In Australia, you can always bet on black

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Indy Lifestyle Online

"I bet he drinks Black Label." Drop the word "Carling" from the famous lager's advertising slogan, and the phrase could be applied to so many of the world's popular drinks brands.

"I bet he drinks Black Label." Drop the word "Carling" from the famous lager's advertising slogan, and the phrase could be applied to so many of the world's popular drinks brands. To the Americans, it's Jim Beam Kentucky Bourbon, to the Scots it's Johnnie Walker, while to the French it could only be Lanson Champagne. Mention Black Label to an Australian, however, and the only drink in the frame is Wynns Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon. The Wynns Black Label version is one of Australia's rare icons that manages to remain steadfastly individual and authentic with neither the negative associations of the cheap brand or the horrendous overpricing of the cult wine.

Today's Black Label cabernet sauvignon - made by Sue Hodder under the Southcorp umbrella that runs the gamut of brands from Lindemans Bin 65 to Grange - is one of Australia's top-selling cabernet sauvignons. Luckily for me, I was passing through South Australia's Coonawarra wine region as Wynns was holding a celebration of 50 years of Black Label. What made this retrospective special was not just that Wynns had assembled all 50 vintages (except the long-lost 1961 and 1963), but that it had also managed to bring together most of the winemakers involved in its creation, including 70-somethings Ian Hickinbotham and Norm Walker.

In 1951, the year in which the first Penfolds Grange was created, Samuel and David Wynn bought 90 hectares in Coonawarra, releasing the first vintage of Wynns Black Label, then called "Claret", the following year. This was the period of the dark ages of Australian table wine, when the focus was still on fortified wine and brandy. Yet Wynns' purchase was a time of renaissance for Coonawarra. The region covers a cigar-shaped strip, 15 kilometres long and two kilometres wide - only a 20th the size of Bordeaux. Rich terra rossa soils and cool, cloud-covered days have confirmed this flat terrain as the perfect home for cabernet sauvignon.

In that first vintage, Hickinbotham recalled how, as a 21-year-old, he not only had trouble finding labour, because of the Korean War, but had to make do without electricity, except for 12-volt lighting, relying on pumps and crushers that used steam and drawing grape loads by horse. There was no cooling equipment and certainly no new oak. Despite that, some of the 1950s and 1960s Black Labels were remarkable testaments to the skills of the team, with gracefully aged, leathery characters and fruit that was still bouyant.

Over the decades, Wynns expanded. In the 1970s, machine harvesters were introduced and stainless steel replaced concrete for fermentation. But despite the emergence of cabernet sauvignon as a popular variety in Australia, the wines from the 1970s were the least impressive. Then, thanks in part to the advent of small, new oak barrels in 1985, Wynns returned to form in the 1980s, and had some excellent vintages, then and again in the 1990s. Today, Wynns covers 900 hectares.

The current release, the 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon (£9.99 from Oddbins and Majestic, or £7.99 when you buy six at Majestic until 31 January) from a small, cool, very good vintage, is fragrant with vibrant blackcurrant fruit, with lightly smoked American oak etching into the wine's smooth texture. Its balance makes it a wine for drinking now, but it will handle five to 10 years of cellaring. "In the next few years, we hope to grow the volume without any quality compromise," says Sue Hodder. "We want to take Black Label to the world."