Coonawarra – the wineries and the people

There are 5500 hectares under vine in Coonawarra, which is a mere 7% of South Australia’s vineyards, but their importance to Australia and the world is significant.

There are 25 cellar doors along the red soil strip, so it’s easy to hop into one after the other. They range from cosy and comfortable to the architecturally awesome, with names keen winelovers have enjoyed for decades: Balnaves, Bowen, Brands Laira, Lindemans, Katnook, Leconfield, Majella, Parker, Penley, Redman, Rymill, Wynns, Yalumba or Zema. Newer labels attracting accolades are Di Giorgio, Koonara and Raidis.

Coonawarra Vignerons
Eric’s Shed at Brands Laira

Inside the sturdy limestone walls of the triple-gabled winery built by John Riddoch in 1891 you can review the history of the district through exhibits of old photographs, maps and viticultural equipment. Winemaker Sue Hodder can take you through some spectacular and different Cabernets from the various and extensive blocks owned by Wynns.

Wynns triple-gabled winery built by John Riddoch in 1891
Wynns triple-gabled winery built by John Riddoch in 1891

Or at Rymill Estate French born winemaker Sandrine Gimon who knows her Bordeaux wines will tell you: “Coonawarra is justly famous for its reds, especially Cabernet. Medium to full bodied, rich in colour with flavours of dark fruit, ageing beautifully.”

Rymills signature horses
Rymills signature horses

As you drive around Coonawarra you can find places to have a closer look at the structure of the soil that gives Coonawarra reds their distinctive character.

At Katnook, Michelle Stehbens will show you where they cut a shallow pit beside their tasting room clearly displaying the red and white layers. Her husband Wayne, now on his 34th vintage, will take you through his range of magnificent wines in their cellar door – a limestone building erected by founding father John Riddoch a hundred years ago.

Katnook cellar door, another Riddoch building
Katnook cellar door, another Riddoch building

A sturdy community.

Unlike most of Australia’s wine regions which are only an hour or two from major cities, Coonawarra is fairly remote. The word means ‘honeysuckle rise’ from the Buandig people who occupied the area for tens of thousands of years. Their first reported contact with Europeans was in the 1820s.

There is a wonderful sense of camaraderie that’s apparent in every conversation you have. Less than 2000 people live and work in the town and surrounding district, mostly in wine and tourism industries. Everyone knows everyone.As John Rymill says: “The more I travel the more I appreciate Coonawarra. All sorts of people genuinely contribute to our community; we could live very well if we had to survive off what we produce within 100km.”

On the edge of Penola where he grew up, Steve Raidis started his own label in 2006 and now has a rustic cellar door with a huge and impressive outdoor wood oven. “The support and encouragement we received from local vignerons has been fantastic. The other wineries send people along to make sure they taste our wines.”

Rustic cellar door at Raidis
Rustic cellar door at Raidis

You’ll find agreement from another young gun Dru Reschke whose Koonara label is just 15 years old but his family has been around here for a century.

Doug Bowen sums up:”Coonawarra is an oasis. We rely on each other. The chap on the fire truck could be at the cellar door in his winery later in the day.”

You’re chance to taste more

Coonawarra wine makers regularly take to the road to show their wines in capital cities here and overseas. The next Roadshow is coming up in August. Check the website to see when they are heading near you.

Back home they love you to come and experience their district close up so they offer a full year of events and festivals.

Friday 17th to Sunday 19th October, sees the Cabernet Celebrations, now in their 18th year, with gourmet food, wine tastings, music and special entertainment for the kids. Find out more at www.coonawarra.org

The featured image illustrates the classic simplicity of Bowen winery

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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