Coonawarra is the most southerly of South Australia state’s wine regions. Its cool temperatures and unique “Terra Rosa” soils (mineral-rich red soil atop a layer of very hard limestone, called “Calcrete” through which roots cannot penetrate, down to a layer of porous limestone which provides drainage) produces a unique terroir where small, concentrated, stressed berries produce intense, fruity, complex, dry cabernets that are very unlike those from warmer climes. Although the small (only nine-square mile) appellation is especially known for cabernets, it also produces some lovely shiraz that, due to the cool nights and early harvest, is lighter, has less tannin and is more subtle than the more powerful warmer climate counterparts. Other popular varietals include merlot (especially for blending) and chardonnay.
We were surprised, in Coonawarra, as in Barossa, Adelaide Hills and McLaren Vale, to see virtually every wine—including the most robust and age-worthy Cabernets and Shirazes—to use screwcaps, rather than corks. Although they have been experimenting with screwcaps for a number of years, the massive switchover began in the mid-2000’s, when the wineries were plagued with such bad shipments of cork that some experienced problems with almost half their bottles. So, despite initial trepidations over customer resistance and the higher costs of screwcaps, most began to move all their wines to the new closures. Most of those that do not, followed soon after. In fact, after visiting dozens of wineries and drinking bottles from several others at restaurants, we found only one small Coonawarra winery that continued to use corks for its reds. Not one claimed to have experienced significant customer resistance.
Tasting the wines of the Coonawarra Region
We had several abbreviated tastings in this area.
Although we weren’t blown away by any of the Hollick Winery wines, we did find the spicy, austere 2014 Pinot Noir and a liquorishy 2014 Tempranillo interesting.
Our favorite wine at Brand’s Laria was the slightly citrusy, easy drinking 2015 Adelaide Hills Sauvignon Blanc.
Bowen Estate winery offers a limited number of wines that we found to be very nice:
- 2015 Bowden Estate Chardonnay, which was moderately oaked, but not at all buttery;
- 2014 Bowden Estate Shiraz, which was nicely balanced, drinks light, but has pleasant spice;
- 2012 Bowden Estate Cabernet (the best recent year for Coonawara cabs—at least to 2015), which was one of our favorites of the day, with deeply extracted dark berry fruit, classic Coonawarra mint and light, fine tannins.
Redman Wines is a very small family-run winery that was the first in the valley. It has a small, but nice selection of wines where we particularly enjoyed;
- 2012 Redman Estates Shiraz, which was light and nicely spiced; and
- 2013 Redman Estates Cabernet, a big, expressive wine whose soft tannins make it very drinkable.
At Rymill Winery, we focused exclusively on, and enjoyed several of its big cabernets, most of which need time to age. Our favorites of these were:
- 2013 Rymill Winery Classic;
- 2010 Maturation Release, and
- 2013 Surveyer, the biggest and boldest of all.
Despite our time constraints, we could not stop asking questions of Sara, the engaging and knowledgeable person who was taking us through a delightful tasting at Penley Estate winery. We tasted selectively, with Sara guiding us to wines she thought we would most enjoy. We began with, and enjoyed the crisp, sparkling Pinot/Chardonnay sparkling wine and were enthralled by virtually every Cabernet that we tasted—with each one even better than the previous one:
- 2014 Phoenix;
- 2013 Tomer (very expressive and approachable now, but which will get better in five years,
- Chertsey Classic Red Blend #1 (a classic Left Bank blend with a two percent splash of Shiraz to add a bit of spice); and
- 2013 Steyning Cabernet Classic, which was very, ver fruity, very tanniny and very ageable. We were almost as impressed by some of the shiraz (especially the 2014 Rosebury) and by the Scottsburn Australian cabernet/shiraz Red Blend.
Wynns is the second oldest and by far the largest of the Coonawarra-based wineries. It also treated us to some wonderful wines. Although we didn’t enjoy every bottle, we really enjoyed some of their whites and their reds;
- 2015 Wynns estate chardonnay (partially oaked, but very little ML);
- 2013 Coonawarra Estate “Black Label”;
- 2014 V&A Lane, single vineyard Shiraz;
- 2014 “The Gables” (priced at an amazing $29); and
- 2014 Coonawarra Estate “Black Label”.
- And what better way to finish a tasting that with a wonderful dessert wine, in this case a 2015 Late Harvest Riesling.
Although we have appreciated the incredible price-value of Australian wines since our first restaurant and tasting in the country, the incredible value was particularly driven home in Coonawarra, with its cabernets and dessert wines. Many of these had retail prices that were easily half those of comparable Napa Valley wines. And this does not even count the fact that Australian dollars are currently valued at 76 cents to the U.S. dollar and that all taxes are already included in the price.
The wines and prices were so good that we almost couldn’t stop buying. And this was despite the fact that we had to find a way of drinking them while we were still here, since shipping (not to speak of paying insurance on) wine to the U.S. would probably more than double the cost of many of these wines.
Many dining places were closed on Sunday night in the area. And the two pubs and one checked tablecloth pasta and pizza restaurant that were opened stopped serving at 8:00, a deadline we barely met after a drive from McLaren Vale. With limited options, we ate dinner at the Prince of Wales Pub. Our meal was comprised on three dishes from a limited menu: Oysters Kilpatrick (with BBQ sauce and bacon), salt and pepper fried calamari; and chicken breast schnitzel with hollandaise, bacon and avocado. Each of the second dishes came with salads, beets and French fries. Not exactly Michelin star-worthy, but each of the dishes were properly cooked and pretty good. And of course we accompanied our meals with a bottle of Coonawara wine—2014 Leconfield Cabernet/Merlot.
Our Monday lunch offered more options, but unfortunately, not one of the top restaurants, which are open only for dinner. Even so we were very pleased with our lunch at Chardonnay Lodge, where we had two small plates and a burger. The sizzling garlic prawn hot pot deserved all its adjectives. Very hot (both in heat and chilies) with a lot of garlic butter that permeated a layer of rice at the bottom of pot. If that was good, the lamb cutlets with peas was extraordinary: large, flavorful, perfectly cooked chops that had far more meat than one would expect for the price. The beef burger, with Worcester sauce cooked in and topped with cheese, bacon, lettuce and tomato, was quite thin (but surprisingly not overcooked) and satisfactory.
Alexander Cameron Suites, (formerly Alexander Cameron Motel & Apartments). The word suites is kind of a misnomer as the property’s setup is more a strip motel. But they do a really nice job on the room. The bed is comfortable, the room and bathroom spacious. We had a separate door that led out to a small patio. The room had a small separate “bar” area with a sink and refrigerator. A small continental breakfast was in the room (bread for toasting, cereal, juice, yogurt. Our only issue is that the lock on the main door gave us problems in getting it unlocked. After playing around with it for a few minutes, we got it opened. Not wanting to risk getting locked inside, we used a piece of paper to keep the door from relocking (they told us that the locks sometimes get out of alignment due to moisture). Not bad for a 3 star hotel
Other South Australian Wine Regions Not Visited
We, unfortunately, had to skip a couple of other major South Australian wine region–Clare Valley and Eden Valley. Both are cooler climate regions that specialize in cool-climate varietals, and are especially known for Rieslings and other aromatic whites. This, however, did not mean that we had to skip these gems. Since many wineries from other regions and many of the restaurants (especially Asian-influenced ones) at which we ate offered them. Among the Clare Valley wines we most enjoyed were:
- 2015 David Franz Clare Valley Riesling;
- 2012 Petaluma Cane Cut Clare Valley Riesling and
- Jim Barry’s 2016 Clare Valley Assyrtiko.
In Eden Valley, meanwhile, many of the grapes grow at a higher altitude. The area produces many highly regarded white and lighter, more subtle variations of typically warmer weather varietals, such as Shiraz and Cabernet. Among those we especially enjoyed were
- Langmeil’s 2016 Wattle Brae Eden Valley Dry Riesling;
- 2014 Pure Eden Shiraz;
- 2013 Single-Vineyard Eden Valley “The Gask”; and
- Penfold’s 2016 Bin 51 Eden Valley Riesling.
And these do not even include the many Shiraz, Cabernets and Merlots that blend Eden Valley fruit with Barossa fruit to add more finesse to their wines.
Then, about three-quarters of the way from Adelaide to Coonawara, we passed the town of Padthaway, which had lines with miles and miles of grapevines. This area, which is one of the appellations in the larger Limestone Coast wine area (which also includes Coonawara, Mount Benson, Mount Gambier and others), has been producing wine since 1964; primarily shiraz, followed by chardonnay and cabernet. We, however, were not able to stop to sample the wines.