Coonawarra is Australia’s premier red wine region; a truth shared by wine connoisseurs, visitors and locals alike.
Think Coonawarra, and thoughts of sumptuous reds spring to mind – from the rich rust-coloured Terra Rossa soil for which it’s internationally recognised, to the prized red wines that have made it famous. There are endless skies and crimson sunset that sweet across a broad horizon; and of course, there’s the firey passion in the veins of our vignerons and winemakers.
Coonawarra is not a recent arrival. It has paid its dues to the Australian wine industry for over 120 years, exporting fortifieds in the late 1800s and providing the essence of many of our most famous wines in the 30s, 40s and 50s long before its global reputation as a fine wine region was established.
Then from the 1960s to the 1990s it blossomed, claiming the mantra as Australia’s leading Cabernet Sauvignon region. It remains one of only three or four Australian geographic wine names that is easily recalled by consumers worldwide.
Coonawarra is region that has a singular story based on a unique cigar-shaped strip of terra rossa soil over limestone.
Terra rossa (Italian for red soil) is a type of red clay produced by the weathering of limestone over many thousands of years and coloured by iron oxide. Free draining yet complemented by the water holding capacity of the limestone, the unique soil influences vine vigour, ripeness and wine flavour.
The Coonawarra Fruit Colony
Scottish born gardener, William Wilson who came from the Victorian goldfields in the 1850s with £300 in his pocket, chose his small block not on the black and grey loams to the east and west, but on the red terra rossa soil around the town of Penola.
His canny sense of place was repaid in the vigour of his fruit trees and vines and he advised John Riddoch, a fellow Scot who arrived in 1861, to do the same.
Riddoch’s pastoral holding actually spread over 127,000 acres south to Mount Gambier, but on Wilson’s advice, he selected 1,147 acres of terra rossa to the north of Penola for his Coonawarra Fruit Colony – choosing to name it after the Aboriginal word for honeysuckle.
His vision of a self-sufficient community of small tenant farmers growing and marketing specific crops to both domestic and international markets was not an uncommon agrarian dream in the early 1890s.
Riddoch had in mind an enterprise that would provide prosperity and employment for the region, and had it not been for the bank crash and subsequent Depression of 1893, Coonawarra may well have become a great southern city to rival Melbourne and Adelaide.
A shortage of credit for the small block owners to borrow and expand, followed by Riddoch’s untimely death in 1901, stalled his vision for Coonawarra.
Riddoch’s wine legacy is the substantial stone gabled winery, now Wynns Coonawarra Estate, and around 350 acres of vineyard planted predominately to Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon with some small plots of Pinot Noir and Malbec – varieties he had tested and found grew best in the region.
The region’s torchbearer for the next 50 years was Bill Redman, the 14-year-old son of a railway worker who, in 1901, walked into Riddoch’s winery asking for a job. Bill established his own winery in 1908, using grapes grown by the Redman family, as well as fruit purchased from other blockers. He, and later his son Owen (grandson of Coonawarra’s founder William Wilson), ran the winery. The wine was all sold in bulk to other Australian wineries and merchants, who did not always acknowledge Coonawarra on the label.
Bill was a survivor and a genuine innovator, who evolved the very first Coonawarra “dinner clarets”, after moving away from the bigger, riper red wine styles of the day. The lighter-bodied wines that he produced, were high in acid, delicate and capable of aging in the bottle.
For many years he was the sole red wine producer in the region – but the distance from capital city wine markets and State Government support for soldier settlers to convert low paying vineyards to dairy farms, saw Coonawarra’s area under vine dwindle to less than 300 acres by 1939 and the outbreak of World War II.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate
The modern Coonawarra started in 1951 when David Wynn, son of Melbourne wine merchant Samuel, purchased the run down Riddoch vineyards and winery. He established an iconic label design based on the distinctive stone gables, naming his brand Wynns Coonawarra Estate.
Coonawarra Claret, often made by Redman’s but branded by Hardy’s and Woodley’s, started winning wine awards and receiving positive reviews from Sydney and Melbourne opinion makers. The eyebrows of Australia’s long-established wine companies were raised and suddenly Mildara, Penfolds and Lindemans (amongst others) were falling over themselves to buy Coonawarra terra rossa land and contracting the Redman’s to develop the vineyards and make wine.
Growth and investment
During the second half of the twentieth century Coonawarra became the most sought-after wine producing region in Australia. Eric Brand, Owen Redman’s brother in law opened Brand’s Laira in the mid-60s; Lindemans purchased and expanded the former Redman’s Rouge Homme winery and brand; and Mildara Wines planted vineyards and built a vintage winery. Some of the others that followed over the next decade planting vineyards and building wineries were Katnook Estate, Bowen Estate and Leconfield.
Many familiar names purchased land and planted vineyards in the area, processing their grapes elsewhere – Orlando, Hungerford Hill, Petaluma, Parker – while others patiently waited for their vines to produce before building their Coonawarra wineries – Hollick Estates, Balnaves of Coonawarra, Majella, Rymill Wines, Penley Estate and Zema Estate.
By the end of the 1980s Coonawarra came of age when Hunter Valley icon Rosemount invested in the region, the Clare Valley’s legendary Barry family bought into the region and Australia’s oldest family owned winery, Yalumba purchased land on the famous cigar shaped terra rossa soil.
The 1990s was a period of unstoppable growth in the Australian wine industry as demand from the United Kingdom and the USA outstripped supply. Coonawarra’s image increased and benefitted from the international wine show and media exposure.
During this period some locals, pastoralists and farmers who had patches of terra rossa soil decided to diversify into grape growing, with several subsequently opening cellar door outlets. These included the Kidman (Kidman Wines and Banks Thargo), Hogg, Raidis and Reschke families.
A fascination by USA wine writers and consumers in the late 1990s for big, highly alcoholic Australian red wines, mainly Shiraz, saw a contraction of this strong market. But new horizons opened up in Asia and Europe where the market was particularly familiar with Cabernet Sauvignon wines.
Domestic and international market success provoked Australia’s European competitors to ask for a level playing field, requiring Australia to develop an appellation system with defined geographical boundaries. A debate began about where the line was to be drawn to define the area known as Coonawarra.
At stake was Coonawarra’s reputation, land values and hence grape and wine prices. After nearly a decade of arbitration a compromise was reached and the official boundary was drawn, confirming once and for all the exclusivity of this tiny 5,000 hectares of vines in southern Australia and cementing the substance of the Coonawarra story.
In 2014 Wynns Coonawarra Estate’s John Riddoch Cabernet Sauvignon was elevated into the Exceptional category of the Langton’s Classification of Australian Wine, a culmination of a 120-year journey from the first days of settlement.
Achieving Langton’s second level classification of Outstanding are Balnaves of Coonawarra The Tally Cabernet Sauvignon; Majella Wines Mallea Cabernet Shiraz; Katnook Estate Odyssey Cabernet Sauvignon; and Wynns Coonawarra Estate Michael Shiraz.
Bowen Estate, Katnook Estate, Majella Wines, Parker Coonawarra Estate, St Hugo and Wynns Coonawarra have also been classified as Excellent by Langton’s.
These third-party acknowledgements of consistency and top quality contribute to the catalogue of achievements accumulated by Coonawarra wines. Adding to these are eight Jimmy Watson Trophies (Melbourne Wine Show) and several Warren Winiarski Trophies (International Wine and Spirit Competition).
Coonawarra \ Time to Enjoy
“After many years of experimentation we have recognised what clones of Cabernet and Shiraz best suit our terrior.”
“When I came to Coonawarra in 1972, freshly out of Roseworthy and newly married I was lucky enough to have what the new generation of wine writers at the time called an ‘angle’.”
“Only Brands, Redmans and Wynns operated cellar door sales in Coonawarra and then only for limited time during the year as they sold out quickly…so our new cellar door and wines gained us some notoriety.”
“The timing was also right as the demand for dry red table wines was just taking off. Through the 60s Australians grew up on a diet of Barossa Pearl, Sparkling Rhinegold and Chateau Gay – sweet bubbly concoctions – as their first introduction to wine. Having got the taste, through evolution their palates began looking for drier wines, firstly whites then on to reds.”
“In the 70s table wine was only made in the traditional recognised areas such as the Barossa, Clare, McLaren Vale, Hunter and Coonawarra – we need to give thanks to people like David Wynn who was in the right place at the right time to put Coonawarra on the map. Places like Margaret River barely existed – Wynns at Coonawarra made more wine than the entire Margaret River region at that point in time.”
“During the late 70s and 80s there was a huge expansion of Coonawarra’s viticultural area, as most of the Coonawarra red cigar area was planted, mainly by existing locals and then again in the 90s we saw further expansion of the area driven by investment companies.”
“The export boom of the 1990s didn’t affect me as much as some other wineries. I was still focussed on Australia – the reality was we couldn’t supply the domestic market, so why risk sending wine overseas. Independent wine shops were the heart and soul of retailing wine then and at least once a month I would be doing Saturday morning tastings in retail shops in Melbourne and Sydney. They were a ritual.”
“The style of Coonawarra Cabernet has certainly changed over the last 50 years. In the 70s the grapes were picked much earlier than today making a style lighter than today. As winemakers have tried to get more body, richness and flavour into their wines they picked later with higher levels of ripeness in the grapes.”
“One of the things that has allowed this to happen has been the introduction of mechanical harvesting. In the past, harvest always started early, when the grapes were not quite ripe, just in case the season broke. Picking was done by hand and if the rains started then we were in trouble. Mechanical harvesting enabled us to be more precise and pick at optimal ripeness.”
“The other major revolution in the vineyards is how we grow our grapes. After many years of experimentation we have recognised what clones of Cabernet and Shiraz best suit our terrior, we have changed our planting density, changed our bud numbers, changed our trellis system, and changed our pruning style back to hand pruning. We have gone away from herbicides and now use mechanical means. These changes we believe give us healthier vines and fruit of sustainable quality.”
“It’s an ongoing evolution – we’re always experimenting and exploring styles with less oak, lower alcohol and even trying earlier bottling. I think these technological advances in the vineyard and the winery have helped Coonawarra’s winemakers make a more consistent, pure and reliable wine.”
Balnaves of Coonawarra
“The global wine industry is seeking specialised varieties from specialised regions and we see Coonawarra as the ideal region for Cabernet Sauvignon.”
“The most significant catalyst that stimulated Coonawarra’s growth – and the growth of the Australian wine industry – was the influx of European migrants following the Second World War. Until about 1960, many Australian families (including my own) would have never tasted a dry white or red wine, or eaten Italian, Greek or any other European type food.”
“Although Coonawarra had been producing premium wines since the late 1800s, largely due to the efforts of the Redman family, it was the influence of David Wynn who purchased the Coonawarra Winery in 1950 and his professional approach to wine marketing that enabled the region to capitalise on this change in consumer tastes.”
“The Wynn family carried Coonawarra into its boom years and their success prompted the other corporate wine companies such as Mildara,( 1955) Lindeman’s (1965) Penfolds (1965) Hungerford Hill (1971) and then Orlando and Hardy’s to acquire their holdings in Coonawarra.”
“The arrival of these large companies brought a very professional approach to marketing. I was not a young winemaker or even a winery owner in those years, but the success of those companies provided aN opportunity for small family owned companies such as us to later establish a niche in the market. Over the next 30 or so years the large corporates and small family owned companies shared the accolades such as the wine show wins and the Jimmy Watson Trophy – there was certainly a sense of partnership and collaboration. Even though some of the smaller wineries are adding the colour to our story now, I would never discount the significant role played in the fortunes of Coonawarra by Treasury, through the Wynns winery.”
“Winemaking is an ongoing journey of improvement – I don’t think any of us are ever happy to stand still and we all approach it differently. As climate change is now a reality it is vital to know and understand the changes that are taking place in our vineyards and the environment. The ultimate goal when producing quality grapes is to achieve balance between canopy and berry size and we have been trying to be more precise, to have more control and to access more information to make decisions.”
“For example irrigation scheduling has evolved tremendously. We now use sophisticated technology such as electro-magnetic (EM38) surveys that map soil conductivity, depth and elevation then link that to Green Seeker data that verifies drip irrigation system accuracy and vine interactivity. Water application is a vital factor in producing quality grapes.”
“Despite these improvements in viticultural technology we remain focussed on producing traditional Coonawarra Cabernet. We don’t plan to experiment with new varietals as so many other regions are doing. The global wine industry is seeking specialised varieties from specialised regions and we see Coonawarra as the ideal region for Cabernet Sauvignon. It is also significant that in the occasional difficult vintage, Cabernet Sauvignon fares significantly better than other varieties.”
“Despite that we are confident that we can further improve our Cabernet. In recent years we have planted two of the new Entav Cabernet clones and 1 new Entav Merlot clone from France and their different style and character are already creating interest.”
“As a region, going forward we have a dynamic mix of experience and youth – I calculated that 11 winemakers have served a total of 350 years in Coonawarra but we also have a lot of new blood which is changing the conversation about the region.”