Coonawarra in South Australia

Coonawarra in South Australia

"More like a giant slug then a cigar," I muttered impersonally as we neared Coonawarra.

However slugs simply don't 'wing it' in marketing jargon, while brochures talking about cigars conjure up the good life and it was the good life we were going to Coonawarra in South Australia to discover. So it was that, as we approached the famous Coonawarra wine region, we knew we were there from the 'cigar shaped' strip of red soil and neat-boxed pastures of vines, emerging from the brown South Australian landscape.

The distinct color of this slice of soil comes from the 'terra rossa' soil which lends itself to the growing of the grapes perfect for the rich full bodied red wine, which people come from far and wide to taste. Highly oxidized iron in the soil gives this 20 kilometre long and two kilometer wide area it's reddish color and at $100,000 per hectare (when you can get land here) it is a highly prized piece of soil.

Reaching the mecca of Australian Reds our winery tours could not be carried out in an old Holden with a drunken driver. After speaking to the Coonawarra 'Lady of Information,' Sally Arney, owner of the fittingly named 'On the Grapevine!' a useful visitor information and booking service, we decided to treat ourselves to tasting the finest reds in Australia by nothing less then a limousine tour. I never realized how fitting it is to be taken out to taste fine wines in a luxurious stretched limousine, this particular one from the glorious stable of Mt Gambier based 'Barron Limousines' owned and driven by Ken Rucioch. His neat suited form welcomed us to the Coonawarra region and smiling with anticipation we climbed into the car and sunk into comfort and style.

We found that Ken was a mine of information, telling us about wineries, people, places and events. The wineries he took us to were all individual in their atmosphere, wines and people, making it a different experience fronting up at each cellar door. This is the reason I love boutique wineries. You get drawn into the winemakers' passions (and all small winemakers I have met exude a passion spilling over into obsession) and become absorbed in quiet explanations about the fruit they grow and the wine they press, as the precious drops of their creations are carefully poured into your glass.

It makes the wine taste better somehow more personal then just opening a bottle of red at the kitchen table back home. You feel you are part of the creative process, which started as a tiny seed in the soil, nurtured to a green plant, carefully pruned, watered and fed. The fruit, picked, pressed and then stored in the cool oak barrels of the cellars has reached it's final resting place - your stomach - the final step, the ultimate goal for the whole long careful journey of the grape. And you can feel the journey as you drink!

The origins of Coonawarra is based on the humanitarian efforts of a Scotsman called John Riddoch who subdivided his large estate to stimulate employment and immigration in the 1800's. Fruit was grown until after World War I when only the Redman family were able to keep up table wine production. Samuel Wynn is attributed to boosting the renaissance of the area after World War II when the winegrowers of the area combined their efforts to create a unique and thriving community of specialized branding.

The history surrounded us as we walked up to the sculptured horses at the entrance to the Rymill Winery. The two fighting stallions are all power and glory as they rear up, hooves trying to get a hold on the other's metal skin, teeth bared as they throw their powerful necks towards each other for a bite on a neck or ear. It's the time honoured tradition of fighting for supremacy and while the competition is very low key in Coonawarra, almost non-existent in a carefully cultivated environment of mutual support, each winery strives to produce the best wines it can in a competitive market.

Rymill is on part of the original Riddoch run and you know you are tasting long tradition and generations of careful grape cultivation here. Rymill's tasting room is a grand affair, all chrome and glass, spacious and airy. Apart from their trademark Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and

Merlots, on offer are exclusive cellar door sales of a Pinot Noir Chardonnay and a rich red intriguingly called Bees Knees.

With the red wine man, Andrew Rymill himself, pouring the drops, the rich red and sparkling white fluids swam around our mouths, teetered on the edge of our throats for one extra tastebud explosion before falling down into our stomachs with the ease of a professional Olympic diver. An especially nice 2000 Pinot Noir Chardonnay cleansed the pallet with it's crispness just nicely to allow the passionfruit characters of the unoaked Sauvignon Blanc to roll around the mouth unhindered.

Our limbs tingling, we went upstairs for an appreciative view of green shagpile carpets of leafy vines stretching to the horizon. The 100 hectare property baked in the sun and you could almost hear the grapes crying out for the coolness of the oak barrels inside.

A quick run in the limo and were inside the pretty triple gabled stone building on the Wynn's estate. We were welcomed into the large tasting room where exposed beams held up the roof under which we settled in for a glorious session of wine, humour and titbits of grape information. Starting with their Shiraz's and finishing nicely with their very drinkable and well known Samuel Port, we chatted with the friendly staff and I contemplated how important the whole experience becomes when you undertake a winery tour: the wines, the transport, the scenery, the staff, the atmosphere in the tasting rooms.and so far Coonawarra had not disappointed.

The best however awaited us at lunch. We happily stumbled onto one of those dining events to which I am happy to fly anywhere to experience. In rare places in often secluded spots in Australia there are restaurants (such as Stephano's in Mildura) where freshness, food combinations, superb skill and the right ambience are put together in a perfect balance which sends one off into an altered state; a place where happiness is no effort, the world is rosy and every sound, movement and taste becomes an endless moment of ecstasy. As you can see food has a profound effect on me and I am forever on the search for it's perfect form. To find a place like Hollick Restaurant, above the Hollick winery tasting room, is like surfing the sound waves of a symphony orchestra in perfect pitch.

In that large loft overlooking green vines Kate Murray has created a fine restaurant where UK chef Ian Perry sends out his sublime dishes complemented by Hollick own fine wines. My roasted duck breast came on a braised leg tartlet with a beetroot jus. I took in each tender morsel slowly, savouring the subtle flavours and juices. Companions murmured appreciatively over their chargrilled yellowfin tuna and aged scotch fillet and there was much dreamy eyed contemplation to do with going off to lie under a tree and watch the blue Coonawarra sky, but patient Ken of the limousine awaited. After swiping the last waves of chocolate mousse and letting out our belts, we left that oasis of fine food and drink to purr our way over to the cellar door of the Zema estate.

Zema's tasting room was functional and simple. It states: we concentrate on wines not aesthetics. This is serious stuff. While many wines have been lightened up to capture the 'drink now' market reflecting the needs of an 'instant gratification' society, Zema is for the wine connoisseur. Traditional full bodied reds, deep and dense, need to be holed up for a while in a cellar and pulled out of their cool, dark prison to be opened some years down the track.

"I am spending time watching the grapes grow," reflected Bruce Redman of Redman's Winery. Above him the walls were plastered with gold, silver and bronze wine awards, attributing to the fact that he doesn't just watch grapes grow. The tasting room at Redman's was small, intimate and cluttered. Bruce is knowledgeable about his wines and his laid back manner in no way inhibits the obvious love for wine that characterizes the winemakers of Coonawarra. We leaned on the small counter and sipped his very drinkable Shiraz's and Cabernet Sauvignons while gazing at family photos. Companionable silence filled the spaces between relaxed chats with Bruce and we walked out of there and into the limousine feeling complete.

The viticultural Cycle has four seasons producing four different types of activity in the vineyards. During winter while the vines lie dormant, the blades of the pruners are out to work out the best vine balance and canopy for the coming growth. Spring sees buds shooting into leaves and flowers, followed by fruit as it warms up. The warmth of summer fattens the berries then ripens them and the fruit develops sugar, flavour and color. Autumn is harvest time as the leaves fall and winter approaches to send the vines back to sleep.

That night Ken let us off at our rented house in Penola, a pretty little town at the southern end of the 'cigar'. Townsend cottage is a 100 year old house ideal for a large family, several couples or a group of friends. Comfortable and offering all facilities, it's perfectly situated at the edge of town where it was only a small walk to the shops and Petticoat Lane the next day. In this appealing part of town curio and craft shops like the Petticoat Lane Herb Garden and Shop share a wide heritage street, which harks back to when Mary Mackillop, the nun soon to be Australia's first saint, walked her saintly talk.

I stopped to smell the flowers with Jenni Hinze at the Herb shop and farm where she creates wonderful foods, body lotions and potions as well as craftwork with the produce she grows. It's a step into a slower pace, a creative and very different lifestyle and we wandered around her shop, the lane and the town in pure relaxed holiday mode.

Coonawarra and Penola now glow with a very special holiday color for me, the soft maroon of a boutique red. There is a lot more to the area then wines though with all the wineries sporting strings of awards, they are steadily gaining international recognition in their fields and dominate the tourism in that part of South Australia. I loved Coonawarra and all it's aspects: the cigar shaped playground of happy food, wines and attractions...all on offer in a very personal way.

You can't properly assess wine if you don't have the right tools. What is needed is a tasting glass. The glass should be clear with a good base and stem so the warmth of your hand doesn't affect the wine's temperature, and the glass's bowl should converge towards the rim so the wine's aroma is captured. The best glass to use is the international wine tasting glass (XL5), which is the standard glass for wine show judges and winemakers. An inexpensive glass that wouldn't be out of place at the dinner table, it is available from good wine stores and wine clubs.Environment is also important. Wines should be assessed at a comfortable room temperature (about 20 degrees celsius) for both taster and the wine. This is also the ideal temperature to serve wine, as extreme heat or cold will distort the wine's structure. If a wine is warm, its volatile components evaporate, increasing the bouquet of the wine. The hotter it gets the more volatile it becomes so much so that the wine will smell "alcoholic". If the wine is too cold it will inhibit the wine's aroma, you even might not smell anything at all.

The best time of day to assess wine is when you are hungry. Your taste buds and olfactory sense are more alert before lunch and dinner.
Wynn's Coonawarra

Coonawarra: 205 nautical miles north west of Melbourne
Information: On the Grapevine 08 8737 2101
Transport: The Baron Limousines, Ken Rucioch 0407-799342
Hollick Restaurant, lunches 7 days from 12pm, dinners Friday & Saturday from 6.30pm, contact Katie Murray (08) 8737 2752
Rymill Coonawarra - open 10am - 5pm
Zema Estate - open 9am - 5pm
Hollick Wines - open 10am - 4pm
Wynns Coonawarra Estate -
Accommodation: Townsend Cottage, Penola; Murrays Country Cottages (08) 8736 3321

Phoenix Arrien, Travel Writer