Coolangatta Estate leads the way on Shoalhaven Coast

The Shoalhaven Coast wine region website lists 15 wineries. They stretch about 130 kilometres by road, from Yarrawa Estate, Kangaroo Valley, in the north, to Bawley Estate, at Bawley Point, to the south.

That’s a reasonably big stretch of coastal land, covering almost a degree of latitude (34˚37’ to 35˚31 south, says Google Earth). But as winemaking regions go, it’s small, totalling, by my estimate, around 70–80 hectares of vines.

With temperature the main driving force behind the physical development of vines and grape ripening, the local climate, aided at the margins by human intervention, decides what varieties succeed and fail.

At first glance, Shoalhaven’s latitude (about three degrees north of Coonawarra, for example) might suggest a home for reds like cabernet sauvignon and shiraz. But in fact, the region’s significantly cooler than Coonawarra during the ripening season. As a result whites, in general, fare better than reds, which struggle in most seasons.

Coolangatta Estate’s Greg Bishop sees parallels between Shoalhaven and the lower Hunter Valley, to the north. Shoalhaven’s grapes ripen about three weeks later than the Hunter’s, but humidity and summer rainfall present almost identical challenges in the vineyard.

It’s a hard place to grow grapes”, says Bishop. But constant vineyard work generally overcomes the disease pressure created by moisture. “In the early days, Dr Richard Smart helped us, especially with canopy management”, he says. Open canopies maximise air circulation, helping the vines and fruit to dry out – aided by daily sea breezes. They also help sprays penetrate the vines.

The right spray regime, says Bishop, protects against mildew and botrytis cinerea. And tilling v-shape furrows between vine rows diverts water quickly away from the vineyard, further reducing disease pressures.

Bishop’s vigilance makes Coolangatta Estate the region’s dominant producer in quality and quantity – and the only one to date to stand up in any company, among those I’ve tasted. It’s also a consistent winner of trophies (130 to date) and medals at Australia’s top wine shows.

At the 2011 Canberra Regional Wine Show, for example, Coolangatta entered 13 wines and won nine medals, including golds for its 2009 tempranillo (reviewed today) and 2006 semillon.

Bishop rates semillon as best of the estate’s varieties by a wide margin. And given its outstanding show success, he wonders why it’s not more widely grown in the region.

I’ve tasted many vintages of these semillons over the last decade in wine shows and at the dinner table. They’re lovely, low in alcohol, capable of prolonged ageing and very similar in style to those from the Hunter – that is, austere and lemony when young and developing mellow, honeyed flavours with age.

To some extent, the style’s driven by the Hunter connection – as Tyrrell’s, Australia’s semillon masters, makes all of the Coolangatta wines. But Tyrrell’s are merely custodians of the fruit – the source of the wine flavour. Clearly, what Coolangatta grows is very good.

However, the more widely adopted verdelho “comes in every year”, says Bishop. Indeed, Coolangatta Estate 2011 ($22) and Cambewarra Estate’s 2010 ($23), tasted for this article, offer pleasant drinking – with Coolangatta comfortably ahead.

Chardonnay also performs well and a couple in our tasting looked OK – Silos Estate Wild Ferment 2010, reviewed today, and Cambewarra Estate Unwooded Chardonnay 2010 ($24).  Neither of these, however, matches the ones I’ve tried from Coolangatta Estate.

Coolangatta recently planted what it believed to be the Spanish white variety, albarino. But the variety (misidentified across Australia and, in fact, savagnin) performed consistently well in its first four vintages, 2009 to 2012. Bishop sees a good future for the variety in Shoalhaven.

Judges at the 2010 Canberra regional show, support Bishop’s view. They wrote that Coolangatta Estate Savagnin 2010, “had lovely bright fruit with depth of flavour and should be received with some excitement in the region”.

While reds in general struggle to ripen, a few varieties get there and newcomer tempranillo looks exciting. The Coolangatta 2009 reviewed today drinks beautifully – and deserves the gold medals and trophies won in the Canberra and Kiama regional wine shows. Bishop said he planted it because as an early ripener it stood a chance in the cool region.

Coolangatta and other producers in the area grow another early ripening red, chambourcin. This French-American hybrid has the advantage of being resistant to fungal disease; and the disadvantage of making plain wine, in my experience. However, consumers love it both as a red and rosé, says Bishop, partly perhaps because of its novelty.

Bishop also favours tannat, a tannic red variety, for its ability to ripen quickly and fully and, because of its loose bunches and thick skins, resistance to fungal disease. He says, “it has a lot of potential, and Tyrrell’s love it”. The current release Coolangatta 2009 has three gold, eight silver and seven bronze medals to its credit.

Although Coolangatta Estate planted vines in 1988 and Silos Estate three years before that, the Shoalhaven Coast lacks the maturity of a region like Canberra. Canberra’s maturity arrived over the last decade as all the threads spun over forty years finally came together – throwing up shiraz and riesling as regional specialties and achieving a critical mass of high quality vignerons.

Shoalhaven straddles the important Princes Highway tourist route and, at the moment, its tiny, fledgling wine industry seems more plugged into tourism than wine, per se. That’s a good start. But it’ll only be taken seriously as a wine region as the number of really high quality producers, like Coolangatta Estate, grows.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2012
First published 30 May 2012 in The Canberra Times