Coonawarra not as flat as it looks

If you lived and died in Coonawarra, you could well believe the world was flat…an endless plain dotted with vines, gum trees, cows, windmills, wires, wineries, cars, and the odd jogger.

But, to a grape grower, the almost imperceptible undulations in the flat landscape – and where your vineyards lie on them – may mean the difference between making medium-grade champagne base or one of the best, most powerfully concentrated reds in the world. For in Coonawarra, some of the greatest vineyards lie alongside some of the least.

Growers worked out…are still working out…many of the complexities by results. Success with grape vines this century often came on sites where fruit trees prospered last century. But there are also previously untried plots turning out marvelous wines.

That odd jogger, painfully recalling last night’s 1954 and 55 Wynns Coonawarra Estate Clarets – not to mention the Cognacs – finds it hard to spot the differences in the lie of the land. Heading north for several kilometres on the main road out of Coonawarra, vineyards either side spring from a red soil (‘terra rossa’) liberally sprinkled with varying size chunks of white limestone, presumably dragged to the surface during cultivation.

Had the jogger continued a few more kilometres and not turned back to his motel room, he may have noticed that the cloud enveloping southern Coonawarra and the town of Penola was not to be seen in the north.

Vic Patrick, vineyard manager for Mildara and previously with Wynns – two of the biggest vineyard owners in the area – believes this cloud cover makes a big difference between Coonawarra’s northern and southern vineyards. In an interview during winter, 1990, he expressed the view that while cabernet seemed to do well north or south, shiraz did not. He believed that cloud cover in southern Coonawarra in the vicinity of Penola prevented shiraz from ripening properly.

Presumably the cabernet, an earlier ripening variety, reaches maturity before cloud cover becomes a problem.

Peter Douglas, Chief Winemaker at Wynns Coonawarra Estate, spends a great deal of time in the vineyard at this time of year walking up and down rows, tasting grapes. He believes in chemically analysing grapes to help determine the best picking times but his own palate is the final judge. And he, too, notes the big north-south differences identified by Patrick.

A few hours driving, walking, and tasting in Coonawarra’s vineyards with Douglas demonstrated what huge flavour differences exist from block to block. While we stuck only to shiraz and cabernet, I’m sure similar variety exists amongst any grape type grown in the area.

Douglas took us to the vineyards after a lunchtime question as to the source of grapes for Wynns top-of-the-line John Riddoch Cabernet – an amazingly powerful and concentrated red described in last week’s column. Douglas had been asked if John Riddoch was simply the cream of the cabernet grapes from Wynns quite vast Coonawarra holdings or whether it was derived from a particularly favoured spot.

His answer was yes to both questions. Yes, John Riddoch comes from the cream of the crop but, in fact, most of that comes from the same few plots each year. The chief one, he said, contained the oldest Cabernet vines in Coonawarra, having been planted by David Wynn after founding Wynns in 1951

That vineyard came as a surprise after passing others rampant with leaves and tendrils and drooping with huge, purple grape bunches. Vines on the original Wynn block appeared stunted and less vigorous. Grape bunches were sparser, the bunches smaller, and even the berries themselves quite tiny. But the flavours, although the grapes were yet several weeks from harvest, were of rich cassis.

Douglas explained there were many factors accounting for the unusual flavour intensity of these grapes. The soil was shallow and well drained and the vines so lacking in vigour that yields limit themselves to around half a tonne an acre…an accountants night mare unless the resulting wine can fetch $30 a bottle.

The site is in northern, sunny Coonawarra. And as Douglas points out it straddles the main limestone ridge which gives its name to the adjoining Lindeman Vineyard which makes another of the area’s top-notch reds.

Just seven kilometres south of the Wynns Coonawarra Estate vineyard we tasted cabernet from lusher looking vines. Douglas estimated these grapes at perhaps two degrees Baume less ripe than the ones we first tasted…and sure enough a green herbaceousness came through in the flavour. But to the eye we were in the same place…hard to believe seven kilometres could make so much difference.

Short as the distance was, Douglas said harvest would be two weeks later there than seven kilometres up the road.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1992 & 2007