Coonawarra has a global reputation for its cab sauvs, but it is the connection between the people and the land that truly brings this region alive. From its wineries to the natural wonders of the Limestone Coast, it is full of delights to explore.
Find out why there is more to this SA region than its world-famous cab savs.
Each day on her drive home from work, Sue Bell would pass the same ramshackle shearing shed, set among towering red gums alongside the Coonawarra’s Riddoch Highway. Warts and all, there was always something that struck Bell about the derelict stone building. So, when the ‘For Sale’ sign went up on the very same day Bell was retrenched (her then-workplace had decided to bow out of the industry), the serendipity couldn’t be ignored.
That 1868 Glen Roy shearing shed, designed by William Thomas Gore and built by Chinese labourers en route to the goldfields, now stands proud as Bellwether Wines’ winery and cellar door.
There were a few steps in between, of course. Bell couldn’t afford the purchase price at the time, but when the shed was passed in at auction she quickly ‘got [her] act together’, finding a business partner, securing a federal tourism grant and eventually taking ownership of the site on Christmas Eve in 2008.
The refurb took a decade, but it was worth the wait. Not just a winery and cellar door, Bellwether is an event space, art gallery, music venue, camping and glamping site and community garden, and is available for local growers looking to kickstart their own wine label. It is Bell’s vision
for an ‘immersive winery’ come to life. And her community ethos is reflective of the entire Coonawarra.
WHAT LIES BENEATH
Ask a local what it is about the Coonawarra that appeals and a definitive theme will emerge: the people and the land. Both are integral to the region’s famed cabernet sauvignon. More than 60 per cent of the Coonawarra’s vines are cabernet, not because other varieties won’t flourish, but rather because of the irrefutable affinity between the full-bodied red and the region’s unique, iron-rich terra rossa. Just 27 kilometres long and two kilometres wide, this patch of free-draining red soil sits atop a deep stratum of ancient limestone, a rare combination that supports well-balanced vines. The maritime influence, provided by the nearby Southern Ocean, further enhances ripening conditions. It’s a dream environment for vine strength, fruit ripeness and wine flavour.
“The wines that we make [across the Coonawarra] have beautiful structure … amazing colour and good, naturally balanced acid, so it means we can make structured wines without them being high in alcohol, and they age amazingly well,” says Bell.
“One of the incredible things about Coonawarra cabernet [is that] you can smell it from five paces. Its aromatic freshness; that fragrance of choc-mint, dried herbs, olives, blackcurrant. To me, it’s a real smell of home. It’s very distinctive and I think it’s good for people to have that sense of place.”
Coonawarra cab sauv has long been a staple on household wine racks across the country. The peppery shiraz borne out of the region’s rusty earth has built a solid reputation, too. John Riddoch, he of highway fame, is given much of the credit. The Scottish settler planted his Coonawarra Fruit Colony – naming it after the Aboriginal word for ‘honeysuckle’ – in the 19th century, focusing on the two now-prevalent red varieties. By 1896 he had completed his grand, triple-gabled winery, which stands just as stately today as Wynns Coonawarra Estate.
Still, it took decades for the region to flourish – a bank crash and subsequent depression, along with Riddoch’s death in 1901, both contributing factors.
Yet when Australians began to develop a taste for dry reds in the mid-20th century, the Coonawarra was primed for its rebirth.
Today’s Coonawarra roll call is full of familiar names – think Redman, Zema, St Hugo, Hollick, DiGiorgio, Katnook, Rymill – and also blessed with smaller, family owned vineyards. Big or small, all are doing their bit to maintain the region’s global reputation, and they’re doing it in a congenial way. “My first week living here as a graduate winemaker, I was invited out to dinner four times,” says Bell. “It’s a very friendly area. The people here working and farming, [they] work hard, but they … do well out of it. There’s no place for [those] show-off type people. It’s a real hardworking humility that I love about the people here.”
WOMEN OF WYNNS
Sue Hodder is now charged, in part, with maintaining Riddoch’s legacy. The former viticulturist took the reins at Wynns in 1998, becoming the estate’s first female chief winemaker. The estate has a proud history of wine women, which includes former Wynns winemaker Pam Dunsford. In 1972, Dunsford was the first female to be accepted to renowned Roseworthy College (now part of the University of Adelaide) to study oenology, which is the science and study of wine and winemaking, distinct from viticulture.
“We love to tell our women-inwine story about the women that planted the vineyards,” says Hodder. “They were migrants after the Second World War, and we’ve had women here all the way through.”
Hodder is now elbow-deep in her 39th vintage at Wynns, having started at the historic estate in 1993.
Since taking the lead, she has helped facilitate a much-needed vineyard overhaul, which included new plantings, significant retrellising, and the installation of drip irrigation. The rejuvenation returned Wynns to its roots, so to speak: medium-bodied, moderate alcohol wines with distinctive red cherry and restrained mint notes.
The expertise of vineyard manager Allen Jenkins has been critical to subsequent success, as has Hodder’s colleague and so-called protégé Sarah Pidgeon. The pair have worked together for more than 20 years, were jointly named ‘Winemaker of the Year’ at the 2016 Australian Society of Viticulture and Oenology Awards for Excellence, and continue to evolve with the changing times, and the changing climate.
Says Hodder of the longstanding partnership. “It’s everything. Sarah’s a person that can move mountains.
“She just gets stuff done. She keeps me moving.”
THE NEW GUARD
Less than 10 minutes’ drive down the Riddoch Highway, another woman in wine is making her mark.
Following two years as assistant winemaker to maestro Pete Bissell at Balnaves of Coonawarra, Jacinta Jenkins has stepped into the top job. Known as JJ, the 30-year-old’s energy, work ethic and nous landed her the role following Bissell’s retirement last year. Jenkins grew up in the Coonawarra – her dad is Allen Jenkins of Wynns fame – and returned to work a vintage at Balnaves after studying biochemistry at Monash University. Life in the lab didn’t much
appeal to JJ. Turns out, she could combine her interest for science with her desire to create via life in the vineyard. “One of the things that I really love about winemaking [is that] really great balance between science and art,” she says.
“I really love the fact that there’s so much science, like chemistry, biochemistry … but you can’t just follow the numbers. It’s not like baking a cake where you have the recipe and follow it directly, because then you don’t have any soul to the wines you’re making.”
JJ is young for a chief winemaker, which is one of the reasons she was so chuffed to get the gig.
She is part of an injection of youth across Coonawarra’s wine industry, and while she enjoys having contemporaries to ‘bounce off’, she is also grateful for Bissell’s continued input. He remains in Balnaves’ wings as a consultant.
“[Bissell has] years of experience and an absolute wealth of knowledge, so there’s a really nice balance where I don’t feel like I’ve been dropped in the deep end,” she says.
According to Bissell, JJ will help keep Balnaves at the top of its game. “We are in a fashion business,” he says.
“Wine fashions come and go and you’ve got to be continually making sure that what you’re doing is what your customers want. Younger winemakers have a feel for the younger generation and what they’re interested in so I think that insight is helpful to aid that fine-tuning and to continue to be relevant.”
Bissell is the first to admit he hasn’t embraced retirement in the fullest sense. As well as consulting to Balnaves, Bissell grows and sells grapes out of his Wrattonbully vineyard; he volunteers with the local eucalyptus arboretum; and he also works with the Limestone Coast Grape and Wine Council, including as chair of the Limestone Coast Wine Trails subcommittee.
Originally aimed at international visitors, a goal brought to a halt by the pandemic, the Limestone Coast Wine Trails’ digital platform helps tourists plan trips in the region.
It has a wine focus, as you would expect, but it also highlights alternative attractions, such as restaurants, natural wonders and historic sites.
As geologically fortunate as the Limestone Coast may be, the region does suffer one geographic downfall.
Located midway between Melbourne and Adelaide, it can be perceived as a bridge too far.
And many who do visit simply get their cellar-door fix and move on: “We quite often have this problem where people would come down and go, ‘Wow, this place is amazing, but I’ve only got a day’,” says Bissell.
Mount Gambier, just some 20 kilometres from the Victorian border, is less than an hour’s drive from Coonawarra. Seaside delight Robe is a touch over 100 klicks away. Historic Penola is tucked in right next door. Coorong National Park marks the Limestone Coast starting line, from the Adelaide end.
For vino, there can be no doubt Coonawarra is the star, but it is surrounded by lesser-known wine regions, including Mount Benson, Penola, Padthaway and Wrattonbully. And at the heart of it all, some of the best cabernet sauvignon you are likely to savour.