Coonawarra Vignerons' Association:www.coonawarra.org
The Coonawarra, in the cold south-eastern corner of South Australia, was Australia’s first great Cabernet Sauvignon region, with comparisons to the variety’s most internationally famous expression in Bordeaux.
The classic style shows the rare natural balance of vibrant cassis and mulberry fruit alongside a delicate expression of the variety’s best features and often a fine, smooth tannic structure. A series of difficult vintages in the 1990s allowed the Margaret River to challenge for the reputation as Australia’s leading cabernet region. While wine lovers continue to debate which is the nation’s best there is no doubt that both continue to produce some of Australia’s best cabernets.
The Coonawarra was settled by sheep-grazing Europeans on Pinjunga land in the 1840s. The Pinjunga people had been displaced from the area by the turn of the 20th century but their word for honeysuckle provides the ‘Coonawarra’ name for the region.
The first serious wine-making in the area was started by Scottish pioneer and later colonial MP John Riddoch and his Coonawarra Fruit Colony. The vines were established in 1891 and flourished until the First World War. However, for a long time there afterwards there was little wine made here.
Unlike the nearby Victoria the decline was not caused by phylloxera. The impetus for quality viticulture tapered off after the death of John Riddoch in 1901.
Instead of wine the grapes in the area became increasingly used for brandy as the demand for table wines faded away. The bulk of the region’s vines were then removed as part of a government subsidised vine pull scheme in the 1930s and replaced with dairy farms and orchards.
The surviving connection with the Coonawarra's past is the Redman family who through three generations (Bill, Owen and now Bruce and Malcolm) have kept their vines going since 1908. Little wonder given the praise their wines were getting. The 1932 Redmans Claret won the 1936 Empire Wine Show in London, and their first entry into the Australian Show arena took top prize at the 1947 Adelaide Wine Show.
The Redman's stubborn success slowly led others to recognise the qualities of the region. The Wynn family bought the old Riddoch winery in 1951, and the first glimmerings of the revival of a market for Australian premium table reds saw Mildara (1955), Penfolds (1960) and Lindemans (1965) set up in the region. The trickle became a flood with post 1970s red wine boom and the later export boom in 1990s. There are now over 5,500 hectares of vines in the region.
So what is it that makes the classic Coonawarra's cabernets so good ? The first reason is the famous cigar-shaped strip of terra rossa soil. It is a thin layer (only 50 cm deep) on red loam that sits on top of a free-draining and fossil-rich limestone, which in turn sits on a watertable only a 2 m below the surface.
The theory why this produces such good reds is that the vines have to struggle to get through the limestone to the water and this according to the growers makes the plants put more effort into the fruit than the leaves. The terra rossa soils run in a narrow strip only about 1.5 km wide for about 20 km northwards from Penola.
The second is that this is a very cool region, much more exposed to the Great Southern Ocean's prevailing winds then much of Victoria, and with a very high number of days with the sky covered with low, grey strato-cumulus clouds. In short for a lot of the time it's a grey and windy spot apart from some brief bursts of extreme heat in mid-late summer.
This might not make it a great tourist spot but it does mean that the grapes have some of the longest ripening periods on mainland Australia. It is not uncommon for harvesting to occur in June. In good vintages this allows the complex and delicate varietal features to develop, and justified comparisons with the best Bordeaux, Margaret River or Californian cabernets.
The flipside is when summer gives the Coonawarra a miss that the grapes will not achieve full ripeness, leading either to green, metallic tannins; or conversely will be left hanging on the vines for too long and will ripen only after shrivelling. This leads to porty and crude wines. Some wineries are honest about this and only put out their expensive, super-premiums in the good years (such as Balnaves with The Tally).
However, many corporations have too much invested here to write off a whole vintage. More so than most mainland regions you really do need to take note of the vintages before paying big bucks for a super-premium Coonawarra red. Luckily most Coonawarra reds you will see in bottleshops are in the $25-$35 mid range (Balnaves, Brand's, Majella, Zema Estate and Leconfield) and are consistently approachable when young.
While Cabernet makes up more than half of the plantings and the bulk of the export sales there are other varieties. There is lots of Shiraz although it is generally closer in style to the earthy more restrained Western Victorian Shirazes than the Barossa/McLaren Vale dam-busters. Merlot is making some inroads here with some good spicy red fruit examples from Petaluma and Balnaves. The whites make up only 15% of the planting here. Like the rest of the Limestone Coast it is good for Chardonnay, and you may also come across the occasional zingy Sauvignon Blanc or orange blossom scented Riesling.
Apart from a low ridge down the middle of the region it is flat, fairly bleak plain about a 100 km inland from the coastal towns of Robe and Beachport, and 400 km away from Adelaide.
Until recently the wine tourism was for the most hardy wine fans and occasional tourist breaking up their Melbourne-Adelaide trip with a fairly big diversion from the main highway. However, the Coonawarra wine industry has taken giant steps over the last five or so years to put itself on the wine tourism map. There are now over 20 cellar doors, with impressive modern complexes such as Rymill, Poplars, Punters Corner and Menzies (Yalumba) joining old cellar door favourites such as Zema Estate, Bowen Estate, Redmans and Wynns.
The region is now building a comprehensive range of annual events to lure wine lovers to the region. In April there is the Coonawarra After Dark where the wineries offer the opportunity to tour their behind-the-scenes operations during the peak of the harvest.
Fans of older wines are catered for in the July Cellar Dwellers event when the wineries break out their 10+ old wines for cellar door tasting and purchases. In October there is the 3 day Coonawarra Cabernet Celebrations which includes music, special dinners, master classes, vineyard tours and the auctioning of barrels of the best of the previous vintage Cabernet.
Most of the region’s wineries also take part in the annual Coonawarra Tasting Roadshow to Adelaide, Perth, Melbourne, Canberra and Brisbane over August and September. top