The Limestone Coast Part 1: impressions of Mount Gambier, Mount Benson & Robe
The Limestone Coast, South Australia, was officially registered as a wine region (Geographical indication – “GI”) in 1996 and comprises six sub-regional GIs – Padthaway, Wrattonbully, Mount Benson, Coonawarra, Robe and Mount Gambier.
Leaving aside the Adelaide Hills, from a wine perspective, the Limestone Coast is cool climate South Australia thanks both to its latitude and (to a greater or lesser extent) its sub-regions’ proximity to the windy, overcast and chilly Southern Ocean.
But perhaps because Coonawarra – its jewel in the crown – boasts such a fantastic reputation for its full bodied Cabernet Sauvignon, the Limestone Coast’s cool climate credentials – these days in vogue – have been underplayed say compared with GIs like Melbourne dress circle regions the Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula, Victoria. To the chagrin, I’m told, of under-dressed holidaying Melbournites in search of sunshine and warmth over the border!
Moreover these days, it’s not Padthaway but the Yarra, together with Tasmania and Tumbarumba, which can take credit for the fruit in Hardys’ iconic Eileen Hardy Chardonnay (click here for my report on an Eileen Hardy vertical).
As for its coolest regions (those nearest the coast with the lowest heat degree days), the majority of grapes tend to find their way into multi-regional blends, which explains why the Limestone Coast’s 15,800 hectares of vineyard are tended by a mere 250 growers. Wines labelled Robe, Mount Gambier and Mount Benson are few and far between.
Not that it deterred this visitor. On my quest to discover those cooler parts of the Limestone Coast other South Australian regions cannot refresh I made sure to check out Mount Gambier, Mount Benson and Robe in addition to Coonawarra and Wrattonbully during my September visit. Here are my first impressions of these three lesser known regions. If I’ve sparked your interest, you can find incredibly detailed information about all the Limestone Coast regions:
- at the regional winegrowers association’s excellent website here; the culture and practices library here features videos which really help lift the region off the page; and
- for the scientifically-minded among you, Unearthing Viticulture in the Limestone Coast is a heroic study of the region’s soils and climate among other things – click here to download it (and be patient – it’s a hugely detailed report).
You might also want to check out the just published results of the Limestone Coast Wine Show here.
Mount Gambier is a short flight from Adelaide. Though its airport is a fraction of the size of the state capital’s airport (as are the planes that service it), Mount Gambier is South Australia’s second biggest city after Adelaide! It does, however, explain the excellent food at The Barn, which played host to my generic tasting (good accommodation too).
Today cattle and sheep grazing together with apple orchards are what drive the local economy. Though its volcanic soils are rich (Mount Gambier itself is a dormant volcano), the soil is too wet for grain says local producer Terry Strickland of Caroline Hills. As for grape vines, they are a relatively recent phenomenon – first planted in 1982 at Square Mile on the south east edge of the city of Mount Gambier by Sandy and Helen Haig.
In the wake of the de-regulation and consolidation of the dairy industry (once, nearly everyone had a buttery or cheese factory), several other players joined the Haigs during the early to mid 1990s – a period when wine exports were booming. However, the majority (over 60%) were planted between 2001 and 2010, bringing the total area of the region’s 19 vineyards to 273 ha. It tells a story.
This is a small region with, unusually, no corporate-owned vineyards, (though Treasury Wine Estates, Hardys and Orlando buy or have bought grapes from here). Rather the investment came from local families, typically farmers, nine of whom have a producers’ licence (to make wine) and three of whom have wineries (Caroline Hills, Herberts & Peter Trajomowski). Long term grazier Tom Ellis of Coola Road told me no-one is 100% reliant on grape growing.
Aside from the success of his neighbour, Benarra’s Lisle Pudney, Ellis had a very pragmatic reason for planting his vineyard in 2004. At 100 hectares, together with Pudney’s vineyard, it’s the region’s biggest. He explains it’s a long term investment where it’s cheaper to grow vines than to grow grass to feed livestock (irrigating one hectare of vineyard requires around 1-1.5megalitres a year versus 6-7 megalitres for grass; 1 megalitre of water currently costs $1000).
In 2010, the region’s producers pushed for formal recognition of the region (Geographical Indication – “GI” – status), which was granted in 2010 – quite a feat. Now that the fees associated with applying for GI status have shot up, Strickland speculates Mount Gambier may be the last GI to be created for some time.
Naturally, being in the Limestone Coast, limestone is the bedrock of the region, but topsoils include:
- Well-drained clay marl over flint and stone in Kongorong – the flat coastal plain, which Ellis calls “flint country” – see a video about these unique soils here;
- very fertile volcanic soils around Mt Gambier and Glencoe and to the north east; inter-row planting helps to manage vigour;
- Sand over clay over stone (at Caroline Hills and Nangwarry Station).
Within the Limestone Coast, Mount Gambier has the lowest number of heat degree days (1,227) during the growing season – similar to that of Marlborough. The wind turbines which stud the coastline provide a clue. Maritime breezes make for a temperate climate (the average maximum temperature is low, but so is the average minimum). The breeze brings with it morning mists which don’t blow off until lunchtime, “acting like a doonah [duvet],” says Koonara’s Dru Reschke, “which prevents the heat from building up too much.” Despite the breezes, frost on the flat can be an issue, hence the frost fans (pictured).
Unsurprisingly then, according to the latest figures on the region’s website (here), Sauvignon Blanc is the most common variety planted (38% of total area), followed by Pinot Noir (29%), Chardonnay (15%) and Pinot Gris (10%). I wasn’t shown much Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling, for that matter, though what I did taste was very good.
I did, however, taste a fair bit of Pinot Noir (including some very promising barrel samples at Herberts’ small but sophisticated cellar/cellar door pictured). It’s obviously the region’s strongest red. If, for the most part, lacking the finesse of Australia’s better known Pinot Noir regions, Mount Gambier’s red-fruited Pinot Noirs impressed with their ability to retain sappy freshness with age (samples tasted back to 2003).
The raw material (grape/terroir) is clearly here but, to take Pinot Noir to the next level, it needs the single-minded investment of time and money we have seen in Mornington Peninsula, now Tasmania – full-time vignerons too, it might reasonably be argued. Certainly the better examples came from those producers with a bit more investment behind them. For grower/farmer Dugald McLachlan of Nangwarry Station, while “we have potential coming out of our ears,” he is cautious about “going too hard at it [winemaking]” where “we’re not sellers and marketeers.” A point which is echoed by real estate man David Herbert of Herberts who sagely observed, “we have to get over the over-supply.”
Cabernets were juicy, fresh and perfumed, but just didn’t seem to build palate weight and structure here. Based on the samples I tasted, it doesn’t seem to be cut out for the region (especially given the local competition from Coonawarra, Wrattonbully and Robe). Where greenness can be avoided, I reckon the region’s Cabernet is much better used as a bit part player to add juiciness and freshness to wines from warmer regions.
Here are my vinous highlights.
Coola Road Riesling Single Vineyard 2013 (Mount Gambier)
A very aromatic, floral (jasmine), dry style with Pfalz-like rounder stone fruits and sweet tangerine with a herbal/wheatmeal edge. The acidity is crisp and the finish mineral – a quality attributed to Kongorong’s fractured flint beds whose “hot”(heat retaining) rocks Ellis now crushes, “for even greater minerality,” he says. There’s a side benefit too. The high potatssium content means it’s not necessary to fertilise the land. Dry. 11.5%
Di Giorgio Family Kongorong Riesling 2012 (Mount Gambier)
Though it’s also from the Kongorong, this has a more classic citrus-driven Australian Riesling profile. Again, pronounced florals – here lime blossom,with punchy acidity to it lime and steelier grapefruit, crisp apple too. Incipient honey and a touch of residual sugar balance the books. Nice cut and thrust. 11.5%
Coola Road Sauvignon Blanc Single Vineyard 2013 (Mount Gambier)
A pretty Sauvignon with some Loire-like restraint to its crisp apple and bay leaf spice. The lingering sweet ripe intensity of its gooseberry fruit sets it apart. Good. 12.6%
Maurice Watson Chardonnay 2013 (Mount Gambier)
This naturally fermented Chardonnay is nicely shaped, not too pushed, with clean lemony/grapefruity citrus acidity and fleshier rock melon. Overall quite restrained; well made. 12%
Koonara The Marquise Chardonnay 2012 (Mount Gambier)
A more ambitious Chardonnay, half tank-fermented and aged, half fermented and aged in new French oak (all wild ferment). It has a creamy, toast and nougat inflected nose and palate with white peach and ripe lemon. Though the mid-palate is a little too creamy/malo for me, its intense lemony juicy acidity pushes out a long persistent finish and I suspect this wine would be pretty austere without the malo. Good. 12.8%
Koonara Lucy and Alice Pinot Gris 2013 (Mount Gambier)
A pinky beige, slightly hazy hue. A characterful, textured, bone dry style with an Alsation smokiness to nose and palate; a touch of wheatgerm too. It shows soft, musky, bruised apple fruit and savoury leesy/oyster shell-like notes. Very good hands off style. 11.5%
Di Giorgio Family Kongorong Pinot Noir 2012 (Mount Gambier)
Nice depth and brightness of colour. A lovely Pinot nose with black cherry, beetroot, suede and a touch of spicy oak. In the mouth, it has a subtle, very attractive sour note – a tanginess – to its succulent black cherry fruit. The (five) spice rack has been well and truly raided here – the oak could be a touch subtler, but the fruit brightness/juiciness and silky tannins are very charming indeed. 13.5%
Koonara By of Apostles Pinot Noir 2010 (Mount Gambier & Geelong)
With the addition of Geelong fruit, this is a darker, earthier, riper style, with black berry and cherry fruit, even with a touch of raisin. Again, the oak is a bit heavy – a hand on the shoulder. The tannins could do with just a touch more sucrosity. Though I’d prefer a bit more lift, this denser style will have its fans. 13.8%
Benarra Coola Road Pinot Noir 2008 (Mount Gambier)
A very bright hue, with some opacity and a spicy nose. The emphasis is on its still impressively animated fresh red berry, cherry and plum fruits. A cool touch of lead pencil note suggests picked on the cusp of ripeness. Where the tannins are a little soft, it’s the acidity which maintains the energy levels. A charming, rustic Pinot Noir – vivacious but lacking the structure, shape and vinosity which good oak can bring. 12.5%
Benarra Coola Road Pinot Noir 2006 (Mount Gambier)
Again holding its (burgundy) colour/brightness well. This vintage seems a little riper, with just a hint of raisiny fruit, but still with a lovely (very integrated) acidity and energy to its chocolate cherry truffle fruit. Again great rustic charm; the fruit potential shines.
Herbert Pinot Noir 2006 (Mount Gambier)
Owner/winemaker David Herbert is a Pinot Noir nut and, with his wife Trudy, has been a keen drinker of fine wines from around the world for 40 years. This Pinot shows good varietal typicity with its fleshy plum, damson and juicier, chocolate-edged sweet red cherry fruit; good acidity. Wearing very well.
Caroline Hills Pinot Noir 2007 (Mount Gambier)
Saint Marcellin Champagnat presides over the vineyard here, yet there was no hiding from a difficult year in 2007. Six serious frosts left only enough fruit for one barrique. The concentration shows. Very deep, opaque burgundy with sweet, briary fruit. A little baggy/raisined on the finish, but with the region’s hallmark lively, integrated acidity, here with a translucent mineral quality. 13.4%
Nangwarry Station Pinot Noir 2012 (Mount Gambier)
Out on a (north-easterly) limb this estate is a stone’s throw from Coonawarra, so relatively inland and located on sandy clay soils over limestone. There’s a curious touch of linseed on the nose, which I found in the older vintages from this estate which otherwise varied quite significantly stylistically (at least three different winemakers may explain why!) But in the mouth, this has a lovely arc of flavour – sweet, ripe, violet and peony-perfumed wild strawberry, cherry and crushed raspberry flavours build in the mouth. Lovely lift here. Though I detect a very fine rasp of tannin to the finish, it has a chamois softness. Very promising. 12.5%
Patrick of Coonawarra Pinot Noir 2010 (Mount Gambier)
Luke Toccaciu worked in Sonoma and it shows in the polish, structure and finesse of this wine. He vinified lots of different batches of fruit for this wine, which was sourced from two vineyards (one of which was Nangwarry Station). Savoury suede tannins provide an anchoring bedrock for its nicely concentrated, creamy red berry fruits, while red cherry and a dash of rhubarb bring a deft touch of tart animation. Long, persistent and well-structured it was the best of the Mount Gambier Pinots I tasted and very good indeed. 12.8%
Mount Benson is located north west of Mount Gambier, along the Cape Jaffa coastline, about 300km from Adelaide. There are just six producers located in the region, half of whom have cellar doors. Dorrien Estate is now owned by Woolworths. The big players, notably Treasury Wine Estates, source fruit from here too.
The first viticultural trials occurred in the region in 1978, when Colin Kidd of Lindemans planted Riesling, Traminer, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon at Alfalfa, an almond orchard located approximately five kilometres from the coastal township of Cape Jaffa.
The first commercial vineyard consisted of a 2- hectare block of Cabernet Sauvignon planted in 1989 by retired crayfisherman Bill Wehl and his wife Margaret, who recognised similarities between Mount Benson’s soil structure and that of the Coonawarra.
Since then, a further nineteen vineyards have been established, spanning an area of approximately 600 hectares in total. More than half of the total current vineyard area in the region was planted between 1991 and 2000.
The Mount Benson vineyards are planted on gently undulating terrain – old dune systems – ranging from five to 50 metres above sea level. The region boasts both red wine-friendly terra rossa and white-wine friendly sandy loam over limestone
Cold and wet winters and long, cool and dry growing seasons following early budburst are typical. The region’s cool climate is heavily influenced by the Bonnie Upwelling (whose cold, deep sea water rises to the surface producing sea fog, increased moist air and tempering sea breezes along the coast, which cool the vineyard during summer afternoons).
For Wangolina Station’s Anita Goode, it really affects the pH balance, even for reds where, she told me, “you don’t need to add as much acid –maybe just a gram.”
Strong winds prevailing from the South in spring and summer also keep foliage dry and disease at bay. Useful for biodynamic pioneers Derek and Anna Hooper of Cape Jaffa.
Red grape varieties represent 75% of all grapes grown in the region, with the majority of Mount Benson planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, but also substantial plantings of Shiraz, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.
It was something of a fillip for the region when Michel Chapoutier selected it as the source of his first Australian wine, a Shiraz. However, he has since upped sticks to Victoria (Heathcote and the Pyrenees). I gleaned that the locals think Chapoutier pulled out too fast and didn’t give Mount Benson a chance. For Cape Jaffa’s Anna Hooper (who used to work for Chapoutier), Shiraz, not Cabernet is Mount Benson’s best red variety.
Time (vine age especially) will tell, but I thought that the Shiraz from this region was particularly characterful, with a distinctive Syrah-savoury/earthy spicy green peppercorn and bay leaf character which, with just a little more fruit concentration and structure, would really sing. Overall, I’d like to have seen a little more conviction and concentration to the region’s reds. But as Norfolk Rise’s Dan Berrigan told me, he is planning to stick around to see the progression where, he says, reds are getting more consistent year on year.
Here are my highlights:
Wangolina Station Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2013 (Limestone Coast)
Vines were planted at the Goode’s fourth generation cattle farm in 1999. Wines are made by their daughter Anita, the first having been launched in 2002. Passionate about white wines, they are very much the strong suit, especially the Sauvignon Blancs, for which Goode has built a solid reputation. It’s partly about what she liked to drink when she was younger but, referring to the soils and climate she agrees, “it’s also what we do well.” This blend of 51% Semillon, 49% Sauvignon certainly has a very fresh nose, with lots of fresh pea pod and zingy citrus. The palate is lemony, a touch chalky (textured), with good line and length. 12.5%
Wangolina Station Sauvignon Blanc 2013 (Limestone Coast)
With just a touch of herbaceousness on the nose, this Sauvignon is all about the fruit-driven palate. It has a good intensity of white orchard fruit salad (apples, pears) with a subtle herbaceous riff. The acidity is present but soft and rolling – nicely integrated. 12.5%
Wangolina Station Sauvignon Blanc 2012 (Limestone Coast)
A bit riper and a year on, this vintage shows ripe peach, tropical fruits and white asparagus. This very much fits with Anita’s aim which is to produce Sauvignons you can drink by the bottle (i.e. which are not too acidic). 13%
Wangolina Station Pinot Gris 2012 (Limestone Coast)
One third of this pale, spicy Pinot Gris spends 3-4 months in old oak. In the mouth it’s creamy, with ripe, honeyed poached pear fruit and a delicate touch of spice. A gently off dry style with around 8g/l residual sugar. 14%
Wangolina Station Section 67 Sauvignon Blanc 2010 (Mount Benson, Limestone Coast)
Following through on the fruit-focused, textural style this oaked Sauvignon is no keeper, but there’s much to savour now on a rolling, generous palate with sweet pineapple, creamy white asparagus, zestier ripe lemon and a dash of lemon oil. 14%
Norfolk Rise Sauvignon Blanc 2013 (Mount Benson)
Though located just down the road from Wangolina Station, the Sauvignon is quite different in style – crisp, with crunchy green apple bite, blackcurrant bud and a squeeze of lime to the finish. What it does share with Wangolina Estate is the flavour intensity.
Norfolk Rise Pinot Noir 2012 (Limestone Coast)
The fruit for this Pinot Noir mostly comes from Coonawarra. Winemaker Dan Berrigan reckons “Pinot Noir could do well at Mount Benson, but no one has had a red hot crack at it.” It’s round and velvety with red cherry and berry fruit. A bit of whole-bunch lends a touch of tannin and violet lift. Very drinkable, with interest. 14%
Cape Jaffa The Set Sauvignon Blanc 2013 – 12% – (Limestone Coast)
In fact this entry level label is 100% Mt Benson-sourced where winemaker Anna Hooper reckons Mount Benson produces the Limestone Coast’s best Sauvignon. It’s a very crisp, classic style, with blackcurrant bud and grassy lift to its limey citrus and green apple fruit.
Cape Jaffa Waxed Lyrical Marsanne 2012 (Limestone Coast)
Anna worked at Chapoutier’s Domaine Tournon for around two and a half years and was a fan of the Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier. The Roussanne and Viognier were pulled out but the surviving Marsanne shows good varietal nuttiness, with mineral acidity to support. 13%
Cape Jaffa The Set Chardonnay 2013 (Mount Benson)
A zingy, lively lime-streaked unoaked Chardonnay from the vineyard next door. The acidity is quite sherbet lemon, but there’s an attractive pebbly, stony undertow too.
Cape Jaffa La Lune Rosé de Syrah 2013 (Mount Benson)
The La Lune range is 100% sourced from the Hooper’s own (certified) biodynamic vineyard. The fruit for this wine comes from higher vigour areas and is used only to make rosé (no saignée). Though finishing clean, crisp and dry, it shows good fruit intensity and sweetness, with pretty floral lift.
Cape Jaffa The Set Shiraz Cabernet Merlot 2012 (Limestone Coast)
Good colour. A backbone of dusty tannins (a mineral edge) is fleshed out by sweet summer compote fruit, layered with liquorice and cinnamon. A touch warm at 14.5%, but I liked its character.
Cape Jaffa Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 (Wrattonbully/Mount Benson)
Good black berry and currant fruit intensity with bay leaf and liquorice spice; the tannins are quite firm and dusty, again that sense of minerality.
Cape Jaffa Epic Drop Shiraz 2010 (Limestone Coast)
Another Wrattonbully/Mount Benson blend, which I’m not sure has yet (or will) knit together. On the one hand it has quite jammy blackcurrant fruit (think blackcurrant fruit gums) and, on the other I fancy a Mount Benson pull of dusty tannins and spicy bay leaf – characteristics which I like.
Ralph Fowler Viognier 2009 (Mount Benson)
Thirteen year old vines and this 4500l foudre-fermented and aged (on lees) Viognier still – four years on – has good fruit concentration, with nectarine, pineapple and honeysuckle notes aplenty. With 7g/l total acidity it feels distinctly cool climate; very good persistence. Impressive. 13%
Ralph Fowler Sticky 2010 (Mount Benson)
This blend of Semillon, Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc was aged for 10 months in (old) barrels. It has a lovely core of very pure, fleshy mandarin and nectarine. Botrytis brings a marmalade stickiness and edge of spicy, pithy grapefruit. But it retains lovely freshness and fluidy going through. An unusual, pleasingly well-executed blend. 12.5%
Ralph Fowler Shiraz 2009 (Mount Benson)
Impressively fine tannins and I like the savoury nose and palate, which display those distinctive Mount Benson green peppercorn and earth notes. I just wish there was a little more fruit intensity/sweetness and lift for balance. 14%
Having spent the day visiting Wangolina Estate, Norfolk Rise and Cape Jaffa, I arrived in the pretty harbour town of Robe late afternoon for a generic Mount Benson/Robe tasting, followed by dinner (very good, especially the oysters) at seafood restaurant Sails.
It was my shortest visit of the three, so there wasn’t time to explore vineyards but its history, soils and climate are not so very different from Mount Benson.
The first commercial vineyards were established in 1994 by Penfolds, who source fruit for top wines from here, including Shiraz for St Henri. Several independent wineries followed soon after. Around 90% (659 hectares) of the current vineyard area in Robe was planted between 1995 and 2000.
Situated between inland lakes along the shores of Guichen Bay, Robe has a particularly temperate maritime climate, resulting in a long growing season. Good acid retention is a hallmark of the wines.
Terra rossa and limestone explain what drew Penfolds to the region.
The first raft of planting focused around Cabernet Sauvignon (230 ha), Shiraz (165 ha) and Chardonnay (110 ha). Expansion of the region has slowed since 2001; however the diversity of varieties has increased to include Pinot Gris and Savagnin Blanc.
It seemed to me that Cabernet was more successful here than in either Mount Benson or Robe, with better quality tannins and better concentration of fruit.
My highlights of the tasting
Woodsoak Wines Zaahira Sparkling (Limestone Coast)
Although vines were first planted in 1998, all grapes were sold on contract until 2010 when owners Will and Sonia established the Woodsoak Wines label. This Pinot Noir (75%) Chardonnay (25%) sparkler bagged a Silver Medal at the Boutique Wine Show and, for a tank fermented wine, has impressive toast, brioche and nutty notes, together with fruitier strawberry shortcake. A really good, very drinkable effort. 12%
Woodsoak Wines Vijay Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 (Robe)
Although the blackcurrant fruit tip toes into Ribena territory, it’s juicy, with good freshness and ripe but present tannins. A persistent, well-balanced Cabernet; again good drinkability.
Karatta Pinot Noir 2012 (Robe)
This Pinot shows good typicity with its perfumed nose, sweet red berry and plum fruit and lick of spice. Textural tannins add interest. Not the most structured or sophisticated wine but it ticks the right boxes at $20. 13%
Karatta Cabernet Sauvignon 12 mile Vineyard 2010 (Robe)
Karatta’s man on the ground at the tasting was winemaker Christian Fraser, whom I first met at renowned Cabernet producers, Cullen Wines in Margaret River 2007. So good (and perhaps unsurprising) to see a rather attractive Cabernet here. Good depth of colour signposts its well-concentrated, tight, powdery blackcurrant and riper cassis. The oak is very well-judged (fruit-buffing not detracting) and, with grainy, ripe tannins and a long, juicy finish, it’s a very nicely composed wine. 14.5%
Karatta Shiraz 12 mile vineyard 2010 (Robe)
Again good fruit concentration here, with bright, juicy black berry and currant fruit, sweet, ripe tannins and an attractive riff of black pepper. The finish is quite earthy/savoury, perhaps a little too savoury? But a good effort. 14%