Red Centre – Winsor Dobbin visits one of our most remote wine regions.

For a place that’s a mere speck on the map midway between Adelaide and Melbourne, Coonawarra makes a big footprint in the world of wine.

A thin cigar-shaped strip of red soil that runs from the hamlet of Penola in the south along the Riddoch Highway to north of the tiny township of Coonawarra, produces some of Australia’s very best red wines – all in a distance of just 24 kilometres.

Even the occasional wine drinker will be familiar with the big names: Wynns Coonawarra Estate, Bowen Estate, Hollick, Yalumba The Menzies and Brand’s Laira. Throw in family-owned operations such as Rymill, Zema Estate, Majella and Koonara, add great red producers such as Katnook Estate, Leconfield, Balnaves and Parker Coonawarra Estate, and any serious wine lover will be in his
or her element.

The magnificent cabernets and shirazes – and some pretty decent white wines too – are the result of the region’s unique terra rossa land, which has red-brown topsoil sitting on a white limestone base.

“This is the country and it is a small community, but there is a lot of wine heritage here, and a lot of people who really care about wine,” says Wynns Coonawarra Estate chief winemaker Sue Hodder. “I’m here forever because I don’t believe there is anywhere else to match the dirt and vines that we have here.”

French-born Sandrine Gimon, the winemaker at Rymill, is equally enthusiastic. “I love living here because there is a real sense of community,” she says. “The people who live here know each other and work together, while the people who visit really care about the wine – they haven’t just come for a drink.”

Dennis Vice from Highbank agrees. “We are all in competition, but we are not in opposition,” he says. “Everyone tries to promote the region.”

Coonawarra may be flat, and remote, but it remains a magnet for wine lovers throughout the year thanks to a series of annual food and wine festivals that include the Coonawarra Vignerons Cup Race Day festival each January, After Dark each April, the Cellar Dwellers events in June and the Coonawarra Cabernet Celebrations every October.

Penola has a population of 1,200 and Coonawarra is home to just a couple of hundred people – but this is no sleepy backwater. There are almost 30 cellar doors – the latest, Raidis Estate, opened in November – and several spots to eat and drink, including the new Terra Rossa Producers’ Club in Penola, which serves local wines and tapas and built a strong following in just a few weeks.

Just down the road is the Koonara Cellar Door, which also sells kitchen goods and homewares, as well as local produce. It doesn’t get any more country than this.

Among the cellar doors that should be on any visitor’s list are historic Katnook Estate, friendly Zema Estate, rustic Bowen Estate, slick Balnaves and Majella, relaxed and friendly Patrick, and family operations such as Redman, Kidman, Penley Estate, DiGiorgio and Rymill.

You need to make a booking to taste at Highbank, home to some outstanding Bordeaux-style blends, while the iconic Wynns Coonawarra Estate, where blending courses are available by prior appointment, is an absolute must on any itinerary. Kitchen @ The Poplars, meanwhile, offers both food and wine.

Grapes were first grown here in the 1890s and today cabernet sauvignon accounts for 58 per cent of the plantings in this cool-climate region (frost can be a concern until late October each year), followed by shiraz, merlot, chardonnay, riesling and sauvignon blanc, so there are plenty of tasting options – and many of the cellar doors are manned by winemakers such as Greg Clayfield at Zema
Estate, or members of the family.

The Coonawarra Wine Gallery showcase the wines of the Foster’s Group including the Penfolds, Mildara, Lindemans and Rosemount Estate labels, while the Yalumba The Menzies uses innovative signage to tell the story of its wines. Must @ Coonawarra, Merlot and Verdelho Townhouses, Punters Vineyard Retreat, Yalumba The Menzies Retreat, the Alexander Cameron Motel and Chardonnay Lodge all offer excellent accommodation in and around the vines – and there are also several excellent self-catering cottages from which to choose.

You don’t need to spend a fortune to drink well either, with Wynn’s Coonawarra Shiraz (sub $20) and Hollick 2006 Cabernet Merlot (sub $25) being two of the many bargain buys.

Any non-wine lovers in the group can visit the John Riddoch Centre in Penola to discover the region’s history, or the Mary MacKillop Penola Centre, devoted to the life and work of the woman who is poised to become Australia’s first saint – but most visitors will be more than happy just to sample the many wondrous cellar door offerings and enjoy the company of the region’s locals.

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