The Coonawarra Vignerons Come to Town

This was an opportunity to meet a number of members of the Coonawarra Vignerons Association, taste through a selection of their wines, alongside some fine Lancashire cuisine at Northcote Manor near Preston.  The Coonawarra Vignerons Association represents some twenty-eight wineries, eight of whom were showing their wines.

The village of Coonawarra lies 10 km north of Penola, the pioneer town established in the 1840s,  in South Australia, approximately halfway between Melbourne and Adelaide.  An iconic landmark is the Coonawarra railway station, a mere shack, once described to me with typical, shall we say forthrightness?, but also good humour, by Barossa’s Bob McLean as “a complete shithole”.  Bob McLean, of Barossa Shiraz fame, is less than complimentary about Coonawarra, once telling me that “If God was going to give the world an enema, he’d start at Coonawarra”.  A trifle unfair perhaps!  To add balance, Brian Lynn of Majella, compared Coonawarra wines to those of the Barossa, comparing Coonawarra as Mozart to Barossa’s Wagner.

The region was originally settled by Europeans in the 1840s, with Penola developing as an important town.  One of the pioneers of winemaking in this period was John Riddoch, who owned the vast Yallum Estate and established what was to become the Coonawarra Fruit Colony in 1891.  John Riddoch noticed the fertility of a small strip of red soil – the famous Coonawarra terra rossa – and planted his vineyards in 1891 and completing the distinctive three-gabled winery in 1896 before his death in 1901.  The winery Riddoch built (now the Wynns Coonawarra Estate) is reported to have produced good wines, but there was limited demand and much went into brandy production.  By 1930 only around 130 acres remained under vines.  Coonawarra’s fortunes were reversed in the 1960s, and this revival of Coonawarra wines continued through into the mid 1990s, when there was significant replanting, until the total vineyard area of Coonawarra reached the present 13,000 + acres under vines.

The region is famous for its red – terra rossa – soil, which lies on top of limestone, which has good water retaining capacity, which comes in useful during dry periods.  Lying well south of latitude 37, Coonawarra has a cooler climate than many other grape-growing regions in Australia, which results in a longer ripening seasion.  Originally, Coonawarra's reputation was built on shiraz, but since the 1950s, cabernet sauvignon has come to prominence as the real star of Coonawarra.

Wynns Coonawarra Estate
Wynns Coonawarra Estate is the successor to John Riddoch’s 19th century winery.  Just as Riddoch was the pioneer in the 1890s, so the same winery was in the forefront of Coonawarra’s revival, when Melbourne wine merchants Samuel and David Wynn purchased John Riddoch’s old winery in 1951 and renamed it Wynns Coonwarra Estate (resolutely without an apostrophe).  Today Wynns Coonawarra Estate is the region’s largest single vineyard holder on terra rossa soil with some 900 hectares.

2004 Riesling, Wynns, 12.5%
Clean, very limey nose.  Attractive with a good structure: nice round flavours with a really good acidity on the finish.
1996 John Riddoch, Wynns
A fabulous, deep, leathery tobacco nose.  Deep and complex on the palate.  Very intense and pure.  Fine grained tannins on the middle that fade slightly on the finish.  Great length.  Very Good Indeed.

2003 Shiraz, Wynns
A very nice nose with tarry, chocolatey, rosemary and nutmeggy notes.  Very attractive on the palate.  Initially it has a really classic elegance, but it fills well and develops a lot of power and fine gently spicy tannins.

2000 Cabernet Sauvignon, Wynns
An attractive leathery nose with really sweet blackcurrant fruit.  Good, full palate with nice balance.  Very nice on the finish.  Very Good Indeed.


Majella is something of a new kid on the block: the Majella winery was only built in 1995, although the first vintage was in 1991, and the first vines were planted by the Lynn family in 1968.  They now have around 60 hectares of vines, largely cabernet sauvignon, shiraz and riesling. 

2004 Riesling, Majella, 12%
A very minerally nose: very light with open fresh fruit and a touch malic and melony.  On the palate, this is in a very open fruity style that builds towards the finish becoming rounder and creamier.

2004 The Musician by Majella, Cabernet Sauvignon
A bright young nose with really fragrant fruit – very elegant.  Quite long, but not overpowering.  Very elegant actually.  Very Good Indeed+.

2003 Cabernet Sauvignon, Majella
This has a hugely attractive nose with layers of fruit and sweet herby notes.  Gorgeous attack.  Fresh, very clean, and very precise.  Really nice and round with remarkably maturely integrated flavours.  Very Good Indeed/Excellent.


Hollick was established in 1982 on “Neilson’s Block”, one of the original John Riddoch plots at the southern end of Coonawarra.  Ian Hollick told me he was tired of the UK press saying that Australian wine is boring.  He also pointed out that it would be difficult to find eight Bordeaux producers who’d band together to promote their region as the Coonawarra Vintners have done.

2004 Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon, Hollick
Very asparagus and fresh peas on the nose with a touch of creaminess.  Round and clean and full on the palate.  Really very attractive.  Excellent.

2002 Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot, Hollick
The maturity of this over the 2004 Majella Musician is immediately evident.  The nose is a touch smoky with some nice green hedgerow notes and a tiny touch of volatile acidity.  Lovely palate.  Round and ripe and full.  Very attractive.
Coming back to this later, it had an interesting nose with a toasty sweetness.  Quite powerful and condensed flavours, yet it manages a good balance.

2002 Wilgha Shiraz, Hollick
Quite a meaty pepper steak nose.  Very attractive on the palate, though it seems to pull up a bit short towards the finish, but it then goes on with massive length.  Very elegant after, with layers of flavours.  Very Good Indeed.  88


Penley Estate
Kym Tolley established Penley Estate in 1988, bringing with him the winemaking heritage of the Penfolds and Tolley familes.  He has 166 hectares of vineyards in Coonawarra.  A new, state of the winery came online in 1999.

2002 Chardonnay, Penley Estate
Kym Tolley told me that 2002 was a very good year for chardonnay in Coonawarra.  2003 had produced much more delicate chardonnay and 2004 would fall somewhere between the two and is showing melony round fruit.

This 2002 chardonnay has quite a smoky nose, initially with some buttery citrus notes.  The oak on the nose blows off to give more melony round fruit, though it’s all quite delicate.  Really lovely palate and very elegant.  This has good balance and a nice weight on the palate.  Enormous length, but very balanced with really good depth.  Very Good Indeed.

2002 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Penley Estate
The fruit for this comes from ten different sites in the vineyard.  It is so much more fragrant on the nose than the other producers’ cabernets, with very fresh, minty blackcurrant with a warm background.  Quite sweet and concentrated with a rather spirity cassis flavour.  A touch spirity on the finish.  Very Good.  86/100

2003 Hyland Shiraz, Penley Estate
This has a rather curious nose with lots of cinnamon and clove spice.  Very warm and rich on the palate, with almost a Christmassy feel.  Very Good Indeed.

2003 Phoenix Cabernet Sauvignon, Penley Estate
Very big nose.  Ripe flavours with really quite heavy, grippy tannins.  Just a bit less satisfying than the 2003 Majella Cabernet Sauvignon.  Very Good/Very Good Indeed.


Rymill Coonawarra
Rymill is famous for the two rampant bronze horses outside the winery in the heart of Coonawarra.  They use only their own grapes.

2004 Sauvignon Blanc, Rymill
Very clean with a nice minerality.  This has a nice style to it.  Very Good/Very Good Indeed.

2001 Rymill mc²
This is a blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc (merlot and cabernet squared – geddit?).  This has a more closed nose than the Highbank cabernet sauvignon-cabernet franc-merlot, with more cabernet sauvignon fruit coming through.  On the palate, it seems more straightforward and simple, and a bit manufactured.

2001 Rymill Shiraz
A bright fruity nose.  Rather straightforward on the palate. Very attractive, but a touch straightforward and simple.

2000 Rymill Cabernet Sauvignon
This is a touch ordinary.  Uninteresting on the nose and very straightforward on the palate.  Very Good.

NV Rymill The Bee’s Knees Sparkling Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot Cabernet Franc, Shiraz, 14.5%
10% shiraz.  For dosage they use 15-year old port and old brandy.  Made using the transfer method.  This has been made – in small quantities – for seven or eight years now.
Very dry on the palate.  This has very interesting flavours with a style entirely of its own.  Fantastic finish.  Clean, with an interesting variety of flavours.  Really good length.  Very Good Indeed+.


Balnaves was founded in 1975 at the southern end of the Coonwarra strip.  It is a family business with some 52 hectares of vineyards.  Until 1996, the wines were made under contract, but in 1995 they decided to build their own winery: the first grapes were crushed in April 1996.

2001 Cabernet-Merlot, Balnaves
This has 25% merlot.  Quite a smoky, spicy nose.  Good round palate.  Possibly a bit unfocussed.  Very Good.

2001 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, Balnaves
The nose is sweet and very integrated.  Excellent palate.  Lovely balance.  Spicy finish.  Very integrated.  Very Good+.

2001 Cabernet Sauvignon, Balnaves
A more herbaceous nose than the Wynns 2000 Cabernet.  Very open and very smooth and very ripe.  Possibly a bit overdone?  Very Good+

NV Balnaves Sparkling Cabernet
A bit unimpressive on the nose – very slight.  On the palate, it’s really just a bit of a frippery.  Satisfactory, but of no interest other than as a curiosity.


Petaluma was established in 1976 by Brian Croser, aiming to apply the French ideas of terroir by matching regions and grape varieties to give the best results.  They have two vineyards, amounting to around 60 hectares, in Coonawarra: the Evans Vineyard at the centre of Coonawarra’s strip of terra rossa, and the Sharefarmers Vineyard at the northern end of the strip.

2001 Cabernet Merlot, Petaluma
70% cabernet sauvignon and 30% merlot from a block planted in the late 1960s.  Petaluma has made this wine since 1975.
This has a more vegetal nose and is a touch minty.  Very open and approachable with soft rounded tannins.

2002 Petaluma Coonawarra
A really pure nose with lots of cabernet sauvignon fruit.  Very concentrated, with excellent depth and character.

1998 Petaluma Coonawarra
A rather musty nose, this is much more mature, far more than four years, and I wonder if it’s just a little corked.  If it’s not, it’s really rather unimpressive.


Dennis Vice’s Highbank is one of the smaller winemakers in Coonawarra with only 5 hectares of vineyards, which were planted in 1986 on the highest banks of the terra rossa.  They farm organically.

2001 Cabernet Sauvignon Cabernet Franc Merlot, Highbank
This has a gorgeous nose with hints of cinammon and cloves.  Lovely ripe fruit with a really nice, soft tannic structure.





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Last updated: 14 May 2007