How Padthaway became a major wine region while nearby Keppoch remained a dot on a map

Padthaway is a dear friend of Australian wine drinkers. Yet its contribution to the quality of our everyday drinking has often been anonymous or, before Lindeman’s success with chardonnay from the district, served up under the name Keppoch. As a viticultural area it barely existed until broad acre plantings began in the late 1960s.

For reasons best known to itself, the ABS lumps statistics on Coonawarra and Padthaway together, making it hard to trace separately the growth of what are probably the two most important modern wine-growing areas in Australia.

But to give some indication of the phenomenal growth of the region, the combined Coonawarra-Padthaway grape tonnage for wine making in 1968 was about 1000 tonnes. By 1973 that had grown to almost 5,000 tonnes, leaping to 18,000 tonnes in 1978; 22,000 tonnes in 1983 and 42,000 tonnes in 1992.

By parting with a modest $400 I prised split figures from the ABS for the past decade, revealing Padthaway’s production since 1985 as around 20,000 tonnes a year of wine grapes. That’s twice the entire output of Western Australia, and the equivalent of about 1.4 million dozen 750 mL bottles.

That’s big production in anyone’s language. And it’s poised to explode over the next few years as more large-scale planting proceeds.

According to James Halliday, Seppelts were the first in the area, planting small trial plots in 1963, followed by 25-hectare vineyards in 1964 and 1965. Hardys and Lindemans arrived in 1968 and were followed by Wynns, a private grower, Don Brown, Orlando, Tolleys, and Padthaway Estate.

Broad-acre plantings were the order of the day. And although Seppelts original plantings focused on red wines, Padthaway was soon feeding the white wine boom of the seventies and eighties. Today, grape production is 60 per cent white, 40 per cent red. But that may well be swinging the other way as exports gather pace and the area’s reds reveal their full potential.

Despite such phenomenal grape output, Padthaway did not have a winery until Padthaway Estate commenced operations in 1989. It remains the district’s sole winery (more on that next week).

The large operators simply truck grapes or juice to wineries elsewhere. Southcorp, for instance, sends most output from its 1100 hectares in Padthaway to the Rouge Homme and Wynns wineries in Coonawarra, 80 kilometres to the south; BRL Hardy sends juice northwards to Reynella and McLaren Vale.

Seppelt, Lindemans, and Hardys all originally saw the area as a source of large-quantity, reasonable quality grapes for commercial table-wine production. Despite high grape yields in those early days, quality was generally far better than the wine makers had expected. Even so, most output disappeared anonymously into big commercial blends.

Where the area was acknowledged on the label, both Seppelt and Hardy used the name Keppoch or Keppoch Valley. But Lindemans phenomenal commercial and show success with its Padthaway Chardonnay and Fume Blanc soon saw that name adopted by all parties. By a quirk of marketing, Keppoch remains an obscure place name on a map, while Padthaway slowly but surely strides onto the world stage as a unique wine-making region.

Padthaway may ever remain source of commercial wines with no acknowledged district of origin. Hardys Sir James is a good example of that (around 120,000 cases a year, the local rep tells me). But, equally, we are increasingly seeing the cream of the crop acknowledged on labels or in press releases.

Lindemans Padthaway Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Verdelho have a place in most liquor stores and remain the region’s best-known ambassadors. But there is another level of quality above these now emerging.

Orlando’s Lawsons Padthaway Shiraz consistently demonstrates the area’s ability to produce exceptionally-high quality long-lived reds. And in recent years, I notice Penfolds impeccable Bin Number reds acknowledging Padthaway on their labels. I understand fruit quality was good enough for Bin 707 in 1993.

Wine lovers visiting Coonawarra might slip up the road 80 kilometres to see Padthaway’s great sea of vines. A gentle slope flattening out to the west contrasts with Coonawarra’s unbroken flatness. But 700,000 years back they were part of the same coastal formation.

The terra rossa soils of both areas are weathered from the same limestone bed deposited all those years ago. Padthaway, with its shorter wine-making history has a less clear-cut identity than Coonawarra with its world-class, unique reds.

My bet is that Padthaway’s highest achievement are yet to come and they will be reds not whites.

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