The Limestone Coast Part 2: down the hatch at Wrattonbully

It’s down the hatch at the Whalebone Vineyard

Lost?  Let me explain.  Bound up with terroir, geology – soil type and structure – is a subject I’ve come to know and love as a wine geek. Even been known to climb down ladders to investigate further! With good reason because, without a shadow of a doubt, Wrattonbully’s terra rossa soils over limestone have informed its success as a wine region.

Early, early days

But what I didn’t know until I visited last September is that geology has also informed Wrattonbully’s success as a tourism destination.

Because the terra rossa top soil here is shallower than that of its more famous neighbour, Coonawarra (and its 25 million year old Miocene limestone much older than Coonawarra’s harder, denser lagunal Quaternary era limestone), many caves were discovered during the 1980s’ and 90s’ planting boom when bulldozers ripped beyond the soil into caves below (or, equally disconcertingly, vineyard posts penetrated them, disappearing from view).

And with the caves came the most complete fossil record known, covering several ice ages and the arrival of humans in the area.  Fossils include the bones of Mega[giant]fauna species such as Thylacoleo carnifex Marsupial Lion, Thylacine, Zygomaturus and sthenurine kangaroos.

Cave guru Steve Bourne showed me the giant Tasmanian Devil’s jawbone pictured above and led our descent into and crawl around the eerie cave beneath Tapanappa’s Whalebone Vineyard, which is home to a 25-27 million year old whale’s skeleton (protruding jawbone pictured).

You can see a filmed interview about the caves featuring Bourne (pictured) here. Granted World Heritage status in 1994 because of the importance of its fossil haul, Naracoorte Caves National Park  attracts 42,000 visitors a year.  If you fancy a cave crawl yourself, it runs regular cave tours and specialty in-depth (no pun intended) tours.

Wine dining Wrattonbully style beneath the vines at Schultz Stone Hill Cave

The early days – grapes & wine

As for Wrattonbully’s grape growing and winemaking record, it spans a miniscule period by comparison, even within its short history of (white) settlement.

Settled by mainly Scottish farmers in 1842, Wrattonbully’s first vines were planted by George McEwin in 1885 at “Kelvin.” By the 1920s five acres of export table grapes thrived – mainly muscatel.  It was not until the late 1960s that the first wine grapes planted.

In 1969, 11 hectares were planted by the Pender family, including Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. This was followed by John Greenshields’ four hectares of Cabernet Sauvignon at the Koppamurra Vineyard, first planted in 1974. (It was acquired by Tapannapa in 2002 and, following the whale bone’s discovery, re-named the Whalebone Vineyard).  As you can see from the filmed interview entitled The History of Wrattonbully Wine Region here, both sold their grapes to acclaimed Coonawarra producers (in fact the Koppamurra vineyard, pictured above used to be included in promotional maps of Coonawarra, but was excluded from the region’s hotly contested Geographical Indication when it was finally delimited in 2003).

But, as with other lesser known Limestone Coast regions Mount Gambier, Mount Benson and Robe (see my report here), the major impetus for planting (and producing regionally-specific wine) came from Australia’s 1980’s wine export boom.  “Winemakers had money to burn” said Peter Bird, who oversaw the planting of Hardy’s vineyard (since sold to Casella, for whom Bird now works).  He adds “it was a great time to be planting, with all the benefits of modern technology – soil surveys, clonal selection and the like resulted in much more homogenous vineyards [in terms of the growing cycle/ripening].”

Having totalled just 21.3 hectares in 1993, between 1994 to 1999, over 1800 hectares of vineyard were established, largely by the big players, notably Mildara Blass (now part of Treasury Wine Estates), Yalumba and Hardy’s.  Currently, there are around 2,600 hectares under vine, 50 grape growers and close to 20 wine producers.


Limestone close to the surface at Casella’s vineyard; Peter Bird pictured left.

And why Wrattonbully?  Coonawarra caché (terra rossa over limestone soils and a reasonably similar climate) at a fraction of the price.  Even having taken into account the high development costs of deep ripping Wrattonbully’s shallower, rocky soils – a bull-dozing exercise which Bird describes as having created a “moonscape.”

Casella vineyards up on the ridge

In Wrattonbully, the terra rossa over limestone is located in select pockets of the region, notably on the elevated ancient beach ridges of the Naracoorte Range. Bird recalls it required effort to find soil in which we could grow vines – “they need something to keep their feet wet.” That said, Shiraz has proved to be particularly vigorous, both at the Hardy’s now Casella’s vineyard (where it was dry-farmed for several years and converted over to a de-vigouring double cordon) and at Smith & Hooper (who grafted it over to Pinot Gris).

Terra Rossa over limestone at Casella’s vineyard

Its less homogenous soils explain why Wrattonbully’s vineyards are not contiguous like those on Coonawarra’s famous cigar-shaped terra rossa strip.  According to Dan Newson, viticulturist at Smith & Hooper, a side benefit of this is that disease pressure is lower in  Wrattonbully than in Coonawarra (because Wrattonbully’s vineyards are interspersed with native vegetation, creating a habitat for vine pests’ natural predators).

Newson, who is also viticulturist at Yalumba’s Menzies, Coonawarra (same ownership), is well placed to speak to the differences between Wrattonbully and Coonawarra.  He observes Wrattonbully generally has lighter terra rossa, with less clay than Coonawarra. It means that Wrattonbully soil requires more continuous irrigation (where clay is water retentive).

An exception is Tapanappa’s Whalebone Vineyard, which is located on on the dunal ridge of the oldest shoreline of the plain.  It is on the cooler lee side of the western edge of the escarpment of the West Naracoorte Range (Croser says “most of the Wrattonbully plateau is more open and warmer”), where the clay is deeper than in Coonawarra.  This deeper clay perhaps explains why, under Croser’s ownership (and since the vineyard has been deep ripped), new plantings are high density (1.5m x 1.5m, “like St Emilion,” observes his son-in-law Xavier Bizot who showed me the vineyard) and the vines are cane as opposed to spur pruned (which gives better control over buds i.e. de-budding; greater uniformity of ripeness/in the fruit zone too, adds Bizot).


With a mean January temperature of 20.4 degrees centigrade, 1503 degree days and 561mm average annual rainfall, Wrattonbully is cooler than Padthway and warmer (and slightly drier) than Coonawarra.

Newson observes while Wrattonbully has warmer days than Coonawarra, because fog is typical until 10-11am, the window of peak temperatures (around 30 degrees) is short, plus the continentality of its relatively inland location means that nights are cooler.

As you might expect Wrattonbully’s producers are bullish about the advantages which this “halfway house” affords over Coonawarra.  As Croser puts it, because it’s located between continental Padthaway and maritime Coonawarra, Wrattonbully is continental enough for Shiraz and maritime enough for Cabernet Sauvignon, “bridging St Emilion and Tain l’Hermitage.”  Which perhaps explains why it is seen as relatively versatile, varietally speaking.  At any rate, the fog (and dewy mornings) explain why Yalumba can make such a fine botrytis Viognier here (see my tasting notes below).

And the advantages don’t stop there.  With slightly higher elevation than Coonawarra on the Naracoorte Range ridges (home to most vineyards), there is more (frost mitigating) air movement; good drainage too.  That said, Croser replaced the Whalebone Shiraz because, planted at the lowest point of the vineyard, it was frost prone. It’s why Bird says Hardy’s focused on higher sites, between 95-100m (Coonawarra is around 60m above sea level tops).

Ridges also offer beneficial shelter from chilly south westerly winds which, for Tapanappa’s Brian Croser, explains why the Whalebone vineyard is harvested earlier than Coonawarra’s windier, exposed vineyards even though its heat summation suggests it is at least as cool as Coonawarra (click here for more on the Whalebone Vineyard’s specific microclimate).

Varietal strengths

Although the region’s producers maintain that there’s no pre-conceived idea about varieties, inevitably there’s a Coonawarra skew.  Of its 2600 hectares under vine, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Merlot and Chardonnay represent over 90%.

Other varieties include Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and more recently, Pinot Gris, Sangiovese, Tempranillo and Viognier, of which I tasted some impressive examples (see below).

A touch of Bordeaux – rose bush early warning systems top and tail the rows at Terre a Terre vineyard

Given the similarities between St Emilion’s and the Whalebone Vineyard’s climate, Croser is convinced that Cabernet Franc is a winner and no longer blends it into the Cabernet Shiraz, preferring instead to partner it with Merlot.


Bird, who has spent 20 years developing and maintaining vineyards in Wrattonbully, reckons that vineyards are only now really hitting their straps.  He believes it’s a function of not pushing them as hard as in the early days and, of course, vine age. In consequence he says, “tannins are finer, less blocky and the vineyards have a uniformity which is working well for us – you can take big parcels of fruit and know what you’ve got.”  He’s extremely proud that Casella’s flagship Cabernet 1919 (reviewed below) – “the best of the vintage” – comprises 65% Wrattonbully fruit, 35% Coonawarra fruit.

Second tier clones trace their history back to Yquem at Terre a Terre

Looking ahead to a bright future Bird sees scope for futher improvement where, having selected the first tier of clones largely for (high) yields, the region’s second tier plantings have focused on higher quality lower yielding clonal material. Moreover the drought years have lead to much more strategic irrigation practices.

More generally, the weight of experience and deep pocket investment behind Wrattonbully’s vineyards seems to me to have placed it at an advantage over other lesser known Limestone Coast regions in terms of overall consistency of quality and the sophistication of its top wines, two of which bagged trophies at the 2013 Australian Boutique Wine Awards. So I’m excited to see what comes next now vine maturity is becoming a given.  Meantime, below are my vinous highlights.

You can read more about the Wrattonbully wine region here.

The wines

Patrick of Coonawarra Riesling 2012 (Wrattonbully)

Winemaker Luke Toccaciu attributes the success of his Riesling to its “beach sand” soils which, blown over the top of the hill, lie on the eastern side of the Naracoorte Range just before the plains.  He explains sandy soils keep Riesling from over-cropping.  It’s a very floral, talcy example, with intense lemony citrus, chalky minerality and a crisp green apple finish which deftly balances its 8.5g/l of residual sugar.  Nice length. A pretty but intense, well structured Riesling. This vintage was named the Top Riesling at the 2013 Australian Boutique Wine Awards. 11%

Patrick Aged of Coonawarra Aged Riesling 2010 (Wrattonbully)

This cuvee is usually bottle aged 3 years before release.  It shows petrolly notes on nose and rounder, softer lemon buttery palate.  Underlying, persistent acidity pushes out the finish.  Good. 11%

Pepper Tree Pinot Gris Limited Release 2012 (Wrattonbully)

A fresh and breezy style of Pinot Gris with vibrant Asian pear and a lick of fennel/aniseed spice.  Well done.  13.3%

Tidswell Wines Heathfield Ridge Sauvignon Blanc 2013 (Limestone Coast)

A little estery on the nose and, with around 8g/l of residual sugar, this is a commercial style, with expressive kaffir limey and ripe golden delicious fruit. Well made. 12%

Terre á Terre Sauvignon Blanc 2012 (Wrattonbully)

Terre á Terre is the project of husband and wife team Xavier Bizot and Lucy Croser, whose close-spaced 8-hectare vineyard is located next to Tapanappa’s Whalebone Vineyard.  Its two hectares of Sauvignon Blanc were planted on sandy soils over limestone in 2004 and trace their pedigree back to Yquem, which perhaps explains the Bordelais approach.  For this is an oaked Sauvignon, fermented and aged on the lees in 600l barrels (10% new).  It’s tight and limey on the nose, with a very intense, flinty, mineral and muscular (sinewy) palate.  Penetrating acidity lends great structure and length without detracting from this wine’s essential richness and concentration.  Very impressive. 13.4%

Terre à Terre Late Harvest Pinot Gris 2013 (Wrattonbully)

Fermented and aged for a short period in old oak this is a supple Pinot Gris with gently sweet and spice-infused poached pear fruit.  Good underlying freshness combined with grooming oak makes for a very composed, surefooted finish. Nice balance.

Yalumba FSW8B Botrytis Viognier 2012 (Wrattonbully)

Lovely honeysuckle and camomile lift on the nose, which follows through on an exceptionally bright, dancing palate.  A very pure, precise (think Deng Linlin) balance beam of acidity animates its intense concentration of honeyed apricots.  Great line and length with an Olympian clean, controlled finish – terrific freshness. 10.5%

Casella 1919 Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 (65% Wrattonbully/35% Coonawarra)

2006 was the first release of this flagship red which Bird told me was initially made only for friends and family.  A rich nose and palate reveals effusive vanillin oak and balsamic and chocolate-edged but juicy redcurrant and cassis fruit.  Fine tannins going through lend fluidity and easy charm to the mid-palate.  Out of kilter overly strident acidity mars the finish for me.   14%

Malone Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 (Wrattonbully)

Despite its 15% alcohol, this is a very well-focused Cabernet with attractive spearmint lift to its ripe, slightly jammy but juicy plum and blackberry fruit.  Fine tannins and persistent, well integrated acidity bring plenty of length. Very good. It bagged the top Cabernet prize at at the 2013 Australian Boutique Wine Awards.

Patrick of Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 (Wrattonbully)

A round, ripe and very plummy Cabernet, with blackberry, cedar spice and a chocolate–edged note to the finish.  A nice, well made, undemanding Cabernet.  For Toccaciu who makes Cabernets in both regions, there are lots of similarities between Wrattonbully and Coonawarra Cabernet.  For him, Wrattonbully’s Cabernets are initially softer and plummier  – a bit lighter and jammier than  Coonawarra’s richer, denser cassis and red berry styles.  And Coonawarra Cabernets tend to have silkier tannins (no doubt a function of a longer growing season, but also vine age – see Peter Bird’s comments about the impact of vine maturity above).  13.5%

Redden Bridge The Crossing Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 (Wrattonbully)

A deep, inky hue with a good concentration of rich, black berry and plum fruit.  The tannins are a touch blocky, but a good, solid wine. 14.2%

Tidswell Wines Jennifer Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 (Wrattonbully)

Last year this wine bagged Decanter’s Australian Red Bordeaux Varietal over £15 Trophy (click here for details). It’s a sappy Cabernet, with powdery tannins and sweet, juicy blackcurrant.  Very correct with plenty of surface charm. I’d like to have seen a bit more depth and layer. 14.5% The 2006 vintage was corked.

Terre á Terre Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 (Wrattonbully)

This is the second release of this straight Cabernet, from a three hectare low-trellised (for extra warmth from the ground), close-spaced (1.5m x 1.5m) block planted in 2004.  At the same time, a nearby eucalyptus tree was pulled down because Bizot wanted no hint of it in the wine. Because of the fruit’s pronounced tannins, like traditional (high tannin) Barolos, it’s aged in near-new 4,000L foudre (French oak), which certainly allows it to sing on the nose.  It’s a very fragrant Cabernet, with dried roses and leafier tobacco hints.  And yes, in the mouth, the tannins are firm, bony, even a touch blocky which, together with its mineral acidity, contributes to a certain dryness in style – the fruit is very far from jammy.  Rather it’s fresh, still fragrant and distinctly blackcurranty, with liquorice spice.    A youthful wine with a strong sense of terroir over fruit; surely a very promising site.  I’m already looking forward to tasting future vintages to see how the fruit tannins develop with vine age. Wears its 14.5% very lightly indeed.

Tapanappa Whalebone Vineyard Merlot Cabernet Franc 2009 (Wrattonbully)

This finely honed medium-bodied 64:36 blend reveals lifted tobacco, a hint of mint and supple yet bright plum and red berry and currant fruit on the palate.  A charge of fine tannins and its mineral-sluiced fresh acidity makes for a distinctly dry, ageworthy wine.  Lovely precision, polish and length. 14%

Smith & Hooper Merlot 2010 (Wrattonbully)

On my first visit to Australia in 2004 Yalumba’s Jane Ferrari showed a couple of early Smith & Hooper releases. There was palpable excitement about the Merlot.  And sure enough, Smith & Hooper have really gone for it with Merlot – not the easiest of varieties in Australia.  But they’ve done a good job.  Sourced from two vineyards both located on Terra Rossa over limestone, you guessed it – the Hooper Vineyard (planted in 1994) and the Smith Vineyard (planted in 98) – this shows classic round and juicy plum with sweet milk chocolate and liquorice and vanilla spice. Easy drinking stuff.  14%

Smith & Hooper Merlot Reserve 2010 (Wrattonbully)

The medium bodied Reserve sports suitably serious firmer, chalkier tannins than its younger sibling plus a lively thread of acidity and spice to its chocolate-edged plum fruit. 14%

Smith & Hooper Merlot Reserve 2006 (Wrattonbully)

With seven year’s bottle age this is a mellow fellow.  Deep crimson with lovely fruitcake spiciness, plum and chocolate.  Well-integrated but present acidity and ripe supporting tannins bring length.  Supple yet elegant. Very well done.  13%

Smith & Hooper Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot 2009 (Wrattonbully)

Quite pale and a little light on the palate, but with good varietal typicity to its spicy, blackcurrant/cassis fruit. 13.5%

Tapanappa Whalebone Vineyard Cabernet Shiraz 2009 (Wrattonbully)

An expressive nose reveals tobacco-edged damson and cassis fruit, which follows through on a ripe but restrained well-tailored palate.  Intense not dense, it betrays the cool vintage and, as yet, doesn’t display the earthy, smoky (smoked paprika/eucalyptus) notes I associate with this wine. 13.81%

Patrick of Coonawarra Shiraz 2009 (Wrattonbully)

Plenty of savoury layers of green and black peppercorn, earth, smoke and eucalyptus to this soft plummy Shiraz.  Good if lacking a bit of oomph.  13.9%

Redden Bridge Gully Shiraz 2003 (Wrattonbully)

This still deeply-coloured 10 year old single vineyard Shiraz impressed me with its intensely savoury, spicy nose and palate.  A touch bloody (but finishing clean and spicy), its deep-seated liquorice and black pepper layers add plenty of interest to its mellow plum fruit.  14.1%

Hollick Tempranillo 2012 (Wrattonbully)

Seemingly a little reduced on the nose (a quality which Toccaciu attributes to the vineyard’s black soils) but, on the palate, its plum/plum skin fruit is perky and bright, with deftly judged oak (a light touch).  Chalky tannins lend a bit of edge/brightness too.  A noticeable step up on the rather flat 2008, which spent another 6 months (18m total) in oak. 13.5%

Pepper Tree Tempranillo Limited Release 2012 (Wrattonbully)

A perky plum and rhubarb nose and palate shows attractive freshness which, combined with its chalky tannins, makes for a good with food medium-bodied red.  14%

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