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Coonawarra -Australia’s closest Bordeaux cousin?

Coonawarra is touted as Australia’s closest Bordeaux cousin. But, asks claret lover MICHAEL SCHUSTER, can it do nuance of terroir, vintage variation and ageability?

When I first got to know Coonawarra Cabernets in the early 1980s, their terroir character could be described as a generic elegance within the Australian red wine context: a freshness of flavour along with minty/herbal telltales (all cooler climate characteristics), often with light but distinct ‘dusty’ aromas, and plenty of potential for class.

Remind you of anywhere?

‘Coonawarra’s advantage is still, cool nights and cold winds.’ So says Penley Estate’s Greg Foster, referring to the moderating influence of the glacial Southern Ocean, barely 50 miles away, a factor that persists in what is an increasingly warm climate.

I was reminded of this on the first evening of my brief visit in October last year. There was a gleaming full moon in a cloudless sky, and as the temperature sank to around zero, the night’s chilly embrace threatened the awakening vines, and had me reaching for a second duvet.

I had been invited back by the Coonawarra Vignerons Association to be part of a panel (with Sue Bell, former senior winemaker at Stonehaven, and Peter Gambetta, senior red winemaker at Yalumba) leading a blind tasting to celebrate the 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon based wines from both Coonawarra and Bordeaux.

The committee had chosen six 2005 Left Bank clarets and six 2005 Coonawarra Cabernets in different styles, from across the appellation. I was there as a ‘European palate with Bordeaux experience’. Our audience was a mixture of keen amateurs as well as professionals. We knew the identity of the 12 wines, but they had all been poured blind before we sat down.

We had about 50 minutes to taste and make notes, before there was an open discussion, with each member of the panel taking it in turns to comment on the wines. My notes are listed overleaf. It was easy enough to see and smell the different nationalities, and hard not to notice the farmyardy signature of Gruaud, or the combination of toasty oak and overall class of the Mouton.

Features that identified Coonawarra for me were their depth of colour, the seductively cassis-sweet aromas and fruit flavours, an overall generosity and weight on the palate, and the edgy-bright presence of added acid. Most importantly, though, I felt there was a pretty even distribution of quality – high quality – between the two regions, and, as a group, these were an attractively diverse expression of Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines, any one of which I would be happy to have in my glass.

This tasting came at the end of three days of visits in Coonawarra, which enabled me to rediscover the region after more than a decade away. I was reminded that Coonawarra does indeed still make lovely Cabernet Sauvignon, and that there is still, at least potentially, a clear sense of terroir to be found here.

I found a much wider range of styles than I had been aware of, saw that there are still distinct vintage variations, and was reassured that the best balanced wines continue to age beautifully – such a desirable quality in fine wines.

Unearthing terroir

From the 140 or so wines I tasted on this visit, those characteristics I recall from my first visit 25 years ago remain, although within a much greater range of styles. While it is not easy to assign differences of proportion and flavour to particular locations within the appellation, the differences are clear enough to taste.

Partly they reflect subtle variations in soil and climate. There is, for example, a two- to three-week maturity difference between thecooler southern end of the nine-mile- long region, its warmer eastern ‘bulge’, its centre and its northern extremity. Just as significant are the viticulturists’ hands and the winemakers’ palates, as much part of its terroir as Coonawarra’s limestone subsoil and western breeze.

As I tasted across the Coonawarra wineries, the frequent comparison with Bordeaux’s Left Bank often brought to mind three of its major communes: Margaux, St-Julien and Pauillac. Leconfield, Stonehaven, Redman, Highbank, Di Giorgio, Patrick T, Koonara offer a Margaux-esque style, light to medium-full Cabernets of redcurrant freshness, easy, flowing textures, moderate tannin, usually touched with capsicum and leafy aromas.

Wynns Black Label, Limestone Ridge, Hollick, Zema, Petaluma, Rymill: more St-Julien, richer midweight wines, somewhat firmer textures, stronger fruit cores, but still with their mint telltales. The Menzies, Penley Estate, Bowen and Brands Laira straddle this stylistic border with Pauillac, where the wines are larger scale with a dark, spicy, almost liquorice-black fruit, considerable concentration, and a marked, sinewy tannic structure. Murdock, Punters Corner, Parker, Balnaves, Katnook are more pure Pauillac.

All, of course, marked to a greater orlesser extent by vintage variation. You can’t take the comparison too far, but I found it moderately useful. I regard this variety of styles as a virtue and, while a bit of a conundrum, there are clearly fine, well balanced wines at both 13.5% and 15.5% from the same vintage.

But, given the fashion for dark, strong red wines, and the climatic conditions that render it increasingly easy to make them, I hope the ‘Margaux’ and ‘St-Juliens’ continue to make wines that reflect Coonawarra’s special, slightly cooler, more restrained identity. It would be a great pity to lose it.

Vintages and ageing

Vintage variation lies at the heart of our interest in fine wine regions (otherwise one is simply making the same thing year after year) and annual differences are stillmuch in evidence in Coonawarra. My thumbnail impressions of recent vintages, from talk and tasting were:

2006 Warm, low crop year; perfect for Coonawarra Cabernets, a more complete version of 2001?

2005 Early, hot year; rich, strong and structured, long-term wines. Some very great, some likely to remain bruisers.

2004 Late harvest, high yield; but where not overcropped, lovely, fresh and elegant wines. Classic Coonawarra.

2003 & 2002 I didn’t taste enough of these to form a useful impression.

2001 Big crop, high yield, but, as with 2004, a vintage that made for some fine, elegant Coonawarra Cabernets. I use the sweet, silky, berry-fruited 2001 Leconfield

as a benchmark Coonawarra Cabernet in my wine courses – to general delight.

2000 Like 2001, a vintage that bucked the generic Australian red-wine rating because there was no harvest rain.

The best of these were sweet, juicy, fleshy, harmonious wines, a real pleasure (try Bowen, Penley Reserve, Hollick Cab- Merlot and Ravenswood). While I admire the weightier Coonawarra styles, and the stronger vintages to taste (2005, 1998…), I continue to enjoy the less grand years to drink.

A point that was well illustrated by tasting three back-to-back pairs of Wynns Black Label Cabernet, with a ‘greater’ vintage next to a ‘lesser’ one. In each case, I felt that the later, ‘lesser’ vintage gave, or was likely to give, at least as much drinking pleasure as the more highly rated wine: a rich but somewhat rigid and abrupt 2003 next to a blackberry

ripe, fresh, stylish 2004; a ripe, concentrated, vigorous but still muscularly tannic 1996 next to a long, soft, juicily sweet and herbal tinged 1997; a densely rich but still sinewy and somewhat brisk and bony 1986 next to the willowy, leafy, fresh, red-fruit scented and elegant 1987.

Just one of many mature bottles that showed why it is worth cellaring these wines. Wynn’s also opened a bottle of 1959 – sweet, silky, gentle and scented; still bright eyed and vigorous at nearly 50. And I had a number of 1996 wines starting to show beautifully: Katnook, Balnaves, Punters Corner, Rymill.

At the end of the Coonawarra Cabernet weekend there was a dinner for the winemakers. It was a bright, clear evening and everyone was sipping outside in the sunny, shirtsleeve warmth.

Until the Southern Ocean began to remind us where we were – the westerly wind was persistent, penetrating and icy. I went and sat in the warmth of the sun’s rays inside. It was another gentle reminder of Coonawarra’s continuing ‘advantage’.

Coonawarra V Bordeaux: How I rated them:

Ch. Mouton-Rothschild, Pauillac 2005

(1st growth) ★★★★★ 19/20

13.5% alc; total acidity (TA) 4.5g/l*.

Marked toasty, cedary oak nose; rich,

elegantly balanced, medium-full wine;

supple, beautifully proportioned and

with super-fine, almost plush tannins;

prolonged, easy, graceful palate, ripe

Bordeaux Cabernet and gentle

minerality with superb length. Splendid.

2020–2040. £675; BBR

Ch. Léoville-Las-Cases, St-Julien 2005

(2nd growth) ★★★★ 18.5

13.1% alc; TA 5.0 g/l. Fine new oak-tinged

nose; rich, elegantly balanced, supple yet

fresh and finely tannic; long, gravelly

flavour, with plenty of subtle, complex

fruit in a firm, long-term balance; great

length. 2018–2040. £301.45; BBR

Parker Estate, 2005 ★★★★ 18

14.7% alc; TA 7.8g/l. A juicy cassis

character behind fine, dry oak nose; rich,

full-bodied wine with a firm sinew of

acidity and firm, refined tannin; long,

complex, generous, mouthcoating

flavour with superb length. Lovely grand

scale. 2020–2040. £36.50; Evy, TSW, WDi

Ch. Gruaud Larose, St Julien 2005

(2nd growth) ★★★★ 17.5

13.1% alc; TA 5.25g/l. Faintly farmyardy

nose; supple medium weight with a

fine, firm tannin; long, gently rich, easy

and subtle palate; lightly spicy, aromatic

and with excellent fruit on long finish.

Complex, refined. 2018–2035. £64.90; BBR

Flint’s, Gammon’s Crossing

Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 ★★★★ 17.5

(No figures supplied.) Sweetly ripe, mint

tinged fruit with a cassis core; beautiful

fruit with a firm tannic frame; long in

the mouth, subtle, spicy and with great

persistence. Potently impressive.

2018–2032. £15.99; OzW

Murdock, Cabernet Sauvignon 2005

★★★★ 17

15.5% alc; TA 7.3g/l. Sweet, herbal-tinged

nose; rich, ample, fleshy wine with a

brisk acidity and a firm, dry tannic

frame; long, ripe, juicy flavour, complex

and spicily persistent. A bit woody now,

but delicious, showy and fine.

2012–2022. N/A UK; +61 4 1348 4078

Yalumba, The Menzies

Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 ★★★★ 17

15% alc; TA 6.9g/l. Almost jammy cassis

nose; rich wine with a brisk acidity and

fine, firm tannins; abundant, juicy, ripe

blackberry fruit, a long, succulent core.

Powerful, classy wine, with the added

acid clear. 2018–2030. £24.84; WSo

Lindemans, Pyrus 2005 ★★★★ 16.5

13.5% alc; TA 6.6g/l. Elegantly balanced,

fairly concentrated wine; nice sweet

fruit within a bright added acid; good

length across the palate, and excellent

length, but the tannins still very dry.

2016–2026. N/A UK; +61 8 8737 2613

Pape-Clément, Pessac-Léognan 2005

(cru classé) ★★★★ 16.5

13.5% alc; TA 5.1g/l. Fine oak, overripe

fruit; nicely balanced, fresh, mid-weight,

stylish wine with a mineral-tinged fruit,

moderate complexity and good length;

but the wood tannin texture still very

dry. 2015–2025. £115; Far

Ch. Durfort-Vivens, Margaux 2005

(2nd growth) ★★★ 16+

12.6% alc; TA 5.4g/l. A moderately

concentrated midweight, initially

supple, but with a firm tannin and lively

acidity; graceful, even palate, with a

refined fruit; complex and subtle, with

excellent length. 2016–2026. £34.25; BBR

Ch. Poujeaux, Moulis-en-Médoc 2005

(cru bourgeois) ★★★ 15.5

13.5% alc; TA 4.95g/l. Mainly new wood

to smell, as well as a touch of farmyard;

fresh midweight with a refined tannin,

fairly dry in texture; quite complex,

nicely sustained and with good length.

Attractive. 2014–2022. £18.50; L&W

Redman, Cabernet Sauvignon 2005

★★★ 15+

14.4% alc; TA 6.6g/l. Ripe cassis fruit,

mint tinged to smell; full-bodied wine

with ripe blackcurrant fruit and a

slightly ‘hard’ frame. Nice length and

moderate complexity, with the added

acid edge clear on the long, fruity finish.

2014–2024. N/A UK; +61 8 8392 2222

Written by Michel Schuster

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