Coonawarra, an Aboriginal word meaning honeysuckle, is located in the south-east corner of the State some 400 km from Adelaide and 79km from the coast. Situated close to the town of Penola and extending approximately 27 km north, the topography is typically flat and populated with 17 wineries and 25 cellar doors. The heart of the region is a strip of terra rossa soil, which is 15 km long and 2 km at its widest. The region is planted to some 5,784ha
The highway running down to Mt Gambier runs through the middle of the region and would have been the only dry and flood resistant track that early European settlers could use to travel through the area.
Sue Hodder at Wynns Coonawarra Estate only makes their top wines, John Riddoch Cabernet Sauvignon and Michael Shiraz, when the fruit is up to her high standards. When not made the best fruit goes into other brands such as the Black Label. Wynns is owned by Treasury Wine Estates and is the leading winery in the region with some locals I talked too estimating they own around 60% of vineyards. Wynns alone owns 500ha. The Wynns V&A Lane wines are made from vineyards along a straight lane that originally was a surveyors route from the coast to the Victorian border. Due to the slight difference in topography grapes ripen earlier which allows Wynns to produce lighter, lower alcohol wines in a more traditional style. The Shiraz is a Rhône style whilst the Cabernet Shiraz can be described as a traditional Claret style and was outstanding. 2020 Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon was highly recommended as was the 2019 Old Vine Shiraz. They do some single vineyard wines and we tried the Davis 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from 1957 vines (renovated in 2002). It was a seamless wine with finely balance black fruits and the right level of dusty, leafy Cabernet notes. 2016 Michael Shiraz was highly recommended and the 2018 John Riddoch was outstanding. Full notes on the website.
Ex Wynns winemaker Peter Bissell won the Qantas/Gourmet Traveller Winemaker of the year in 2005/6 and was named Winemaker of the Year in 2018 by the ASVO. He had been the winemaker at Balnaves since 1995 and produced a string of top reds at Balnaves from their 70ha of vineyards. Pete retired in 2020 and was replaced by his assistant Jacinta Jenkins who came from Pikes in the Clare Valley. The range of wines is extremely solid and well made. Jacinta’s job is to not change too much, but steer the ship in the right direction with perhaps slowly reducing the amount of new oak used in the reds. Chardonnay 2021, Cheeky Red Cabernet Rose 2022 and 2019 Shiraz were recommended, whilst the Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 was highly recommended. The Tally Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 was outstanding (as was the 2016) showing classic structure and depth; a fine example of Coonawarra.
In 2008 Redman Wines celebrated their centenary. Bill Redman started work in Coonawarra in 1901 as cellar hand to John Riddoch. In 1908 he purchased 40 acres (16 ha) of vines and made his first wines. The third-generation owners and winemakers Mal and Bruce Redman are now handing over to the fourth generation in the form of Bruce’s two sons Dan and Mike. So, the family business will continue to make traditional styled, well priced wines. They have introduced a cellar door only Shiraz called ‘The last row’ from some forgotten vines and it makes a good wine with a higher proportion of new oak.
Doug Bowen established his vineyard in 1972 and made his first wine three years later. He once told me he prefers Shiraz over Cabernet Sauvignon and does makes ripe, stylish, fruit packed wines. Doug says much of his success is due to hand-pruning the vines using a arched or hanging cane method which, he believes, controls yields far better than normal practice of mechanical pruning and allows good ventilation in the canopy. Winemaking duties have now passed to his daughter Emma with some strict instructions from her father to “never follow fashions” So they just produce the 3 wines – a well-priced chardonnay that sell out annually, a Shiraz and a Cabernet. In fact when I visited (late spring 2022) the 2021 Shiraz and Cabernet had already been released to the eager market. Like Redman they represent excellent value for money with both red retailing for $28. We tried an older 2014 Shiraz which had a lovely deep nose of sweet blueberry fruit supported by gentle earth and leather notes. The palate was silky with black cherries, licorice, plum and touches of prunes, Dry slightly tannic finish. Overall a highly recommended wine, mature, with still some primary fruits on display. Doug is still around to lend a hand and it was good to see him out and about and as passionate as ever.
Adelaide based surgeon Dr Richard Hamilton owns Leconfield Wines as well as Richard Hamilton Wines in McLaren Vale. Both wineries produce consistently good wines. Richard is also a 5th generation grape grower. Both Merlot (2020) and Cabernet Franc (2021) were solidly made and recommended. Their Cabernet Sauvignon 2020 was a good regional example and recommended whilst the Sydney Reserve Cabernet 2017 was seamless and highly recommended. It displayed dense ripe, intense blackberries and cassis aromas, with touches of graphite and earth. On the palate it was full bodied, powerful but well balanced with ripe blackberries and a touch of jam. Cedar oak supports the fruits. It had a long, agreeable warm finish. The wine is named after Sydney Hamilton, the oenologist who established Leconfield in 1974 at the grand age of 76.
Majella was established in 1968 by the Lynn family who bought the land for sheep and decided to plant vines to diversify. They now have 60 hectares of vines and since the first vintage all their wines have been made by Bruce Gregory. They have an extensive range of wines, and not surprisingly, their Cabernet Sauvignon is the best wine. Their GPL68 Cabernet Sauvignon is named after the George Patrick Lynn, the patriarch of the family, is sourced from early 1970 vines. Majella has land on the V&A lane and within their vineyards harvest times can extend over a 10 day period which shows the impact of slight undulations in the land impacting ripening times. Their 2022 Riesling was the best I tasted in Coonawarra. Lovely floral and pot-pourri nose with a dry fresh zesty citrus and lime palate. Their 2022 Rosé was highly recommended which uses Shiraz and displayed cherry, rose petal and strawberries. It would make a lovely summer garden wine. The Malleea 2016, a 55% cabernet 45% dry grown shiraz blend, had sweet mulberries, cassis fruit and was plush, vibrant and youthful. Spice notes from Shiraz was supported with dried herbs.
A number of large companies source fruit or have vineyards in the region. St Hugo is now a standalone label from the giant Pernod Ricard Winemakers but based in the Barossa Valley. This classic Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon retains a rich, ripe fruit driven palate, but with Coonawarra structure and has amassed a 20-year track record with some of the early wines still going strong. In 2016 Brand’s Laira of Coonawarra was acquired by Cassella Family Brands, no wine is made on site but the cellar door remains open. Jamieson Run, Lindemans and Rouge Homme are all labels with ties to Coonawarra. Katnook Estate, is the second largest winery in Coonawarra. It was part of the Spanish Freixenet owned Wingara Wine Group, and produce a range of good Coonawarra wines, including a stylish Cabernet Sauvignon, a good Shiraz and a benchmark Merlot. In 2020 the business was sold to Accolade Wines.
Hollicks have a stylish restaurant ‘upstairs’ at their cellar door, which remains one of only handful of venues for lunch in the region. We didn’t get time to visit on this trip. In 2014 the Hollick family sold a controlling interest in their winery to the Hong Kong Yingda Investment Company. Their top red is Ravenswood Cabernet Sauvignon.
Coonawarra has a walking trail that includes 6 wineries in under 5 kilometers and incorporates Ottelia for somewhere to have lunch (and tastings) as dining options in Coonawarra are restricted. The food at Ottelia is outstanding and is a mixture of small interesting tasting plates and quality wood fired pizza. We eat twice there and enjoyed both lunches and good coffee. Ottelia wines are made by owner and experienced winemaker John Innes. Whilst owning land in Coonawarra, they also source grapes from the wider Limestone coast region. Top wines were 2021 Mount Gambier Riesling, 2022 Limestone Coast Pinot Gris, Graciano 2020 from Padthaway and both Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon from Coonawarra.
The old railway track is now a cycleway and offers flat cycling for the active minded tourist.