The changing face of Coonawarra
(This is a version of a print article from a few months back. As ever, a different tone than the normal Australian Wine Review style, but I think this is a story worth telling. Features some of the producers from this piece about making Coonawarra sexy).
From a cursory glance, things don’t seem to change much in Coonawarra.
The favoured varieties don’t alter. The producers are all established. The techniques aren’t being reinvented. In a world where unconventional wines are more popular than ever, Coonawarra can seem almost staid.
But the closer you look, the more Coonawarra producers you talk to and the wider you taste, it soon becomes apparent that Coonawarra is changing on the quiet. Evolution, rather than revolution, that is ultimately producing wines which have never looked better, even if they’re not receiving the acclaim you’d expect…
Old guard, new ways
Every Coonawarra conversation tends to start with Wynns. The region’s largest – and easily most important – producer, Wynns has a story that tracks the history of Coonawarra itself.
In fact, Wynns is enjoying a significant milestone this year, with the brand-new 2015 Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon the 60th vintage release. That’s on the back of Sue Hodder notching up 25 vintages as winemaker, while being declared joint ASVO Winemaker of the Year along with fellow Wynns stalwart Sarah Pidgeon.
But despite the illustrious history, there is change under the surface. As Hodder said recently, ‘we are very conscious of evolution’ and for Wynns that has meant a vineyard rejuvenation program on a giant scale, with a quarter of the vineyards replanted, and 150 hectares reworked since 2002. Combine that with a winery team that has been producing their own research papers looking at malo nutrients and vineyard tannins, and you get the impression that they’re not sitting on their hands in Coonawarra.
The biggest challenge for Wynns, however, is that faced by many Coonawarra winemakers – that all this innovation is very much below the surface. Consumers don’t see the technological advances or the AWRI research into the ageworthiness of medium bodied wines. They see consistency of product – and over a very long time for the famous Wynns Black Label – but perhaps not ‘the next big thing’.
Then again, is it an issue that Coonawarra is not chasing what’s new and shiny? Leconfield winemaker Paul Gordon believes that the region’s singular attention on one grape is a boon:
‘One of Coonawarra’s great strengths is its focus on Cabernet Sauvignon’ he said.
‘While many other regions grapple to find an identity with next ‘new’ variety, Coonawarra has already done the hard work over many years of concentrating on Cabernet’.
Speaking of a focus on Cabernet, Leconfield is just about to launch the second vintage of the Sydney Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon; a super premium red drawn from the best rows in the Leconfield vineyard and named after founder Sydney Hamilton.
Leconfield isn’t the only classic Coonawarra producer with a new label. Daniel Redman recently revealed that his family’s winery – Redman Wines – have a brand-new, super-premium, ‘claret’ style red in the works that they’ve co-developed with fellow stalwart, Balnaves.
On that note, Redman also have two new single vineyard releases in ‘The Last Row’ Shiraz and ‘The First Divide’ Cabernet Sauvignon; both of which are only available to on-premise, independent retail and cellar door.
All over Coonawarra there is ever more single vineyard, super-premium releases. But is the region missing a trick?
New faces, old names
Daniel Redman is in a unique position, actually, as he represents both the traditional and the modern side of Coonawarra. His family’s winery is famed for producing some of the most classically medium-bodied, cellarworthy and elegant wines in the region, their reds carrying a reputation for almost agelessness.
At the same time, Redman is very much the new school too, experimenting with his side project label with fellow Coonawarra winemaker Tim Bailey (Leconfield) plus his own project (which is still in the works).
Redman agrees that Coonawarra is evolving, but somewhat on the quiet:
‘For good or bad it seems as if Coonawarra doesn’t change much’ he said.
‘But there has been a huge emphasis on quality throughout the region starting in the vineyard and onto the winemaking’.
Again, the challenge is the paradox this presents – Coonawarra is changing, but it is very much a case of subtle movements on the production side, and subtlety doesn’t tend to change opinions.
Redman argues that is really just a matter of perception:
‘I have had many conversations (usually with a drink in hand) with all demographics in the area on how to make Coonawarra ‘sexy’ or ‘fashionable’ and I think we can/do get caught up in the ‘bubble’ of perception’ he said.
‘I am not sure that we need to be more fashionable but we certainly need to work hard to stay relevant in an industry that is so competitive’.
Part of the problem may indeed be what makes Gordon believes make Coonawarra great – its unwavering focus on age-worthy reds. As Redman notes, firm wines that command ageing just aren’t as revered as they once were.
‘Fewer people are cellaring wines and the rise in drink now wines has increased, which is a challenge for a region that has hung its hat on cellaring potential of our wines, especially Cabernet.’
To address this challenge some Coonawarra producers – like Majella with the Musician – have produced their own more approachable red releases. Others are making less formidably structured medium bodied Shiraz, tapping into the industry-wide appetite for savoury ‘Syrah’ styles.
New labels, new varieties
Other makers, likes Steven Raidis of Raidis Estate, have taken a different approach altogether.
While the Raidis Estate name might be a new one, the family have been working vineyards in the area for 40 years and managing vines for other winemakers. It’s only in the last 12 years, however, that the Raidis family have started their own label, and Steven happily calls the family brand ‘the new kid on the block.’
What’s interesting about Raidis Estate is that, while their more traditional Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot have sold strongly it is their ‘Cheeky Goat’ Coonawarra Pinot Gris that has captured imaginations.
Now, Steven Raidis is in the unusual position where he simply can’t make enough Gris, with this 2017 vintage double the volume of previous years:
‘The Cheek Goat (Pinot Gris) is flying out the door’ he said.
‘We think that people have been looking for a nice bone dry, fruit driven wine with texture. The fact that it goes really well with a lot of different foods is a big plus for sommeliers because it gives them lots of options’.
While Raidis could easily sell his entire harvest of Cabernet Sauvignon (he turned down one Chinese importer asking exactly that only recently), it is Pinot Gris that he has tinkered with the most, to a point that is matched by few other winemakers in the country:
‘We started with pushing the boundaries with our pinot Gris in the last few vintages, producing 2 wines – PG project skins and PG project oak’ he said.
‘Both have new oak components and varying skin contact, the volumes less than 50 cases each’.
‘(Surprisingly) these have been very well received by trade and direct to the consumer. We should have made more!’
Raidis also has a new project wine about to be released (bottled late July) that is a field blend of red varieties, all given extended skin contact and then bottled early to make a ‘nouveau styled red with plenty of depth.’
Are less established grapes the future for Coonawarra? The ever-restless (and quotable) Dru Reschke of Koonara has certainly contemplated alternative varieties, but also believes it doesn’t represent what Coonawarra is good at.
‘A few years ago I said to our winemaker Peter Douglas that maybe we should look at planting some new varieties, and his reply was to the point ‘What, like Bordeaux?’’.
The point that Reschke and many others make is that by moving into alternative varieties, Coonawarra winemakers believe they risk diluting that singularity of focus – their USP.
Like many Coonawarra producers, Dru Reschke is endlessly improving behinds the scenes. By the end of this year his vineyards will be certified organic (the first certified plot in the region); he’s just gained an R & D grant for a vineyard probiotic which can ‘can strengthen chlorophyll in leaves and knock out snails and millipedes at the same time’ and has his own wine glass out that he says is ‘six times stronger than normal stems’.
Reschke is also one of the more outspoken members of the next generation of Coonawarra winemakers, and he makes some very good points about the true focus of the region.
‘We continue to consistently produce high-quality, ageworthy Cabernet, and every masterclass I’ve ever done with Coonawarra vs First Growth (Bordeaux) leaves you shaking your head at how high quality Coonawarra is compared to anything out there’ he said.
That sentiment is echoed by Paul Gordon too:
‘(Coonawarra) produces world class Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot at very affordable prices, especially when compared with Bordeaux and California’ he said.
‘Internationally, Cabernet Sauvignon predominant wines have the greatest share of the red wine market – and that puts the world renowned Cabernet wines from Coonawarra in good stead to capitalise on that opportunity’.
Ultimately the question for then is what do people want? Is it proven value and cellarworthy wines or something ‘trendy’?
Sue Bell of Bellwether Wines has a unique perspective. As a winemaker heavily involved with some smaller local growers, while boasting a portfolio of wines that includes some super cool modern wines (like a Nero d’Avola rosé), Bell is well placed to comment on the region’s fortunes – and believes that Coonawarra never became uncool:
‘Are we not fashionable? True style setters aren’t slaves to others they do what they believe’ she said.
‘Some people from outside the region like to sink the boot in; usually people who haven’t been here for 20 years or more and their commentary is similarly dated’.
For winemakers like Sue Bell, the evolution of Coonawarra has been a story about renewal. Of hard work in the vineyard, and an appreciation for what are those regional strengths. It’s a story of finessing styles, examining oak and tannins, with attention to detail then producing ever more well-defined wines.
Sure, Coonawarra has no natural wines. But it does have a style that is already well loved and revered. Fashions may come and go, but you get the impression that classically structured, ageworthy reds will always be the region’s focus – just like it is in Bordeaux.
Steven Raidis puts it best:
‘Over the last 12 months out in the trade we have felt like a lot of people are rediscovering how much they love Coonawarra Cabernet – and let’s be honest Cabernet is king in Coonawarra. Long live the king!’