(Re)Discovering Coonawarra

(Re)Discovering Coonawarra

This South  Australian region’s Cabernet Sauvignon was once the height of fashion. Is it worth another look?

The first bottle of wine I ever bought was a Cabernet Sauvignon from Penley Estate, Coonawarra - 6-litre boxes of Fruity Lexia don’t count. At sixteen (I was resourceful), there was something about its buttery approachableness, and the smoke and spice beneath that spoke of some distant, European sophistication. I had exactly zero idea about wine.

Not a lot has changed on that front - but I’ve drunk substantially more of the stuff. And, like most things you love when you’re sixteen, Cabernet Sauvignon stopped appealing to me at some point. As many Melburnians who take eating and drinking seriously, my tastes became more esoteric: if the grape wasn’t a Georgian heirloom grown in a cow-horn and fermented underground in a womb-shaped urn, I don’t want to hear about it.

After ringing around some wine peeps, it seems that’s the case for a lot of drinkers. “Just due to my upbringing in South Australia, I have a bit of a soft spot for Coonawarra,” admits Bar Liberty sommelier Banjo Harris-Plane (and formerly of Attica) “But professionally? We don’t have any Coonawarra wines on the list at Liberty at the moment, so… I guess that tells you about as much as you need to know.”

I hear the same story at the Prince Wine Store where owner Micheal McNamara doesn’t keep much in stock. “I guess Coonawarra Cabernet is not uppermost in buyer’s minds,” he says. “I think the premium cabernet buyer has really moved away from Coonawarra to either Margaret River and the Yarra, and Bordeaux blends for that matter.”

So why has this landmark wine had fallen out of favour? Has the South Australian region become a victim of its success, too dependent on its past to change with changing tastes? Or are the heavy, oaky reds of Coonawarra already a relic of the past, and we just haven’t noticed?

The Platonic Ideal of Coonawarra Cabernet, explains Sue Hodder, chief winemaker at Wynn’s and one of the most respected vintners in the country, is predominantly fruit-driven wine, with a dark cherry character, fine tannins and an underlying taste of dry mint. “Good Coonawarra Cabernet - and that’s important to specify - should have that fruit purity,” she says. Like all ideals, it’s not always met.

Driving in from the East, Coonawarra is long, flat and hot. The Tuscan landscape of the Adelaide Hills this is not; the horizon’s demarcated only by thin stands of gum, with lawns of grapes in between - Big Sky Country, as the man says. But what attracts winemakers to Coonawarra isn’t above ground; it’s beneath it.

The grapes that grow in this dusk-red soil have roots that trace back into deep time. About 158 million years ago, Coonawarra was part of the supercontinent known as Gondwanaland, connected to the now-distant Antartica. When the continents ruptured and drifted apart, the region was covered by seawater, where the bodies of coral and sealife gradually drifted to the seafloor, forming the hard bed of limestone found that’s now just metres under the topsoil. Later, a system of volcanoes around Mount Gambier continually erupted, laying down the rich surface soils that serve today’s winemakers so well.

While the geological character of the Limestone Coast makes it hugely desirable farming land, Coonawarra itself is unique. Known to locals as ‘the strip’, the heart of the winemaking region is a vein of ‘friable subplastic clay’, rust-coloured earth: terra rossa. The strip itself is strictly demarcated, stretching 15 kilometres along and just 1.5 kilometres across. Winemakers who have a plot of terra rossa claim it’s this particular soil that gives their wines their distinctive (and, apparently, superior) taste. According to Wine Australia, a plot of terra rossa is among the country’s most expensive, at around $70,000 per hectare. “People have made nice wines from the black soil, but if you’re talking about the essence, heritage and true quality of Coonawarra it has to be the red soil,” says Sue Hodder. “The difference between red and black is drainage. The moisture-holding capacity of the red soils, they just have the right amount. They hold enough water to sustain the vine, then they dry out at about Christmastime, and it gives the right amount of controlled stress to the vine to achieve good concentrated fruit.”

Viticulturalist Trent Brand, whose family has been in Coonawarra for generations, wholeheartedly agrees about the importance of the soil. Brand’s Laira, named for his grandfather, has some of the oldest cabernet vines in the country, with the first block planted in 1893. “The terra rosa is a key part in keeping the balance of the vines,” he explains. “It’s a good structured sort of soil, it has enough nutrition in it to keep the vines growing, there’s a restriction of limestone in the depth which helps the vigour of the vine.”

It’s that red soil that attracted winemakers to the region in the first place. For tens of thousands of years, the Limestone Coast supported the Ngarrindjeri and Booandik peoples, who fished among the reeds of the Coorong and cultivated the land with farming. European settlers colonised the area around 1860, initially running sheep and later moving into fruit farming.

Coonawarra’s patron saint (excluding Mary McKillop, who also lived in the region) is John Riddoch, a Scottish settler who struck gold in Victoria and used his newfound wealth to purchase land in South Australia. There, he founded the Penola Fruit Company, which began growing Shiraz before folks cottoned on to the area’s similarities with Bordeaux. In an early instance of rebranding, Riddoch supposedly appropriated the Bungandidj word for ‘honeysuckle’ to rechristen the town as ‘Coonawarra’.

By the 1960s, Coonawarra had become one of Australia’s most chic wine regions, with the Redman and Wynn families producing vast amounts of the country’s table wine. It had also changed its emphasis, with winemakers pulling out Shiraz and replanting Cabernet, the grape with which Coonawarra has made its name.

It was in the 1990s that winemaking in Coonawarra reached an industrial scale. According to the World Atlas of Wine, the total vineyard area more than doubled and much of it was owned by big players such as Penfolds, Lindeman’s and Jamiesons Run (all under the umbrella of Treasury Wine Estates, which also owns Wynn’s).

This remains the Coonawarra with which we most strongly associate. Due to both the scale of the business, and the distance from the nearest city, with its steady stream of backpackers looking for short-term jobs, most vineyards were both pruned and picked mechanically. Across the country, wine nerds looked away in horror.

“Machine pruning was emblematic of the ethos of the place - a more commercial, industrial way of making wine,” says Michael McNamara. “I’m not a winemaker and I’m not a viticulturalist, and some would argue that it has no net effect on the quality of the wine. But it’s part of the story, and building a small region’s persona within a premium niche, it’s important.”

The idea of ‘story’ has become increasingly sacrosanct to wine buyers. The word ‘provenance’ is intoned with ritual intensity, as educated drinkers pour their disposable income into independent, small-scale, organic, biodynamic and so-called ‘natural’ wines. Which is fantastic. But it’s also deeply fashionable, and fashions generally don’t last.

Harris-Plane pithily sums up the prevailing attitude to Coonawarra: “A lot of the vineyards are owned by bigger companies, so for a smaller guy to do something sensitive and environmental and caring in a viticultural sense, it’s tricky, because they need to get their hands on the land first and they need to start treating it well,” he says. “To make wines in a manner that’s not currently recognised as being ‘Coonawarra’ is a pretty bold step. There’s no fundamental barrier to change, but it doesn’t seem like it’s just around the corner.”

Speaking personally, Coonawarra’s Cabernets, with their bold flavours and their emphasis on age, just aren’t to his taste. “They focus on cabernet. That’s no big deal; there are cabernets that I like. But what I don’t like is the older style of Australian cabernet where it’s 14-14.5 percent alcohol with a big whack of oak,” admits Harris-Plane. “I really like cabernet from the Yarra where it’s generally 12.5-13 percent, it’s in a more balanced, more elegant style, and I just don’t see a whole lot of that style of cabernet coming out of Coonawarra at the moment.”

But winemakers from the Coonawarra reckon this is a case of mistaken identity. Second-generation winemaker, Stephen Radis hears the criticism, and rejects it. “We’re out in the trade a fair bit, so I do come across those comments. I feel like the people making those comments probably haven’t tried Coonawarra wine for five years or so. When was the last time you’ve been?”, he asks. “The perception from that set is that Coonawarra hasn’t moved. The reality is that Coonawarra is a really progressive region, and always has been.”

When Radis planted his own vines 14 years ago, he set out to make a lighter wine. At the time, he saw there was a hole in the market for a fruit-forward style - but what was new in 2006 has become the norm. “I think oak-heavy wines were a thing going back, but it’s not anymore,” he says. “Most of Coonawarra cabernets are now much more fruit forward, much gentler, with less oak - or better oak, really fine-grained, silky smooth tannins, rather than big, knock-your-teeth-out wines.”

While small-scale, independent winemakers can nimbly adapt their winemaking techniques, the larger businesses can find them harder to shift. Still, that hasn’t stopped industrial-scale winemakers like Hodder at Wynn’s from getting amongst it.

In 2002, Hodder and viticulturalist Allen Jenkins went at their vineyard with a chainsaw, Evil Dead-style, pressing reset on the way they managed their grapes. Since 2009, Hodder has had an emphasis on small-block single-vineyard wines that she only releases if her harvest’s up to standard. Eminent wine writer Huon Hooke reckons these bottles are ‘the most exciting in the region’. “I love wines that are medium-bodied, but have good structure. There is a lot of reference made in South Australia to ‘bigger wines’ which of course, we all make generalisations, but here it’s not the case. We make medium-bodied wines, especially Wynn’s.”

To her mind, Coonawarra is the perfect place to produce medium-bodied wines. During summer, days are hot. But the nights chill down significantly, which lets the grapes ripen more slowly, and develop tannins and flavours in step with the sugars in the fruit. “We can pick the red parcels earlier, at lower sugar. They have a better balance of riper flavours and good acidity and ripe tannin at a lower level than those from the black. That’s the nub of it really: being able to pick at optimal beaumais with the right amount of flavour at lower alcohol,” she says. “You can’t achieve lower-alcohol wines without the right vineyards. You need vineyards that ripen early at lower sugar levels so that you can pick them earlier. If you’re still waiting for green to pass, or seeds to ripen, then the sugars are creeping up and you’re compromised from the outset.”

Across the road at Brand’s Laira, chief winemaker Peter Weinberg agrees entirely. “When you look at all the better cabernet producing areas of the world, they’ve got some sort of maritime influence, which we do. They’ve got cool, wet winters and the warm, dry summers,” he explains. “In the summers, you can have quite warm days but the nights will usually chill down under the maritime influence. During those cool nights, the vines shut down a bit more and nothing happens, so it means that you’ve got a longer ripening period, so you need longer for the grapes to mature. It’s that extra time that helps them get the flavours and the colours and the tannins.”

As far as the shibboleth of machine pruning goes, it’s complicated. Everyone assures me that the days of taking to the plants with a robotic hedge trimmer are long gone; instead, an initial automated pre-pruning is followed up by extensive hand-pruning, short shoots are taken off and green fruit is removed. During the winter, goats and lambs wander through the vineyards to keep the soil in check. “We probably haven’t been good enough at getting out and telling people what’s actually happening. Most vineyards now have some form of mechanical pruning, which is pre-pruning,” says Radis. “It just makes a lot of sense, because it cuts down your labour costs dramatically. We then have a hand follow-up, which yields exactly the same result as if you did the entire thing by hand - it’s just that it’s half the price.”

And it’s not just the small players; there’s a similar approach at big end. “With mechanical pruning, over the last 15 years, we’ve really changed all that. It’s been a fundamental, philosophical change from those big hedges,” says Hodder. “Now there’s a machine going through taking out the big stuff - and that happens in every region - but it needs to have detailed hand-pruning afterwards.”

Though there aren’t many natural wines coming out of Coonawarra at the moment (though a winemaker or two did sneak me a glass from their private stash of wild ferments), players like Hodder believe the region - if not the industry - has something to learn from those winemakers with tattoos. “Like any movement, there’ll be elements of the natural wine phenomenon that will remain and stick, and that’s important,” she says. “It might move things in a constructive and disruptive way.”

For his part, Weinberg believes that in future, Coonawarra winemakers will experiment with Bordeaux varieties apart from Cabernet. “I’d like to see more blends, utilising Petit Verdot, Malbec and Cabernet Franc,” he says. “I suppose you could say that’s traditional too, but they’re the varieties that will grow the best and have the best characteristics in our soils and climates, rather than trying to find some obscure, funky Croatian variety and trying to grow that here.”

Even if the winemaking were fossilised like the limestone seafloor beneath it, Coonawarra should still feature on the bucket-list for anyone interested in Australian wine. So much of the country’s winemaking history happened here, and given the prodigious cellaring ability of Cabernet, the wines are still around to prove it.

Whether or not Coonawarra Cabernet has changed radically is not for me to say. I did, however, taste a few local numbers next to some Kiwi and Napa examples and, for science’s sake, a Bordeaux Grande Cru. Coonawarra was not found wanting. But I don’t expect you to take me on my word. Neither do Coonawarra winemakers. “Our wines aren’t heavy,” concludes Hodder. “But you can’t just say it and expect people to believe you; you have to go and taste it.”

Tim Grey travelled to Coonawarra at the invitation of Brand’s Laira.

published in broadsheet