Coonawarra Wine Region Terra Rossa

Coonawarra Wine Region

Proudly Cabernet Sauvignon, but there’s more to it.

If you’re a fan of red wines, especially Cabernet Sauvignon, you might want to visit Coonawarra, a wine region in South Australia that is famous for its unique terroir and premium wines. Coonawarra has a long and rich history of winemaking, dating back to the 1890s, and has earned a reputation as one of the world’s best regions for Cabernet Sauvignon. Let’s explore more about what makes Coonawarra so special, and what you can expect to find there.

The History of Coonawarra

Coonawarra’s name has been said to have originated in Bindjali, an Aboriginal language, meaning “wild honeysuckle”. The region was first settled by Europeans in the 1840s, and the first vines were planted in 1890 by John Riddoch, a Scottish immigrant who established the Coonawarra Fruit Colony. Riddoch’s vision was to create a community of small-scale farmers who would grow grapes and other fruits on the fertile land.

John Riddoch Coonawarra
John Riddoch

However, it was not until the 1950s that Coonawarra’s reputation as a premium wine region began to grow. This was thanks to the efforts of Samuel Wynn, a Polish immigrant who bought Riddoch’s original winery and renamed it Wynns Coonawarra Estate. Wynn recognized the potential of Coonawarra’s unique “terra rossa” soil, a thin layer of red clay over limestone, which gives the wines their distinctive character and quality. Wynn also pioneered the use of new technologies and practices, such as irrigation, pruning, and blending, to improve the wines.

Today, Coonawarra is home to over 25 wineries, many of which are still family-owned and operated. The region is known for its full-bodied, complex, and elegant red wines, especially Cabernet Sauvignon, which accounts for about 80% of the production. Coonawarra also produces some excellent Shiraz, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Riesling wines.

The Features of Coonawarra

One of the most striking features of Coonawarra is its simplicity and accessibility. The region is a comfortable half-day drive from the bustling capital cities of Adelaide (SA) and Melbourne (VIC). There are over 25 cellar doors scattered along one stretch of road, making it effortless to navigate. You can easily visit several wineries in a day, or spend a few days exploring them at your leisure. You’ll find friendly and knowledgeable staff at each cellar door, who will guide you through the wines and share their stories.

Another feature of Coonawarra is its diversity and innovation. While the region is famous for its Cabernet Sauvignon wines, you’ll also find a range of other styles and varieties to suit your palate. You can taste traditional classics, such as Wynns Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon or Redman Shiraz, or discover new expressions, such as Di Giorgio Sangiovese or Rymill Sparkling Cabernet Sauvignon.

The Climate for Winemaking

Coonawarra has a cool and moderate climate, influenced by the Southern Ocean. The region has a long and slow ripening season, which allows the grapes to develop complex flavours and aromas while retaining their natural acidity and tannins. The region also has consistent cloud cover, which reduces the risk of sunburn and heat stress on the vines. The average annual rainfall is about 600 mm, mostly falling in winter and spring.

The climate of Coonawarra is ideal for growing Cabernet Sauvignon, which thrives in cool conditions and produces wines with elegance, structure, and balance. Coonawarra is also one of the coolest places in Australia to ripen Cabernet Sauvignon, which gives the wines a distinctive character and quality.

The Soil Composition

terra rossa soil at coonawarra

Coonawarra is famous for its terra rossa soil, a type of red clay that is produced by the weathering of limestone over thousands of years. The terra rossa soil is rich in iron oxide, which gives it its red colour, and calcium carbonate, which improves drainage. The soil is also permeable and aerated, which allows the vine roots to explore and thrive.

The terra rossa soil is the key factor in the Coonawarra terroir, as it influences the flavour and style of the wines. The soil imparts a minerality and complexity to the wines, as well as a distinctive red fruit character. The soil also enhances the concentration, and tannin structure of the wines.

The terra rossa soil is found on a narrow strip of land that is about 27 km long and 2 km wide. This strip is known as the “Coonawarra cigar”, and it is where most of the wineries are located. The soil varies in depth from 50 cm to over 1 m, depending on the location. The soil is underlain by a layer of limestone, which acts as a natural reservoir of water for the vines.

Other Attractions of Coonawarra

Naracoorte Caves

Besides wine tasting, there are plenty of other attractions to enjoy in Coonawarra. Apart from indulging in some delicious food at one of the many restaurants or cafes in the region, you can also explore some of the natural and cultural attractions.

You can visit the Naracoorte Caves National Park, a World Heritage Site that features ancient fossils and stunning formations. You can also visit the Penola Heritage Trail, a walking tour that showcases the historical buildings and sites in Penola, the oldest town in the Limestone Coast. You can also learn more about the history and heritage of Coonawarra at the Penola Coonawarra Visitor Information Centre or the Mary MacKillop Interpretive Centre.

If you’re looking for some fun and entertainment, you can join one of the many events and festivals that take place in Coonawarra throughout the year. You can enjoy live music, art exhibitions, markets, workshops, and more. Some of the highlights include the Coonawarra Cabernet Celebrations in October and the Penola Coonawarra Arts Festival in May.

The Best Wines from the Region

The Coonawarra Roadshow took place at the Arts Center in Melbourne before The Matildas faced England in the Women’s World Cup Semi-Finals. There was a festive feel in the city on a beautiful winter’s day. I went in early to take it all in. The city, the vibe, and most importantly, the wines of Coonawarra.

The Coonawarra Roadshow staged amazing wines from the cooler climate region. Apart from the excellent Cabernet Sauvignons, the pride of the region, I was also impressed with quite a few of the other wines. Coonawarra Shiraz was more fruit-forward and showed beautiful structure and complexity. Shiraz can be pretty robust at times, but here we get the delicate side of Australia’s most popular cultivar.

The Cabernets were stunning. Most accessible now with the potential to age. A few wineries had some of their older vintages available to taste to highlight the longevity of their wines.

With over 180 wines to taste I had to pace myself, and by looking at my quick notes of over forty wines tasted… I think I might have overdone it a tad. But that’s the lure of Coonawarra wines. They are moreish, the winemakers and staff engaging and friendly, and with every pour, it just got better.

Here are a few of my favourite wines tasted:

  • Brand’s Laira Coonawarra Old Station Riesling 2022
    RRP: AU$20
    A fresh and perfumed nose with lime blossom, nashi pear and subtle spice characters. Bright citrus and nashi pear flavours supported by zesty acidity, balancing the natural sweetness of this wine. A lingering textural, yet juicy finish.
  • Leconfield Old Vines Riesling 2021
    RRP: AU$28
    Vibrant floral perfume with zesty lime. Made in a dry style, the palate is elegant and fine and shows mid-palate texture. It finishes crisp and clean with a light refreshing spritz.
  • Riddoch The Representative Blend
    RRP: AU$40
    Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blend. Concentrated aromas of lifted dark and red berry fruits, complemented by cassis and warming spice notes. A complete and balanced wine, brimming with spiced dark and red berry fruits, similar to a moreish dark fruit cake. This blend shows gentle, drawing tannins with a subtle cheek-puckering fresh finish and a persistent length of savouring flavour.
  • Bowen Estate Coonawarra Shiraz 2021
    RRP: AU$33
    Freshness of fruit is abundant on the palate. There’s a classic Coonawarra palate weight that leaves you wanting more. It is a medium-bodied wine, with abundant plummy fruit characters balanced by fresh Shiraz spicy fruit. The wine spent 18 months in American oak barriques. The use of American oak enhances the mouthfeel and supports the fine tannin structure adding length to the palate. This is a wine that will equally suit drinking with a meal or enjoy it by itself.
  • Bowen Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2021
    RRP: AU$33
    The palate is opulent in the darker fruit range with a touch of particularly attractive black olive. Depth and interest in the palate are aided by mulberry fruit characters which enhance and liven the palate. After 18 months of maturation in French oak barriques, the classic cedary/oak flavours are balanced with terra rossa earthiness and add to the fine mid-weight Coonawarra tannin structure. This tannin structure is a hallmark of Bowen Estate wines, ensuring the wine is imminently attractive whilst young, but has the pedigree to last years in the cellar.
  • Ottelia Shiraz 2021
    RRP: AU$28
    A lifted nose, floral elements of potpourri balanced by delicate sandalwood and white pepper spice. The palate is elegant with a medium-bodied weight. Crunchy red plum and fragrant cedar, combined with anise and white pepper.
  • Ottelia Cabernet Sauvignon 2021
    RRP: AU$38
    Berry fruits, ripe cherry, dark chocolate and liquorice aromas with some cedar nuance, subtle varietal lift and background French oak. Rich, ripe mouth-filling cherry, berry and dark chocolate flavours with generous mid-palate weight and good length. Fruit and oak tannins are both textural and enhancing.
  • Balnaves Cabernet Sauvignon 2020
    RRP: AU$40
    Dark red in colour, the nose is intense with bright blackberry and blackcurrant fruit with a touch of graphite and vanilla oak. The palate is solid with rich dark fruit, spice and lingering soft tannins, with balance and length. With age, this wine will benefit from decanting.
  • Koonara Head Honcho Cabernet Sauvignon 2018
    RRP: AU$99
    “The Head Honcho” is a tribute to the meticulous craftsmanship of our Winemaker, Peter Douglas. Aged for 36 months in the finest French Oak barrels, only three barrels met our stringent criteria for complexity, resulting in a limited production of just 100 cases. Grown in our 10-acre single vineyard in Coonawarra, this vineyard’s small berries yield an incredibly intense flavour with a minuscule harvest of one tonne per acre. Experience the layered complexity: intense black fruit aromas harmonize with a sweet oak lift. The palate is presently closed yet exudes pure varietal fruit characters and a robust tannin structure. Flavor notes to anticipate include chocolate, mint, blackberry, and a hint of vanilla
  • Yalumba The Menzies Cabernet Sauvignon 2018
    RRP: AU$60
    Deep crimson with a plum hue. Aromas of fresh rosemary, mulberry, ozone, violets and exotic spices. Take a sip and you will feel the poise and tension for which great Cabernet is renowned. A wine of great complexity with flavours of blackcurrant, bitter chocolate and mulberries, wrapped in divine tannins and a lovely sweet, dark fruit finish. With decanting in its youth it is enjoyable as an elegant full-bodied red wine.
  • Yalumba The Cigar Cabernet Sauvignon 2018
    RRP: AU$35
    The deep magenta colour shows vibrancy and hints of the rich, expressive wine to come. The aromatics are opulent, with a perfume of violets, dark soy, hints of spice and the warm, comforting mélange of black fruits. The palate is eloquent with blackcurrants, red plums and clove spice melding with dark chocolate. The wine has a beautiful structure with fine tannins, balanced acidity and a lingering finish.
  • Brand & Sons Sanctuary Cabernet Sauvignon 2019
    RRP: AU$150
    A magnificent example of what the Coonawarra has to offer, with a distinctive intensity of both varietal and regional characters melded with a balance and harmony that belies its ability to be enjoyed for many years to come. Intense dark berries throughout the palate with dark chocolate and plum, fine tannins and lingering acid hold together in perfect balance for an extended lingering finish.
  • Brand & Sons Night Owl Shiraz Malbec 2019
    RRP: AU$30
    The wine has a deep purple and crimson colour with bright red hues. The Night Owl has lifted aromas of dark plum and blackberries covered with a blanket of fire-toasted and chocolate oak. There is a depth of flavours with dark plum and forest fruits weaving through layers of mouth-coating yet fine tannins with pepper and spice mix holding through the finish.
  • Brand & Sons Old Town Single Vineyard Shiraz 2021
    RRP: AU$85
    Deep garnet with bright red hues. Ripe plums with lifted raspberry, cherry and framed with subtle oak. An elegant palate of ripe red and black fruits, balanced with silky tannins which hold long over the fresh fruits finish.

Tasting notes sourced from winery websites.