the Kaiser Stuhl growers in the Barossa Valley in South Australia. Later she sold wine for the Oddbins chain in London and worked vintages in California.
She made sparkling wine at Penfolds in Nuriootpa under the Seaview label and became sparkling winemaker at Seppelt Great Western in 1988. But she has lived and worked in the Coonawarra in South Australia since 1992 and calls it home. Her first job there was as assistant winemaker to Peter Douglas at Wynns Coonawarra Estate. She became chief winemaker there in 1998 and this year celebrated 25 vintages at one of Australia’s most historic vineyards. Coonawarra is an aboriginal word meaning “honeysuckle”.
During a meeting in London, Hodder acknowledged that Pam Dunsford was her initial inspiration. Dunsford was the first woman to be accepted into Roseworthy Agricultural College, in 1972. There she studied alongside 180 men. Dunsford worked at Wynns and became the first woman chief winemaker at an Australian estate, at Chapel Hill in the McLaren Vale in South Australia, where she presided over 19 vintages. She was also one of the first woman wine judges in the country.
Because of Dunsford’s pioneering work, women hold some of the most highly respected roles in Australian winemaking. These include Hodder, Vanya Cullen at Cullen in Western Australia, Louisa Rose at Yalumba and Sarah Crowe at Yarra Yering. Last year the Australian Society of Viticulture and Oenology named Hodder and her Wynns winemaker colleague Sarah Pidgeon joint winemaker of the year.
Women were now “helping to shape Australia’s fine wine narrative,” Hodder said.
In London Hodder oversaw the celebrations to mark the sixtieth vintage of the Wynns Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon, the 2015. “It is a fortunate privilege that my 25th vintage at Wynns coincides with the release of the delicious 2015, the 60th release of this significant Australian label.”
This iconic wine was first made in 1954, and remains one of the most cellared and collected wines in Australia. It is the kind of wine that can be drunk young but rewards being cellared for up to two decades.
Hodder considers her work on development of Black Label Cabernet her proudest achievement. She describes the 2015 as multi-layered with intense aromas of dark cherry and blackberry with hints of complex spices leading to flavours of black pepper and brambles. The tannins are “melted” and perfectly ripe.
Hodder hopes people from around the world will come to appreciate the “heritage and unique character” of Australian wine. She acknowledged the work of the team of viticulturalists at Wynns. Allen Jenkins, senior viticulturist, said his company’s holdings comprised some of the best vines in the region, mostly on the famous terra rossa soil. This is a cigar-shaped block of about 30 hectares of land that gives special flavours to wines, and has been the subject of previous columns.
Australia’s summer heat can be intense, so Jenkins ensures that vine canopies are designed to protect grapes. “Each bunch gets a hat,” he jokes. Viticulturalist Ben Harris confirmed Jenkins’ protective attitude towards the grapes.
The Coonawarra mostly produces red wine – the region’s 5,600 hectares of vines consist of 90 per cent red grapes.
Half of all the red Wynns produces is cabernet sauvignon. Their oldest cabernet was planted on the Johnson’s block in 1954, believed to be the oldest surviving cabernet sauvignon vineyard in the region. Each year Wynns chooses a premium parcel of fruit from a single vineyard that displays the hallmarks of that vintage. The 2014 Johnson’s Block was selected this year as the showcase wine. Hodder said it has a nose of violets, sage and lavender with a mouthfeel of dark plums, cherry and blackcurrants, shaped around a tannic structure that is “almost creamy”.
About five years ago Wynns introduced a new range of wines named after V&A Lane, the road that runs east-west through the Coonawarra’s terra rossa soils and separates it roughly into two halves. The lane, surveyed in 1851, was named after Queen Victoria and her consort Prince Albert.
The 2015 V&A Lane Shiraz has aromas of cranberry and magnolia flowers, Hodder said, with silky tannins and flavours of spice and blueberries. It is designed to be consumed younger than the other reds mentioned, and is quite delicious young.
The company’s flagship red is the Michael Shiraz, released only in exceptional vintages, and it has become something of a legend in the Australian wine industry. It is named after the son of David Wynn, who bought it from John Riddoch in 1951 and transformed it into the world leader it is today.