For many years a photograph of what are believed to be the oldest vines in Coonawarra in South Australia has been the screensaver on my Apple laptop. I photographed that magnificent sight at the Wynns estate too many years ago to remember, and it still inspires me.
The vines, probably pedro ximenez grapes, are said to be more than 120 years old, though it is difficult to prove their age. They are located near the cellar door of the Wynns estate. While the age is uncertain, what can be certified is the quality of Wynns wine from the Coonawarra.
This company, now part of Treasury Wine Estates, remains the powerhouse of the famous Coonawarra region because Wynns’ vines make up about 20 per cent of all plantings on the famous “terra rossa” soil in this relatively tiny area of land, much more than any other producer.
The phrase “terra rossa” literally means red earth. It is a cigar-shaped ridge of soil about 15 kilometres long and up to 1 kilometre wide.
Coonawarra is one of the best locations in Australia for growing the highest-quality grapes. Because of that it is the most expensive piece of vineyard real estate in Australia, with an acre selling for about $A 100,000. The soil is ideal for growing small berries with intense flavours. The amount of sunlight is optimum for developing those berries, and Coonawarra’s vines produce grapes ideal for making premium wine.
Named after an Aboriginal word meaning “honeysuckle,” Coonawarra is an isolated region. It is 450 kilometres from Melbourne and 380 kilometers from Adelaide.
Residents mainly focus on winemaking, perhaps because there’s not a lot else to do. The nearest town of Penola with a population of about 1,400 has only a handful of good restaurants. A couple of the estates, such as Hollicks, offer meals.
Other major Australian wine regions like the Barossa Valley are a short drive from Adelaide. This means that people who visit the Coonawarra are generally interested in wine rather than other tourism activities, though Penola has increased in popularity since Mary MacKillop was proclaimed Australia’s first Roman Catholic saint in 2009. She founded an order of nuns in Penola from 1866, making the order older than Coonawarra’s vines.
Locals generally provide a warm welcome because the very act of getting to Coonawarra means you are interested in wine. This is serious wine country and quite traditional, with a concentration on cabernet sauvignon.
Yet in its early years in the 1890s Coonawarra focused on shiraz. Indeed, the region’s oldest vines are shiraz. So we begin with something new as well as old: the inaugural Wynns black label shiraz from the 2010 vintage. Wynns planted shiraz through the 1990s and these vines, now mature, have produced a medium-bodied delight of rich red fruits with aromas of spice and chocolate, held together with quite tight tannins. This is cool-climate winemaking at its best. A wine to enjoy over the next half decade as the tannins soften.
By contrast, the 2010 black label cabernet sauvignon is from the fifty-fifth vintage. Last year I was mainly drinking the 2001 and 2003 editions of this extremely reliable wine. With a decade of age it shows all the qualities and delights of this region’s cabernet: rich textures, aromas of cigar box and truffles, yet still with dark fruits and spices, in a silky structure that has softened with age.
This cabernet is produced from only the best 20 per cent of estate fruit, and is an example of the delights of heritage and tradition.
The above are mid-priced wines. Wynns also makes an entry level wine from a blend of cabernet, shiraz and merlot. The 2011 vintage is the current offering, and is designed for current drinking. In the mouth expect a pleasant combination of raspberries and black currants with a touch of rhubarb.
The first vintage of this wine was made in 1969, and it has subsequently won numerous awards. This is a consistent performer that offers better value than many reds that cost three times as much.
Another consistent performer is the Wynns chardonnay. It was first made in 1981. The 2013 vintage benefits from the region’s long and cool ripening season. It smells and tastes of stone fruits like white peaches and has a pleasant acidity that balances the fruit. Again, drink soon and enjoy a classic wine that would go with a range of foods including dumplings and fried dishes.
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