World-Famous Wine Regions: Coonawarra, South Australia

Recently, a friend sent me an old wine list he’d come across. He believed it was from the early 1970s (research and talking to some of the old-timers would suggest earlier, possibly 1966) and it supposedly came from a restaurant at Melbourne Airport – it was the restaurant’s “Special List.” The prices would leave you weeping (remember these are marked-up restaurant prices, not bottle shop prices).

The 1960 Penfolds Grange Hermitage (the “Hermitage” was only dropped with the 1990 vintage) was a mere $1.75. Same price as the 1961 St Henri. The price today for the latest Grange, the 2017, is around $850 to $1,000 while the latest St Henri, the 2018, is just $135, a terrific bargain, though outshone by the current Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon at $45.

This was the list for reds:

Mildara Coonawarra Cabernet Shiraz 1963                           $1.85

Mildara Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 1963                   $1.85

Penfolds Grange Hermitage 1960                                            $1.75

Penfolds St Henri Claret 1961                                                   $1.75

Rouge Homme Cabernet 1961                                                  $1.65

Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet 1959                             $1.50

Hardys Cabernet Sauvignon 1958                                            $1.50

The most expensive white was Lindeman’s Reserve Riesling 1965 Bin 2464 at $1.65. The most expensive wine overall: Seppelt Great Western Imperial Reserve Brut at $3.40.

To digress, there are some fascinating aspects to this short list. The Mildara Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 1963 is one of the most famous wines ever made in Australia and even had its own nickname, “Peppermint Pattie.” The reason was that it had the most extraordinary peppermint note through it (some claim it to be a tribute to the wife of then Prime Minister Dame Pattie Menzies, but I am assured not so). A long time since I have tasted it, but our local occasional Saturday wine group recently focused on Cabernet and someone brought a bottle (sadly, the politicians still have me “exiled” from home with the border closures so I was unable to join them).

It was drinking brilliantly, I was tolf. No idea what a bottle would go for at auction these days – I think it is many years since one was sold – but I’d guess it is now worth between AUD$5,000 and AUD$10,000.

The Lindeman’s Reserve Riesling is a much-lamented wine, a Hunter Valley classic, not seen for many years. Lindeman’s used to make its Riesling, a White Burgundy, a Chablis, and more in the days when labeling laws were somewhat lax. The wines were all 100 percent Hunter Semillon. They aged brilliantly and were amazing wines (I confess I never drank any of them young, but they matured into stunning whites). Sadly, no more.

Perhaps most extraordinary of all is the Seppelt Great Western Imperial Reserve Brut. Still available today, back then it was around twice the price of Grange. Had it kept pace, a bottle would be around AUD$2,000 today. Instead, you can find it for AUD$7.99, so perhaps lagging a touch.

The list, as mentioned, was the restaurant’s “Special List,” revealing something very telling about the Australian wine industry at the time. Aside from the two Penfolds wines, all the reds came from Coonawarra – the Hardys, I am guessing, would likely have been a blend with McLaren Vale and Coonawarra or possibly even the Hunter Valley. There was no focus on Barossa, or even the Hunter (although both would have been making wines deserving of a place). Margaret River was unheard of other than possibly by a few farmers and surfers.

Coonawarra in South Australia

Coonawarra was king, and the grape inextricably linked with Coonawarra was Cabernet Sauvignon. Shiraz was merely seen as a workhorse, making everything from sparkling reds to fortifieds (even though plantings of Cabernet in Coonawarra only exceeded those of Shiraz in the 1990s– indeed, when John Riddoch allocated blocks from his subdivision, it was done on the agreement that anyone taking up the offer would plant two-thirds Shiraz to one-third Cabernet). Grenache was used but putting the name on a label was seen as marketing suicide. And good luck finding any Pinot Noir or Merlot, although apparently John Riddoch did plant a little Pinot Noir back in the 1890s as he was a fan of Burgundy.

Despite all this, Coonawarra’s reputation was established, not on the back of Cabernet but on Shiraz (often called Hermitage in those days). Wines like the Wynns 1955 Michael Hermitage (a one-off at the time but revived in recent years as part of the annual Wynns offering) and the legendary Woodley’s Treasure Chest series. And plenty more.

History of Coonawarra

One of the reasons I really enjoy doing these pieces for Quill & Pad is that so often I start with something in mind but then the piece takes on a life of its own and heads off in other directions. Today the intent was to look at a wine that has been called an Australian First Growth, the Wynns Black Label Cabernet, and its flagship, the John Riddoch Cabernet. But it became clear that without providing some context and history in relation to Coonawarra that anything on those wonderful wines would be incomplete.

Wynns 2018 John Riddoch Cabernet Sauvignon

So, Cabernet in Coonawarra. The entire region had a patchy history, but I suspect that from the 1950s to the 1980s if anyone asked an Australian wine lover just what the nation’s best wines were, the answer would have been unquestionably Coonawarra Cabernet or Grange.

When Margaret River first emerged in the early 1980s, I doubt any Coonawarra winemakers really considered that those wines would ever be a serious threat. Nor would those same winemakers have ever imagined that Shiraz would eventually become the jewel in Australia’s vinous crown. These days, Coonawarra Cabernet is one more arrow in the quiver of Aussie wine, offering some superb examples but no longer the ultimate wine.

Throughout it all, one producer has remained the leading winery for the region: Wynns Coonawarra Estate. In 2020, Wynns harvested 63 percent of the crush (does one winery have such a stranglehold on a recognized quality region as Wynns does here?). Both the region and Wynns are the focus of numerous books, so I will attempt nothing more than a thumbnail sketch for those unfamiliar.

This week I’ll look at the region and its amazing history of astonishing wines. Next week, a closer look at Wynns and its best wines. For those keen to learn more, James Halliday’s Coonawarra is several decades old, but it has excellent information on the history and early producers (if you can find it). Otherwise, read Andrew Caillard MW’s Imagining Coonawarra, which can be read online through the Wynns website.

The Coonawarra region is in the state of South Australia around 380 kilometers southeast of Adelaide, close to the border with Victoria. Given the name Coonawarra by the local indigenous people, meaning “wild honeysuckle,” though Peter Rymill, a descendent of John Riddoch, believes it is more likely to mean “swan.” While it seems that almost every wine region in the world is attractive and overloaded with tourist-inducing features, Coonawarra is – and hopefully this won’t offend locals too much – somewhat drab.

The place is flat, billiard-table flat. A ridge about a foot high is considered a local landmark. Still, it is all about the wine. The place can get seriously cold. As one winemaker once told me, “There ain’t nothing between here and Antarctica,” although generally the climate is described as similar to Bordeaux.

Coonawarra wine region

What makes the region famous is the cigar-shaped strip of terra rossa, that wonderful red soil that contributes its magic to the wines. The red color comes from iron oxide. To the west, black soil has poor drainage and does not work nearly so well. There are also patches of brown soil that are more suited, but it is the terra rossa that is the prime real estate here.

Terra rossa soil in Coonawarra

The terra rossa lies along a shallow limestone ridge, which needs to be ripped to allow the vines’ roots to enter the softer calcareous sandstone and the permanent water supply. The altitude of the entire region varies between 53 and 61 meters above sea level. This is a strip that is basically 27 kilometers long and two kilometers wide. The region has 5,700 hectares – many will remember the lengthy and quite nasty battle over exact borders, and there are plenty of vineyards on black soil, which were finally included within the boundaries.

Vine growing dates back to 1890 when John Riddoch planted the first vines (given that Riddoch arrived in 1861, it seems very likely that he planted earlier than this but as with many things, exact records are somewhat fuzzy – there are records confirming he certainly considered it), but they were simply one of many crops. The Redman family (Rouge Homme) persisted with grapes over the coming decades, mostly Shiraz, but very few Australians at that time would have had a clue where Coonawarra was or what happened there.

The first vintage in Coonawarra, 1895, yielded just 8,000 liters. In 1897, the famous and iconic triple-gabled winery now inextricably linked with Wynns was built. One curiosity: the vines planted in front of the winery, which have appeared in thousands of photos over the years, are not Cabernet as one might expect. They are, in fact, Pedro Ximenez.

Bill Redman was the son of a local railway worker and in 1901, aged just 14, he fronted up at the Riddoch Winery seeking a job. By 1908, he was ready to start his own winery using his own grapes and those purchased locally.

At this time wine from the Riddoch Winery was sold in bulk, usually disappearing unacknowledged into other wines from around the country. Sadly, much of this fine but unsalable wine did not even make bulk status and was distilled into brandy. Chateau Tanunda from the Barossa Valley purchased the place to continue distillation. It, in turn, was taken over in 1921 by Milne & Co and until the mid-1940s almost all grapes went to distillation. By the end of the decade, the interest in wine and grapes from Coonawarra was so low that only 240 hectares of vines remained.

By 1945 the world was changing, even in distant Coonawarra. Woodley’s Wines would be known by many today for its Queen Adelaide wines, very much represented the bargain-basement end of the wine world in Australia. It wasn’t always so. In late 1945, Woodley’s MD/cellarmaster, Tony Nelson, purchased the Riddoch Winery and 130 acres of vineyards for £9,000 from Milne & Co. The new company was called Chateau Comaum (the property is technically located in the Hundred of Comaum). Nelson beat Melbourne wine merchants Samuel Wynn and his son David to the punch. The quality of the wines made by Redman was no longer a secret.

It was also in 1945 that Bill Redman’s son, Owen, returned from service in New Guinea (which resonates deeply with me as I was named after my father’s uncle, who was killed on the Kokoda Trail in New Guinea during World War II). Owen Redman took a 35-year lease on land available through South Australia’s Discharged Soldier Settlement Act. Nelson also took the opportunity to make arrangements with the Redmans for them to manage the Woodley’s vineyards and to make its wine.

Woodley’s first vintage in 1946 was a disaster, but they persisted and with regional branding started to widen interest in, and knowledge of, Coonawarra. As wine shows recommenced after the war, Coonawarra’s success consolidated its reputation, but by 1951 Nelson was forced to put the property back on the market and for £22,000 the Wynns purchased the winery, cellars, distillery, 54 hectares of vines, and 90 hectares of pasture.

These days, Cabernet rules with Shiraz a worthy sidekick but it is only a few decades back that the most widely planted variety was Riesling. Curious. And just why Shiraz should have taken such a support role when history shows it more than capable of a star turn is a question difficult to answer. A star turn? So many of the famous early Coonawarra wines were Shiraz.

Even though the end of the war saw movement here, things were tough. By the outbreak of World War II, lack of interest and understanding of these wines had seen vineyards retreating down to a mere 300 acres (it would get worse). Bill Redman was infamously quoted as saying that, “From 1890 to 1945 you can write failure across the face of Coonawarra.”

However, without the continuing efforts of Bill Redman right through to the 1960s wine boom, who knows if Coonawarra would have even survived. As Caillard says, Bill Redman “Is credited for making every major red wine that came out of Coonawarra for the best part of the twentieth century.” Then, in 1951, Samuel and David Wynn got their opportunity to step in and purchase the old Riddoch cellars – those triple stone gables are immediately identifiable on the Wynns label. Today, it is known as Wynns Coonawarra Estate.

The Gables at Wynns

Another famous local name was Eric Brand, who married Nancy Redman, Bill’s daughter, in 1942 and moved to the region in 1950. He worked with the Redmans until their Rouge Homme winery was sold to Lindeman’s in 1965. By then, he had accumulated 60 acres of his own vines and so he started his own operation, Brand’s Laira.

Before this, however, there was a series of wines made by Bill Redman for Woodley’s that would further transform the region when they were eventually released. They were known as the Treasure Chest series, predominantly Shiraz, but blended with some Cabernet.

The Wynns Treasure Chest

In the late 1950s, Nelson found eight batches of Coonawarra Claret made by Bill Redman in the tunnels of the old silver mines at Woodley’s Winery in Glen Osmond. One each from the years 1949 to 1956 (Woodley’s and Redman had a falling out in 1956, which presumably put an end to the project, and it seems that the wines had been forgotten). By the time Nelson found the wines, the Wynns owned the old John Riddoch winery.

Redman had made the first couple of these wines there, but after the sale the subsequent vintages were made at his Rouge Homme winery. Nelson employed the most famous label designer of the day, Wytt Morro, to come up with something special for these wines. Both the wines and the labels are now legendary.

The 1949 label took an image from the Atlas historique, Voyage de découvertes aux Terres australes (part 1, 1807), which was a collaboration between naturalist François Péron, engraver Frères Lambert, and artist Charles Alexandre Lesueur. Lesueur had been part of the Baudin expedition to Australia, which was a French expedition between 1800 to 1803 to map the coast of New Holland as Australia was still known. The label showed Australian flora and fauna with a French château in the background.

The 1950 label was a hand-colored engraving of a sketch by landscape artist Frederick C. Terry (incorrectly named as Fleury on the original) of Sydney’s new government house.

The 1951 label showed an engraving of the Australian coast from South Australia to Victoria based on a sketch by Louis de Freycinet, also a member of the Baudin expedition. It was also done by Charles Alexandre Lesueur and is from Atlas historique, Voyage de découvertes aux Terres australes (part 2, 1812).

The 1952 label was an engraving of the legendary explorer Captain James Cook who claimed the southern continent for Great Britain when he landed at Botany Bay in 1770. It is taken from an 1800 painting by Sir Nathaniel Dance.

The 1953 label showed Queen Adelaide, after whom the City of Adelaide was named in 1836. This was the art later used for the Queen Adelaide brand, an engraving by H. Cook taken from a drawing by H. Dawe.

The 1954 label is considered the most famous of them all. It shows the Bathurst Plains by Joseph Lycett in the 1820s. Lycett was a convict who became the artist to the governor of New South Wales.

The 1955 label was a departure in that it was The Galatea, a sailing vessel, and was sourced from the front cover of sheet music for The Galatea, which was a “Polka Brillante” by Frederick Ellard. The sheet music had been published in Adelaide in 1867 to commemorate the visit of Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, and son of Queen Victoria.

Finally, the 1956 label was an engraving by a popular artist of the early days in New South Wales, BM Chalon, from his painting of the famous racing stallion Skeleton owned by Alexander Riley, an early pastoralist and considered by some to have possibly imported the first Shiraz into Australia.

The Treasure Chest series was sold through a few selected wine stores and through Australian trade commissions around the world, something I doubt has been done before or since. It was also sold in curious combinations. “The Treasure Pack,” as it was dubbed, was three bottles each of the 1949, 1950, 1951, and 1952 vintages. “The Vintage Box” was three each of the 1953, 1954, 1955, and 1956 vintages. Single bottles of the 1953 and 1955 were available.

I count myself most fortunate as I was able to attend a dinner around 20 years ago where our host put out the full set. It was a monumental and eye-opening tasting. The wines then were around the half-century mark and were still alive and complex. At the time, 1956 and 1955 were very impressive; 1954 very good; 1953 ethereal, complex, and exciting; 1952 again quite good; 1951 the disappointment; 1950 spectacular with exquisitely sweet fruit and complexity; while the 1949 was simply one of the greatest wines I’ve ever been privileged to drink.

These days, one wonders if there are more than a handful of sets still in existence, if that. I did think I had hit the motherlode when chatting to an old friend some time ago, who was surprised to learn of their value and rarity given he had a couple of sets in his cellar. Tastings were planned, people got very excited. Unfortunately, it was only when he went to collect them did he discover that both sets had been grabbed by his ex-wife in an ugly divorce. Their fate unknown, there were some very disappointed wine lovers when that came to light.

Coonawarra from the 1950s

Back to Coonawarra in 1952, the Redmans were selling bulk wine to famous names like Thomas Hardy, Yalumba, Reynella, Leo Buring, and Woodley’s. Their brand, Rouge Homme, commenced in 1953. The region was finally making serious progress, even though there was still no mains electricity or refrigeration.

Mildara, under Ron Haselgrove, arrived in 1955 and Penfolds five years later, with the Redmans looking after both. Bill Redman had been instrumental in convincing Jeffrey Penfold-Hyland to purchase what is now known as the Sharam vineyard. Then in 1965, Lindeman’s purchased the Rouge Homme winery with 75 acres of vineyards and a further 400 acres of some of the very best terra rossa land.

Wynns Johnsons Block Cabernet planted in 1954

I will look more closely at Wynns in the future as it played a crucial role in the development of the region. One of the first wines released was a very famous one-off Shiraz called the Michael Hermitage from 1955 (named after David’s son). The revived Michael, first vintage being 1990, followed the release of Wynns first flagship (and begs the question of how many flagships one can have, but that might be for another day), the John Riddoch Cabernet. The inaugural vintage of the John Riddoch Cabernet was 1982.

Producers like Penfolds, Lindeman’s, Mildara, Woodley’s, and Hardys (interestingly, all but that last one named are or have been under the current TWE – Treasury Wine Estates – ownership at some stage) continued to take an interest in Coonawarra, and some stunning wines emerged. In almost all cases in these early days, the wines were made under contract by the Redmans. Owen Redman’s brother-in-law, Eric Brand, began his own winery in the mid-1960s – subsequent generations of Brands are still making top Coonawarra wines.

And plenty of other wineries have emerged: Katnook, Zema, Bowen, Hollicks, Balnaves, Leconfield, Majella, Rymill, and many more. More than 50, in fact. Others, like Jim Barry, Yalumba, and so many more source fruit or have invested in vineyards. If you are interested in exploring the wines of Coonawarra then any of these will more than fit the bill.

In the early days, Shiraz had been planted at a ratio of two to one in comparison to Cabernet, and despite the legendary wines made from Shiraz the region began to also offer some astonishing wines from Cabernet. It was also valued for blending. The 1962 Penfolds Bin 60A Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon Kalimna Vineyard Shiraz is often referred to as the greatest wine ever made in Australia.

The following year saw the 1963 Mildara “Peppermint Pattie” Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon, followed shortly by the 1966 Penfolds Bin 620 Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz and 1967 Penfolds Bin 7 Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon Kalimna Shiraz.

More wineries were slowly established, and by 1970 the number had increased to six: Wynns, Lindeman’s, Mildara, Penfolds, Brand, and Redmans.

The 1970s were massively important for the region. The 1976 Wynns Coonawarra Estate Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon won the Jimmy Watson Trophy (Australia’s most important wine trophy, in those days awarded to a one-year-old red usually yet to be bottled). This wine was everywhere for many years.

Coonawarra picked up another “Jimmy” with the 1980 Lindeman’s St. George Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon. At the time, this was reflecting the new style of lean and green herbaceous wines. When it was finally released, I had just begun an interest in wine and greedily grabbed what I could. I remember opening one, thinking I may as well have spent the money on tinned asparagus such were the characters it exhibited. The rest of mine were immediately sent to auction. I hated it. Thankfully, that style is a thing of the past.

There were pruning issues a while back, which did lead to some greener characters, and in the early 1980s show judges richly rewarded these wines, for some reason assuming that they were Bordeaux replicas and therefore must be good. We can all be grateful that those days are well behind us.

The 1970s also saw an explosion of boutique wineries. While Coonawarra has not been overwhelmed by them, it has its share, many mentioned above. While there are some wonderful smaller family operations, this is a region largely devoted to the big producers. Perhaps its isolation has simply not attracted the boutiques in the same way that other, more frequently visited wine regions have.

By the 1980s, Coonawarra was in the middle of its glory days, picking up a total of six “Jimmys” that decade. This was also the decade that saw the release of what has become its most famous wine, the Wynns John Riddoch Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon, the first vintage being the 1982.

Unfortunately for the region, it was at this time that Margaret River was emerging. As I have said before, I doubt anyone, including winemakers from both regions, ever really thought that this upstart would seriously challenge Coonawarra’s supremacy.

In fact, it did not take long at all. Even though Margaret River is even more isolated than Coonawarra, it has a number of advantages. While the aesthetics of Coonawarra are basically flat and dull, Margaret River is an exquisitely beautiful wine region. As well as wine, this is a getaway location for people from Perth and a world-class surfing destination – not all the great whites from the region come in a bottle!

Margaret River is very much ground zero for the small, quality family operation. The big boys are noticeably absent – not completely, but you’d hardly notice them. Toss in the fact that while these days Coonawarra is seen as a bit of a one-trick pony (Cabernet with a sideline in Shiraz), Margaret River also does some of the greatest Chardonnays seen in this country, plus many other varieties.

Whereas Coonawarra is on the viticultural edge and good vintages are far from guaranteed, it seems that many locals in Margaret River would not know what a bad vintage was – they’d probably have to google it.

While Coonawarra might not hold the same magic for wine lovers that it has in the past, remember that this is because of the emergence of other regions – in Australia that would be Margaret River in particular – rather than any diminution of quality in its wines. There are still some truly superb wines being made in this distant and isolated region with its cigar of terra rossa soil. Next time, I’ll look at one of the very best from here, a world-class Cabernet.

You may also enjoy:

Penfolds 2016 Grange And G4: Superlative Wines, Well Deserving Of 100 Points. Each!

The Sensational (Grange) G5 Wine, Peter Gago, And The History Of Penfolds

Yalumba The Caley 2014: An Aussie Classic From The Barossa Valley

Penfolds Bin 60A 1962: Australia’s Greatest Wine Ever (Or Certainly A Serious Contender)

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