Coonawarra edges towards a boundary definition

March 23rd, 1997

As I write – waiting for the hotline from Coonawarra to ring – grape growers and wine makers sweat as they wait to hear where the line might be drawn around our most famous wine region.

Locals were expecting the Geographic Indications Committee’s (GIC) interim determination on Wednesday March 19. By the time this article goes to press the statement may have been issued.

From the time of the interim determination’s issue, interested parties have three months to speak up.

Were there no obstacles to setting the boundary (proposed to the GIC by a joint committee of Coonawarra’s Grape Growers and Winemakers Associations) a final determination could then be gazetted, followed by another three months commentary period, followed by entry of the region into the Register of Protected Names.

Even then, the matter may be taken further – to the Administrative Review Tribunal and, finally, to the Federal Court.

With so many shades of opinion and conflicting interests surrounding where Coonawarra’s boundaries ought to be, it was not surprising to find on a visit there last week a reluctance by locals to spell out the details that wine drinkers want to know.

No one had a map showing the new boundary and no one was willing to talk on the record about who the objectors to the boundary were likely to be. But much of the boundary debate is old news.

As I understand it, the boundary proposed by Coonawarra’s grape growers and wine makers retreats considerably inside the 32 kilometre (north-south) by 16 kilometre (east-west) rectangle decided on by the Viticultural Council of the South East in 1984 and reaffirmed in 1991.

I understand that the boundary retreats marginally south of the old northern boundary, tapers fairly sharply towards the south (mainly on the eastern side, less so on the west) rather than following the old rectangle, reaching a point just south of Peter Rymill’s new vineyard to the south of Penola township.

The proposed boundary almost certainly embraces more than just the central ‘terra rossa’ soil strip associated with Coonawarra’s great wines.

Wherever the line is drawn, someone’s going to be just on the wrong side of it. Not and easy task, and so much at stake.

It looks as if Brian Croser’s ‘Sharefarmers’ vineyard is to remain outside the region. Will he protest? He has certainly argued strongly to be included. And ‘Sharefarmers’ wines now feature the word ‘Coonawarra’ on the label.

The vineyard was planted in 1983 quite literally across the road from the northern boundary declared in 1984.

Writing to me in 1992, Croser said, “… the implication left hanging in the public mind is that the only true terra rossa is in the main Coonawarra strip, that the whole of the strip is terra rossa and that all vineyards planted outside the main strip are planted on black soil. … The Coonawarra controversy is not an argument of quality. It is an argument of land and wine prices…”

Clearly, Croser has much at stake in the debate. But what if he were admitted to Coonawarra. Would Mildara Blass then want ‘Robertson’s Well’ vineyard included? It’s just a little north of ‘Sharefarmers’.

And if Robertson’s Well were let in, might not Koppamurra, BRL Hardy, Yalumba, Alambie, the Meyer family and other vineyard owners in the vicinity want in, too?

Then there’s the Mulligan and Tyrrell’s St Mary’s Vineyard on the Cave Range, about 15 kilometres west of Coonawarra. ‘The Australian & New Zealand Wine Industry Directory’ gives the vineyard location as Coonawarra. Does this mean that Mulligan and Tyrrell, too, intend staking a claim?

Whatever the outcome of the controversy, as a wine seller, marketer, consumer and commentator, I wish to go on record as supporting a tighter rather than looser boundary for Coonawarra and, eventually, the definition of a classic red sub-region within that boundary.

Coonawarra’s reputation and value spring from the unique, strong but elegant red wines produced from quite a limited area over a considerable period.

Other geologically and climatically similar areas nearby show equally exciting promise. But these areas are not yet proven. And in the eyes of consumers here and overseas, they are not Coonawarra.

The vast Limestone Coast, on which Coonawarra is just one dot, is about to become the biggest premium wine region in Australia. By 2001 its output should reach about 6.5 million dozen bottles – 1.6 million more than second ranking Barossa’s 4.9 million case production.

Coonawarra should account for one third of that, Padthaway for another third. The other third, including those on the periphery of Coonawarra, must find and build their own names.

March 30th, 1997

The raging boundary debate – still unresolved by the way – doesn’t distract Coonawarra from its main task – making sensationally good red wines. And despite big increases in planting, there still is not enough to go around.

The faces of disappointed traders are longer than the queues of smiling cellar-door customers. Boots are filled while order books remain empty. For the trader, the request for “just a pallet or two” earns a vacant look from the vigneron and an apologetic “next year” or “maybe three or four years from now”.

Standing in the mild autumn sun, four weeks from vintage, Kirsty Balnaves and wine maker Peter Bissell tell me there are buyers willing to pay now for this year’s and next year’s grapes.

For the Balnaves family the choice is no longer one of who gets the grapes but of whether or not to sell the grapes at all. Like so many wine-grape growers across Australia, the Balnaves turned to wine making several years ago as demand for high-quality regional specialties grew.

Initially part of the crop was contract-made into wine to be sold under Balnaves label through one of the smartest-looking cellar door outlets in Coonawarra (immediately to the south of Bowen Estate).

In 1996 an equally smart, state-of-the-art winery joined the cellar-door facility. And the Balnaves lured Peter Bissell from Wynns Coonawarra Estate to make the 1996 vintage and ‘finish’ the 1995 reds, then undergoing barrel maturation.

Balnaves wines were always reasonably good. But as drinkers we will very quickly see benefits flowing from having a wine maker of Bissell’s experience on hand. It gives so much more control than contracting the job out.

Even though Bissell didn’t make the 1995 reds, it’s clear that he’s been very selective in putting together the final blends. The results, to my taste, are greater concentration of flavour, more vibrance and a better structure than was apparent in earlier vintages, despite the general weakness of the 1995 vintage.

And the 1996s, though still in barrel, show a brilliant sweetness and strength, reflecting both the superior qualities of the vintage, and Bissell’s winemaking skills and experience in Coonawarra.

Bissell relates each barrel of wine back to its precise origin on Balnave’s 42-hectare vineyard. Over time, this should give a clearer understanding of the relationship of site to wine quality.

This, in turn, will influence vineyard-management practice and, ultimately, wine quality. As Doug Balnaves said, “Now we’ll be able to see the effect on wine of all the different things we try in the vineyard.”

For the drinker it’s reassuring to know that Balnaves direction is to be a highly selective expression of one vineyard towards the southern end of Coonawarra’s terra rossa strip.

Indeed, as other growers turn to wine making (Majella and Wetherall, for example) and yet others segment production and branding according to vineyard site, we are likely to see Coonawarra revealed in all its shades and hues.

Much of Coonawarra’s production goes into multi-vineyard blends like the Wynns Coonawarra Estate Range reviewed here several weeks back. Such blends offer tremendous value to consumers and set a style standard for Coonawarra overall.

What the smaller makers and individual vineyard wines offer are variations on that theme – partly derived from the vineyard site; partly from vineyard management; and partly from winemaking practice.

But, in the long run, site is likely to be the most important – certainly the most enduring – contributor to wine style, even within the apparently homogenised, flat, tightly clustered vineyards of Coonawarra.

There is more variation than you would think just zipping through Coonawarra’s 15-kilometre length at 110 kilometres and hour.

The emergence of more cellar door facilities and an increasing number of grower labels makes the journey there more enjoyable and rewarding than ever before. We can now smell and taste the variations both small and large and buy wines that may never see a bottle shop outside the region.

To all the familiar old brands we’ve seen added to the palate of flavours in recent years Balnaves, Wetherall, Majella, Punter’s Corner and a new red from the Leconfield cellar “Richard Hamilton Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon” based on a new 4 hectare vineyard on the main road next to Hollicks.

As well there are the individual vineyard wines, Limestone Ridge and St George from Lindemans, and the super Coonawarra’s like Wynns John Riddoch Cabernet and Michael Shiraz and Hollick’s Ravenswood. These are blends, but pretty much from the same very special blocks each year.

As Coonawarra’s global status grows this tendency to identify wines with an individual block or blocks of grapes seems likely to increase. But there might also be immense pressure to increase output of some labels by blending wine from the fringes of Coonawarra or elsewhere.

In my view this must inevitably lead to the definition of high-quality sub-regions within Coonawarra to protect consumers and hard-earned reputations.

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