It is one of the more difficult wine regions in Australia to get to, but it is well worth making the effort to explore Coonawarra’s charms. Travel editor Winsor Dobbin is your tour guide
It is home to some of Australia’s most famous wineries and produces some of our greatest red wines, but Coonawarra is a mere speck on any map. A five-hour drive south-east of Adelaide, and a slightly shorter trip by road from Melbourne, Coonawarra is just inside the South Australian border – but don’t blink or you’ll miss it. From Sydney you’ll need to fly to Mount Gambier and then hire a car, or use a tour company – but don’t be put off.
The people here are salt-of-the-earth country folk; farmers like Doug Bowen, Prof Lynn and Doug Balnaves – people who love their land and make some of Australia’s best-value wines despite their geographic isolation. While nearby Penola is a busy little village with cafes, restaurants and motels, Coonawarra itself is tiny. There’s a village store, an eatery and the Wynn’s Coonawarra Estate cellar door. There’s also a village hall, a disused railway platform and a grass airstrip.
Coonawarra is nonetheless a place of pilgrimage for lovers of red wine, particularly cabernet sauvignon, thanks largely to a geological quirk. A cigar-shaped strip of land either side of the highway between Penola and Coonawarra is blessed with terra rossa soil; red-brown topsoil sitting on a white limestone base. It is perfect for growing cabernet sauvignon, shiraz and merlot and has been a wine region since the 1890s. The region also has a cooler climate than many other Australian grape-growing regions, resulting in a long ripening season, which produces excellent fruit flavours and unique tannin structures.
It is cabernet upon which Coonawarra has built its reputation. The region is rivalled only by Margaret River when it comes to top-class Australian cabernets. Because the region is so isolated, it is less visited by tourists than just about any other wine region in the country. Which means personalised attention at cellar doors.
Coonawarra also hosts several popular festivals each year – Cellar Dwellers each July offers the chance to taste back vintage wines, while the Cabernet Celebrations, held over several weekends each October, feature a range of festivities such as tastings, dinners, concerts and parties. There’s also the popular Coonawarra Vignerons race day, a picnic race meeting, which is held each January. Each August the major Coonawarra wineries visit Australian capital cities offering tastings at their annual Coonawarra Wine Tasting Road Show.
Coonawarra’s reputation was initially founded on shiraz, but over the past 50 years cabernet has become increasingly important and overtaken its red sibling. Merlot is usually blended but many producers make small quantities of riesling, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay. Even the most occasional wine drinker will be familiar with the big names: Wynns Coonawarra Estate, Bowen Estate, Hollick, Yalumba The Menzies and Brand’s Laira.
Throw in family-owned operations such as Rymill, Zema Estate, Bowen Estate, Majella and Koonara, add great red producers such as Katnook Estate, Leconfield, Balnaves and Parker Coonawarra Estate, and any serious wine lover will be in his or her element
There are almost 30 cellar doors ranging from venerable Wynn’s Coonawarra Estate to smaller operations like Raidis Estate and Ottelia. Among the cellar doors that should be on any visitor’s list are historic Katnook Estate, friendly Zema Estate, rustic Bowen Estate, Balnaves with its beautiful gardens; relaxed duo Majella and Patrick, and family operations such as Redman, Penley Estate, DiGiorgio and Blok. Bellwether Wines is based in a former shearing shed and is wonderfully atmospheric, while you need to make a booking to taste at Highbank, home to some outstanding Bordeaux-style blends.
Penola has a population of 1,200 and Coonawarra is home to just a couple of hundred people – but this is no sleepy backwater. Pipers of Penola, owned by chef Simon Bowen (a member of one of the region’s most famous winemaking families and his wife Erika) is recognised as one of the best regional restaurants in the country. Ottelia cellar door/Fodder is a delightful café and tasting room with excellent casual food. Fodder is known for producing some of the best pizzas in the state.
In Penola, the venerable Royal Oak Hotel was recently taken over by John Rymill, also from a famous local family, and partner Mary Harvey. The hotel building dates back to the 1800s. Think dishes like gin-cured trout; or warming schnitzels after a day of wine tastings. For those who want to dine among the vines, Upstairs at Hollick is a long-time favourite for long lunches.
Must @ Coonawarra, Merlot and Verdelho Townhouses, Yalumba The Menzies Retreat and the Alexander Cameron Suites offer excellent accommodation in and around the vines – and there are also several excellent self-catering cottages from which to choose. Check out the Winemakers’ Cottage at Blok Estate, Honeysuckle Rise at Highbank or a luxury clamping experience at Bellwether Wines.
Any non-wine lovers in the group can visit the John Riddoch Centre in Penola to discover the region’s history, or the Mary MacKillop Penola Centre, devoted to the life and work of the woman who was Australia’s first Saint. Koonara Country Store doubles as the Koonara Wines cellar door and offers a wide range of kitchen goods, homewares, gifts, local produce and artworks.