Coonawarra, with its famous terra rossa soil, has long held a reputation for great Cabernet Sauvignon, but the region is now adding to its portfolio with a list of acclaimed super-premium wines as well, writes Campbell Mattinson

When Doug Balnaves, Coonawarra vigneron, first sat down with winemaker Peter Bissell to taste the final blend of the 1998 Balnaves Cabernet Sauvignon, his weathered, gentle, uncle-next-door face shot through with smiles. The weather had been perfect that vintage, and the wine looked like it had run straight across the area’s burnt, red, sun-warmed terra rossa soil and on, unencumbered, into the bottle. Black-purple in colour, it had a bright affluence about it, a fresh rush of fragrance that was Cabernet to its core – exactly what Bissell, who had formerly worked at the region’s dominant wine-producing force, Wynns Coonawarra Estate, had promised he would deliver.

It was a moving moment. Indeed, Doug Balnaves was so caught up in the the wine before him that he lost himself for a bit, before eventually noticing that Bissell had a second bottle with him. ‘What’s in that?’ he asked. This was the moment Bissell had been waiting for. ‘That…’ he said, and then he paused. ‘Well, let’s taste it.’

Balnaves tasted it, and to his astonishment it was even better than the first. It was more of everything. It stood straight and commanding, in the way that broad-shouldered wines of ambition and backbone are apt to do. ‘What is it?’ Balnaves asked again, quicker this time. ‘That,’ said Bissell, ‘is the reserve wine you won’t let me make.’

The reason Doug Balnaves hadn’t wanted to make a reserve was plain: he was loyal to his customers and hoped for loyalty in return, so didn’t want to take anything away from the Cabernet he already produced – he wanted it to get better, not worse. Yet here was compelling evidence that in good years, with meticulous barrel selection and vineyard management and the right resources to back it up, you could make premium and super-premium wines side by side, with neither necessarily sacrificing for the other. At that moment, Peter Bissell won his way, and a new wine was born, named The Tally. It sits now, after only two releases, as one of Coonawarra’s premier wines.

The birth of The Tally illustrates a trend now running at full stretch in Coonawarra: a trend to strive beyond that which the region has produced before. Coonawarra is, in short, redefining itself. It continues to produce medium-quality Chardonnay, Shiraz, Riesling and perhaps Viognier. But increasingly it is broadening the quality level at which its Cabernet is pitched – mostly upwards.

The primary reason for the push to greater heights is, according to Bissell, simple: ‘Anywhere in the world, a region is defined by its top producers, at the top of their range. The lack of super-premium wines from Coonawarra has to a large extent kept the region’s reputation in check.’

QUALITY COUNTS

Ten years ago you could count the number of super-premium Coonawarra wines on one hand, namely (the area’s flagship) Wynns’ John Riddoch, Lindemans’ St George, Hollick’s Ravenswood, Zema’s Family Selection and Petaluma’s ‘Coonawarra’ blend. Since then there’s been an explosion of such wines. Balnaves’ The Tally sits alongside Majella’s Malleea Cabernet-Shiraz blend, Katnook Estate’s Odyssey, Brand’s Patrons Reserve, Punter’s Corner Spartacus, Penley Estate’s Reserve, Parker’s First Growth, Bowen Estate’s Ampelon, Murdock Cabernet and a host of top-notch wines from Jamieson’s Run.

The reasons for this explosion are myriad, but in understanding them it’s worth noting that during the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and most of the 1990s, Coonawarra was not only regarded as Australia’s best area for Cabernet Sauvignon, but also as home to the best-priced Cabernets. This was entirely a part of its magic. Because of this, wines such as Wynns Black Label Cabernet, which was made in large quantities of usually reliable quality, became renowned as a foundation of many Cabernet collections. The contributing fact that land holdings on Coonawarra’s famous ‘red strip’ of terra rossa soil were dominated by large commerical interests also, says Bissell, meant that ‘while quality was important, above all Coonawarra has been largely about making value-for-money wine.’

While value for money is a concept that will never go out of fashion, in terms of extracting the highest quality that a region can produce, it’s not the best method of attack. In the past 5–10 years Margaret River, which has largely (at least in terms of the founding wineries) ignored notions of value in the quest for absolute quality, has wrestled control of the ‘Best Australian Cabernet’ title.

Here lay the grounds for a battle. While a sluggish Coonawarra has to some extent allowed Margaret River to gain the ascendency, the fight is now on. It’s noticeable not only in the flood of high-priced, quality flagship wines. Wynns and Lindemans, along with major quality players Bowen Estate, Katnook Estate and Hollick, have all taken the chainsaw to vast tracts of vines, radically undertaking what Wynns’ vineyard manager Allen Jenkins describes as a ‘vineyard renovation’, but is more like a vineyard beheading – if the vines are lucky. Other extensive vineyards have been dug up or bulldozed entirely, as varieties that have underperformed to the estimated potential of their site are no longer tolerated. If you’re a mature vine and largely untouched in Coonawarra today, the chances are you’re a living treasure now deemed a role model to the new fields of Cabernet vines around you.

When Allen Jenkins says – and he’s referring both to the above, and to the highly sophisticated ‘yield control and tracking’ systems that have now been installed – that in Coonawarra ‘we are changing the very way that we grow grapes’, he’s being uncharacteristically dramatic, but entirely accurate. Coonawarra is not the place it was even three years ago.

ADVANTAGE AUSTRALIA

All this is taking place at a time when, the world over, a large number of consumers are seeking riper, sweeter flavours in their wines. Australian wine in general has, of course, cashed in on this fact, especially with the ripe, powerfully sweet-fruited wines of the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale. Margaret River too has benefited from this trend – due to its wonderful ability to create varietally true wines that are nonetheless sweet-cored and supple.

Coonawarra Cabernet has traditionally been a slightly more herbaceous style, and while there’s nothing essentially wrong with this there’s also no doubt that Coonawarra can express itself, in its Cabernet wines, better than this. This is a cool-climate region with a terrifically reliable dose of yearly sunshine. It should be rare for the region not to produce ripe Cabernet.

It’s a fact that Sue Hodder, chief winemaker at Wynns, and Wayne Stehbens, chief winemaker at Katnook Estate, are keen to see asserted. Both are dedicated to producing Cabernet wines that are ripe, attractive and drinkable, but don’t rely on high alcohol levels for flavour and impact. Hodder says, ‘I want us to grow grapes that ripen early, with ripe tannins and ripe flavours – at 12.5–13% alcohol, not 14.5%.’

When you change the quality destination of your wine, especially upwards, it generally takes years to get there – patience is often winemaking’s cruellest requirement. Stehbens, though, reckons that the pursuits and ambitions of today will lead to an ongoing set of Coonawarra wines that will be better than any hitherto produced. ‘We will make wines that are better balanced, riper but lower in alcohol, more complex and more profound,’ he says.

‘In the past decade the number and quality of Cabernet clones grown in the region has increased, and it’s only in the past few vintages that we’ve started to see the enormous impact this will have on our wines. The greater focus on the super-premium category is a bonus to everything we produce – not only because the area will produce better wines than it ever has, but because in striving to make the best wines we can, we’ll develop techniques that can be applied to our winemaking and vineyard management techniques overall.’

BARREL AUCTION

Since 1997 there has been an annual barrel auction in Coonawarra, of a selection of the area’s best barrels from a given vintage. Each year the public tasting of these barrels provides an early insight into the quality of a given vintage – but also into, potentially, Coonawarra’s most regionally distinctive wines. In 2003 the Rymill winery, for instance, had a 2002 barrel in the auction arguably of higher, deeper quality than any wine Rymill has released. In this way, in a public setting, a winery and the land it sits on can suddenly be viewed in an entirely new light. It’s food for thought for consumers and for Rymill alike.

Which is thoroughly the impression Coonawarra now describes: it’s full of new thoughts, new ambitions, new wines and new challenges. Somewhere in the 1990s it lost its sex appeal. Aaround the same time there were arguments over the placement of its boundaries, a fight that (because the area now officially called Coonawarra includes a far greater area, and spread of soil types, than originally anticipated) will now allow cheaper wines than ever to proclaim themselves as Coonawarra Cabernet. What shows true and strong, though, is that this is a region back on its feet. Like someone who’s adopted a radical new hairstyle, and is feeling sexy again, it is like its old self – but with a new twist.

Campbell Mattinson is a journalist and publisher, and his first book, Red Wine Mad, will be published later this year

Written by Campbell Mattinson