Coonawarra Boundary controversy

Langhorne Creek, Coonawarra, and Canberra have something in common. If viticulturally disparate, their winemakers and grape growers are the last in Australia to define regional boundaries for agreements shortly to be signed between Australia, the EC and the U.S.A..

The agreements culminate three years of negotiations on the terms of entry of Australian wines into these potentially huge markets. The Americans and Europeans insist that if regional names are to be used in conjunction with our wines, then boundaries must be defined clearly.

The onus of definition was passed by the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation, a party to the bi-lateral negotiations, to state and regional wine-maker and grape-grower groups. This resulted in the definition of about 380 regions, with only the three named above still embroiled in controversy as the signing date approaches.

By far the most important of the three, in terms of quality, economic value and Australia’s image overseas is Coonawarra, the narrow strip of vineyards running north for 15 kilometres from Penola in the southeastern corner of South Australia.

It produces around 20,000 tonnes of grapes a year, the equivalent of 1.5 million dozen 750 ml bottles. Only 80 kilometres up the road, on a similar geological formation, Padthaway produces slightly more again than Coonawarra.

Between them, these two areas produce just under 10 per cent of Australia’s wine. But by my reckoning, the combined output of 3.3 million cases a year amounts to almost a third of Australia’s 10.9 million case output of table and bottle-fermented sparkling wine in 750 ml bottles. If it were possible to separate premium from ordinary wine in those figures, my guess is that the region’s input might be as much as fifty per cent.

A good part of the southeast’s output disappears into multi-regional blends including some of our more glamorous sparkling wines. But for premium-quality reds and whites, considerable value attaches to the name Padthaway and, in the case of reds, even more to Coonawarra.

This is what regional definition finally gets down to: people grow grapes and make wine in an area. The wines show distinctive characteristics. With time those characteristics become associated with the name of the area. The area planted expands. In effect the wine style defines the region. But at what stage should expansion stop. What are the limits to the area that makes the distinctive style of wine? These are questions only adequately answered over a considerable period of time.

Formal definitions of distinctive areas are to some extent based on historic performance. Burgundy with its myriad little vineyard names is a great example of that. But for newer, and especially rapidly expanding areas like the southeast, there is far less performance and information on which to base boundaries.

At the heart of it, boundaries are to protect consumers. The wine drinker expects certain things from a regional denomination and should get it. But boundaries also have profound economic consequences, affecting the value of existing interests as well as the pattern and extent of future investment.

In the case of Coonawarra those interests are substantial. By my estimate the capital value of vines and wineries total in excess of 100 million dollars. These assets are hard at work earning dividends for shareholders and export dollars for Australia.

July 18th, 1993

In the dispute over Coonawarra’s boundaries we drinkers are the final arbiters. We’re the ones handing over our money. In the long run, there’s a strong correlation between price and quality. We’ve all discerned the unique qualities of Coonawarra’s rich, elegant reds and paid a premium for them. We should now scream from the sidelines, urging the area’s grape growers and wine makers to be conservative with the boundary. Draw a tight line around this special little strip of vineyards. Don’t let any outsider persuade you otherwise.

Brian Croser, one of those in favour of a larger Coonawarra, said to me on a visit to his winery last year that Coonawarra would finally define itself with the wines it made. However, with the need to formally delimit the area to meet terms of entry requirements for the EC and USA, we have no choice but to act now. Doesn’t that mean defining Coonawarra by the wines it has made to date, not on what an expanded Coonawarra might do tomorrow?

Peter Rymill-Riddoch, descendent of last century’s pioneer Coonawarra grape grower, John Riddoch, kindly allowed me to read the geological chapter in his forthcoming book on Coonawarra. The fifteen-kilometre strip sits on a marine limestone deposit of an inter-dunal lagoon stranded in an ice age about 700,000 years ago.

Geologist David Farmer, after studying topographic maps of the area, believes Padthaway, 80 kilometres to the north, is on the same long-receded coastal formation. It seems, too, that the whole southeast, in a south-north arch from Mount Gambier to Padthaway and west to the coast, consists of a series of fossilised sand dunes and inter-dunal lagoons stranded as the ocean receded in successive ice ages.

Coonawarra is just one of numerous sites where marine limestone-deposits rise sufficiently for the soil to drain freely. Within the narrow confines of Coonawarra, soils vary considerably, but those producing the best red wines are the highest, best-drained locations where the soil has weathered to a red colour. This is the famous terra rossa. But even in Coonawarra terra rossa does not form a continuous strip. The planted area is a complex patchwork of red, brown, and black.

What no one disputes is that the many islands of terra rossa sprinkled across the whole southeast may make excellent wines. Already we’ve seen good results from some of these. By all accounts St Marys Vineyard, 15 kilometres west of Coonawarra, planted on an isolated pocket of terra rossa that Peter Rymill tells me is probably one ice age younger, makes wine with some of the ripe-berry flavours we see in Coonawarra. And for many years Koppamurra, further to the north, has made very good reds, sometimes regarded as Coonawarra.

Vic Patrick of Mildara Blass says there is unprecedented interest in grape growing in the area with planting under way south to Mount Gambier and right across to Cape Jaffa on the coast. His own company has 570 hectares of mainly terra rossa soil ready to plant to the north of Coonawarra. He is adamant that this is not and should never be called Coonawarra.

Part of the argument of those wanting a larger Coonawarra is that being on terra rossa soil should be the determinant. They point out that much of the present Coonawarra’s plantings are on non-red soil. But as Peter Rymill states, defining the present area by soil mapping would be prohibitively expensive. As well, it would be impracticable to throw out vineyards that are already in.

Coonawarra’s present boundaries are quite crude, having been defined by the Viticultural Committee of the South East in 1984 as the ‘hundreds’ of Penola and Comaum. Viticultural Coonawarra embraces only about 5 per cent of the land within the area and the vast majority of land remaining is simply not suited to grape growing.

There are some who would expand the boundaries and others who would see them tightened.

Naturally enough, established growers and makers along the main road want no extension of the area. In fact, the major players want the boundaries rained in to include only the cigar-shaped 15-kilometre strip enthusiasts know as Coonawarra.

Bruce Kemp, Chief Executive of Penfolds Wine Group, largest of Coonawarra landholders, told me his company took this view. This was repeated, too, by Vic Patrick speaking on behalf of Mildara Blass. Ian Hollick and other smaller growers I spoke to were in accord.

The loudest dissenting voice is that of Brian Croser of Petaluma, who envisages a larger Coonawarra. His company owns the Evans Vineyard within Coonawarra and the Sharefarmers vineyard just outside the current boundary.

As well, we have Messrs Mulligan and Hooper of St Marys vineyard, 15 kilometres to the west of Coonawarra but on similar soil types, searching for a regional name but not wanting to be part of Coonawarra.

Just what Coonawarra is seems a little blurry at the moment, but we should see the matter come to a head soon, perhaps in a surprising manner, as the legal implications move like a mist, blurring what seems straightforward. More next week on developments in our greatest red-wine producing area.