SOME places are special. One of them is Coonawarra. The scenery in this part of South Australia is unremarkable, or more bluntly, in the words of wine writer Anthony Rose, “It’s bleak, windy and flat as a pancake. You drive through and wonder what all the fuss is about”.
But what sets Coonawarra apart is the layer of sometimes startlingly red, free-draining clay soil called ‘terra rossa’, no more than 50cm deep, which lies over a bed of soft limestone. It’s a cigar-shaped strip of land, 12 kilometres long by no more than 2km wide, and is one of the most perfect places on the planet to grow grapes for great red wine. And it’s the only vineyard region in Australia to be defined by its soil.
The other reason that sets Coonawarra apart is its climate. The ocean, just 60km away, ensures that winters are distinctly cool and wet, while summers are also relatively cool by Aussie standards. They are also cloudy, which means that the grapes ripen slowly, because sunshine, even more than warmth, packs on the sugar.
In some ways, the climate is not dissimilar to another source of great red wines, the Médoc, just north of Bordeaux. The fortune of both regions is based on the noble Cabernet Sauvignon grape.
Both regions have roughly the same amount of warmth during the growing season, but Coonawarra has cooler nights, which enables the wines to hang on to even more acidity; and despite that persistent summer cloud, it has drier summers. This means that irrigation is essential, whereas it would be unthinkable in the Médoc.
I had the opportunity to learn more about Coonawarra and taste 10 of its finest wines at a special seminar in London last month, led by Anthony Rose along with Aussie winemaker and Master of Wine, Justin Knock.
There are just 40 wineries in Coonawarra, a tiny handful in comparison with the Médoc, but enough to produce 13% of all of Australia’s Cabernet Sauvignon. The first vines were planted in the 1890s, but it wasn’t until 1951 when David Wynn planted three acres of Cabernet Sauvignon that the enormous quality potential of the region began to dawn on winemakers. Today there are 5,600 hectares of vines, about a third the size of the Médoc vineyard.
One of the big differences between the two regions is the far greater economies of scale possible in Coonawarra, with its far fewer, but bigger wineries.
Justin Knock revealed that “at one point there was a competition among vineyard managers to see who could do most at the minimal cost.”
Mechanisation plays a far bigger role in the Coonawarra than it does in the Médoc. It’s also much cheaper to buy a vineyard in Coonawarra – around a 40th of the cost of vineyard land in one of the best parts of the Médoc.
With such a price differential in land and production costs, it’s not difficult to see why some of the most prestigious chateaux in the Médoc can charge a small fortune for their wares. Good Coonawarra is almost always better value and it can be made with just as much attention to detail, including maturation in expensive new oak barrels.
Another difference is that while Merlot is just as important in many Médoc vineyards as Cabernet Sauvignon, the second grape, occupying around 25% of the land in Coonawarra, is Shiraz. It can also be very good indeed, with a spicy peppery character, not unlike a good Northern Rhône Syrah (the same variety). Most of the Cabernet vines in Coonawarra were planted in the 1970s and 80s, and from the point of view of quality, are now at the peak of their production capacity.
Until about 10 years ago, one of the reasons why the region sometimes failed to make the most of its natural advantages was that the leaf canopy on the vines was too thick and dense, which meant that some bunches didn’t receive enough sunlight and so didn’t ripen properly. Some of the wines used to have a strong minty taste. A lot of research has helped to address this fault and the key now to making the best wine, Justin argued, is simply deciding exactly when to pick. And the results can be spectacular. I’d recommend, if you have that kind of money, trying one of the very best wines: Balnave’s ‘The Tally’ Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 (a cool £64.95 from www.slurp.co.uk). It’s a wonderful marriage of rich, spicy complexity and firm tannic structure – in short, a quite brilliant example of Cabernet.
At a rather more affordable price, Tesco have the very impressive Jacob’s Creek, St Hugo Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 for £24.99, though you may have to go online to order a bottle. Don’t imagine for a moment that just because it’s made by Jacob’s Creek it’s not in the very top rank of Aussie Cabernets – it is.
Waitrose have a couple of good examples of Coonawarra Cabernet that shouldn’t break the bank: Katnook, Founder’s Block 2009 (£11.99), and from the winery where it all began, and still sets the standards for the rest, Wynn’s Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 (£15.99).
Carruthers & Kent offer another affordable wine from another of Coonawarra’s top estates: Majello The Musician Cabernet Sauvignon (£13.49) and even cheaper, Favourite Son Cabernet/Merlot and Shiraz – just £9.99 each.
Full tasting notes of the top 10 wines from the London seminar, are on my blog at www.helensavage.com