July is a magic month in the world-famous Coonawarra region in South Australia. It is mid winter and tourists generally avoid the region because of the cold. To entice visitors, the region’s vineyards make available their museum wines.
Museum releases are older vintages that the vineyard has kept because the winemaker believes the wine has great cellaring potential. Supplies are scarce and most vineyards will only sell you one bottle per visitor.
Coonawarra takes its name from the Aboriginal word for “honeysuckle,” a sweet scented shrub. Grapes were first planted in 1890. Since then Coonawarra has become recognised as one of the world’s best regions for cabernet sauvignon because of the unique flavours the soil and terroir impart.
The soil is known as “terra rossa” – Italian for red earth – and the metre of red earth gives the wines their distinct character. About a quarter of all wines are exported, and Coonawarra has won the Jimmy Watson Trophy more times than any other region in Australia. The Watson is awarded to the best one-year-old red wine and is considered the most prestigious wine award in the country.
It is difficult to single out any particular vineyard because they all produce fine wines. Parker Estate has attracted rave reviews in Wine Spectator magazine, produced by Robert Parker (no relation), considered the world’s most influential critic. Prices for Parker Estate cabernet sauvignon have soared because of this recognition. The 2001 cabernet sauvignon first growth I tasted in 2006 cost $US 60 a bottle at the cellar door. The 2004 first growth I tried this year had jumped to $US 83 a bottle.
Elsewhere in the region, prices have remained low over the past four years, probably a reflection of a desire to control costs because of the global financial crisis. I visited the region in 2006 and 2010 and kept all my tasting notes.
Leconfield cabernet sauvignon is one of my favourites. The colour is wonderfully black red, and it offers intense aromas of briar and cedar and black fruits. The 2003 cabernet cost $US 24 a bottle when I tasted it in 2006, while the 2007 I tasted this year was still only $US 26. Wine of this quality is a bargain at that price.
* “Coonawarra red in a league all its own” in China Daily, 17 July 2010, page 12.