Coonawarra discoveries and myths debunked

Visiting and phoning Coonawarra gathering information for the last few weeks’ articles on the boundary debate, a few myths were debunked by locals. As well, after comprehensive tastings of Coonawarra reds last year, and a visit to the area in May, I reckon there’s a rising new star in Peter Riddoch Rymill’s ‘Riddoch Run’ vineyard.

One myth currently doing the rounds, fanned by Australia’s best-known wine writer, James Halliday, is that the marvelous Wynns Michael Hermitage derives its immense concentration of fruit flavour from a wine making technique known as ‘juice run off’.

Was it Voltaire who said, “Just because facts are ignored does not mean they cease to exist.”? In this case, Halliday, and lesser scribes mimicking him, simply ignore the facts, or don’t bother to find out what they are in the first place. Visit the winery, taste the latest vintage of Michael out of new oak barrels, talk to the wine maker, and careful fruit selection – not wine maker interference – emerges as the source of flavour.

Juice run-off’, says wine maker Peter Douglas, gives tannin and colour but not flavour. It involves running off juice from a fermenter so that the ratio of skins to liquid increases. As all of a red wine’s colour and most of its tannin comes from the skins, the process results in densely coloured, very tannic reds with very little fruit flavour.

The reason for the latter is that the juice that’s run off is the first and easiest portion to be extracted from grapes. It happens to be the highest in sugar (which is where the alcohol comes from) and the richest in flavour.

Douglas says Wynns experimented with juice run off in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s but were not happy because it resulted in the loss of berry flavours. He admits that the company’s flagship red, John Riddoch Cabernet, was made this way in 1984. It is a good wine, still going strong, but lined up against the other John Riddochs, it is the weakest.

None of the company’s top wines have been made using juice run off since then. “The answer to richness is ripeness”, Douglas told me. The top wines, John Riddoch Cabernet and Michael Hermitage, are made from the ripest, tastiest grapes coming into the winery. Invariably these come from low-yielding old vines on shallow terra rossa soil over limestone.

Another myth living on is that Coonawarra’s big producers (and the rumour-mongers invariably point the finger at the Penfolds Wine Group) vastly over crop their vineyards. Nothing could be further from the truth.

David Murdock, Penfold’s viticulturist in Coonawarra, believes there was a great deal of over cropping, particularly by Wynns when it was owned by Allied Vintners, in Coonawarra in the late 1970’s. But it backfired. Accountant s might have liked the idea of harvesting 15 tonnes of red grapes from every hectare, but nature failed to oblige.

David says that at those crop levels, grapes simply don’t ripen beyond a potential alcohol of 10 per cent and make feeble, light-coloured wines indeed. We saw Coonawarra’s like this in the 70s and they were widely rejected by consumers.

These days Coonawarra’s serious makers (and that’s almost everyone) manage vineyards for quality. And that means ripeness. Thus, Murdoch says his group aims for overall red yields in the vicinity of 10 tonnes to the hectare. At this level, grapes come in with an alcohol potential of 13 to 13.5 per cent. He says some parts of the vineyard give slightly higher yields, and others as low as 4 tonnes to the hectare.

Murdoch’s experience fits with Australian Bureau of Statistics figures which show for the 1992 vintage an overall yield for Coonawarra of 11.7 tonnes per hectare for shiraz and 9.4 tonnes for cabernet sauvignon.

This modest yield delivers the great, wonderful mouthfuls of rich fruit flavours that sets Coonawarra apart. And while there are so many excellent wines being made there, I was struck by the superb fruit quality in wines being made from Peter Riddoch Rymill’s Riddoch Run vineyard.

The 100-hectare vineyard lies on a terra rossa outcrop towards the northern end of Coonawarra to the west of the main road. Peter sells three quarters of his 1,000 tonne output to Orlando and puts the rest through his own efficient little winery.

Wine maker John Innes captures the spectacular fruit flavours brilliantly. Just taste Rymill Riddoch Run 1991 shiraz and cabernet and see what I mean. The shiraz in particular stands out. I think what we see here is a rare, wonderful and unique vineyard site. Perhaps it’s more evidence that the very finest reds, especially shiraz, come from the northern end of Coonawarra.