Coonawarra Wines: Home to the Terra Rossa

by | 28 Aug, 2006

Coonawarra proclaims and shows itself to the world as “the Bordeaux of Australia”. Located in the under populated Southeastern tip of the continent halfway between Adelaide and Melbourne, the region has a temperate climate where Cabernet Sauvignon feels at its leisure, spreading its roots into the famous terra rossa soil.

John Riddoch, a young Scottish immigrant driven by the Gold Rush, turned these pastoral lands into one of Australia’s leading wine regions. From his capacity as chairman of the Penola Fruit Colony and later from his seat in the Australian parliament, he understood Coonawarra’s potential and became a key promoter of its subsequent development. In 1981 he planted some French varieties and after a few years opened the area’s first winery, which has survived till this day under the name Wynns Coonawarra Estate. Among other labels, it produces the mythical Wynn’s Coonawarra Estate Reserve John Riddoch Cabernet Sauvignon.

The prestige of Coonawarra rests upon its Cabernet Sauvignon, although Shiraz disputes the jury’s preferences at every wine competition, especially the Jimmy Watson Trophy awarded every August at the Royal Melbourne Wine Show, which since 1962 honors the best one-year-old red wine. The 5,500 hectares planted to Cabernet Sauvignon represent 58% of the total vineyard area, followed by Shiraz with 20%, Merlot with 8% and Chardonnay with 7%.

Coonawarra boasts fruity, balanced wines. The twenty or so wineries scattered around the area encompass small and giant producers like Penfolds alike, which have been smart enough to organize themselves and jointly advertise the qualities of their wines, especially following the advent of new wine areas like Margaret River and Yarra Valley, which have undoubtedly bitten off some of its leadership. The phrase “Coonawarra, the Bordeaux of Australia”, which began ringing insistently during the Australian wine export boom, has given way to the more modest “Coonawarra, Australia’s other red center” during its habitual roadshows around the world.

This red center enjoys a cooler climate than most other Australian wine areas. Located on latitude 37 south, the average temperature is 18.8ºC in Summer, while the degree-day accumulation during the seven months when bunches form and grow is 1,337. The cool mornings and sunny afternoons are its main strength, but they also stand at the base of many of its problems, like spring frosts and rain episodes during the harvest period which may jeopardize the consistency of its wines. In fact, rainfall records indicate that over the last 30 years the average annual precipitation has been 640 mm, 221.6 of which have occurred between October and April.

It is the soil, however, that has been the pivotal element of its marketing campaigns. Defined as terra rossa, an Italian term used by Zippe in the year 1853, the soil comprises a fine layer of clay over calcareous limestone which forms a cigar-shaped area 16 km long by 2 km wide that bestows a very special tobacco flavor.

According to Balnaves of Coonawarra, the limestone layer may be found at different depths along the valley, even less than one meter in some sectors, and plays a key role in groundwater retention. The water is utilized for irrigation purposes in drought-affected years and for spring frost control, in which case the pumps require at least 450,000 liters per hour.

The problem is that this type of soil, which Coonawarra producers describe as the best for growing Cabernet Sauvignon, is actually very far away from the grand Bordeaux terroirs, where the alluvial terraces are mostly calcareous. But such apparent contradiction does not bother local wineries, which continue to advertise their terra rossa soil as a sort of viticultural paradise that joins the low average temperatures in producing wines of great alcohol-to-acidity balance.

In contrast, and this is the main criticism made to its red wines, winegrowers sometimes play on the verge of what is accepted, thus running the risk that the grapes do not achieve proper phenolic maturation. In the mouth, the balanced levels of alcohol and complex cassis, olive and cigar notes are undermined by rather rustic tannins. The problem becomes even worse due to the lack of labor –the region is under populated and far from any major city, which has bolstered the use of machinery for both the green pruning and harvesting chores.

During a tasting held in Dublin as part of the 2005 Roadshow, some producers told me that manual labor in the vineyards is not a decisive factor in achieving quality wines. Some tests performed by prestigious wineries like Parker Coonawarra Estate have obtained better results in mechanized lots, the reason being that the fruit is harvested at different maturation levels –however incredible this may sound–, resulting in more balanced and complex wines.

These are some of the mysteries of Coonawarra, the home of the Australian terra rossa, a world whose ongoing reinvention process assures its survival and which we had the chance to palate during an interesting tasting event.







Clearly this is not a white growing region, but each winery has one or more whites in its portfolio, typically a Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon or Riesling. John Innes, winemaker of the 1974-established Rymill Coonawarra destines part of its 170 hectares to looking for a fruity and expressive Sauvignon Blanc that sets itself apart from its New Zealand neighbors. The result? The 2004 vintage presents a ripe, thin, simple and round wine. Thanks to its citrus and tropical fruit and slight herbal perfume, the wine easily slides past the throat, leaving passion fruit hints and a somewhat worn acidity.


Established in 1982, this family winery has specialized in the art of pairing. In addition to its 52 hectares, it has a restaurant in Neilson’s Block managed by Wendy Hollick. In fact, the whole family takes part in this winegrowing project. Winemakers Ian Hollick and Davis Norman present this white blend that seems specially designed to pair with spicy foods. Rather shy on the nose, the tender grass and redcurrant notes against a floral background give way to a more expressive, even somewhat aggressive, citrus acidity in the mouth.

WYNNS RIESLING 2004 (€10.15)

This is Coonawarra’s oldest and largest winery. Founded in 1897 by John Riddoch, it was acquired by merchants Melbourne Samuel and David Wynn half a century after the pioneer’s death. Of its 900-hectare vineyard area, it has destined one vineyard to the production of Riesling. The wine definitely underperforms its red brothers and falls somewhere between the Rhône and Rheingau. The rather shy nose reveals interesting herbaceous and floral notes, while the somewhat flat mouthfeel lacks in depth.

MAJELLA RIESLING 2004 (€14.00 – €15.99)

Another Riesling that fails in its attempt to express itself with ripeness and eloquence. Crafted by winemaker Bruce Gregory, this white from the young 60-hectare Coonawarra winery –it was founded in 1991– greets us with green apple, lime and redcurrant notes. But, just like its neighbor, the mouthfeel is not convincing, showing a rather uncontrolled, unidimensional citrus acidity.


Another winery from the new generation. Under the leadership of winemaker Kym Tolley, a descendant of the Penfolds and Tolley families, Penley Estate applies a modern vitivinicultural concept in its 90 hectares, much in line with the New World style. That is at least the impression left by this Chardonnay 2002. The vanilla and tropical fruit nose is followed by a thick, warm and unctuous mouthfeel. The wine does not try to hide its barrel aging. Melon and cream, and also a fairly evident acidity, so evident it even becomes bothersome.




MAJELLA CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2003 (€22.00 – €23.99)

This Cabernet has an astoundingly voluptuous and complex nose featuring red fruit preserves, dry leaves, raisins and a dash of mint. The mouth, on the other hand, shows an obvious lack of freshness, which clearly denotes its long aging in French oak barrels.  The fruit is definitely overpowered. An attractive, modern wine showcasing a medium-to-low body and a superb alcohol-to-acidity balance. 


The aromas are not very expressive –they may even be described as flat– mainly consisting of earth and dried fruits. In the mouth, however, the wine takes a completely different character: dark berries, crème de cassis, tobacco and toasted coffee beans float in a sort of smoke screen. A wine with a long aging potential to curb its unruly tannins. 


The wine features heaps of fruit combined with some signs of evolution. The 2001 season was one of the hottest of the last few decades, and this took its toll on this Cabernet Sauvignon. Although the Coonawarra mark is easily guessed –black fruit, spices and blackcurrants– a barrel touch and a rather harsh acidity dominate the mouth.


Established in 1975, Balnaves used to vinify the fruit from its 52 hectares at its neighbors’ facilities. But in 1995 it opened its own winery and began writing another story. Under the winemaking leadership of Peter Balnaves and Pete Bissell, who worked seven years at Wynns, the family winery combines the character of Coonawarra with the modern New World style. The Cabernet features an attractive, complex nose, perhaps with too strong a wood component. Very forward blackberry and cassis liqueur notes. However, the wine lacks in mouth depth, leaving its fruit as a tempting invitation rather than an actual sensation.

BALNAVES THE TALLY 2001 (€31.19)

The Tally is definitely several steps higher on the ladder. The select fruit comes from the winery’s best Cabernet lots and features an astoundingly deep color. The wine still has a long way to go. Although the mouth showcases heaps of red and black fruit, the vanilla and clove notes from the barrel are still too forward. A Cabernet of great structure, firm and rather hard tannins, and generous acidity worth saving.


Now it’s the blends’ turn. Faithful to the Coonawarra slogan, we tasted the classic Bordeaux blend. This 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot features good fruit and good barrel usage. Black cherries and a hint of mint. A simple, savory, balanced wine.

MAJELLA THE MUSICIAN 2004 (€14.00 – €15.99)

This 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Shiraz reflects the winery’s commercial side. Menthol nose with some herbaceous notes, fresh fruit and a slight vanilla touch. The wine favors fruit over wood. The gentle, round body makes it highly enjoyable.


Another Bordeaux blend featuring blackberries, blueberries, vanilla and chocolate. The warm year and low yields notwithstanding, the wine presents good acidity and forward tannins that do not hurt the palate, a medium body and well achieved balance.

RYMILL COONAWARRA MC2 2001 (€10.99 – €11.99)

This wine features greater complexity. The Cabernet is not alone, but well accompanied by Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Expressive on the nose, with red berries and toasted walnuts complemented with earthy, organic undertones. Round in the mouth, with a sweet edge that livens the palate while leaving a warm sensation.


This wine is something else. Founded in 1978, Petaluma has earned a reputation for its attention to detail. Its Evans Vineyard and Sharefarmers estates are managed with French-inspired viticultural practices. Winemakers Brian Cosher and Con Moshos manage to extract the most genuine Coonawarra essence from the handpicked grapes. This red combines Merlot’s black plum sweetness with Cabernet Sauvignon’s spices, dried fruit and mint. A wine very well achieved. 


The warm season undermined the wine’s expression, making it lose some of its elegance, especially on the palate. Dense, sumptuous, very dark fruit. With moist earth notes and liquorous tones, this Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot blend bids a sweet farewell, a bit tired of its initial eloquence. A good wine. 


Beautiful, deep ruby color with barely evolved edges. The wine ages with dignity and some audacity. The sweet, attractive nose features spices, ripe rose petals and a delicious mineral touch. In the mouth, however, the secondary flavors from the barrel begin their dominance. A seducing wine with pleasant, tasty tannins.


With barely 5 hectares planted, Highbank combines wine production with tourism, accommodating its guests at its Honeysuckle Rise Countryside Bed & Breakfast –honeysuckle is the translation of the aboriginal word Coonawarra–. The Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc blend has a sweet nose featuring blackcurrant and ripe red fruit. In the mouth we perceive plums, tobacco, spices and some chocolate that leaves a pleasantly bitter aftertaste.


A classic produced in honor of the founder of Coonawarra. And the result certainly stands up to such distinction. The Cabernet receives us with its blackcurrant, mint and tobacco notes, and a delicious violet perfume. It is in the mouth, however, where it shows its true lineage. Its character was shaped by one of the coolest seasons ever, with persisting blueberry, dried fruit and coffee bean flavors. The wine reveals Coonawarra’s aging potential. Simply delicious, a true Cabernet Sauvignon.





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