Life Lessons with Sue Hodder of Wynns Coonawarra Estate

Australia’s veteran winemaker on her romanticism for old vines and bird calls, how 2021 is a good vintage, and how she’d really like a night on the sofa with Emmerdale and a glass of fizz

Words by Adam Lechmere

Sue Hodder – Wynns
Sue Hodder, senior winemaker at Wynns Coonawarra Estate, is one of most respected producers in Australia

Sue Hodder, one of Australia’s longest-standing winemakers, has been at Wynns Coonawarra nearly 30 years, all but six of them as senior winemaker. In that time she has burnished the reputation of Wynns, winning many awards along the way (including joint Winemaker of the Year at the Australian Society of Viticulture and Oenology with her colleague of more than 20 years, Sarah Pidgeon).

Hodder grew up in Alice Springs and joined Wynns in 1993 after a degree at Roseworthy Agricultural College, and stints in Bordeaux, Margaret River and California. “I was an aggy at first and started doing viticulture, but then I went back to wine studies,” she says.

Winemaking and viticulture are intimately connected nowadays (a generation ago, a winemaker would be in the lab or in the cellar more than the vineyard) and Hodder and Pidgeon know Wynns’ 500ha of vines intimately. “I’m in the vineyards every day. We live right here among them.” Indeed, she adds, there are some exceptional parcels right by her house. “It shouldn’t be here – it’s taking up good soil.”

Terra rossa - Hodder
The famous terra rossa soils of Coonawarra in South Australia, home to some stellar Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz

The foundations of Wynns Coonawarra Estate were laid down by the visionary entrepreneur John Riddoch, who in the 1890s recognised the terra rossa – Coonawarra’s famous 20km strip of red soil – as a marvel of fertility, and who built the three-gabled winery whose woodcut image is now one of the world’s most revered wine labels. Riddoch wanted to make Coonawarra famous for its wine but his dream faltered; the winery was on the point of being sold as a sheep-shearing shed before it was bought by Samuel and David Wynn in 1951.

The reputation of Wynns rests on its pre-eminent range of Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz, most notably the flagship wines, John Riddoch Cabernet (one of only two Australian wines to be sold through La Place de Bordeaux) and the Michael Shiraz, both made only in the best years from the best parcels of vines, some of them dating back to the 1890s.

John Riddoch Cabernet - Hodder
Sue Hodder winemaker
One of Hodder's flagship wines is the award-winning John Riddoch Cabernet Sauvignon, which is only made in the best years

Hodder is a “romantic for old vines”, she says – “I love rigorous interrogations of old vineyards.” But it’s a romanticism tempered with practicality. “There’s a very old parcel we resisted pulling out for years. But a lot of them were dead, and it’s lovely soil, and now we’ve replanted it’s got a much better chance of producing wonderful fruit.”

Between them, Hodder and Pidgeon have more than half a century’s experience in Coonawarra. They are not sitting still. Together with viticulturist Allen Jenkins (who joined in 2002) they are exhaustively investigating their soils; vineyards which were replanted 10 years ago are just coming on stream (“we’re very excited about that”); they are studying very old vines for drought-tolerant genes. Hodder would also like to make more of the Limestone Coast region with some fresh white wines or Cabernet Franc. “There’s a lot still to do down here.”

The future looks set for a veteran winemaker in one of the world’s greatest terroirs. But Coonawarra is very remote. Doesn’t she ever get itchy feet? “Well, one day I’d like to make wine in Bordeaux, but that would just be self-indulgent.” She laughs. “And we don’t want that in our winemakers.”

What was your childhood ambition?
To represent Australia in equestrian events at the Olympics. It was a big ambition for the Alice Springs Pony Club.

What do you know now that you wished you’d known when you were 21?
I should have learned more languages. I’ve started learning Indonesian, French and Spanish. None are mastered yet.

What exercise do you do?
Bushwalking and birdwatching (which is great in the Limestone Coast region), golf and Pilates.

What is the character trait you most wish you could change in yourself?
Stressing about things too much.

Desmond Ebatarinja – Wynns
A work by Aboriginal artist Desmond Ebatarinja, one of Sue Hodder's favourites

What is the most expensive thing you’ve ever bought (aside from property)?
Wine and art. I generally love all my purchases (apart from some expensive wines that have not lived up to the hype). Among my favourite artists are Hossein Valamanesh, Desmond Ebatarinja, Henk Guth, and some of the local indigenous artists from the Western Desert.

If you could live anywhere, where would it be and why?
I genuinely love Coonawarra. It is a rural community without urban fringe pressures. The landscape is beautiful and the climate relatively reliable.

If you could do any other job what would it be and why?
Farming. I’d love to set up with horses and cattle and pastures. When I was younger, I aspired to be a political journalist or foreign correspondent. Im still fascinated by the geopolitical world.

What luxury item would you take with you to a desert island?
A fully downloaded e-reader with as many books as it would take.

Emmerdale – Wynns
Hodder is a big fan of rural British soap Emmerdale, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel is on her dream dinner-party guest list
Angela Merkel

What haven’t you yet achieved that you want to?
I’d like to see more young people choosing agricultural or rural careers. It’s such a great opportunity at the moment.

Who would you invite to your fantasy dinner party?
Angela Merkel, and some of my friends from around the world that I won’t see for a while yet.

What’s your guilty pleasure?
If I was in the UK, it would be watching [soap opera] Emmerdale with a glass of Champagne. It isn’t shown in Australia but I love it because it’s so British.

What’s your secret talent?
Identifying bird calls – I can recognise maybe 40 different calls.

When were you happiest?
During vintage 2021 – it’s a good vintage, and I always love the cycle of the vine and the final picking.

Nani Iro fabric - Hodder
Kookaburra - Hodder
Sue Hodder's favourite wardrobe item is made from Japanese Nani Iro fabric, while her secret talent is imitating bird calls. We're not sure if the kookaburra is among her repertoire…

Who do you most admire?
The people I work with, including Allen Jenkins and Sarah Pidgeon. They are both creative thinkers and hard workers.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
“However”. I can always see another angle or alternative.

What album, boxset or podcast would you listen to on a night in alone on the sofa?
We have great podcasts through ABC. The political commentary The Party Room is great, as are true crime investigations, and I also love the NPR [US National Public Radio] series This American Life. These are examples of well-researched and unhyped presentations that bring clarity to complex public debate.

What’s your favourite item in your wardrobe?
A bespoke blouse made from a Nani Iro fabric that I bought in Japan. I love interesting fabrics, and this one is sentimental and beautiful.

What time do you go to bed?
Early (9pm) and then even earlier during vintage. I get up early (5am) and walk into the winery.