South Australia’s Coonawarra region is doing what it does best – producing some of the nation’s finest cabernet sauvignon. But as wineries embrace their heritage and evolve techniques, they are also crafting other exceptional varietal wines.
Grubbed/Grubbed up: to pull vines up by the roots and replace them with other cuttings.
Along the famous strip of terra rossa soil, whole paddocks of old cabernet vines have been grubbed. This pulling of vines is a sign that things are changing in Coonawarra, for the better. Unproductive or diseased vines are making way for superior cuttings from outstanding old vines or better clones – a powerful statement that any perceived era of complacency in Coonawarra has come to an end.
Wynns Coonawarra – a foundation winery, the largest landholder with more than 850 hectares under vine, and in most respects a leader of the region – started this brave venture in 2002. Working on three hectares at a time, canny viticulturist Allen Jenkins declared that the future fortune of Coonawarra lay in more vigilant studies and repatriation of its soil and vines. “We need to rejuvenate the vineyards with new material best-suited to the future,” he says.
The vineyard renewal process became more pronounced several years ago when other prominent wineries along the Riddoch Highway followed suit, with Bowen Estate, Lindeman’s and Balnaves among them. “Keep an eye on Coonawarra,” says Allen. “It’s changing.”
Many pundits felt there was dire need for change. Criticism of large wine companies’ handling of irrigation, mechanised harvesting and pruning had drawn unfavourable comments about bottles with ‘Coonawarra’ marked on the label, particularly entry-level cabernet. As Coonawarra carping reached a crescendo, reaction followed in the vineyards and wineries. The effects are now evident in a growing suite of top-end wines that capture great freshness and vitality while simultaneously respecting the heritage of old vine material.
Wynns head winemaker Sue Hodder even suggests that grubbing ineffective old vines has helped emphasise the true character of Coonawarra fruit. “Looking more closely at the output of each vineyard, we came to recognise the special personalities exhibited in our best sites,” says Sue, explaining why Wynns commenced its single vineyard cabernet releases from 2001. A dozen of these wines have now been released from seven different sites. “We were perhaps slow to embrace single vineyard expressions, but now we see they offer something of great strength, presenting a fascinating and more complex picture of this region.”
The essence of this modern Coonawarra portrait is fruit purity, which Sue believes is captured through more careful handling of fruit, especially greater amounts of hand-picked berries to ensure no raisins or unripe fruit make it to the crusher, and less extraction of hard tannins.
Such close attention to detail results in higher consistency, according to celebrated winemaker Peter Bissell from Balnaves of Coonawarra. Having worked 27 vintages there, he believes the region doesn’t get enough credit for focusing intently on its cabernet sauvignon.
“I often get asked what new varieties are being planted in Coonawarra, and in truth there aren’t any. It’s all about hard reassessment and rethinking of how to get the best from what we already specialise in,” Peter says. “It’s amusing; nobody asks what new varieties are being planted in Bordeaux or Burgundy.”
Peter acknowledges that casual observers may not notice the depth of work being undertaken by the region’s wineries. “There is constant new work, even though we often won’t see the advantages of this for several years,” he says. “It’s a very complex, subtle story of what works best here for vine balance, and understanding the underlying science, so it’s all about exercising patience. We have a 120-year history of winemaking in Coonawarra. We know that wines made here in the 1950s still drink well today, so we know the potential exists to produce long-lived, complex wines. It’s our challenge to keep accomplishing that.”
Attaining such a goal allows the philosophies of different winemakers to shine, beyond such regional stalwarts as Bruce Gregory at Majella, who has made every vintage since the premium producer began in 1991, to include rising talent. Prominent among them is former Stonehaven winemaker Sue Bell, who purchased the 150-year-old Glenroy Shearing Shed as a home for her boutique label, Bellwether Wines – a barrel and bottle store, winemaking facility and cellar door tasting room. “It suits me perfectly,” she says. “I don’t need vines. I buy fruit parcels that impress me from different growers, but I do need a winemaking and storage site, and I want my base to be immediately identifiable as Coonawarra.”
Curiously, though, Sue forges a style of cabernet that is not typical of Coonawarra – a leaner and more elegant wine compared to many of her neighbours, with a soft, heady perfume and lean, fine tannins.
Several other young winemakers are also making a significant impact within established companies: Dan Redman and Emma Bowen at their respective families’ eponymous wineries; Argentinean-born Federico Zaina within the Rymill winemaking team; and Luke Tocaciu, having taken over the reins from his late father Pat at Patrick of Coonawarra.
Outsiders are also looking at Coonawarra fruit afresh, with Barossa winemaker Phil Lehmann now making Parker Coonawarra Estate wines on behalf of the vineyard owners, the Hesketh family. Phil is taking a slightly different approach with this brand’s First Growth Cabernet and Terra Rossa series.
“Personally, I love the riper flavours of cabernet, but I’m mindful of continuing the history of the bright, modern style of Coonawarra cabernet that had been laid down at Parker before me,” Phil says. “I get to compare because I work with fruit from quite a few different regions, and I’m greatly impressed by the quality of cabernet fruit we get from Coonawarra, but I’m most excited by its tannin structure, capturing both elegance and strength.”
The shiraz story
There’s also another powerful chapter to Coonawarra’s red wine story, with the continuing emergence of impressive shiraz. Within many wineries, the varietal looms large as a significant commercial success – especially at Majella, with its popular Shiraz (introduced when the brand began in 1991) and its luscious Malleea that blends cabernet and shiraz, as well as at Wynns, within its V&A Lane range (introduced in 2008 and overseen by winemaker Sarah Pidgeon). “The shiraz of this region has a quality and character of its own,” says Sarah. “It deserves its share of attention.”
Zema Estate also finds its generous and beautifully balanced shiraz wins as much attention as its cabernet. This was amplified when the Zema family released Saluti, a blend of reserved cabernet and shiraz barrels from the 2006 vintage to celebrate the family’s 25th anniversary of winemaking in Coonawarra. It was widely applauded by wine critics for bringing together the high notes of both grape varieties. “It becomes hard sometimes to say which one is the favourite of each vintage – cabernet or shiraz,” said Zema Estate winemaker Greg Clayfield when Saluti was released in 2012. “We have very devoted fans for both wines, and I think that’s entirely deserved. They both stand as very powerful and true representatives of Coonawarra.”
Every Coonawarra winery produces cabernet sauvignon, making it difficult for a new brand to create its own distinctive profile, although Steven and Emma Raidis have embraced cool climate white wines as a significant point of difference within their Raidis Estate range. This grape-growing family has tended Coonawarra vines for 25 years, but first released its own brand in 2009 when Steven started winemaking. “Of course we have cabernet,” he says. “But there’s also very serious riesling, pinot gris and sauvignon blanc in our portfolio, and they’re being recognised as strong wines. We’re the new kids in Coonawarra, so this is a way of visitors looking at us from a different angle.”
Coonawarra’s magic dirt enables most grape varieties to grow superbly, and while production remains focused on cabernet sauvignon – and, to a lesser extent, shiraz – each winery also has some white grapes, yet tends to embrace only one variety. Katnook Estate produces an especially striking sauvignon blanc from some of Australia’s oldest vines, planted in 1981. Ask to try older vintages that mature surprisingly well in the cellar. Hollick, Balnaves and Bowen Estate make chardonnay. Hollick’s Bond Road (previously labelled as Reserve Chardonnay) embraces richness in a full, rounded style influenced by some fruit components going through malolactic fermentation, with its flavour profile showing as much nectarine and pear as crunchy green apple. At Bowen Estate, Emma Bowen makes a generous style of chardonnay, unafraid of oak but with fruit weight capable of handling it.
Wynns Coonawarra first produced riesling in 1962, and it continues to stand out for its distinctive, measured character. The fruit is ripe and rounded rather than austere and steely, with luscious mouthfeel supported by great flavour length that highlights a pleasing lemon curd character. And Rymill Coonawarra has gewurtztraminer as a hidden gem in its portfolio. Winemaker Sandrine Gimon makes it to drink fresh, hence its racy abbreviated name – gt. It is highly perfumed, with hints of jasmine and darker notes of cinnamon and sandalwood, while the palate has a lovely hint of pear texture and a burst of lemon thyme freshness.
David Sly's 10 top regional picks
2009 Bellwether Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon
Built in a leaner and more elegant style than many of her Coonawarra neighbours, Sue Bell’s interpretation of cabernet is beguiling for its seductive notes of milk chocolate and red cherry among the cassis and blackberry. Its soft, heady perfume and lean, fine tannins belie the fact this tightly structured wine will age gracefully in the cellar. 13%, $50.
2015 Raidis Estate Cheeky Goat Pinot Gris
There’s much style confusion among Australia’s league of Pinot G offerings, but Steven Raidis gets this expression right, with a pretty copper hue and longer skin contact during fermentation leading to a lovely slippery roundness of the palate. It’s floral and fragrant, with crunchy pear and apple at its core – but its texture is the standout feature. 14%, $20.
2014 Leconfield Merlot
Often the forgotten partner of Coonawarra’s red grape output, merlot is taken very seriously by Leconfield winemaker Paul Gordon. Obtaining great dark concentration without overt ripeness, an elegant palate of cassis and redcurrant with a pleasant herbaceous edge is kept long and lean with fine, silky tannins. 14%, $26.
2012 Wynns Coonawarra Childs Single Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon
The idea to isolate specific vineyards that provide fruit for Wynns’ premium John Riddoch Cabernet shows off subtle nuances that get overwhelmed in the flagship blend. The Childs’ combination of red fruits mixed with blackberry and sage are especially bright, and the tannins very fine, allowing the flavours to persist through an especially long, beautifully balanced finish. 13.5%, $65.
2013 Majella Shiraz
A consistent benchmark of Coonawarra shiraz, its dark magenta colour correctly indicates rich fruit and powerful flavours. A big mouthful of plums, cherries and blackberries is complemented by a lick a cinnamon and pepper in a long, full palate. 14.5%, $30.
2013 Hollick Coonawarra Bond Road Chardonnay
A bold, rounded style, with partial malolactic fermentation adding complexity to the fresh and vibrant primary fruit flavours of green apple and white peach, but also more textural hints of nectarine and pear. The whiff of struck flint denotes a mineral grip that keeps the palate taut, with lively acid keeping the fruit colours bright. 13%, $25.
2012 Balnaves The Tally Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
Winemaker Peter Bissell has maintained exceptional standards through successive vintages of The Tally, capturing depth and power while retaining grace and elegance. Deepest red colour in the glass is supported by a lush perfume of blackberry and liquorice. Its firm palate and luscious texture hold true through a long finish, bound by fine tannins. This sturdy specimen will benefit from cellaring. 14.5% $90.
2015 Katnook Estate Sauvignon Blanc
This is a surprise – not only that it comes from Australia’s oldest sauvignon blanc vines, but also for its capacity to age gracefully. A firm spine of acid wrapped in minerality provides a strong backbone to a muted mix of gooseberry and tropical fruit notes, with palate complexity coming from 18% being matured in French oak, and an added splash of semillon. 13.5%, $25.
2013 Wynns Coonawarra V&A Lane Cabernet Shiraz
Co-fermented cabernet and shiraz from Wynns’ rejuvenated V&A Lane vineyard provide a harmonious meld in this great Australian blend. Lots of blackberry and mulberry roll around the palate with black pepper and tobacco to create a complex mouthfeel, yet its silky tannins create a sensuous mouthfeel. 13.5%, $50.
2012 Zema Estate Cluny
A gorgeous, generous expression of cabernet in a smart blend that represents fantastic value. A winning recipe led by bright cabernet sauvignon (58%) with the support of 32% merlot, and the attractive addition of 6% cabernet franc for aromatic lift and 4% malbec for some grunt among the bass notes. Soft tannins and the bind of oak-influenced vanilla complete a very satisfying drink. 14%, $25.
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