Brands of Coonawarra – a great Aussie vineyard

Remember Eric Brand’s Laira Vineyard Coonawarra wines — amongst the best reds to emerge from Coonawarra from the late sixties to mid seventies? Their elegant but strong flavours enjoyed a moment of glory before technical problems struck.

In the short time it took to re-establish quality, Brand’s had been upstaged by dozens of top Coonawarra reds and so, in the 80s and 90s, Brand’s was pushed well and truly to the background as Bowen Estate, Leconfield, Lindemans, Rouge Homme, Wynns, John Riddoch, Jamieson’s Run, Zema Estate, Katnook and others grabbed the limelight.

But being out of the limelight in no way diminishes the enduring quality of Brand’s wines. The very special quality of grapes from the Laira Vineyard, based on the unique location, ensures that over time Brand’s will be at the heart of Coonawarra as long as red wine is in demand.

In every high-quality wine-growing area in the world, classification of wine quality over time finally gets back to vineyard location — the most highly refined example being that of Burgundy, France where the official naming rights for wine start at Bourgogne (covering the whole region) and go down to quite tiny vineyards (eg: Le Montrachet and Le Chambertin) covering only a hectare or two. The point being that over centuries, despite the strengths and weaknesses of individual owners, specific sites have been observed to hold the key to high quality.

It will be no different in Australia. And in Coonawarra, whose wines have already made it one of the world’s very special vineyard sites, we are just beginning to glimpse site-related variations in quality: there is a distinctive Coonawarra style for both shiraz and cabernet-based red wines, and now we can see that northern Coonawarra reds differ from southern Coonawarra reds. Inevitably, the intensive cultivation of vines in Coonawarra will hasten the definition of which sites make the best wines.

If we look at a map of Coonawarra, we see Brand’s Laira Vineyard sitting in the middle of a particularly distinguished sector: adjacent and to the north its neighbours are Redmans and Lindemans St George Vineyards; to the west is a Southcorp vineyard, source of material for the sublime Wynns John Riddoch Cabernet; and to south the Rouge Homme and Lindemans Limestone Ridge Vineyards.

These are some of the earliest-planted sites in Coonawarra, Brand’s oldest vines, for example, were planted in 1896. As Lindeman wine maker, Greg Clayfield (from an old landed Coonawarra family) quipped, “they didn’t plant the worst land first.”

Finally, good vineyard sites define themselves by the quality of wine produced. And if we look at the Brand wines over the years we discern a distinctive style: the reds deliver rich but elegant Coonawarra berry flavours with a special sweet lift in the aroma and an exquisite delicacy on the palate.

The latter characteristic seems particularly true of a shiraz produced solely from the 1896 vineyard and released in recent years under Brands Original Vines Shiraz label. To me this is one of Coonawarra’s great and largely undiscovered reds, expressing as it does flavours unique to one small vineyard.

Since McWilliams bought a half share in Brand’s in 1990, I think I’ve detected a slight and welcome lift in the ripeness and fullness of the reds. On a visit to the winery a little over a year ago, Jim and Bill Brand (sons of the now retired Eric) took me through a range of vintages, including the 1993s, then maturing in casks.

I tasted an impeccable and exciting range of reds all showing the Coonawarra and Laira Vineyard thumbprints. (Try Laira Cabernet, Shiraz, or Cabernet Malbec from any recent vintage and see what I mean.). One of the reds tasted from barrel that day, a 1993 Cabernet, for instance, has just been released and delivers all its early promise.

Last year McWilliams moved to full ownership of Brands at the same time acquiring a further 200 hectares of Coonawarra land. I’ve not visited this new vineyard site, but I have seen a new 100-hectare vineyard McWilliams was developing jointly with the Brand family in 1993. It was to the west of the railway line, well removed from the original Laira Vineyard.

On behalf of red wine drinkers I ask McWilliams chief, Kevin McKlintock to keep wines from the new vineyards separate from those made off the original 27 hectare Laira Vineyard. These wines are too good to dilute, and with time you’ll get good money for them as the world realises how special they are.