Cooper Coffman’s first Canberra vintage a bumper

The Cooper Coffman Wine Co leased the Kamberra winery at Watson shortly before vintage this year. By mid April, winemaker Martin Cooper and his young cellar team, mainly Kiwis, had crushed 2,800 tonnes of grapes – equivalent to about 210 thousand dozen bottles of wine.

They’re by far the biggest producer in Canberra and almost certainly the biggest producer of Canberra-grown wine, even if local fruit makes up just eight hundred tonnes of that 2,800 tonne total.

What brought Cooper Coffman to Canberra appears to have been not so much Canberra wine, but the availability of the former Hardy’s facility. It’s pure serendipity when a new wine company finds a vacant, state-of-the-art winery close to its existing grape interests. And it’s a bonus when the winery comes with substantial contract winemaking opportunities.

Hardy’s withdrew from Canberra, selling its interests to the Elvin Group at about the same time that Martin Cooper and Chris Coffman established Cooper Coffman Wine Co. In 2006 the new company purchased a wonderful old vineyard in the Eden Valley, South Australia, from Mark Hamilton.

The Canberra connection developed soon after. In June 2007, Cooper Coffman took over management of Foster’s 87-hectare Tralee vineyard at Tumbarumba, eventually buying the property in December. By this time Martin had also developed strong grape-grower connections in the Hilltops region. He had grapes galore but no winery.

Meanwhile the Elvin Group had the Kamberra wine brand, a winery and grapes from the former Hardy 83-hectare vineyard at Holt, but no winemaker.

A long-term lease gave Cooper Coffman the facility it needed to process its grapes from Tumbarumba, Hilltops and the Eden Valley. Elvin group had an accomplished maker to look after its fruit. And Cooper Coffman also secured a number of contract winemaking opportunities.

Cooper Coffman’s first vintage in Canberra processed five hundred tonnes of grapes from Tumbarumba; seven hundred tonnes from Hilltops; two hundred from the Eden Valley; eight hundred from Canberra, principally from the Elvin vineyard; and six hundred from ‘all over’, including Cowra, Heathcote Victoria, Watervale and the Southern Highlands.

While it’s a big winery for Canberra, Martin Cooper views Cooper Coffman as a ‘big, small-scale winemaker’ – a meaning that becomes clear as we taste barrel and tank samples of twelve different grape varieties from eight different regions. And that’s only part of what’s in the winery, much of it slowly ticking through the last stages of fermentation.

Apart from some larger scale processing for Pernod Ricard Pacific’s Cowra vineyards (for the Jacob’s Creek brand), it’s largely small-scale winemaking, with fermentations typically in batches of two-and-a-half, five or ten tonnes.

We taste few wines from Canberra. This simply reflects that fact that most of what’s been processed belongs to Elvin, not Cooper Coffman. But Martin describes viognier from the Holt vineyard as ‘absolutely superb’ and says that there were ‘some small parcels of very good early picked chardonnay’.

He has, however, made a shiraz viognier blend and a straight shiraz from the Wily Trout vineyard at Hall. These are in the elegant, supple, regional mould – the straight shiraz in particular showing a wonderful spicy, peppery varietal character.

Martin says that he’s setting up contracts now for future grape supplies from Canberra, focusing on shiraz and viognier.

From the cool, high-altitude Tumbarumba vineyard we taste chardonnay and pinot noir – the former in the taut, intense style, the latter finely structured and pure varietal. Chardonnay from this vineyard has a venerable, if little known track record as a component in Penfolds ‘white Grange’ project of the nineties and as source of the extraordinary 1996 Hungerford Hill Tumbarumba chardonnay; pinot has potential, if not runs on the board.

From Eden Valley we taste, from the 2008 vintage, taut, steely riesling from the Tscharke vineyard; ripe, soft, concentrated-but-elegant shiraz; an extraordinarily powerful but balanced cabernet sauvignon from the company’s Eden Road vineyard; and from the 2006 vintage a striking savoury/fruity very complex grenache from vines planted in the 1890s.

From Hilltops we taste several reds including some from Jason Brown’s Moppity Park Vineyard and Brian Mullany’s Grove Estate. There’s an impressive sweet-fruited-but-savoury sangiovese; and very promising nebbiolo – a difficult Italian red variety that’s often beautifully fragrant but unbearably hard and tannic. This one has the fruit to match the tannins at this stage.

One of Martin’s projects, based on long experience in the Hilltops region with McWilliams, is to make a red inspired by the so-called ‘super Tuscans’ – blends of Tuscany’s native sangiovese with one or other or both of the Bordeaux varieties, cabernet and merlot. He sees Hilltops cabernet as uniquely suited to blending with sangiovese. Perhaps the components are in barrels now in the Watson winery.

What we tasted recently were all components of blends that’ll come together over the coming months and years to emerge, ultimately, under various Cooper Coffman labels.

It’ll be a diverse range based partly on long-proven regional specialties like Eden Valley riesling, grenache and shiraz. But it’ll include as well emerging specialties like Canberra shiraz and viognier, Tumbarumba pinot noir and chardonnay and Hilltops shiraz and cabernet sauvignon.

We’ll see the first of the Cooper Coffman wines in a few weeks – the  $220 a bottle Eden Valley Eden Road V06 Shiraz 2006 and the $70 a bottle Two Trees Eden Road Eden Valley Grenache Shiraz 2006. I’ll review these in mid May.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2008