Cooper Coffman moves into Kamberra Winery

Kamberra’s state-of-the-art winery, abandoned by Hardy Wine Company a year ago, might have become a white elephant. Instead, both the winery and the Kamberra wine brand are to live on under Canberra’s Elvin Group.

The group bought the Watson winery and tourism complex and 83-hectare Holt vineyard last year. But speculation about the fate of the Kamberra brand, winery and vineyard persisted until Cooper Coffman Wine Company made Kamberra its home this week.

Under a long-term lease arrangement, Cooper Coffman is to make Kamberra branded wines for Elvin as well as its own wines and wines under contract to local grape growers.

With the capacity to process 2,200 tonnes of grapes (equivalent to about 165 thousand dozen bottles of wine), Kamberra is by far the largest (and best-equipped) winery in the district – and the new owners plan to get it humming.

Winemaker Martin Cooper says that he established the business in 2006 with investment banker Chris Coffman, a hard-nosed wine nut with a taste for Aussie shiraz.

The trigger for Coffman, Martin said, was an experimental 2005 vintage Eden Valley-Heathcote shiraz, made during his time at McWilliams. With the blessing of boss, Jim Brayne, this was Martin’s shot at a top-end shiraz. It pushed Coffman’s buttons — and Jim’s too, it seems – as the wine made it into McWilliams flagship red blend, ‘1877’.

In 2006 Brayne again supported Cooper’s creative flair. This time he worked with only the Eden Valley shiraz component — sourced from a former Hamilton family vineyard planted in 1895. This one hasn’t been blended away, though, and is due of release in May as Cooper Coffman’s inaugural flagship red – Eden Road V06 Eden Valley Shiraz 2006.

Must be good, because in December 2006 the new company purchased the vineyard, located near Springton, from Mark Hamilton. It looks to be a gem and contains, as well as the old shiraz vines, grenache planted in the 1920s and riesling planted in 1971.

It also has a wonderful old gravity-fed winery, complete with jarrah fermentation vats, that hasn’t been used since 1982.

Martin’s work with McWilliams had also brought him into contact with fruit, wines and grape growers from the Tumbarumba district. He admits to having ‘jumped the fence’ at times to check the fruit on Southcorp’s (later Foster’s) 87-hectare Tralee vineyard there.

This is one of the oldest vineyards in the area and contains 26 individual blocks, spread over three major hill sites and varying in altitude from 650–750 metres above sea level.

Southcorp had bought the vineyards from founder Ian Cowell, one of the first people to recognise this cool region’s potential for growing sparkling wine. Cooper, though, seeing more potential for table wine on this ‘beautiful spot’, arranged to buy it and plans to focus on pinot noir and chardonnay – the dominant varieties on the site.

Cooper Coffman began managing the vineyard in June last year. And by the time they finalised its purchase from Foster’s in December the new vineyard manager, Michael Wildsmith, had already pulled out seven hectares of low-lying, frost prone vines and begun renovating what had been a ‘severely drought affected vineyard’.

They’ve renamed it Tumba Hills vineyard and plan, over the long term, to replant it to the best clones, make lots of individual-site batches and, ultimately, produce single-site pinot and chardonnay as well as across-the-site blends of both varieties.

While Cooper Coffman doesn’t own vineyards in the Hilltops region (Young), Martin knows growers with dry-grown cabernet sauvignon – source of robust reds with distinctive, gritty tannins. Martin sees another project in blending these with sangiovese – in the style of Italy’s so-called ‘super Tuscans’.

And from Canberra, the Cooper Coffman team has access to grapes from the large Holt vineyard – a potentially rich source of shiraz and viognier. Martin feels comfortable with this big Canberra commitment as the fruit can feed into their existing ‘Sydney Red’ and ‘Sydney White’ export brands.

The plan is to bring grapes from all of these areas to the Kamberra winery and to make, mature and bottle the wine on site. Elvin is even building additional barrel storage and warehousing space to accommodate it.

In the long run, Martin hopes, ‘the regions will speak for themselves’.

And for Canberra grape growers, Cooper Coffman offers a contract winemaking service for ‘those wanting to abide by our philosophy’, said Martin.

In short, what we now have in Canberra is a substantial winery committed to making and marketing top-end wines from three local regions – Canberra, Tumbarumba and Hilltops -– and from South Australia’s Eden Valley region.

Importantly for Canberra and the region, the winery changes from being a provincial outpost of an American-owned corporation to the headquarters of a vigorous, new local producer with an international focus.

But it could be a dry argument for a while as we’ll have to wait for the new wines to come on stream. The first of what promises to be a series of exciting regional specialties is due to start in  May with the release of Cooper Coffman’s Eden Valley flagship, Eden Road V06 Shiraz 2006. I’ll report back when it’s released.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2008