The Coonawarra Story
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.
There is no pretence about Coonawarra – it is as solid as its tri-century old gumtrees and as reliable as the rainfall that rolls in from the nearby Southern Ocean.
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.
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