Wine Australia Independence Day highlights part 3: Coonawarra Masterclass

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As they say, good wine is made in the vineyard. The success of Coonawarra with late ripener Cabernet Sauvignon is down to great natural ingredients – notably its well-drained terra rossa soils (pictured), cool climate and long, dry growing season.

But these of themselves do not a great wine make and, as ex-Southcorp/Fosters winemaker Justin Knock MW and wine writer Anthony Rose observed, the Limestone Coast’s most famous region’s quality potential was, for some years, retarded by minimal/machine pruning.

The good news is that, after the growth spurt of the 90s (when plantings more than doubled), an about turn on viticultural practices has seen an uplift in quality.  The tasting certainly supported this.

An exchange I had last year with Ulrich Grey-Smith of the Limestone Coast Grape & Wine Council shed light on how this viticultural revolution came about. He explained that, latterly, this remote region has attracted enough back-packers and new migrants to provide the labour for hand pruning, shoot thinning, leaf plucking, bunch thinning & some hand picking.

According to Grey-Smith, today there are no minimally pruned vineyards in Coonawarra and hand pruning (both spur & cane) is playing a greater role and is set to expand into the future.  He also mentioned that the resulting vineyard restructuring has ushered in an era of better clonal material (heritage/massale selection too) and significant new plantings of Malbec.

With, at 70%, by far and away the biggest percentage of vines on the region’s prime terra rossa soils, Wynns Coonawarra Estate played a major role in this viticultural revolution.  One which was acknowledged when Wynn’s Chief Winemaker Sue Hodder and Chief Viticulturist Allen Jenkins jointly scooped The Gourmet Traveller Winemaker of the Year Award in 2010 in recognition of their commitment to a wholesale vineyard rejuvenation.  As chair of the judging panel Pete Forrestal pointed out “[T]he scale of the vineyard rejuvenation was extraordinary: installing 800 hectares of drip irrigation [where drought had become an issue]; retrellising 450 hectares and replanting vines on 95 hectares.”  Click here for Forrestal’s account of their work.

Speaking at London Wine Fair a couple of years ago about the “very nerve racking sea of stumps” (a necessary consequence of cutting back the build up of dead wood), Sue Hodder said the reward is “added freshness and ripeness” from those vines which bounced back (not all of them did).

Another outcome of Wynns’ vineyard focus is the introduction of single vineyard wines – since 2002, fruit from the best performing blocks each vintage has been isolated to that end (click here for my note on Wynns single vineyard Glengyle Cabernet Sauvignon 2009). For Rose, single vineyard wines represent the next chapter in the region’s history.

Certainly the Limestone Coast Grape & Wine Council’s report “Unearthing Viticulture” suggests that there are plenty of terroir nuances to explore.  This monumental reference work, which covers all the Limestone Coast wine regions, reports on the vineyards, climate, soils, landscape, geology, hydrology, and environmental resources.  It takes a while to download, but it’s a terrific resource for anyone wanting to know more about the region’s terroir.

Investment in vinification facilities as well as viticulture has informed the quality revolution.  As Knock pointed out, it’s important to have an adequate number of fermenters where Coonawarra is a small region and so varietally focused (i.e. the fruit ripens more or less at the same time).   It’s also useful, he added, to have different varieties which ripen at different times.  In addition to significant new Malbec plantings, Grey-Smith told me there has been an upswing in Shiraz (a key player at the outset of Coonawarra’s modern era, notably in the Woodleys Treasure Chest Series produced between 1949 to 1956 – click here for more on the history of the region); the tasting included a couple of classic Australian Shiraz Cabernet blends.

Here’s the line up – predominantly from the 2008 vintage, which Knock described as unusually cool, almost ideal, until the long South Australian heat wave between 3rd March and 17th March (which was at least moderated in Coonawarra by its latitude/proximity to the chilly southern ocean):

  • Hollick Ravenswood Cabernet Sauvignon 2008
  • Bowen Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2009
  • Jacob’s Creek St Hugo Cabernet Sauvignon 2008
  • Lindemans Limestone Ridge Shiraz Cabernet Sauvignon 2008
  • Parker Coonawarra Estate First Growth Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot 2006
  • Petaluma Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot 2008
  • Balnaves of Coonawarra The Tally Cabernet Sauvignon 2008
  • Katnook Estate Odyssey Cabernet Sauvignon 2008
  • Majella The Malleea Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz 2008
  • Wynns Coonawarra Estate John Riddoch Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 2008

Click here for detailed vintages summaries.

Big picture, these wines certainly delivered a sense of place and varietal typicity in spades.  Deeply coloured, dense and dark-fruited, these young, upright Cabernets showed the assertive line of (ripe) tannin and acid that I associate with Coonawarra.  Building in the mouth, with a plume of tannin to the finish, they will benefit from time in bottle and the best age for 15 years plus.  They certainly benefited from time in glass.

My picks of the bunch? For the blends, of the two Cabernet Shiraz, I much preferred the Lindemans Limestone Ridge Shiraz Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 – better balanced than Majella The Malleea.  Parker Coonawarra Estate (a classic Bordeaux blend with extended time on skins Bordeaux style) always impresses with its silky fruit and fine tannins – very finely wrought, with lovely intensity.

As for straight Cabernets, by some way the cheapest wine of the tasting, the Bowen Estate’s savoury vein of kelpy/iodine and loamy earth brought an attractive gout de terroir to this bright fruited wine.  When Sue Hodder was last in London she mentioned that research is underway to investigate this iodine/kelp/oyster shell signature note, which is particularly marked in older wines. Though relatively impenetrable on the palate as yet, Balnaves The Tally bowled me over with its charge of tannins and sheer concentration and purity of cassis – classic mint and chocolate notes too.  Big it may be but, with everything perfectly in balance, this statuesque wine just needs time (and, in the meantime, the junior, more approachable Balnaves Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 which I tasted last Thursday showcases the house style well too).  Wayen Stehbens of Katnook Estate isn’t shy about oak, which brings fabulous cedar spice lift and length to the 2008 Odyssey’s more corpulent, flamboyantly fruity and perfumed palate – a character I also really enjoyed tasting the 2000 vintage last Thursday (at Wine Australia’s Landmark Cabernet tasting).  The 2000 Odyssey’s cedary wood spice/cigar box notes lingered for an age.  I’ve written up Wynns John Riddoch twice previously (here and here) and my analysis is no different – wonderfully pure and poised, it’s quite simply class in a glass. Overall, my wine of the tasting.

To conclude, let me share some observations about Coonawarra viticulture and viniculture from Knock’s and Rose’s handout:

  • Heat summation data sourced from Brian Croser of Tapanappa illustrates that, with 1414 degree days, Coonawarra is cooler (if drier, 257mm rainfall/year) than either Médoc & Graves (1485 degree days, 427mm rainfall/year) or Pomerol (1599 degree days, 405mm rainfall/year). Though cooler, with its longer (drier) growing season, Coonawarra is well suited to growing Cabernet Sauvignon.
  • Coonawarra cold nights are conducive to good anthocyanin development. [Coonawarra has a pronounced diurnal range – 15 degrees centigrade versus c. 11.5 for the Bordeaux regions].
  • Tonnes per hectare haven’t been high for the last 15 years.
  • The general aim is to pick at as low sugar as possible with corresponding tannin ripeness.
  • Picking is split between hand and machine, sometimes with ‘split picking’ of vineyards.
  • Rootstocks and clones. Heritage selections still the major volume with an emphasis on selection of old vines and old cuttings, inspected for virus, type and flavour. A lot of clones are from Reynella and Barossa and ultimately from South Africa. New clones being used are mainly CW44, SA125, Reynella, and others. Rootstocks mainly Schwarzmann, Teleki (ambivalent) and R66. Leaf roll virus is serious and Eutypa (eutypiose) present too.
  • Irrigation is a major feature in Coonawarra and some compromise to the region’s romantic story. The understanding of adding water at the right time is still developing. There is testing through soil moisture and how it correlates to tannin and at what time stress is needed.
  • Crush is generally to a range of different fermenters, potter (traditional style), vinomatic, static and open fermenters. Open fermenters help in the trend to reducing alcohol. Some use de-alcoholising to achieve the desired result. There is also a range of fermentation temperatures but generally up to around 28C then chilled.
  • In general wine is fermented to dryness on skins at around 7 days. Some wines / parcels may be left on skins for an extended maceration of up to six weeks. Pressings are normally included, subject to taste. Different coopers are used for oak diversity and suitability with French oak the dominant type of oak in Coonawarra.
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