Padthaway and Coonawarra in vintage 1993

Vignerons in Coonawarra hardly believe their own good luck. The fourth successive outstanding vintage now sits in tanks and casks in a region normally prone to wide quality variations from year to year – including about two real duds every decade.

The news from Padthaway, about eighty kilometres to the north, is perhaps even better, with white wines this year better than anyone I visited remembered in the district’s twenty-five year viticultural history.

Just how good the vintage turns out in these areas can’t be gauged properly until next spring when malolactic fermentations finish. (The new wines are high in malic acid, more so this year than usual. After primary fermentation ends, winemakers inoculate wines to induce malolactic fermentation. Malic acid is converted to lactic acid, total acidity diminishes, and pH rises, effecting aroma, flavour, and structure of the wine).

Even then, the merits of the reds will be debated for decades. But the superior quality of the whites seems to be in no doubt. Winemakers at Rymill Estate, Wynns, Lindemans, Hollicks, and Leconfield – taking in both the north and south of Coonawarra – were unanimously excited.

This is the first vintage they can recall where white wines were not in need of acid adjustment – a rare thing in Australian wine making where a hefty dose of tartaric acid gives most of our wines zip and life to balance high alcohol levels. The long, cool ripening that left grapes with such healthy natural acidity, also delivered wonderful, rich fruit flavours.

I tasted a good representation of Coonawarra and Padthaway whites at both the Rouge Homme and Wynns wineries. Both wineries belong to the Penfold Wine Group, largest vineyard holder in both districts, and which between them crush and ferment the group’s entire grape output from the region.

It’s hard not to be impressed with the quality, even of secondary material headed for the $2.99 a bottle Matthew Lang brand. Wynns’ wine maker, Peter Douglas, smiled as we approved a very tasty, crisp rhine riesling from a 100,000 litre tank. I don’t know how competitors here or overseas can ever match this sort of quality at the price.

Then there was the soft, rich, and delicious chardonnay, in a similarly large tank, headed for the modestly priced Lindemans Bin 65 Chardonnay. Word has it the blend for this export champion will reach 6 million litres from the 1993 vintage. And with components of the quality tasted in Coonawarra going into it, little wonder the Americans love it so dearly.

And so on it went, working up through tanks and barrels earmarked for the very top brands… fine, intense aromas, rich, concentrated flavours, and quite tight, firm structures imparted by high natural acids. Across all varieties… rhine riesling, semillon, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, verdelho, and chardonnay… Coonawarra and Padthaway hit the jackpot in 1993.

Chief wine maker for Seppelts (part of the Penfolds Wine Group), Ian McKenzie, confirmed these impression on a visit to Canberra this week. He said Padthaway whites, overall, get the highest ranking he’s seen.

While everyone sees 1993 reds as very good, opinions vary as to how good. At Rymill Estate in the north of Coonawarra, wine maker John Innes, over a barrel sample of 1993 Cabernet says it is “perhaps even better than the 1990.” That and 1993 shiraz showed sensational depths of rich, ripe, sweet fruit flavours.

Surveying his quite vast selection of tank and cask red samples at Wynns, Peter Douglas rates the vintage as outstanding, but not quite of the very first order like the 1986 and 1990.

A few kilometres south Ralph Fowler of Leconfield, cannot contain his excitement about the vintage. In March where they wondered if the grapes would ever ripen, a long, mild, sunny spell saved the day. His best cabernet, from the front 20 rows of vines planted by old Sydney Hamilton in the late seventies, show all the power, richness and elegance that makes Coonawarra our only world-class cabernet area.

Ralph has a few more tricks up his sleeve as we see in tanks of merlot and cabernet franc, produced as blenders to enhance cabernet sauvignon. I’m convinced judicious blending of these varieties will lift Coonawarra’s reds another notch.

Still, it will be some years before we drink these lovely 1993 Coonawarras. In the meantime, one red, to be released in October this year, according to wine maker Greg Clayfield, struck me as sensational – another world-class Coonawarra. Lindemans St George Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 1990 is powerful, elegant, and destined for greatness with long-term cellaring. Don’t miss this one when it’s released.