C is for Coonawarra. It’s probably one of the more internationally famous wine regions of Australia, yet one I don’t think many of us ‘locals’ actually know too much about.
As a population, we drink a lot of wine from Coonawarra – especially reds, and in particular Cabernet Sauvignon. Some of the biggest brands in the country have vineyards there (Lindemans, Wynns, Penfolds…just to name a few). And yet, the Coonwarra doesn’t receive as much media or tourism funding as it’s cousins the Barossa, Margaret River or Hunter Valley.
I was lucky enough to visit the Coonawarra region recently, as part of their annual Coonawarra Cabernet Weekend. What I discovered was a wine region that is deserving of more of our attention.
There are 24 cellar doors in the area producing Cabernet Sauvignon (which makes up 58% of the total area under vine) Shiraz, Merlot, Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and some small plantings of Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Pinot Noir, Semillon and Viogner.
But amongst the cellar doors, picturesque townships and country hospitality there were five key things that really struck me about the Coonawarra. And if I didn’t know about them before, then chances are they could be new to you too.
1. C is for Colour
This is what most people think Coonawarra looks like.
This is what it actually looks like
It’s green. Vibrant, verdant, hurt-your-eyes emerald green.
Before setting out on my visit to Coonawarra I asked various people (all wine lovers) whether they had been there and what they thought it would be like. Invariably, the answer I received was that it was on the edge of South Australia so it was dry and dusty.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The Coonawarra region is halfway between Melbourne and Adelaide on the state border, and an hour’s drive north from the coastal town (and crayfish paradise) of Robe. Because it’s only 60 km from the the freezing cold waters of the Great Australian Bite, it’s average temperature is mediated by the coastal sea breeze and this gives it a maritime climate not dissimilar to Bordeaux in France.
Coonawarra’s soil is prized as the oldest and the most fertile in Australia’s South East. It’s a red, well draining clay concoction referred to proudly everywhere as Terra Rossa. But it’s not a desert sand red. It’s a rich, dark red. The vineyards exist on this precious soil in an area twenty seven kilometres long and nearly two kilometres wide.
Rather than sand and spinifex, the area surrounding the vines is alive with rolling green pastures used for sheep grazing and crop agriculture, and vast forestry plantations. It’s green as far as the eye can see, and is an incredibly beautiful place to visit.
2. C is for Cool Climate
Not only is Coonawarra fertile, green and famous for it’s soil it’s also cold. Really cold. In fact, it’s officially recognised as a cool climate wine region.
The average growing season temperature is just 16.5 (which is .4 of a degree cooler than Bordeaux!) and the average summer temperature is only 18.8C. And frosts are a problem for growers right up until the end of October.
The brilliant result of all this chilly weather is that this is a region that produces wines which are elegant, expressive and downright tasty.
“Making wine in this area, grown in this soil… it’s exciting,” says Sarah Pidgeon, winemaker at Wynns – the region’s oldest and best known winery.
3. C is for Clever, Courageous and Capable Women
We all know that participation of women in the wine industry is (finally) on the rise. But when it comes to the Coonawarra, there is so much exceptional female wine talent it almost seems unfair to the rest of Australia!
From the inspirational Wendy Hollick (founder of Hollick Wines) and Sue Hodder (internationally acclaimed chief winemaker at Wynns for the past two decades) to viticulturalists like Cath Kidman and new operators like Emma Raidis (Raidis Estate) and Nicole Reschke (Koonara Wines), many of the exceptional wines coming out of this region have had a hand from these remarkable women.
It’s not often they get together on their own though! So attending the first ever Women of Coonawarra dinner during Cabernet Weekend was a dream come true for me. With so much talent in the one room, it’s amazing the universe didn’t spontaneously combust.
4. C is for Cabernet Sauvignon
Okay, so this one you probably already knew. Coonawarra is famous for Cabernet. But if that’s something that doesn’t automatically push your buttons then you need to take a fresh look at Cab Sav.
Let’s face it, many of us avoid Cabernet with the same determination we use to avoid reruns of Top Gear. Few other wine styles are so deeply simmered in male ego. And because it’s so heavily infused with testosterone-rich middle-aged male, it’s often a wine variety we gals neglect in favour of other more exciting and fashionable styles.
But I hereby throw down the challenge to you to take another look at Cabernet Sauvignon. I mean, which other wine can you describe as tasting like a choc-mint slice with a ribena chaser? Yep, chocolate, mint and blackcurrant are all part of the common flavour profile of Cab Sav.
Cabernet just has an image problem. Not a taste problem. Lighter, more elegant Cabernets from the Coonawarra are very approachable and drinkable and can be real palate pleasers. No smoking jacket required.
The Cabs from this area are famous because the vines growing in that skinny 27 km long zone in the Coonawarra produce low yields that are highly concentrated in chemical compounds called flavonoids. It’s these flavonoids that are responsible for the elegant and intense blackcurrant, mint and chocolate flavours.
Some of my faves to look out for include Cabernets from:
5. C is for Community
Coonawarra is not just grapes and vines and terra rossa. It’s the people living here who make it a truly special place. And while many wine regions claim “community” I’ve never seen it more alive or genuine than amongst the people of Coonawarra.
“There’s a feeling of everyone liking each other and wanting to support each other,” explained Wendy Hollick of Hollick Wines. “Once a month we even meet up at the hall and all have dinner together. There’s a roster for the barbecue and everyone else brings a salad.”
And it’s BYO too – of course.
For more information about visiting the Coonawarra: www.coonawarra.org
Jane was a guest of the Coonawarra Vignerons Association.