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Kelly Hayes: WineInk

Kelly Hayes
Aspen Times Weekly

Wander into a wine shop here in America, ask for the wines of Australia and, almost invariably, you’ll be directed towards Shiraz, most of it from the Barossa Valley.

Not that there is anything wrong with that, of course. Aussie Shiraz, particularly from the Barossa, has not only been a tasty addition to our shelves, but has also been a great ambassador, serving to introduce the wines of Australia to Americans. But, as previously stated in this space, Australia is a big country and Aussies make lots of very good wine. Much of it not from the Barossa, and much of it made from grapes other than Shiraz.

So it was, with a sense of exploration, that I boarded a twin-engine prop plane to fly from Adelaide, east into the sunrise, to visit the Coonawarra wine region of South Australia. Located halfway between Melbourne and Adelaide, about 30 miles inland from the Southern Ocean, Coonawarra is Cab country.

Here, for more than a century, the focus of the growers and winemakers has been on mining gold from what they perceive to be the best place in Australia to grow the Bordeaux grape Cabernet Sauvignon.

The secret, they say, is the soil. The “Terra Rosa,” as it is called, is a strip of red dirt that runs along the top of an ancient limestone ridge. It is famed for its ability to simultaneously nurture and stress the vines, allowing clusters of grapes to thrive in leafy canopies concentrating the luscious and complex flavors. Add to this the influence of the Southern Ocean and the breezes that begin their flutter in Antarctica before blowing in on summer evenings to cool the vineyards, and you have a perfect recipe for great grapes.

On my trip through the region a number of things quickly became obvious. First, it is as flat as a football field. This is no Napa Valley, the place in America most noted for Cabernet. Second, nearly all of the vineyards sit cheek to jowl, separated by nothing more than a fence line or, perhaps, a dirt road. The Terra Rosa strip is a cigar-shaped patch of land that is about 12 miles long and no more than a mile and a half wide – that’s it. So the land where this prized dirt sits is valued and valuable.

But perhaps most strikingly, it was clear that Coonawarra is a tightly knit wine community. Grapevines were first planted here in the 1890s and since that time the early pioneers have spawned generations of farmers and winemakers who, to this day, either operate relatively small family estates or grow grapes for the giants of the Australian wine industry.

At a luncheon in the superb restaurant at Hollick Wines cellar door (the term Aussies use to describe their tasting rooms and visitor areas), one of the most respected producers in the region, we were joined by at one end of the table by Bruce Redman, whose family has been growing grapes on the Terra Rosa since 1900. Two seats down sat Peter Wienberg, who makes superb wines for Brand’s Laira and has been in the area his entire life with a family estate that has been in operation since 1966. Our hosts, the Hollicks, raised their daughters on this very property and both now hold positions within the winery.

Winemaking has traditionally been a family business but, as the money has become bigger and the major corporations have increased the consolidation of the industry, much of the family feel has gone out of the game. Not in Coonawarra. You had the feeling that these people work side by side, together, through the very best as well as the very worst vintages.

While there are other varietals grown, the region’s focus is almost entirely on Cabernet Sauvignon – including Wynn’s Coonawarra Estate, the largest landholder in the region and a division of the Foster’s Group. “If you can grow it and you can sell it, why would we do anything else” goes the argument. Why, indeed.

These wines are dark, full-bodied and balanced. The flavors of cassis and red or black berries are in nearly every bottle. There are undertones of soil and, especially in some vintages, a vegetal characteristic that hints at the green leaves of the vines. There is intensity in the wines of this region that reflects the combination of the Coonawarra soils, the comparatively cool climate, and yet still, the character of the Cabernet. And that is the very definition of what the French call terroir.

While Shiraz from Barossa may be the easiest Australian wine to find, keep an eye out for the Coonawarra Cabernets as well.

They are well worth a look.


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