Coonawarra – The Land

Just as well Australia is as big as it is.

Hanging down under the other side of the world it might be completely ignored if it didn’t have an impressive bulk and plenty of room to grow. Citizens of the Old World – the Northern Hemisphere – know it is a long way away “24 hours in a plane!” and mostly filled with kangaroos.

It isn’t. But it is about the size of continental USA. Brisbane to Perth is about the same distance as LA to NY. The middle of the country, some 70%, is desert. Which is why 90% of its citizens live in cities spaced around the coastline. There is a good life to be found down here. A drive of an hour or two from any of the capital cities takes you to a fine wine growing area.

Coonawarra
Coonawarra Vines

But there is one district that requires some extra travelling. It is The Coonawarra, probably Australia’s finest red wine district. Why? The answer lies in the soil.

Years ago this was shallow ocean. As the water receded the emerging iron-rich seabed was oxidised by the sun and left behind a cigar shaped strip of ‘terra rossa’ – shallow red soil over porous limestone with a water table below that. Vine heaven!

The location is in the very south of South Australia, four or five hours driving from Adelaide or Melbourne. Which makes it a deliberate destination not a travelled thoroughfare. More than any other Australian wine area it is compact, level, visually uninspiring. But the sense of community is palpable, passionate and welcoming.

Coonawarra Vignerons

The prime land is only 21 km by 2km and almost totally planted to grapes, mostly red. Its latitude and maritime breezes provide cool for long ripening periods. It was originally established as the Coonawarra Fruit Colony in 1891 by Scotsman John Riddoch who gradually gravitated to the one most suitable fruit – the grape.

There are now some 35 wineries shoulder to shoulder along the strip. The biggest owned by the biggest companies. The smallest are fiercely family.

As a perfect home for the noble cabernet sauvignon, the world’s wine experts find many parallels with Bordeaux. This is the home of Australia’s best cabernets.

(Coming soon – the winemakers and their wines).

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Ian MacTavish

Mr MacTavish is a celebrated writer and one of Australia's more respected Wine reviewers, appearing regularly in national magazines, in print and on line. So far, he has never been heard to say 'no' to a wee dram.

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