Coonawarra, one of Australia's best-known wine regions, began as a grazing range.  Settlers who came from other parts of Australia and from Scotland bought up land in order to raise sheep.  Somewhere along the way, an enterprising farmer noticed a strip of land with paprika-red soil.  Today, that famously red earth, Coonawarra's terra rossa, is the foundation of the region's fame.

Coonawarra History

Coonawarra's winemaking history begins in 1891, when John Riddoch, an enterprising Scottish wine merchant who got his start digging for gold, planted grapevines at his Penola Fruit Colony in South Australia.  The vines prospered, as did the area.  Penola Fruit Colony was renamed Coonawarra in 1897.  For many years, a group of local winemakers made table wines, mainly from shiraz, without attracting much notice.  The Redman family's winery was the only one to last through the difficult times of world wars and the Great Depression; John Riddoch's winery became a distillery and other wineries simply shut their doors.

Not until Samuel Wynn bought John Riddoch's wine estate in 1951 was Coonawarra's potential for greatness fully realized.  With the revival of Australia's table wine industry came experimentation with red wine grape varieties.  Wynn and other wine producers quickly realized that Coonawarra was perfect for growing cabernet sauvignon – something almost magical happened when cabernet grapes grew in that unusual soil – and capitalized on this discovery.  Today, Coonawarra's top cabernet sauvignon wines bring home awards from international and Australian wine competitions.

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Geography, Soil and Climate

Coonawarra is far from any large metropolitan area; Adelaide is the nearest big city and, at 230 miles away, it's not very close at all.  The wine region is in the southeasternmost part of the state of South Australia, in the area known as Australia's Limestone Coast.  The area around Coonawarra and Penola, the town south of Coonawarra, is marshy; in fact, Penola's name derives from an aboriginal word that means "big swamp," according to wine writer Oz Clarke.  Aside from the limestone ridge that contains the region's all-important red soil, Coonawarra is quite flat.

Coonawarra's terra rossa runs through a strip of land about 9 miles long and just over a mile wide, sometimes called "the cigar" because of its shape.  The soil is a beautiful rusty red color.  It covers a limestone bed, which, in turn covers an underground water table.  The water table itself is near the surface, just 15 feet underground.  The terra rossa sits on top of a long ridge of limestone.  Beyond the terra rossa, Coonawarra's soils are mainly black or brown rendzina.  The black rendzina does not drain well and is thus less suitable for growing grapes.  Growers do plant grapes in the brown rendzina soils here.

Coonawarra's climate is mainly maritime.  Summers are cool and dry, with an average temperature of 66 degrees Fahrenheit, while winters are damp and cold.  Winter temperatures average 50 degrees Fahrenheit Coonawarra receives an average of 23 inches of rain per year.  Frost can be a problem during the spring months.  Clouds can cover the sky during the period when the grapes are ripening.

Coonawarra Wine Grape Varieties

Coonawarra is mainly known for its red wines, but you'll also find white wine grapes here.  Chardonnay is the most popular white wine grape variety.  Riesling, sauvignon blanc, semillon, viognier and pinot gris are also planted here.

Most Coonawarra vineyards are planted in red wine grape varieties, primarily cabernet sauvignon.  Shiraz and merlot are also widely planted.  Pinot noir, merlot, petit verdot, cabernet franc and even malbec are planted in Coonawarra as well.

Visiting Coonawarra Wineries

Because Coonawarra is far from Australia's larger cities and has fewer wineries than many other well-know regions, tourism is less important here than in, say, the Yarra Valley.  That doesn't mean that visitors are unwelcome – far from it.  Coonawarra has more Cellar Doors than it does wineries, and several winery properties entice visitors to prolong their visit with attractively-appointed guest rooms and cottages.

For example, Punters Corner's Retreat offers four bedrooms and a living area with kitchen, barbecue, dining room and lounge.  You can book one or more bedrooms for your visit.  Highbank rents a cottage and larger villa at Honeysuckle Rise.  This artisan winery also offers tastings by appointment only.  While Yalumba is better known for its wine estate in Barossa, its Menzies Vineyard opened in Coonawarra a few years ago.  The Menzies offers wine tastings and bed and breakfast accommodations.

Of course, you may prefer to visit a sampling of Cellar Doors in Coonawarra.  They're easy to find because this wine region is relatively small.  For a glimpse of history, stop at Redman Wines; the Redman family has been making wine here in Coonawarra since 1909.  You can continue your journey back in time with a visit to Wynns Coonawarra Estate, the winery located on John Riddoch's property.  Wynns offers tastings at its Cellar Door and will soon be offering "Make Your Own Blends" tours, during which you will tour the winery and create a personally-blended bottle of wine.  Majella Wines' award-winning selection includes an unusual sparkling shiraz.

Coonawarra's Future

Coonawarra has all the attributes of a world-class wine region, including a distinctive terroir and dedicated winemakers.  You would think that all would be smooth sailing, given the international recognition Coonawarra wines attract, but you'd be wrong.

Development is a constant threat in Coonawarra.  In summer 2009, an effort by the Wattle Range Council to exercise eminent domain in order to build a truck bypass on terra rossa vineyard properties was defeated after a lengthy battle.  The water table, so important to growers, currently has a high nitrate level and increasingly high salinity.  Agricultural and irrigation practices have definitely had adverse effects on Coonawarra's water quality, and what affects the water table affects the grapes.

Another hot-button issue is the demarcation of the Coonawarra wine region itself.  Critics argue that the region's borders encompass soils that aren't truly Coonawarran and thus affect the quality of wines from Coonawarra as a whole.  Supporters claim that growers from Coonawarra have always sold their grapes under the Coonawarra name, and it is unfair to belatedly take the name away and dilute their profits.  In the end, the burden falls on the consumer to learn about wine estates in Coonawarra, which isn't necessarily a bad thing – consumers have been working to decipher German wine labels for years, so they can certainly research Coonawarra wines.

In the final analysis, everything comes back to Coonawarra's unique asset, the terra rossa.  The soil and climate marry perfectly with the cabernet sauvignon grape, creating a "synergy" exclusive to Coonawarra.  Quality and care will win out in the end; committed wine producers will always work to achieve excellence, particularly when they know they're working under near-perfect conditions.  It is safe to say that discerning wine lovers will be buying and enjoying Coonawarra wines for years to come.