The rise of Wrattonbully — unique new Aussie wine region

‘You’ve never heard of a champion race horse with a bad name’. Attributed to viticulturist Vic Patrick during a prolonged, and at times rancorous, debate over the naming of Wrattonbully wine region.

Wrattonbully, the biggest of several new wine regions on South Australia’s Limestone Coast, sprawls for forty kilometres along the Naracoorte Tableland, touching Padthaway to the north and Coonawarra to the south.

Hemmed in by these venerable winemaking neighbours, Wrattonbully exploded into existence in the nineties, the product of high hopes and a global red wine boom.

Deterred by rising land prices and a lack of suitable sites in Coonawarra, winemakers moved decisively to Wrattonbully in 1993, attracted by lower land prices, soils and climate similar to those of Coonawarra and clean underground water.

Where two vineyards, covering just 20 hectares, existed in 1993, scores of broad acre plantings, totalling about 2600 hectares, had been planted by 2003.

In Australia’s bumper 2004 harvest, these new vines produced 28 thousand tonnes of grapes, equivalent to about two million dozen bottles of wine – an extraordinary volume for an area that barely existed a decade earlier.

Wrattonbully’s impressive growth is perhaps best seen in the context of the Limestone Coast overall. This vast area, taking in all of South Australia west of Victoria and south of Lake Alexandrina, now wears the crown as Australia’s largest premium wine growing district.

The Limestone Coast’s combined 2004 grape output of 172 thousand tonnes (13 million dozen bottles equivalent) easily outweighs the 87 thousand tonnes (6.5 million dozen bottes) of the combined Barossa and Eden Valleys, the next largest premium area.

Within the Limestone Coast, Wrattonbully holds the greatest concentration of grapes after its older neighbours – Coonawarra, established in 1891 (62 thousand tonnes in 2004) and Padthaway, established in 1964 (51 thousand tonnes).

Like Padthaway, much of Wrattonbully’s output goes to high quality cross-regional blends. Wolf Blass Yellow Label Cabernet Sauvignon and Hardys Sir James Brut de Brut, for example, both carry Wrattonbully material blended with fruit from other areas, and go to market without a regional appellation.

But many grape growers and winemakers, seeing the exceptional quality potential in Wrattonbully, won’t settle for anonymity.

They see Wrattonbully as one of the best wine growing regions in the country. Its soils and climate, the outstanding winemaking achievements of nearby, similar Coonawarra and Padthaway and even its own short winemaking history all support this belief.

As in Coonawarra, Wrattonbully’s vineyards tend to be located on shallow terra rossa soils over limestone. These soils are composed partly of weathered limestone but also contain wind-born material. In Wrattonbully, some vineyards have a shallow layer of grey, sandy loam over the terra rossa.
Some growers say that these are the best sites for vines; others insist on terra rossa without the sand overlay. Could both be correct? We’ll know in thirty years.

Despite the similarities between the two regions, there are important differences, too. Wrattonbully lies to the north of Coonawarra on a tableland elevated about 50 metres above the plain and to the east of the Kanowinka fault.

According to geologist David Farmer, about 780 thousand years ago “the country to the west of the fault fell about 40 metres, perhaps under the sea. It was against this cliff face that the Southern Ocean deposited the dunes comprising the West Naracoorte Range” – near the western edge of today’s Wrattonbully. It was perhaps another 100 thousand years before what is now Coonawarra rose above sea level.

Meanwhile Wrattonbully remained high and dry to the east of the range, weathering and, later, collecting in its near-surface caves, the bones of trapped mammals and reptiles. These provide the wonderful 500 thousand year fossil record seen today at the Naracoorte caves, within the wine region boundary.

The caves are part of the limestone bedrock noted for thick layers of calcrete – dissolved and redeposited limestone – near the surface along ridges. Over the past ten years bulldozers ripping the calcrete prior to vine planting uncovered numerous caves (see separate story) and dragged to the surface enormous limestone boulders – like the 37 tonne monster marking the entry to Hardy’s Stonehaven vineyard.

According to Greg Koch, vineyard owner and contract vineyard manager, stone breaking and removal adds up to $5000 a hectare to establishment costs in Wrattonbully.

However, the ready availability of choice sites and land prices considerably below those of Coonawarra attracted investors throughout the nineties and into the new century.

On this rugged, undulating tableland, then, sit 2600 hectares of vines on a diversity of sites that should, in general, be slightly warmer than Coonawarra and sufficiently elevated to avoid the vintage fogs that sometimes hamper vintage in Coonawarra and Padthaway.

Wrattonbully’s grape-growing history includes two little vineyards planted decades ahead of the recent expansion. These give a glimpse of its potential.

In 1969, Patrick and Susie Pender planted the ‘Riddoch’ vineyard at the southern end of the district. Its grapes were sold to various winemakers over the years, but from what I can gather, wine made from the site was generally referred to as Coonawarra, including one that I personally bought and labelled Farmer Bros in the mid eighties.

The Penders sold to the Meyer family who, in turn, sold the vineyard (no longer called Riddoch) to Petaluma. Since the purchase, says Petaluma’s Brian Croser, shiraz from the vineyard goes to a Bridgewater Mill shiraz blend, while the excellent but tiny quantity of cabernet sauvignon is included as a legal out-of-district component of Petaluma Coonawarra – one of the region’s elite reds.

Nearby, in 1974, John Greenshields established the Koppamurra vineyard. In adopting the general regional name (local farmers still call the area Koppamurra, not Wrattonbully) he unwittingly set the scene for a recent protracted dispute over the regional name. Wrattonbully it became, but not without acrimony.

In January 2003, Tapanappa Wines Pty Ltd – a partnership between Brian Croser, Jean-Michel Cazes of Château Lynch-Bages, Bordeaux, and Société Jacques Bollinger, the parent company of Champagne Bollinger – purchased the vineyard.

Croser had advice that the vineyard was perfectly suited to dry-land viticulture and was impressed by the keeping qualities of Geoff Weaver’s Ashbourne Cabernet Sauvignon 1980 — sourced from the vineyard and made at Petaluma.

The first two vintages of Tapanappa wine now sit in barrel at Petaluma. Croser seems deeply impressed by the fruit quality. All three red varieties – cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot – ripened fully in both the 2003 and 2004 vintages.

He described the merlot as ‘very big and blocky’, the cabernet as having ‘violet and rose floral character, more finesse and silky tannins’ and the cabernet franc as ‘inky and very complex’.

As these vines are fully mature, low yielding and dry grown it suggests Wrattonbully could be suited to a range of varieties.

However, as almost all of the vines in Wrattonbully are much younger and yet to deliver their best flavours, other winemakers report varying results.

Yalumba’s red winemaker, Peter Gambetta, says that Wrattonbully reds in general looked good in the first vintages but merlot had the WOW factor, performing well in a number of different vineyards.

The variety now receives special attention in the vineyard and winery and is distributed by Yalumba under the Smith and Hooper Wrattonbully label. As I write, there’s a very concentrated ‘Limited Release’ 2001 retailing at about $50, and a standard, more fruit driven 2002 at around $17.

Smith and Hooper Wrattonbully Cabernet Merlot 2002 (about $17) won a gold medal at the recent Limestone Coast Show. And Yalumba’s budget Wrattonbully label, Mawsons (about $12), offers a Cabernet Sauvignon 2002, with a Sauvignon Blanc due in 2005.

Gambetta and Yalumba’s Wrattonbully vineyard manager, Peter Freckleton, both seem excited about the upcoming first vintage of tempranillo, a Spanish red variety, from their vineyards.

At Hardy’s Stonehaven Winery, winemaker Sue Bell rates Wrattonbully cabernet sauvignon, shiraz and chardonnay ahead of merlot and believes that tempranillo may be very good. Sue’s current release Stonehaven Limited Vineyard Release Wrattonbully Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 won a silver medal at the Limestone Coast Show and her Stonehaven Limestone Coast Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 (100 per cent Wrattonbully) won a bronze medal.

Unlike Hardys and Yalumba, Southcorp owns no vineyards in Wrattonbully but sources from contract growers. Southcorp winemaker, Greg Tilbrook, says that cabernet sauvignon looks the best variety to date, making the grade for Penfolds Bin 407 in 2003 and 2004.

Griffith based Casella Wines no doubt favours cabernet, too, after winning the Jimmy Watson trophy with its Yellowtail Premium 2003, sourced from a vineyard managed by Greg Koch.

Coonawarra-based Ian Hollick clearly backs shiraz after his Wrattonbully Shiraz – Coonawarra Cabernet 2002 won a gold medal and trophy at the Limestone Coast Show.

And a few good wines are emerging from Wrattonbully grape growers. Greg Koch’s Redden Bridge ‘Gully’ Shiraz 2002 and ‘The Crossings’ Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 won silver and bronze medals respectively at the Limestone Coast Show; winemaker Pat Tocaciu produces Patrick ‘The Caves’ Vineyard Riesling 2003 and Pavy Cabernet Sauvignon 2001; and the Stone Coast Vineyard Shiraz 2002, made by Scott Rawlinson, won silver at the Limestone Coast Show.

With most of her vineyards still under ten years of age Wrattonbully is a work in progress, producing bread and butter, good average quality wines alongside smaller quantities of high quality regionally labelled product. It’ll take another ten years to see what her real specialties are. But there’s every hope, given the regional pedigree, that we’ll see great rather than merely good wines in due course.

Ken Schultz and the Stone Hill Vineyard cave
Ken Schultz says he was conceived and born in the room that’s now his office in a limestone house amongst Beringer Blass’s Wrattonbully vineyards. Establishing the Stone Hill vineyard in the early nineties, Ken found a nervous bulldozer driver teetering on the opening of an extensive cave. A little research showed that the cave had been sealed in 1917. A thorough exploration by Ken’s boss, Vic Patrick, and others found that it meandered 270 metres under the vineyards and included a touching memorial of the past – a beautifully hand-carved in limestone ‘F. J. Charter 1911’ – a local who died on the battlefields of France in 1917. A bit of creative paving work by Ken’s vineyard team, and the addition of subtle lighting, prepared a large chamber, 10 metres below the vineyard and 130 metres from the entry, for the occasional dinner or lunch under the vines.

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