Tasting Coonawarra

By any measure, Coonawarra is an extraordinary wine-growing region. Its broad acres produce annually more than 20,000 tonnes of grapes, about two thirds red, one third white. Its reputation, though, springs solidly from elegant reds produced there since late last century.

For most of its vinous history, however, Coonawarra sent its reds away for blending. The region’s modern history, and its wide reputation with wine drinkers, springs from the establishment of Wynns Coonawarra Estate by David Wynn in the early 1950’s.

Since then the area’s expanded rapidly, mainly at the hands of Australia’s biggest wineries, but with a significant presence of smaller and middle-sized operators. Many others not physically present in the area nevertheless make outstanding Coonawarra reds by buying from contract growers.

The area’s flatness and high water table are the wine drinker’s greatest friend. Flatness allows an ease of vineyard management through mechanisation of tilling, spraying, pruning and harvesting. And the prolific underground water supply means not only moisture for sun-stressed vines in the dry summer, but frost protection through overhead spraying in spring.

A large part of Coonawarra’s unique, elegant fruit flavours derive from the climate: as Australia’s southernmost major aggregation of vines it enjoys a long, comparatively cool ripening period. By the time red grapes are harvested in March and April, they have an intensity of flavour but higher natural acidity and lower pH then those grown in our mainly warmer regions. These are characteristics winemakers say make wines of greater flavour intensity, fragrance, longevity, and elegance.

Historically, Coonawarra’s greatest reds come from the northern end of a narrow strip of shallow ‘terra rossa’ soil overlying a limestone reef. However, patches of these well-drained soils are sprinkled widely through the immediate largely boggy terrain. Thus, despite local winemakers having thrown a formal boundary around ‘Coonawarra’, the jury – the world’s red wine drinkers – is still out on exactly where the limits should be.

Without doubt in my mind, Coonawarra’s average quality of red stands above that of any other Australian region. In fact, it’s difficult to think of any region in the world whose average quality is so high. I think what we are seeing in Coonawarra today are the fruits of a particularly favoured growing area being combined with advanced vineyard management and winemaking skills.

In tasting thirty eight Coonawarras this week, I saw amongst a myriad of winemaker styles a common thread running through reds that ranged from simple good value drinking to some that are amongst the most profound being made in Australia today.

That common thread is a delightful cherry-like fragrance and a most delicious, fine, delicate fruit flavour. Finally, each winemaker puts his or her own thumbprint on a wine, but in masked tastings of wines from one region, the first thing perceived (frustrating when you’re looking for differences) are the similarities. In the case of Coonawarra, the common bond turned out to be very strong.

Beneath the surface, though, every wine turned out to be an individual. And in awarding scores out of twenty for these thirty eight wines just as in our show system, we three very experienced judges proved our own fallibility and highlighted some of the dilemmas of judging raised in last week’s column.

With so few objective criteria in wine judging, any notion of a wine having some fixed value in points is nonsense. The more I taste and evaluate, the more ridiculous seem the ever-so-earnest claims of some commentators to award wines points on a fixed scale out of 100.

As we concluded after our Coonawarra tasting. – a single region and only thirty-eight wines – a one hundred point scale could barely cover the scope of qualities we saw. Yet some commentators claim to be able to compress all the wines of the world into this scale. Even if any one palate were keen enough to make such fine distinctions, surely the results would be valid only if they could be reproduced consistently. They cannot.

Even Australia’s best show judges give a wine 19 points and a gold medal in one show, and 13.5 points and no medal in another show a week later.

In our little tasting we put one wine, Wynns Coonawarra Cabernet 1989, in two separate line-ups. I gave it 14.5 points in one, and 17.0 in the other. Both other judges made the same mistake. Which simply shows that our perception of a wine varies according to the circumstances.

Nevertheless, there is, I believe a need for critical evaluation of wines, and there are valid conclusions to be drawn about the relative merits of wines. But they are far more subtle than putting a fixed number on each product. More on this and the lovely Coonawarras next week.

October 4th, 1992

The shortcomings of wine judging have been discussed in this column over the last few weeks. Despite the pitfalls and errors inherent when so few objective criteria are available, from a consumer’s point of view, it’s important the judging and opinion making goes on.

I can’t think of any other product undergoing as much public scrutiny as wine. The glare of lights and constant dissection contribute to the amazingly high quality we enjoy today. The show judging system in particular keeps makers at a high level of competitiveness constantly throwing a spotlight on wines that are not up to scratch.

Even if results from show to show reveal inconsistencies in judging, all that means for the consumer is to take any single result with a grain of salt. In the long run, the best wines keep rising to the top. And, no matter what the experts say, the final judge is the consumer.

Over a very long period of time the price drinkers pay for a wine is a fair indicator of quality. Thus, the safest buys are wines with long pedigrees and constantly high auction prices. In the short term though…and this applies especially when we’re looking for something new and exciting…the price asked by a maker is not necessarily a reflection of a wine’s comparative quality.

Since we’re so often in the position of having to buy without tasting, expert opinion has its role. Look for wines rating highly amongst numerous commentators and in many wine shows. Finally, no matter how revered a wine is, it’s no good if it’s not to your taste. And always buy a bottle and drink it before getting a case for the cellar. If it doesn’t pass the bottle test, move on to something else.

Now, back to those lovely Coonawarra reds tasted last week.

Just as in Australian wine shows it was a masked tasting (we knew we were tasting Coonawarras, but all we had in front of us were numbered glasses. The bottles were out of sight). After assessing the wines we compared scores out of twenty for each wine. Where there was a disparity, we discussed the wine while re-tasting it.

Now that’s the point at which show judging usually stops. Judges scores are tallied after the discussion and the aggregate determines awards: 46.5 to 50.5 bronze; 51 to 55 points silver; and 55.5 points and above gold.

In our smaller, private tasting we had time to take things two revealing steps further. Having scored the wines, we next unmasked the bottles and re-examined each in light of its price. After all, a $10 wine rated one point below a $20 may be extraordinary value-for-money.

The second extra step, and casual drinkers will see the sense in it, was to re-cork the wines for re-appraisal the next day. All wine collectors are familiar with the problem of loving a wine on the strength of a quick sip taken with the winemaker but finding little charm in the dozen lugged home in the boot.

This highlights one of the dilemmas of wine judging and tasting: you can’t really know a wine until you’ve drunk it. Sipping and spitting are just not the same. As well, very high quality young reds built for long-term cellaring take a long time to reveal all their hidden depths and complexities. Thus tasting and re-tasting over a few days unveils the real champions more reliably than one quick tasting.

Our tasting threw up a couple of gems. Wynns John Riddoch Cabernet 1988 rose quickly to the surface and stayed there over the days the bottles were re-examined. There simply isn’t any questioning the power and elegance of this wine as vintage after vintage it wins trophies and golds in Australia as well as high praise overseas.

Contrasting with the sheer power of John Riddoch is Petaluma Coonawarra 1988. It’s a wine always easy to identify in blind tastings (unfortunately, because the judge is instantly biased) because of its extraordinary crimson colour – a hallmark of Brian Croser’s fanatically anaerobic approach to winemaking. The fruit flavours are extraordinarily concentrated and, though four years old, the wine tastes as if it’s barely out of the fermenter. It requires long cellaring and, strangely enough, I believe its absolute purity of fruit flavour will make it another controversial Petaluma red. It’s good and it’s distinctive, but there will be those who simply don’t like the style; others will love it.

There were other individual wines, in my view not rising quite to the level of John Riddoch or Petaluma, but still with their own individual accents as well as a whole band of outstanding value reds as well. These will be discussed next week.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1992 & 2007