Plotting the Coonawarra shiraz spectrum

In Coonawarra, they used to say shiraz wouldn’t ripen south of V&A Lane – a dusty road, cutting the main north-south highway towards the southern end of the famous fifeteen kilometre ‘terra rossa’ strip.

Some disagree: Who can argue, for example, that Doug Bowen’s shiraz, from the Bowen Estate Vineyard – a kilometre south of V&A Lane and weighing in at around 14 per cent alcohol by volume – is unripe.

While for others the old adage rings true: Rosemount Estate, about two kilometres south of Bowen, recently dispensed with shiraz to reserve its precious Coonawarra soil for cabernet sauvignon. In a recent interview for this column, Rosemount General Manager, Chris Hancock, said that shiraz was just too difficult.

Then, abutting V&A Lane on the north, we have Majella Vineyard, producer of one of the most robust and loveliest Coonawarra Shirazes of all, and reputedly a past source of Wynns Coonawarra Estate Michael – Coonawarra’s most expensive shiraz and perhaps the most powerful as well.

Just two kilometres north west of Majella, both shiraz and cabernet sauvignon flourish in Lindemans Limestone Ridge vineyard. The velvety opulence of Limestone Ridge reds is generally attributed to the ripe, lush character of the shiraz component. But, hey, this is only two kilometres north of V&A Lane – and just 6 kilometres from Rosemount where they’re tearing shiraz out because it won’t ripen.

Confusing isn’t it? And this is flat country – I mean really flat, not a hill in sight so aspect can’t be the culprit – and yet a few kilometres this way or that creates notable differences in grape and, hence, wine flavours.

Skipping about 8 kilometres from Limestone Ridge to Coonawarra’s far north, we come to Peter Rymill’s vineyard and yet another expression of shiraz flavour.

Peter, a great grandson of John Riddoch (founder of the 1890s Coonawarra fruit colony and the region’s first grape grower) makes a solid, tannic shiraz of extraordinary richness and incredibly strong, peppery and sweet fruit flavours. Luckily, the Rymill label is comparatively new (Peter used to sell most of his grapes to other makers) and the wines can be found for $14-$16, which to me represents outstanding value in today’s market.

I visited Rymill’s wine maker, John Innes, at the winery in May and made this note on the currently available 1993 Shiraz: “Deep plum colour with crimson rim; powerful, peppery/spicy/pungent aroma with a ripe earthiness; huge, juicy, rich palate that’s peppery and opulently sweet – a powerhouse.”

Perhaps we can discern a Coonawarra flavour trend here: ranging from unripe in the far south to a lush, velvety softness just north of V&A Lane, to power and strength in the far north. Well, not quite. There’s more to the story.

Two kilometres north of the Limestone Ridge Vineyard, just behind Coonawarra ‘village’ some of the area’s oldest vines continue to make shiraz of strength but with an ethereal delicacy quite unlike anything from Limestone Ridge, Majella, Bowen or Rymill – any thought of a neat even spectrum of flavour, strengthening as we head north goes back to the mental blending vat.

In 1896, a Captain Stentiford planted vines on his property, named after the trading ship ‘Laira’. A plot of the original shiraz vines survives on the site, bought by Eric Brand in the 1960s (hence the label, Brands Laira Vineyard).

The Brand family sold an interest in the vineyard and winery to McWilliams in 1990 and McWilliams moved to full ownership in 1994. The expertise of McWilliams wine makers, Jim Brayne and Bruce Gregory gave a big fillip to Brand’s wines, which had shown early promise in the sixties and seventies, only to languish in the eighties.

Some of the earlier Brands Laira shirazes were sensational and established a reputation for the vineyard.

Those early wines combined fruit from both the 1896 vines and adjacent younger plantings. As young wines they displayed a unique fragrance and, while quite rich, there was always an elegance and tenderness to the fruit flavour.

During the 1980s, Brands began processing, and selling under a separate label, shiraz from the 1896 plantings. As a result, drinkers could glimpse the vineyard’s exceptional character in a particularly concentrated form. But a similar character shines through in the standard Brand’s Laira Shiraz.

On a frosty July evening at Chateau Shanahan, we opened the newly released 1994 vintage and thought it captured the whole spirit of what the French call ‘terroir’ – the combination of climate, soil, aspect and grape variety that stamps single vineyard wines with individuality.

Its flavours were all Coonawarra, but the fragrance and tender, juicy fruit flavours were all Brand’s Laira – a truly remarkable vineyard.