On the Move: A Getaway in Coonawarra
Many of the wine regions I have visited and written about so far are ideal for a day trip. However, in Australia there are some hidden gems off the beaten path that are little harder to get to, and are a little further away from our cities. Many of these hidden gems are very rewarding to those who spend the time and effort to discover them.
Coonawarra is one of these places. Located near the town of Mt. Gambier, four hours from Adelaide and eight hours from Melbourne (or a fifty-minute flight), Coonawarra (along with Margaret River) is one of Australia’s most famous regions for Cabernet Sauvignon. After a couple of years rediscovering its mojo, its back, making not only superb Cabs, but knocking out delicious other red varieties and some awesome food adventures to match.
The soil is one of the key elements which makes Coonawarra an ideal place to grow the red varieties, especially Cabernet. If you fly over the region, it looks like a cigar-shaped block of red soil. This red soil (known as the Terra Rossa) lies over limestone and once the vines have their roots in the limestone they are ‘loving life’, so to speak. The Region is rather exposed to the cooler Southern Ocean, and the cooling influence of the ocean winds combined with the ideal soil provides a very good environment for Cab and other reds. The early pioneers of the region saw this opportunity and planted the first vines in 1890, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that region really took off.
Coonawarra is definitely a weekend getaway, offering more experiences than most regions, you’d be rushed to try and get it all done in one day. A red wine paradise, Coonawarra is filled with a wide variety of festivals and destinations to enjoy. For me, it is true a winter experience; curling up in front of the fire, drinking fine red wines and treating yourself to a delicious slow-cooked meal.
Starting Point: Bellwether Wines
If there are some places that inspire the soul, then the Glen Roy shearing shed built in 1868 certainly did for my friend Sue Bell when she started Bellwether Wines.
The beautiful winery and gardens give you just a taste of how organised Bellwether Wines is. Sue runs an extremely tight ship at the winery, with an amazing dining experience. You can book in for a wonderful degustation dinner with a group of friends around the old wool sorting table, and for the adventurous, they also have a beautiful teepee glamping accommodation, which is an ideal place to stay in summer.
The wines themselves are no slouches either. This is an ideal place to begin your Cabernet Sauvignon experience as theirs is a classic of the region. Sue only uses the classic old school techniques which preserves the integrity of the fruit and produces beautifully balanced wines. She also produces the Ant Series, which pulls together growers and winemakers from many regions to produce individual wines from mainly obscure varieties, such as Montepulciano and Nero d’Avola, A really wonderful wine series, it also highlights the issues of climate change through their stories and art works on the labels.
Lunch: Rymill and Coonawarra Store
With Bellwether being a great introduction to the region, Rymill allows you to get you more acquainted with the region itself.
Peter and Judy Rymill established the vineyards in 1974, but the family’s history in the region goes back a lot further. It was Peter’s great-great grandfather, John Riddoch, who first planted grapes in the Coonawarra in 1890.
Rymill is today, one of the most acclaimed and beautiful vineyards in the region and is an ideal place to not only try wine, but to also dine for lunch.
The Rymill Classic Cabernet and Classic Shiraz are some of the finest in the region. These wines show real class and certainly elegance and grace while delivering a soft velvety texture of fruit long into the belly. The wines are all estate grown and some of the vines are 30-40 years old.
For lunch, if the warm winter sun is shining, Rymill offers a picnic experience on their beautiful grounds. You can select local product from the cellar door, grab your favourite bottle and sit out in the sun to enjoy the warmth.
If the day is cold and wet, which it is prone to in mid winter (just how I like it), then head to Fodder in the Ottelia Winery, on the edge of the township of Coonawarra. You will love the Italian inspired food and wine prepared by these guys. The pizzas are a great option for lunch and I found myself drawn to their Cabernet as it showed yet another finer mid weight Cab from Coonawarra, perfect for the pizza lunch.
Afternoon: The Wynns and Bowen Estate
Wynns is one of the most cherished brands from the region. The vineyards, originally owned by first wine pioneer of the region, John Riddoch, were bought by Samuel and David Wynn in 1951. It is a classic wine brand and a definite must for anyone coming to the region. The visitor experience is extremely enlightening and gives you a complete overview of the region and its history, and the staff are very friendly and extremely knowledgeable.
The wines here never seem to fail. Their iconic pours such as John Riddoch and Michael, and the classic Black Label range are widely recognise as the benchmarks of the region. Sue Hodder, the chief winemaker has been crafting the Wynns wines for over 25 years and apart from being a skilled winemaker, she is a great ambassador for region. Her passion and energy for everything Coonawarra always comes through when you speak to her.
Image Credit: Bowen EstateFinally, on your way back to Penola, stop by Bowen Estate. A staple of the region for over forty years, this vineyard is a personal favourite of mine.
I have plenty of Doug and Joy Bowen’s handcrafted wines ageing gracefully in my cellar. Their winery is a no-frills winery, and is all about wine quality. I went to winemaking school with their daughter, Emma Bowen who is now their head winemaker, and is seamlessly continuing the legacy. Funnily enough I love their Bowen Estate Coonawarra Shiraz, a beautiful, weighted wine with a grace and strength that defines it as Coonawarra. It always ages extremely well and is not going to empty your pockets.
Dinner: Pipers of Penola
Before you retire for the evening to [email protected], a small evening stroll through Penola will see you arrive at Pipers of Penola, an up-market and contemporary restaurant, and one of the best dining experiences of the region. It is also extremely popular, so I recommend booking ahead.
In addition to arranging a booking, you can also pre-arrange a couple of old, classic wines from the Haywoods Royal Oak Hotel, which has a large amount of older, well-cellared Coonawarra wines that are not cheap, but pair perfectly with the meals at Pipers.
A leisurely start to the day is recommended, though unfortunately, there are not many breakfast options in the sleepy town of Penola on a Sunday, so its best to have breakfast at your accommodation if it’s provided. I then suggest a stroll into town where there are a wide variety of gift stores, antiques and a number of interesting little shops where you can find a gift for those you left back home.
Starting Point: Koonara Wines
Koonara Wines has a store located directly in the heart of Penola, however, there is also a beautiful cellar door, which shows off the talents of the Reschke family who have lived in the region for over a hundred years.
Image Credit: Koonara WinesWine had been a passion for this family since 1988. The wines they produced only became publicly available in 1999, with only a small amount being produced every year. Dru Reschke is a second generation winemaker, and with fellow winemaker Peter Douglas, they have created a wonderful series of wines.
On the red wine side, their 2014 Angel’s Peak Shiraz and 2013 Ambriel’s Gift Cabernet Sauvignon are very smart wines, showing beautiful structure and some sweeter fruit flavours. They also produce wines from a vineyard in Mt Gambier and have a delicious A Song for Alice Riesling (named after Dru’s daughter), which has fresh crisp, lemon and citrus characters. Also, check out the Cape Barren Range of wines which are a new addition to the portfolio and really highlight what can be produced a little further south in the relatively new region around Mt Gambier.
Lunch: Hollick Wines
Following a nice morning adventure experiencing the town of Penola and Koonara Wines, it’s time to hit the road again for the final two stops. However, if you are heading back towards Adelaide, these two beautiful vineyards are on the way. The first, located just outside Penola, is Hollick Wines. Hollick Wines is a family-owned business that began back in 1974, purchased by Ian and Wendy Hollick on the land that used to be part of John Riddoch’s first vineyard. Winning the famed Jimmy Watson Trophy at the Royal Melbourne Wine Show in 1985 saw the Hollick Wines become much more sort after, and the brand grew and brought the region up with them.
The Ravenswood Cabernet Sauvignon is their iconic pour and is still delivering a class act in poise and balance. The wine treads the fine line between rich and poor when it comes to fruit flavours and weight, but is a wine worth savouring. Their other wines are equally impressive – the Neilson’s Block Merlot prides itself on expansive, yet balanced dark fruit flavours with vibrant tannins and acidity. The wines across all their ranges are well made, good drinking wines.
They also have a restaurant, Upstairs at Hollick, which offers expansive views across the vineyards and on a wispy grey day is a wonderful view. Managed by Wendy Hollick, they specialise in using seasonal, locally grown ingredients from the Hollick’s farms in Wilgha and from other Limestone Coast producers where possible. Combined with their fine range of wine, you’ll probably want to stay here for the rest of the day.
Last Stop: Redman Wines
With such a huge sense of community and togetherness so prevalent in the Coonawarra region, it seems almost fitting that we finish at one of the most old-school vineyards in the region, Redman Wines.
Located just outside of the township of Coonawarra, Redman Wines has been around since 1908, when Bill Redman first purchased the property. Now, the property is managed by Dan and Michael Redman, who are both fourth generation winemakers. Many of the vines range from 20 to 100-years-old, and all are still producing quality grapes for the wine.
It is the old school techniques utilised by the Redmans that make these wines truly special. You get an overwhelming sense of place and heritage when you walk into Redman Wines. Their Shiraz is medium bodied wine with savoury berry fruit and soft velvet tannins and the Redman Cabernet Sauvignon is a classic Coonawarra Cab. It is a wine with super fine tannins and an everlasting cedar and berry flavour with just hints of mint. These are down to earth wines with down to earth people, and you can taste their labour of love in what they produce.
Redman Wines is a great final stop in experiencing the Coonawarra wine region. A hidden gem of Australian wine, it has grown from its early days and flourished to become one of Australia’s most famed regions, both nationally and internationally. Today the people of Coonawarra are proudly championing their food and country hospitality to match the quality of wines. The perfect place to indulge yourself in a winter get away.
Until next time,
Your Wine Hunter, Jame Gosper.