Confusion Corner: Claret, Clairet, Clairette

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It happens every time I teach a class on the wines of France. I mention that the term “claret” is an old-fashioned name, used by the British back-in-the-day to refer to red Bordeaux. Typically, I immediately get the following questions:

  • Is that the same as the grape used in the sparkling wines of the Rhône?
  • Isn’t that a rosé?
  • Shouldn’t that be pronounced “klar-AH”???

I like these questions, as they may indicate that:

  • The group is paying attention
  • The group has read the entire chapter on France, as they were requested to do (yeah!)
  • The group has a few sassy members

In the best of all possible words, all of the above are true (I appreciate sassy students).

In light of all this, I think that the clairet-claret-clairette topic is an excellent one for my “Confusion Corner” series. So here goes, let’s clarify this cluster!

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Claret: Claret (pronounced KLAR-eht in French and klerət in English) is an old-timey English term used to refer to the red wines of Bordeaux. Over time, it also morphed into use for a particular style of red wine defined loosely as higher-in-tannin or “drier” than red Burgundy. It is believed that the use of the term claret, based on the terms vin clar or vin clarum—meaning something akin to pale wine or clear wine— came about due to fact that in the early days of the wine trade, Bordeaux red was a much lighter wine than the deep reds of today’s Bordeaux.  These early Bordeaux reds were quite pale in color (similar in appearance to a “dark rosé” produced today).

In the official documents for the Bordeaux AOC—the Cahier des charges de l’appellation d’origine contrôlée Bordeaux—the term is mentioned in the following manner:  La mention “claret” est réservée aux vins rouges (google-translated as “The word ‘claret’ is reserved for red wines”). Note that the term “claret” is listed as a descriptive term, and that the official name of the wine is some variation of “Bordeaux AOC” (or one of the many other AOCs used for the red wines of Bordeaux).

The term claret is sometimes used, as a sort of proprietary name, on New World wines based on the red grapes of Bordeaux, as seen here on Becker Vineyards Texas Claret (a classic Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot).

Clairet: The term “clairet” is also considered a historical term, but in modern times it has a distinct definition as being a defined style of “dark rosé” Bordeaux AOC wine. The Cahier des Charges for the Bordeaux AOC even lists specific standards for Bordeaux Clairet for such particularities as residual sugar, volatile acidity, and total sulfur dioxide—and in some aspects they are clearly distinct from those required for those wines defined as “rosé” as well as “rouge.”  Bordeaux Clairet is typically fermented on the skins for anywhere from 24 to 48 hours.

On the official documents for the Bordeaux AOC— the Cahier des charges de l’appellation d’origine contrôlée Bordeaux— the term is mentioned in the following manner:  La mention “clairet” est réservée aux vins rosés foncés (google-translated as “The word ‘clairet’ is reserved for dark rosé wines”).

Clairette: If you guessed this thing is not like the others, you are absolutely right! Clairette (pronounced somewhat universally as KL-ERRehT) is a white vinifera grape, native to the south of France and used in a variety of wines throughout the Languedoc, Rhône, and Provence. Its most famous incarnation is quite possibly as the star of the sparkling wines of the Clairette de Die AOC, as well as (along with Muscat à Petits Grains) the slightly sweet, slightly fizzy Clairette de Die Méthode Dioise Ancestrale.  

Clairette is also one of the13 or 18 (depending on how you count them) grapes allowed in the Châteauneuf-du-Pape AOC blend—which allows for both the typical Clairette Blanc version as well as its color-mutation-cousin, Clairette Rose.

Bonus clarification: Clarete (pronounced cla-re-te) is a Spanish term (also somewhat old-timey) used to describe dark rosé or light red wines (something between a rosado and a tinto). It has no “official” definition or appellation, but is a useful descriptive term.

References/for more information:

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

 

Five Fast Facts about Mencía

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Mencía is a red grape variety, mainly grown in northern Spain with additional plantings in central Portugal. It is known for producing nicely acidic, moderately tannic red wines.

If that is all that you know about Mencía, you are doing pretty well! However, if you’d like to learn a few more fascinating facts about Mencía, please read on!

#1: It is pronounced “Men-thee-ah.”

#2: It was once thought that Mencía was the same grape as—or closely related to—Cabernet Franc. However, modern DNA testing has proven that Mencía and Cabernet Franc are not particularly closely related. Mencía is, however, identical to a Portuguese grape known as Jaen—aka Jaen du Dão. It is assumed that Mencía is native to the north of Spain and spread from there to Portugal’s Dão Region—perhaps via pilgrims trekking home from Santiago de Compostela. However, it is also possible that it originated in the Dão and later made its way to Spain.

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#3: These days, Mencía is best-known as the main grape of Spain’s Bierzo DO (located in the region of Castilla y León), where it accounts for nearly 75% of the vine acreage. Mencía is also grown in Galicia (Spain) in the Valdeorras DO, Monterrei DO, and Ribeira Sacra DO. In Portugal, it is grown in the Dão, Lisboa, and Beira Interior Regions.

#4: In the not-too-distant past, Mencía was primarily grown in the fertile, rain-abundant plains and valleys of Portugal and Galicia. These plantings produced high yields, which were in turn used to produce large volumes of high-acid, fruity, quaffable wines often compared to certain lovable-but-not-serious versions of Beaujolais.  As these things usually go, there certainly were a handful of quality-minded producers all along, and the idea of ultra-high quality Mencía was fully realized when—in the 1990s—Alvaro Palacios came to town. Palacios, already famous for creating ultra-high-quality wines in Priorat, began to produce Bierzo DO wines from 40-to-60-year-old Mencía vines grown on the well-drained soils of the area’s hillsides. The resulting wines, now produced by Descendientes de J. Palacios, are rich, concentrated, serious wines (including some single-vineyard bottlings that can fetch prices of $500 a bottle or more). Other top producers of hillside-grown Mencía include Dominio de Tares, Casar de Burbia and Castro Ventosa (whose holdings include a pre-phylloxera Mencía vineyard planted on the only sandy soils to be found in Bierzo).

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#5: Quaffable wines produced from the Mencía grape variety will be pleasant enough and have a nice cherry-red color, good acidity, and moderate tannins as well as aromas of strawberry, raspberry, cherry, and pomegranate with some floral undertones. Lower-yield, higher-quality Mencía can show all of the above as well as hints of licorice, black pepper, and a whiff minerality—often described as a “gravel-like scent”. These wines can be deep red/violet in color, rich in meaty tannins, and as age-worthy as the finest Pinot Noir.

According to the latest figures, there are about 25,000 acres (10,100 ha) of Mencía in Spain, as well as about 7,000 acres (2,835 ha) in Portugal.

References/for further information:

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

Dolomite and the Dolomites

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Dolomite (which sounds to my ear like “dynamite”) is a loaded word with several meanings. The term may be used to refer to a mineral, a rock, a mountain range, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, or a region (loosely defined as an area stretching across the northern reaches of Trentino/Alto Adige, Veneto, Friuli (perhaps), and a small part of Austria as well).

Starting with the most basic use of the term—the mineral—dolomite is largely composed of calcium carbonate and magnesium. Dolomite (the mineral) is often found in long-buried sedimentary stones and bedrock. These stones are often known as dolostone or simply dolomite.

Sharp students of wine and/or geology may have recognized the previous mention of calcium carbonate and considered that dolomite (the stone) might be similar to limestone. This is true: dolomite and limestone are very similar, and form in the same manner—that is, via sedimentation in warm, calcium carbonate-rich, shallow waters. The main difference between the formation of limestone and dolomite is that dolomite contains more magnesium. Dolomite is sometimes even formed from limestone, as limestone is modified by magnesium-rich limewater. The resulting rock may be termed dolomite or dolomitc limestone.

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Dolomite (the stone) is famously found in several specific portions of the Italian Alps, and one such range—made up of 18 peaks reaching high above the surrounding valleys—is known as the Dolomites.

The Dolomites (the mountains) stretch across 350,000 acres (140,000 ha) and form a series of sheer walls, steep valleys, pinnacles, steeples, and cliffs. Fifteen of the Dolomite Mountain peaks are more than 10,000 feet (3,300 m) high and some of the sheer rock cliffs tower as much as 4,425 feet (1,500 m) higher than the surrounding countryside. The sheer rocks reflect the sunlight and glimmer in a range of pink, gold, and coral hues—contrasted by the forests and meadows below. This stunning natural beauty is part of the reason the area was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2009.

The Vigneti delle Dolomit IGT: Wine enthusiasts may remember seeing the term “dolomite” on a wine label hailing from Trentino, Alto Adige, or the northern reaches of Veneto (sometimes a portion of Friuli is included in the loop as well)—calling attention to the well-drained, alkaline, and mineral-rich soils of the area. There is even an geographical indication—Vigneti delle Dolomiti IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica)—named for the dolomites, covering the area and including parts of Trentino-Alto Adige and Veneto. As the German language is also widely spoken in this area, the Vignetti delle Dolomiti IGT is also known as the Weinberg Dolomiten.

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Wines produced under the Vigneti delle Dolomit IGT are made in many styles—including still and sparkling wines of red, white, and rosé—as well as passito (dried grape) and dessert wines (also of red, white, and rosé). A long list of grape varieties are allowed, including international superstars Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir). However, some of the more interesting and indigenous grapes of the area are cultivated here as well. These include Marzemino, Nosiola, and Teroldego, as described below:

  • Marzemino: Marzemino is a red grape, native to northern Italy. It is known for producing light-to-medium bodied wines with crisp acidity, dark color, and flavors of sour cherry, violets, plums, and herbs. It is often used in red blends, and may be used to produce a dried-grape, passito-style sweet wine. However, its leading claim to fame is that it was beloved by Mozart, and mentioned in his opera Don Giovanni: “Versa il vino! Eccellente Marzimino!” (Pour the wine, the excellent Marzemino)!
  • Teroldego: A darkly-hued red grape native to Trentino, Teroldego produces medium-to-full bodied red wines with intense color, moderate tannins, crisp acidity, and a hint of bitterness. Studies show it is related to Syrah, which helps to explain the typical flavors of sour cherry, licorice, hints of tar, almond and herbs. Oak-aged versions can be spicy and redolent of pine. The Teroldego Rotaliano DOC, located in the northern section of the Trentino province, is approved for the production of 100% Teroldego-based red or rosato (rosé) wines.
  • Nosiola: Nosiola is a golden-skinned white grape variety native to Trentino used to produce crisp, clean, and easy-drinking table wines as well as sweet (late-harvest, botrytis-affected, or passito) sweet wines (including Vin Santo). Dry wines tends to be fruity, floral, and herbal in tone, while sweet wines tend to show a nutty hazelnut character. This makes sense, as the name of the grape—Nosiola—is based on an Italian term for hazelnut: nocciola.

The vineyards of Trentino/Alto Adige, northern Veneto and Friuli contain abundant fragments of dolomite as well as the weathered remnants of the Alps, carried down to the vineyards via gravity, water, and other forces. So, while a springtime trip to the Dolomites sounds delightful, and nice glass of Marzemino or vino bianco from Trentino might be a good substitute (for now).

A shout-out to science: The Dolomites are named in honor of Dieudonné Dolomieu, an 18th-century French geologist who made the first scientific study of the geology of the region.

References/for more information:

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

Rendzina Soil and the Wokewine Mountains: the Robe GI

The historic Cape Dombey Obelisk in Robe, South Australia

Robe—one of the six wine regions located in South Australia’s Limestone Coast Zone—is named for the small township of Robe, located on the shores of Guichen Bay.  Robe was named after the fourth Governor of South Australia, Major Frederick Robe, who chose the site as a port in 1845.

The area—with its unspoiled, rugged coastline and multiple lakes—has a long history of aquaculture, agriculture, and tourism. Robe bills itself as “Australia’s Favorite Seaside Town” and is listed as one of the “Top 50 small towns in Australia.” Fishing, boating, hiking, camping, and sea-side conservation areas are a big deal in Robe.

As might be expected, the area enjoys a degree of fame for its seafood—particularly the lobster—but viticulture is a fairly new arrival to the area.

Photo of the seaside town of Robe by Kym Farnik via Wikimedia Commons

The area’s first vineyards were planted as recently as 1989, with the first commercial vineyards planted by Penfolds in 1994. Other (mostly independent) wineries followed suit and today you can find several wineries—including Karatta Wines, Woodsoak Wines, and Governor Robe Wines—in the area.  The Robe wine region, which stretches along the coast from the town of Robe to the town of Beachport in the south, was officially recognized as a Geographical Indication in 2006.

This coast-side location makes for a cool climate and resultant long ripening season. However, the area’s commercial vineyards are planted on the eastern (inland) side of the Wokewine Mountains, which provide a bit of a barrier to the cool ocean breezes. The mountains also provide a small degree of altitude—many vineyards are planted at elevations of 164 feet (50 m) to as high as 495 feet (51 m)—as well as some areas of northern exposure ideal for red grapes (remember, we are in the Southern Hemisphere so northern exposure = more sun). The many large lakes located between the mountains and the coast also help moderate the climate somewhat.

Map of the Robe GI via: Phylloxera and Grape Industry Board of South Australia

The area has a wide range of soil types, which includes the famous terra rosa found throughout much of the Limestone Coast Zone. Many vineyards are planted on rendzina soils, a specific type of darkly-colored clay-and-humus-rich terra rosa found mainly in mountainous regions.

Today, there are a total of 1,705 acres (690 ha) of vines planted in the Robe G.I. Of these, 72% are planted to red grapes, led by Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Pinot Noir, and Merlot (in that order). Of the 28% planted to white grapes, Chardonnay makes up the great majority, followed by Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, and Semillon.

Many of the grapes grown in the Robe area are used, somewhat anonymously, for wines labeled under the Limestone Coast, South Australia, or South Eastern Australia Geographical Indications. However, those bottled under the Robe G.I. are worth seeking out. If you find yourself in South Australia sometime soon, you’ll want to make sure to treat yourself to some of that Guichen Bay lobster and a bottle of Robe Chardonnay.

This is the sixth and final installation in our six-part series on Australia’s Limestone Coast. Click here for the first article, on the Mount Benson GIclick here for the article on Mount Gambier, here for the article on Coonawarra, here for the article on Wrattonbully, and here for the article on Padthaway. 

References/for more information:

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

Limestone Caves, Bent-Wing Bats, and Cabernet: the Wrattonbully GI

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Wrattonbully, one of the six wine regions located in South Australia’s Limestone Coast Zone, is located between Coonawarra (to the south) and Padthaway (to the north). The eastern edge of the region forms a portion of the border between the states of South Australia and Victoria.

The Aboriginal population of Australia recognized the region’s potential and settled in the area long before the first European settlers arrived—mostly from Scotland—in 1842. A few decades later—in 1885—the first grapevines in the area (about five acres of Muscat) were planted by George McEwin. McEwin planted other fruit as well, and used the grapes and the fruit to make preserves under the brand name Glen Ewin Jams.

Map of the Limestone Coast Zone via: Phylloxera and Grape Industry Board of South Australia

It is believed that grapes for wine were first planted in 1969 by the Pender Family; soon thereafter John Greenshields of Koppamurra Vineyard followed suit.  These early vineyards were mainly Cabernet Sauvignon, with some Chardonnay and Shiraz.

A few decades later, large tracts of terra rosa soil (extending northward from Coonawarra, just to the south) were uncovered in the region and wine companies from all over Australia started investing—and planting—in Wrattonbully. Today, Wrattonbully has over 20 wine estates and 6,400 acres (2,590 ha) planted to vines. The region was officially recognized as a Geographical Indication in 2005.

Wrattonbully is largely red wine country; in fact, 86% of the current vineyards are planted to red grapes—led by Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, and Merlot (in that order). The remaining 14% of the vineyards are planted to white grapes—mostly Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, and Sauvignon Blanc.

Rolling hills dominate the region, which spans across a portion of South Australia’s Naracoorte Mountain Range. Many vineyards are planted at the hillside “sweet spot” mid-way up the slopes at altitudes ranging from 245 to 295 feet (75 to 95 m).

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Located just 45 miles inland from the Great Australian Bight, Wrattonbully enjoys a mostly maritime climate—which allows for a long growing season—with some Mediterranean influences that keep the summers warm and dry.

Limestone caves are a feature of this region, including the Naracoorte Caves, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Naracoorte Caves—a complex of over 26 caves—are preserved within the Naracoorte Caves National Park. These caves contain the most complete fossil record of Australia’s past, spanning several ice ages, the arrival of humans in the area, and the extinction of Australia’s megafauna (large animals such as flightless birds and giant reptiles that lived after the extinction of the dinosaurs) roughly 60,000 years ago.

The first cave in the area to be discovered by Europeans was Blanche Cave, discovered in 1845. According to legend, a shepherd had gone in search of some missing sheep, and found them in the antechamber to the deep, stalactite and stalagmite-filled cave. Another cave—known as Bat Cave—provides one of only two breeding grounds for the Southern Bent-Wing Bat (and they all come home to roost every spring).

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Guided tours of many of the caves located within Naracoorte National Park—including Victoria Fossil Cave, Alexandra Cave, and the Bat Cave—are available year-round. Guided “adventure caving” (meaning crawling around in the dark) is available at the Stick-Tomato Cave, the Wet Cave, and the Starburst Chamber of the Victoria Fossil Cave.

If you decide to visit the Naracoorte Caves—whether it be to watch the bats leave the cave at sunset, go crawling through a cave, or even just wander the fossil fields—you might want to make sure you have a nice bottle of Wrattonbully Cabernet waiting for you when you return, just in case you need to unwind a bit after all that adventure!

This is the fifth installation in our six-part series on Australia’s Limestone Coast. Click here for the first article, on the Mount Benson GIclick here for the article on Mount Gambier, here for the article on Coonawarra, and here for the article on Padthaway. 

References/for more information:

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

Red Soil, Red Wine: the Coonawarra GI

Photo of Wynns Coonawarra vineyards by Alpha, via Wikimedia Commons

The story of how Coonawarra—by far the most famous and most prolific of the Limestone Coast GIs—became a modern wine-production powerhouse begins back in 1861 with a man named John Riddoch. That was the year Riddoch, a Scottish immigrant, purchased 35,000 acres (141,000 ha) of sheep grazing land and began to amass a huge flock of sheep (and even more land).

By 1890 Riddoch had founded the Pensacola Fruit Colony and divided 1,000 acres into 10-acre plots. He planted vineyards in some of the plots himself and leased out the rest to 26 independent farmers. A report from 1896 states that over 95,000 vines and 10,000 fruit trees were planted in that first year. Riddoch also produced wine, and built a distinctive triple-gabled winery known as the Chateau Comaum. The historic building is now in the hands of Wynns Coonawarra Estate and recognizable from the Wynns label and logo.

After John Riddoch passed away in 1901, the grapes grown in the vineyards of the Pensacola Fruit Colony were primarily used in the production of fortified wine and brandy,. However, all that changed in 1951 when Samuel and David Wynn purchased the original Riddoch property. The Wynns began to restore the vineyards and the winery, and soon became the first Australian winery to use the term “estate” to indicate a locally-grown and produced wine. In the 1970’s and 80’s, other wine producers (including Penfolds, Lindeman’s, and Yalumba) joined the Wynns in planting vineyards and making wine in Coonawarra.

The Coonawarra region—named after an Aboriginal word meaning honeysuckle—is located about 50 miles (80 km) inland, along the eastern border of the state of South Australia (with the state of Victoria to the east). It is tucked between the Wrattonbully GI (to its north) and the Mount Benson GI (to its south). The area enjoys a cool, maritime climate with warm, dry summers reflecting some Mediterranean influences. The area is fairly flat—its elevation tops out at about 165 feet (50 m).

Coonawarra —particularly renowned for its red wines grown on the region’s famous reddish topsoil—is considered to be one of the most terroir-specific wine regions in Australia. The best vineyards of Coonawarra are planted atop part of a cigar-shaped 7½-mile–long by 1¼-mile–wide (12-km long the 2-km wide) low-rise swath of red sandy loam over limestone (possibly the remnant of an old reef). This soil phenomenon is officially referred to as “shallow stony red sandy loam on calcrete” but it is better known to wine lovers as the well-drained, low-vigor terra rosa of Coonawarra and Australia’s Limestone Coast.

Today there are over 14,840 acres (6,005 ha) of vines in Coonawarra. A great majority— 90%—of the vineyards are planted to red grape varieties. Cabernet Sauvignon is by far the dominant variety—and by itself accounts for over 60% of the region’s vines. Shiraz is the next most-planted (and by itself accounts for another 20% of the area’s vines). The remainder of the red vines are mostly planted to Merlot, with Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot filling in the gaps.  Of the 10% of the vines that are planted to white grapes, Chardonnay is the leader, followed by Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling.

Map of the Limestone Coast Zone via: Phylloxera and Grape Industry Board of South Australia

Coonwarra became an official Geographical Indication in 2003.

This is the fourth installation in our six-part series on Australia’s Limestone Coast. Click here for the first article, on the Mount Benson GI, click here for the article on Mount Gambier, and here for the article on Padthaway. 

References/for more information:

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net

Good Water and the Riddoch Highway: the Padthaway GI

Photo of Henry’s Drive via: https://www.henrysdrive.com/media-and-trade

Padthaway is a wine region in South Australia, located just to the north of Wrattonbully and about 40 miles (64 km) inland from the coast. The area is flat, with the highest elevation reaching just 165 feet (50 m) high. Most of the area sits atop a shallow ridge located along the western slope of West Naracoorte Range—which runs parallel to the ocean. The climate has both maritime and Mediterranean influences, and there are a variety of soil types as well—including the famous terra rossa shared with Coonawarra and Wrattonbully, its neighbors-to-the-south.

Padthaway—as would be expected due to its flat terrain and slightly-inland setting—is the warmest of the six wine regions located in Australia’s Limestone Coast Zone. The first vineyards of the area were planted by Karl Seppelt in 1963, and soon thereafter many of Australia’s other big-name wine companies—including Wynn’s, Lindeman’s, Hardys, and Penfolds—soon followed suit. The area was officially declared the Padthaway Geographical Indication in 1999.

While many of the grapes grown in the Padthaway Region still make their way to large wineries in other regions, Padthaway now has about two dozen small producers making local wine. These include Henry’s Drive Vignerons and Padthaway Estate—both of which offer tastings at the cellar door.

Map of Padthaway via: Phylloxera and Grape Industry Board of South Australia

The name Padthaway—meaning “good water”—was bestowed upon the region by its original inhabitants, the Potawurutj Aboriginines.  The shape and size of the area is unique—long and narrow, stretching for over 38 miles (62 km) following the Riddoch Highway from the town of Naraccorte to just north of the town of Padthaway. By contrast, the region is a mere 5 miles (8 km) wide at its widest point. The Riddoch Highway is named after John Riddoch, a businessman who—in the 1890’s—planted the first vineyards in the area, in what is now known as Coonawarra.

The Padthaway GI currently has about 10,000 acres (4,050 ha) planted to vines. About 60% of the vines are red grapes, led by Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon with a bit of Merlot and Pinot Noir in the mix. Of the 40% planted to white grapes, the majority are Chardonnay—along with a smattering of Riesling, Pinot Gris, Semillon, and Sauvignon Blanc.

We seem to be publishing a series of posts on Australia’s Limestone Coast. Click here to read the first installment (Mount Benson) and here to read the second (Mount Gambier). Soon to come: Coonawarra, Wrattonbully, and Robe.

References/for more information:

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas… missjane@prodigy.net