A ridge too far. St Marys vineyard is

The Mulligan and Hooper families established St Mary’s Vineyard, 15 kilometres due west of Coonawarra, in 1986. Now 20 hectares of vines flourish on an 80-hectare plot of the same terra rossa soil that marks the very best red-wine producing vineyards in Coonawarra.

Without wanting to be, Barry Mulligan finds himself embroiled in the controversy over where Coonawarra’s boundaries lie — an issue that must be resolved for the name to be used on wines exported to the EC.

Barry writes, “Having lived all my life in the Penola/Coonawarra area, I have a clear understanding of where Coonawarra starts and finishes and consequently have never considered St Mary’s to be part of Coonawarra Geographically.”

Like Brian Croser with his Sharefarmer’s vineyard, though, Barry Mulligan was not happy to be excluded while vineyards further from Coonawarra township than his own were included in the 1984 and 1991 definitions of viticultural Coonawarra.

The definition was a crude one, defined as the area within the ‘hundreds’ of Comaum and Penola. (‘Hundreds’ are survey boundaries, 10 miles square). Hence, Coonawarra was supposedly twenty miles long by ten miles wide. In fact, only about five per cent of the area was planted to vines, most of those clustered along a 15 kilometre strip heading north from Penola.

With his exclusion from Coonawarra, Barry applied to the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation (AWBC) “for the registration of the viticultural region of Penola.” The application was accepted and the St Mary’s labels bore the appellation ‘Penola.’

Well, they did until a legal opinion pointed out a few anomalies: the town of Penola was not in the proposed region but in Coonawarra; Coonawarra township was in the Penola District Council area; and the ‘hundred’ of Penola was part of viticultural Coonawarra. This muddied the water and the idea of a viticultural region of Penola evaporated.

Under legislation recently passed in Federal Parliament, the AWBC, through its Geographic Indications Committee (GIC), has power to set regional boundaries. St Mary’s has now put its case to the committee.

Meanwhile, Ian Hollick, Chairman of the local viticultural council, says the recently formed GIC cannot make up its mind and has written back to the legislators asking for better criteria. The can of worms is now fully open.

The complexity of using place names in wine labelling has a life beyond new legislation and may finally be resolved not by the AWBC but by the courts as Trade Practices and common law issues are brought to light by aggrieved parties.

That’s a pity, really, as we drinkers all know what Coonawarra is: a bloody good red wine made from cabernet sauvignon, shiraz, or a blend of the two, with a distinctive richness and elegance and sourced from the red soil along the main road.

Coonawarra-attuned taste buds applied to Barry Mulligan’s St Mary’s reds are completely happy. The aroma, flavour, and structure connections are unmistakable.

What we see is that peculiarities of climate and soil making Coonawarra so distinctive are not so different 15 kilometres to the west at St Mary’s. Coonawarra may sit on a 700,000-year-old-limestone lagoon, but St Mary’s, on a fossilised limestone dune, probably one ice age younger than the Coonawarra formation, enjoys a similar climate and similar terra rossa soil. (Terra rossa is not just a literal term, but a geological term for red soil composed of weathered limestone).

No doubt there are differences between the two sites and they will be more fully appreciated as the years go by, just as we now know the differences amongst the various communes of Bordeaux despite an over-riding similarity.

I’ve visited St Mary’s and enjoyed its rugged, limestone-strewn slopes after the flatness of Coonawarra and tasted several vintages of reds and whites both there and back in Canberra.

St Mary’s House Block Cabernet ($23 odd), the flagship, is simply magnificent — both 1991 and 1992 vintages — big, rich, elegant reds for long-term cellaring. They really are hard to separate, in general terms from good Coonawarras.

The standard cabernet ($15 to $17) was excellent in 1991, perhaps even better in 1992, perhaps reflecting more mature vines (the vintage, generally, was not as good), perhaps reflecting the afterglow of a bottle consumed as I write.

As for the whites, I’ve yet to encounter one from the area that bears any great individual thumbprint as the reds do. But the just-released 1993 chardonnay shows a way above average richness of fruit flavour, cleverly mingled with oak.

Still, the main game is the reds. And I reckon Barry Mulligan, by his unique location, has an advantage over most Australian vignerons. He shouldn’t really worry too much about the name. As they say, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.