Coonawarra is a region where the production of world-class wines is woven into the community, a community that welcomes wine lovers with open arms.
Coonawarra: The name itself has become so evocative and so intrinsically associated with Australian fine wine that it’s easy to forget that not so long ago this famed wine region was known for something rather different. It grew wealthy on the sheep’s back and rose to fame through the grapevine. Today, though, it’s rich, long-lived red wines sustain Coonawarra’s fortunes.
Coonawarra – where in Australia…?
Coonawarra is a four-hour drive from Adelaide or five hours from Melbourne, so it’s less visited than South Australian wine regions like the Barossa Valley, Eden Valley or Adelaide Hills, but no less welcoming. Coonawarra winemakers roll out the red carpet for those willing to make the journey. And those that do make the effort are welcomed by immaculate rows of vines framed by a backdrop of majestic gum trees, roughshod iron wool sheds and stone farm buildings.
Coonawarra’s agricultural history began in the mid-1800s when settlers recognised the potential of the flat, fertile plains for sheep farming and fruit growing. Enterprising Scottish settler John Riddoch planted Coonawarra’s first grapevines in 1891, thirty years after establishing a lucrative sheep farm at Penola. At the time, the region was prosaically named the ‘Penola Fruit Colony’. In 1897 Riddoch gave it the more lyrical title of Coonawarra, Aboriginal for ‘honeysuckle’. Riddoch’s successful plantings laid the foundation for others to follow. At a time when Australia was known for its fortified wines, Coonawarra became known as a reliable source of quality red table wines. In the May 1899 edition of ‘Garden and Field’, editor William Catton-Grasby commented on vines at Yallum, Katnook and Penola and wrote: ‘One cannot doubt the suitability of land and climate for vine growing.’ With further foresight he added, ‘It is generally agreed that there is a period of prosperity immediately ahead for grapegrowers and winemakers … everything seems favourable for a great development at Coonawarra.’ The Redman family established vineyards in 1908, first selling fruit to the Riddoch winery then producing their own wine from 1951 under the famous Rouge Homme label. After Riddoch’s death in 1901, Coonawarra’s fortunes flagged and it struggled as a wine region for the next fifty years. The first sign of a resurgence appeared in 1951 when David and Samuel Wynn bought Riddoch’s property, establishing the famous Wynns Coonawarra Estate in the iconic triple-gabled winery.
While famed for its soils (see below) being hot, dry and dusty in summer, bracingly crisp in winter, Coonawarra’s climate and abundant sunshine provide ideal conditions for slow, even grape ripening. Coonawarra winemakers are focussed on quality over quantity. It’s not uncommon to walk through the vineyards just before harvest to see bunches of grapes on the ground between the rows. Conditions in Coonawarra are so benevolent that over-abundant growth often needs to be brought under control through crop thinning, but such drastic measures ensure that just the right amount of sustenance reaches the remaining grapes, allowing for perfect physiological (fruit and seed) ripeness. Spring frosts can pose a threat, but can be prevented by spraying a fine mist of water over the vines or moving the air with massive engine-powered frost fans.
Coonawarra: Australia’s ‘other’ red centre
Perhaps more than any other region in Australia, the terroir and soil of Coonawarra plays a predominant role in the structure and longevity of its wines. For such a tiny stretch of land – the region is only 15km by 2km – the region has a rich red cigar shaped seam of terra rossa (red earth) that is among the most valuable – and controversial – patches of earth in Australian wine. The terra rossa strip is just one-kilometre-wide and runs for 12 kilometres northwest through Coonawarra. Wines grown in this soil are prized by collectors and praised by critics. The terra rossa layer is no more than one-metre-deep over a base of free-draining limestone sustained by pure underground aquifers. The limestone was once an ancient seabed, formed over a million years ago. The fossilised marine life now forms the bedrock of the Limestone Coast region that incorporates Padthaway, Mount Benson, Mount Gambier, Robe, Wrattonbully and Coonawarra. Looking at a cross-section of the land, the distinct layers are clearly visible: a carpet of vivid red topsoil sits above a thick calcareous base of white-flecked limestone - a winemaker’s dream - but in the early 2000s that dream took a darker turn.
Coonawarra controversy – the binding boundary decision
Politically and commercially fraught, the boundaries of Coonawarra caused much consternation when Australia’s Geographic Indications Committee (GIC) was tasked with defining its official boundaries. Some growers, mainly those outside the terra rossa zone, were in favour of a wider boundary. The Coonawarra name carried great cachet and commercial value and winemakers inside the terra rossa zone were fiercely protective of their territory, insisting that the boundary should be as tight as possible to include only vines grown on the most valuable terra rossa soil. To give the value some context, a plot of land on terra rossa soil in the heart of Coonawarra is among the most valuable in Australia at around $70,000 per hectare. In January 2003 after nearly 10 years’ of litigation and debate, the GIC finally outlined Coonawarra’s legal borders. The decision increased the boundary to the north and south of the cigar shaped strip, and stretched it slightly further east, encompassing vineyards already established on terra rossa soil. Today there are more than 5,600 hectares under vine, accounting for approximately 7% of South Australian wine production, with more than 35,000 tonnes crushed in 2016. There are small plots of terra rossa soil found in other areas of the Limestone Coast, but only vineyards within the designated Coonawarra Geographical Indicator (GI) can use the name Coonawarra on their labels.
Classic wine styles
Coonawarra’s cool maritime climate, with an average daily winter temperature of 9.8ºC, provides wines of elegance and structure that are a welcome respite from the fruit-filled wines of warmer regions like Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale and the Riverland. Coonawarra is, perhaps alongside Margaret River, Australia’s most famous cool-climate region for Cabernet Sauvignon. The Bordeaux grape varietal found a home in the terra rossa soils of Coonawarra, producing rich, firmly structured red wines that are renowned around the world as some of the finest in Australia. Cabernet Sauvignon is sometimes overlooked by consumers in favour of “look-at-me” Shiraz from regions like the Barossa Valley or McLaren Vale, but Coonawarra Cabernet is a truly noble wine, deep in colour with blackcurrant, mint and dried herb characteristics. Firm tannin structure is a key trait of Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon, often making the wines challenging to drink when young. After settling for a few years the tannins integrate with the primary fruit characters giving a more rounded and less architectural impression. Shiraz also thrives in Coonawarra, producing wines distinctly different to those of the Barossa, Hunter Valley or Margaret River. Coonawarra Shiraz often shows minty, wintergreen characters that add a savoury, herbal edge to the varietal dark blackberry, plum and pepper characters. Merlot grown in the area reflects the elegance of a cool climate and the ripeness of high sunshine through characters of ripe plum, spice, menthol and cedar. Although Clare and Eden Valleys carry the mantle of Australia’s leading Riesling producers, Coonawarra Riesling is worthy of praise for its pretty, soft floral and citrus characters. Wynns released their Coonawarra Estate Riesling in 1962 to great acclaim and other Coonawarra Riesling producers of note include Majella, Patrick Estate and Leconfield. The long Coonawarra ripening season also favours Chardonnay, producing wines with clear, ripe varietal characters of pear, stone fruit, lemon curd and pineapple supported by soft acidity. Wynns, Parker Estate, Balnaves and Hollick all produce Coonawarra Chardonnay of interest. Conditions in Coonawarra are favourable to Sauvignon Blanc, gaining aromatic qualities of melon, pineapple, lemon and grapefruit with crisp acidity. Coonawarra Sauvignon Blanc offers a smart alternative to the more structured, pungent styles from cooler regions like Adelaide Hills, Margaret River or Marlborough.
120 years of winemaking history
Coonawarra is home to well-established names that have endured and continue to succeed. Following the first-established wineries of Wynns (1891) and Redman (1908), surges of development occurred in the 1950s–60s with Jamiesons Run, Lindeman’s, Brand’s Laira, and again in the 1970s with Kidman, Leconfield, Majella, Rymill, Bowen Estate, Hollick, Balnaves, Petaluma and Katnook Estate. More recently established wineries include Parker, Di Giorgio, Penley Estate, Zema Estate and Patrick of Coonawarra. Many producers, like Balnaves, Majella and Redman, started out selling their grapes to other producers for multi-vineyard blends but soon recognised the value in making wines under their own label.
A legacy of traditional. A view to the future
The integrity of Coonawarra’s established winemaking families has been reinforced by a new generation of winemakers continuing the tradition of elegant cool climate winemaking that stands out in Australia’s competitive market. At Wynns Coonawarra Estate, Sue Hodder brings two decades of winemaking experience and she maintains the quality of the range by crafting wines that will last well into the future. Sue’s in-depth knowledge and viticultural skills have guided Wynns to new heights. At Rymill Estate, which James Halliday calls a ‘must-see destination for tourists’, senior winemaker Sandrine Gimon employs an innovative winemaking approach. Sandrine studied at the prestigious Reims University of Sciences and was one of only 24 students selected annually. Wayne Stehbens made Katnook’s first vintage in 1980 and still heads the Katnook winemaking team. Such longevity is a common trait in Coonawarra where winemakers settle in the region and stay, appreciating its close-knit community life and reputation for world-class wines. Part of the emerging trend of young gun winemakers, Luke Tocaciu followed in his late father Patrick’s footsteps to step up as winemaker at Patrick of Coonawarra and crafts wines that retain the values of tradition yet easily meet the demands of a contemporary market. Steve Raidis is another new kid on the block, taking a sustainable, hand-crafted approach to winemaking at Raidis Estate. After the grapes have been picked Steve lets goats roam the vineyards to eat the remaining grapes, so returning valuable organic matter back into the soil. At Bellwether, winemaker Sue Bell is producing complex wines fermented with natural yeast to enhance a sense of origin. Sue’s Bellwether Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon shows thoughtful winemaking at its best, with seamless oak, integrated tannins and generous cassis and dried herb notes on the palate.
Coonawarra: wondrous wines. Wonderful welcome
Other than welcoming cellar doors pouring complex wines, Coonawarra’s other attractions include the Coonawarra Cabernet Celebrations, Coonawarra After Dark Weekend, the Coonawarra Vignerons Cup held at the Penola Racecourse and the Penola-Coonawarra Arts Festival. This then is a region where the production of world-class wines is something that is woven into the community, a community that welcomes wine lovers with open arms – something many fine wine regions would do well to emulate. And while Cabernet holds the Coonawarra crown, there is a lot more to this classic region than first meets the eye.
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