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 and in some 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—now in the hands of Wynns Coonawarra Estate and recognizable from the Wynns label and logo.

After John Riddoch passed away in 1901, the vineyards of the region were mostly used in the production of fortified wine and brandy, but 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 37 miles (60 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 (12-km)–long by 1¼-mile (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, 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 50 miles (80 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

The Bight, the Cape, and the Bright Red Soil: The Mount Benson GI

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

Mount Benson is a wine region located along Australia’s Limestone Coast. The area, which stretches for about nine miles alongside the ocean, attained its status as an official Geographical Indication in 1997.

The area has a mostly maritime climate—not surprising considering its rugged coastal location—and enjoys a long, cool growing season. Vines are planted at low elevations; with the vineyards closest to the shore planted at about 16 feet (5 m) above sea level and continuing inland through rolling hills that top out at 160 feet (50 m) of elevation.

In addition to Mount Benson itself—which is actually a 250 foot-high (77 m-high) hill—three interesting geographical features help to define the terroir and culture of the Mount Benson GI: the Great Australian Bight, Cape Jaffa, and terra rossa soils.

The Bright Red Soil: Portions of the Mount Benson GI are rich with terra rossa soil, which is much more famously part of the Coonawarra Region located about 65 miles to the east/southeast. There are many theories about the genesis of terra rossa, but it is typically found above a bedrock of limestone and believed to form as the bedrock decomposes. Briefly stated, as calcium carbonate in the limestone weathers, it mixes with clay and other soil particles and forms a series of layers on top of the bedrock. As the iron particles in the soil absorb oxygen (oxidize), they change color and lend a reddish hue to the soil.

Map of Australia by Norman Einstein via Wikimedia Commons

The Bight: The 9 mile- (15 km-) long coastline of the Mount Benson GI runs alongside a portion of the Great Australian Bight. (A bight is simply an open bay.) The Great Australian Bight basically runs along the entire south coast of Australia, making it one of the largest bights in the world. There are several dueling definitions of the parameters of the bight; however, in Australia (according to the Australian Hydrographic Service) it is considered to run for 720 miles/1,160 km from Cape Pasley, Western Australia, to Cape Carnot, South Australia.

The Cape: Cape Jaffa, located at the northwest corner of the Mount Benson GI,  is an area of headlands (a place characterized by rocky shores, steep sea cliffs, and breaking waves) located just south of Lacepede Bay. The headlands of Cape Jaffa extend along the coast for about 1.25 miles (2 km) and inland to Moount Benson. There is also a (very) small town and a marina known as Cape Jaffa.

The historic Cape Jaffa Lighthouse (now on display in Kingston)

More to our purposes is Cape Jaffa Wines.  Cape Jaffa produces a wide range of interesting wines, including varietally-labeled Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc and Shiraz produced with fruit from a variety of areas including Mount Benson, the Limestone Coast, and Wrattonbully (located inland from Mount Benson). Other wines include “Anna’s Blend”—named after winemaker Anna Hooper and consisting of barrel-fermented Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon alongside a splash of Gewurztraminer—as well as “Samphire Skin Contact White” fermented in a ceramic egg  with six months of skin contact. The Cape Jaffa cellar door is located just about six miles (9 km) from the sea.

Currently there are about 1,500 acres (600 ha) planted to vine in Mount Benson. The region is planted approximately 70% to red grapes, led by Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot; and 40% to white grapes led by Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Besides Cape Jaffa Wines, other wineries in the region include Cape Thomas Wines, Ralph Fowler Wines, Norfolk Rise Winery,  and Wangolina Wines. Mount Benson wines are apt to be difficult to find in the United States, so a trip to Australia might be in order.

References/for more information:

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