Celebrating 50 Years of Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon
This year marks a significant milestone for the Redman family, 50 years of producing Redman Cabernet Sauvignon in Coonawarra. Despite starting out in 1908, and having a long history of making wine in the region, when Bill Redman arrived and started selling grapes it was shiraz that reigned supreme in terms of vineyard plantings. Nowadays, cabernet sauvignon from Coonawarra is well regarded internationally and we’ve consistently produced a recognizable house style of wine, honing our craft over the last 50 years to which we’ve become well known.
The early days of Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon
It was not until the 1950s-1960s when our local winemakers started to dabble in cabernet sauvignon. Wynns started their Black Label Cabernet in 1954. When Owen Redman bought 50 acres of land in 1966 there was no cabernet sauvignon at all planted on the family vineyard holdings. Having a distinctive vision of the type of wines he wanted to make, he planted a small parcel of cabernet sauvignon and 4 years later, in 1970 the first vintage of Redman Cabernet was born, albeit with an incredibly small volume.
Bruce and Mal Redman remember the moment well, with only 550 magnums produced bottled by hand in a labour of ultimate love! Mal Redman noted that, “The grapes were harvested by hand and fermented in open fermenters then put into a 200 gallon French oak cask for 18 months. We hand syphoned into bottles out of the casks and then dipped in some paraffin wax to preserve. A long and arduous job for approximately 550 magnums. There’s only 2 remaining of that first vintage now so they are rare as hens teeth!” It was not until 1972 that we were able to have a more widely available release.
It was then a matter of selling the fruits of the labour. Bruce recalls that, “we remember talking about selling these magnums for $8 each questioning whether anyone would buy them, and within minutes someone walked into cellar door and walked out with a case. We knew we were onto something special.”
Have a listen to the story from third generation Mal and Bruce Redman:
Evolving our Redman cabernet style over time
One of the benefits of being a multi generational family business is that we can pass down so much knowledge of the vineyards and the winemaking style. In some instances, though, so many of the traditional vineyard techniques that Bill and Owen Redman used 60 years ago remain quite similar today. Cane and spur pruning is still utilized, and we’re conscious not to overcrop the fruit to allow the natural flavours to come through. Within the winery it’s also very similar to how we’ve always done things, with some slight tweaks to keep up with modern technology to allow us to produce a consistent wine from year to year.
In the early days the original wines were stored in 50/50 blend of American and French Oak barrels, and over time we’ve transitioned to smaller, predominantly French barrels which help give the Redman Cabernet its distinctive style. As a family we’ve learned our craft and as noted in James Halliday’s Coonawarra, the History, The Vignerons and their Wines (published 1983)
“A major trend in red winemaking in the 1980s has been to lower sulphur levels significantly: a few highly advanced technological wineries have even managed to do without it altogether. Owen Redman looked on with the same wry amusement as he observed first Wynns, then Mildara, then Lindemans send highly qualified oenologists into the district. They thought they had no need to listen to the advice of cow-cocky winemakers with no technical training; sooner or later they found that Coonawarra is its own mistress, and that winemaking techniques learnt in warmer climates do not always work in Coonawarra.”
Coonawarra cabernet sauvignon is naturally a medium-bodied wine with beautiful fine grained tannins, and because the cooler climate results in longer hang time on the vines, there is naturally lower alcohol than many regions. The style has gotten a little richer in the years, with the last two decades being slightly warmer and a little more generous.
Cabernet through the decades
The early years were very much a time of trial and error, but arguably produced some of our finest cabernet. We used to start picking early in the season at a low Baume so we could pick the whole vintage before the autumn rains. There were a lot of cooler and damper vintages, with 1971 and 1976 being up there amongst the finest.
1979 saw the passing of Bill Redman who had been making wine for over 57 years. Bill retired in 1966 when Rouge Homme was sold, leaving an amazing legacy for the family and the region to behold.
The 80’s produced a decade of markedly different vintages, and there’s an old saying that the odd years were not as good as the even ones. The tastings we’ve done are proving this not to be the case, but nonetheless it was a cool decade with wines generally showing lower alcohol.
1981 was the last year that Owen Redman made wine at Redman, with Bruce and Mal Redman taking over the winemaking responsibilities in 1982. Dan Redman was also born in 1982 (as timing would have it right in the middle of vintage!).
Mike Redman would argue that the pick of the vintages was 1985, the vintage he was born.
The eighties also saw a bit of a renaissance for the Redman family. A slight change to the old world styles, with newer fresher oak in the wines and an evolution from hand picking to machine harvesting. Freshly graduated from Roseworthy Agricultural College, there were some tweaks that Bruce Redman started to introduce into the Cabernet style to evolve and keep them relevant.
Those who remember back to the early 90s will recall 1991 was the first year of a nearly twenty-year drought. Warmer vintage conditions resulted in wines that were slightly higher in sugar levels giving the wines a little more richness and plushness, however, the wine still retained the wonderful cool climate dark berry fruit characters for which the wines are renowned
The 90s very much saw a slightly fuller flavour to the cabernet and an evolution of the Redman label. We decided to tweak the label and became slightly more colourful, with the distinctive yellow being introduced (an upgrade from parchment) to assist with easier recognition on the shelf thus helping you find your favourite Redman wine at the bottle shop.
Similar conditions to the 90’s were experienced in 2000s, with growing conditions still generally warmer and charcterised by a little less rainfall. The grapes were able to hang on the vines a little longer to give us a perfect character to the wines – by now our Cabernet had a distinctive style and was gaining recognition across Australia as being one of the regions to enjoy when looking for classic, but still lower in alcohol cabernet.
Our Redman Wine Club members will have just received their latest dozen, and those opting for a Cabernet selection should be enjoying the 2003 vintage. It’s a wine still showing really youthful and vibrant fruit and spearmint with fine grain tannins and intense flavours. On the charts it does not make one of the finest years, but this wine goes to show if you are making from a vineyard you know well and know the climate you can produce exceptional wines.
In 2008 the fourth generation of the Redman Family, Daniel joined the family business as a winemaker, exactly 100 years after his Great Grandfather made his first wine. It was also the 100th year of winemaking for the Redman family so a significant milestone.
2010 and beyond
Our cabernet style continues to be adjusted in responce to the nuances of each vintage. Redman has never been about the accolades we’ve accumulated, but it’s always humbling to see the recognition for our cabernet from our industry peers. Since 1982 our Redman Cabernet has won 40 gold medals on the Australian Wine Show Circuit including twelve major trophies. It has gained a following that we’re proud of and it remains true to the original style, an approachable wine to enjoy.
In 2015 Michael (Mike) Redman joined the family business and so the fourth generation now starts to play a part in how the wines evolve and what happens in the vineyards.
It’s quite timely that this year, in the fiftieth year of producing cabernet sauvignon that we release the 2017 Redman Cabernet Sauvignon, as the first vintage we’ve bottled under screwcap. Bruce finally lost the battle and it was the ideal vintage to make the transition. It’s a year that was more like the 60s and 70s, lower in alcohol but lovely ripe fruit characters showing some lovely lifted violets and delicious tannins, still being under 13%.
We’ve been trialing batches of cork versus screw cap since 2007, whereby each vintage a small portion of wines were bottled under screw cap. We now have a 10-year library of wines to compare cork and screw cap closure wines. We have opened these wines throughout Coonawarra Cellar Dwellers and Cabernet Celebrations and it’s been interesting to compare the differences – with the prefence about 50/50, so it’s still not totally definitive.
What the future holds
We never rest on our laurels, and it is always about refining the way that we’ve made wine, staying true to our roots and vision to make enjoyable and ageworthy Cabernet Sauvignon. Bruce Redman notes, “Every vintage presents a different challenge in the production of top quality Cabernet Sauvignon, however, our ultimate aim is to produce medium-bodied wines which are flavorful and well balanced. My father always said if we get a balanced wine it can be consumed and enjoyed no matter what its age."
The future is bright, with the fourth generation Dan and Mike now buying into the family business to ensure that we’ll be making Cabernet right here in our Coonawarra for maybe another fifty years to come…