Coonawarra is an area that goes by many names. Some of the locals call the 1.2 x 11 mile (2 x 18 kilometre) figurado shaped vein of red soil that runs from Penola in the south to Straun in the north “The Cigar.” Those whose job it is to come up with the clever titles that lure visitors call this land “Australia’s other red center” — a moderately droll bit of word play that refers to Ayers Rock/Uluru in the nation’s middle. The more literal minded call it the place of the terra rosa and the still more literal minded refer to the region as part of the Limestone Coast Zone.
The Coonawarra wine region has long been viewed as one of Australia’s best wine regions. Charmingly enough the first vintages (starting in 1895) to come from the area were grown in nurseries and fermented in woolsheds. Those were the easy going days when the Penola Fruit Colony grew all kinds of grapes and the pioneering Redman family, who still make wine in the Coonawarra, first got their feet purple. It was the same era when Australia’s soon-to-be sainted, local gal Mary Mikilop was teaching school and apparently honing her holiness. Back then a wine’s regionality mattered far less than it does today. So little that by the end of the Second World War wines bearing the word Coonawarra on their label were being made many miles away from the actual region.
At the end of the 20th century the Coonawarra acquired another name: “The Frontier of Dissent.” Modern labeling laws, intellectual property rights and international treaty obligations demanded that the Coonawarra be clearly delineated and defined. Not just the Coonawarra but all of Australia’s many and gigantic wine areas. By 1990 Australia listed over 400 viticultural regions called Geographical Indications (GI). Soon the alphabet soup of committees such as the VSCE petitioned the AWBC who created another committee called the GIC to oversee the IDCR on behalf of the CGGA. To shorten a long, sort of dull story, full of legalese, the Australian Wine & Brandy Corporation, a governmental body formed to manage the wine and liquor industry, created another group called the Geographical Indications Committee to oversee the Guaranteed Investment Contract as well as set up regulations and offer geographical guidance to come up with an Interim Determination for the Coonawarra Region. What was meant to clarify resulted in confusion and lawsuits. Though a Final Determination of the Coonawarra Region has been handed down the court appeals continue.
The on-ongoing legal disgruntlements seem to have done harm to the Coonawarra reputation within Australia — though you won’t read about it in the national wine magazines. Beyond The Cigar, respect for the area has waned. Two winemakers in Barossa who wished to remain anonymous both opined that the legal wrangling has distracted growers and wine makers from the real task and that is making the quality wine the region is capable of producing. “With all due respect to our colleagues in the Coonawarra, all they do is bicker when no one else really cares. It’s killing them,” said one of the wine makers. To add to the turmoil a new region that intersects or skirts the Geographical Indications now called Coonawarra has been added, delineated and disputed. The new region is called Penola and includes some vineyards who are happy to be within the newly drawn boundaries and has other vineyard owners seeing red. What’s irritating to the members of the Penola and Coonawarra GIs is that neither side asked for the new sub division. There is much more to this but, as stated, the tale of the legal fight is a long, sort of dull story. Check back in four of five generations to see how it all turns out.
There is great value to be gained by being within the boundaries of the Coonawarra — wherever they are. Along with the price boosting word Coonawarra on the wine label there is the positive of growing grapes in the terra rossa soil. This kind of dirt is visibly different. Given its reddish-orange color one would be quick to think it is iron-rich but it is not. The topsoil is layers of subplastic clay (earth that grows more firm when kneaded and neither expands nor contracts when moist) and friable loam that has come to rest atop a layer of soft limestone. The mineral rich topsoil and the fast draining limestone are ideal for red wine grapes. Thus the preponderance of Cabernet Sauvignon in the area.
Another advantage the Coonawarra possess is its proximity to the ocean. The land is a short 37 miles (60 kilometres) inland. The climate is a maritime one with dry, cooler — relative to other parts of Australia — summers. There is a periodic, major disadvantage to the maritime climate and that is spring frosts. The 2007 frosts wiped out up to 80% of some wineries crops. The frosts, however, are rare, and the Coonawarra remains a singularly perfect red wine growing location.
So, can you taste the difference? There is an apparent and distinct flavor profile of the many Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignons. Generally, they possess a noticeable softness, regardless of the vintage, while maintaing a fine structure. There are definite tannins present but Cabs of the Coonawarra are usually less astringent or biting than many warm climate, young Cabernets.
While courts grapple with dimension, boundary or shape and locals come up with more nicknames for the area there is the no disputing the real meaning of Coonawarra. It comes from the Aboriginal word that means Honeysuckle Rise. It is the name the indigenous people applied to the land in a simpler time when wild honeysuckle groves filled the region and whose fragrant descendants can still be found on the grounds of some of the disputed vineyards today.
If you go…
Coonawarra is one of those convenient wine tasting regions. The wineries are close together, nearly all have decent “cellar doors” or tasting rooms and when one has had enough or needs to grab a bite there is Fodder located pretty much smack dab in the middle of it all. Owners Melissa and John Innes have brought a little bit of old Italy to Australia. They are famous for their thin crust pizzas and a great wine list of high quality local wines. Spring and fall are the best times to visit as summertime temperatures can be unbearably hot. 2-3 days is good amount of time to spend.
The following wineries are notable and some can be sourced from Vinopedia.com.