Grand Cru Coonawarra
by Andrew Caillard MW
In 1899 W Catton Grasby wrote a small wine bibliography called The Coonawarra Fruit Colony and Yallum Estate, near Penola, South Australia. He was an early believer in the future of Coonawarra Claret: “It promises to have a very high and wide reputation – indeed, there is no doubt but that it will be a beautiful wine of good body, fine colour, delicate bouquet and low alcoholic strength.” The early commentators were full of enthusiasm but the difficulty of distance and reaching the market made these predictions rather fanciful for their time.
Yet today his claims may well be realised.
South Australia’s Coonawarra – which lies 370 kilometres south of Adelaide - is a mono-cultural patchwork of vineyards famed for its cabernet sauvignon wines and terra rossa soils. Once renowned as the ‘Medoc of the Southern Hemisphere’ its early promise and momentum as a fine wine producing region faltered for almost twenty years because of devisive political manoeuvring and the gazetting of the Coonawarra Geographical Indication.
During the 1990s wine producers fought each other over the legal boundary of Coonawarra. If a vineyard fell outside this legally designated wine region, it could mean a loss of land value and potential profits. After a long period of uncertainty, Coonawarra, famous for its great Woodley Treasure Chest Series of the 1950s, Penfolds Special Bins of the 1960s and a myriad of other memorable vintages - is back on the ascendancy. The region is making spectacular fine wine.
The very best would give a First Growth or Second Growth Claret a good run for its money; both in terms of quality and value. If only contemporary European and Asian wine collectors were more perspicacious and confident. Great Coonawarra Cabernet is one of the world’s classic and most satisfying wine styles.
The Coonawarra fruit colony was established 120 years ago by John Riddoch – a wealthy pastoralist. The region struggled for over half a century because of it isolation and limited markets. Pioneering winemaker Bill Redman once said “from 1890 to 1945 you can write failure across the face of Coonawarra.” His family had been supplying bulk wine to Woodley’s since 1920, enabling it to produce the prized Treasure Chest series of wine in the early 1950s. By 1951 Samuel and David Wynn – Melbourne wine merchants - established Wynns Coonawarra Estate at the disused Chateau Comaum.
It was the first winery in Australia to use the word ‘Estate’. David Wynn was reported as saying 1964: “My prime aim is an extensive advertising campaign in Melbourne to make Coonawarra famous. People when thinking of claret, would naturally think of Coonawarra.”
It was really Mildara, Lindemans, Redmans, Penfolds and Wynns that put Coonawarra on the fine wine map. Over the years through corporate takeovers and new entrants the region has become world famous for its rich voluminous and lasting Cabernet wines.
The long 15 kilometre antediluvian beach of weathered limestone terra rossa soils, relatively cool climate, a winter rainfall pattern and superb access to water makes Coonawarra a perfect place to grow Cabernet Sauvignon. Flat and unprotected, it can be exposed to the swinging influences of the cool Great Southern Ocean and hot, dry northerly winds. Vintages, like Bordeaux are not consistent. The light and shade of Coonawarra is just as compelling and interesting.
So are the politics of individual ownership, winemaking philosophies and pecking orders. Unconstricted by the straight jacket and political-correctness of Bordeaux’ 1855 Classification and off the beaten track , Coonawarra has become a haven for intuitive and gentle winemakers. The only fog horns in this part of the world are to alert frost. The only landmarks are the wines. OK there are a few large houses, but if you knocked down all of the Chateaux in Bordeaux and rebuilt them in Coonawarra, there would be no land to grow vines. Coonawarra is a tiny region in comparison.
A great Coonawarra Cabernet can resonate as profoundly as any classic Grand Vin. The very best Coonawarra Cabernets typically possesses deep colour, intense blackcurrant/ violet/ herb garden/ sage aromas and underlying savoury characters derived from new oak. Richness of fruit and fine grained lacy tannins pervade across the palate. The flavours are lasting and lengthened by a plume of tannins. As youngsters they differ from Bordeaux because of their overall buoyancy of fruit and ripe tannin quality. Occasionally Cooonawarra will display a faint peppermint note, which is not so common in Bordeaux.
Obviously house style must be factored in but ultimately Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon has an unmistakable voice evoking the smell of soil, airy calmness of place and huge blotted skies. These wines further develop mocha/ black truffle complexity and slinky flavours and structure with age. 1962 Penfolds Bin 60A Coonawarra -Cabernet Kalimna-Shiraz, one of Australia’s greatest wines ever made, continues to shine. I last tasted it recently with a group of bright young wine merchants and sommeliers. Utterly rare and rapidly becoming priceless, it was a transcendent experience. This is Australia’s Churchill; as marvellous as any great Claret. Move-over 1945 Mouton or 1947 Cheval Blanc – you greedily-treasured, overly-lionised and often-faked poseurs.
Some of the great wine labels of yesteryear (many older vintages still avidly sought after by collectors) have lost cachet in the secondary wine markets. Lindemans St George, Limestone Ridge and Pyrus at last seem to be returning to form. Like Woodley’s, Mildara is history. Rouge Homme has been devalued into commercial currency. Brand’s Laira, Jacob’s Creek (formerly Orlando) St Hugo, Katnook, Hollick, Leconfield, Rymill, Redman, Penley Estate and Zema Estate are all making good regionally defined Cabernet Sauvignons.
These beautifully fragrant Cabernet-driven wines offered pristine cassis/ cedar aromas, beautiful concentration, chocolaty ripe tannins and superb flavour length; the very best show extraordinary aging potential. They are a compelling foil to those horrid sinewy, underipe things that are regularly foisted into the market as Claret. Coonawarra Cabernet at at all levels is at the very least generous and mouth filling.
The most highly prized Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignons are Balnaves The Tally, Parker Coonawarra Estate First Growth, Petaluma Coonawarra and Wynns John Riddoch Cabernet Sauvignon. Penfolds Bin 707, which draws plenty of fruit from Coonawarra also deserves mention. These are followed closely by Bowen Estate, and Majella Malleea Shiraz Cabernet.
Balnaves, Majella and Wynn’s are making very high calibre standard Cabernet Sauvignons. Zema Estate’s Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon is also impressive. One of the greatest surprises is Highbank Cabernet Sauvignon. A vertical tasting earlier this year revealed a wonderful legacy of vintages. Overlooked by the market and wine critics alike, the wines are beautifully evocative and resonate the juicy purity of Coonawarra Cabernet.
Katnook Odyssey, Hollick Ravenswood, Penley Estate Reserve and Wynn’s single vineyard wines are styles in evolution. The most recent Coonawarra vintages are fresh and well balanced. Generally 2004 yielded some spectacular wines across the board.
It is a very great Coonawarra vintage, mirroring 2005 Bordeaux. This also includes the ethereal Penfolds Bin 60A Coonawarra Cabernet Barossa Shiraz which is arguably the most expensive young Coonawarra based wine ever released. 2005 is an atypical year with many decent rather than great wines. Yalumba Menzies and Zema Estate Family Selection, tasted in the context of a world benchmark cabernet tasting are of particular note. 2006 leans towards a classic but very low yielding vintage. It rarely reaches great heights, but some very good wines were made. 2007 has yielded the occasional surprise.
The 2007 Bowen Estate Cabernet Sauvignon is an early drinking cracker with superb vinosity and expression. 2008 is very much a great Coonawarra vintage. The wines have tremendous volume, richness and percussion. I have seen many wines now including the remarkable 2008 Penfolds Bin 620 Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz, a very limited wine that will be released in November 2011 in Beijing at a whopping $1000 a bottle.
Frankly it’s as good as any 2009 First Growth Claret (such as Chateau Lafite or Chateau Latour) released into the market “en-primeur” at double that price. Why should the frogs have a monopoly on China’s red obsession? 2009 is a solid rather than spectacular year. 2010 is particularly successful and will be seen as a great Coonawarra vintage. The most successful wines are inextricably linked to the reputation of the winemaker.
There is a simple ethereal and gorgeously scented truth; the most exquisite wines are inextricably linked to the wine maker’s skill, the viticulturalist’s pursuit for perfection and mature vineyards planted in Coonawarra’s kilometre band of weathered limestone terra rossa soils.
There has been a long quiet upheaval. A generational change of guard, extraordinary restoration of vineyards and detailed winemaking has gradually brought new and impressive form particularly to ultra-fine Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon.
Andrew Caillard MW
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