The pursuit of sub-regional distinctions within Coonawarra remains inhibited by scars from a protracted legal battle over the region’s original boundaries.
“We all know who were born here that there are different regions of Coonawarra but we haven’t got around to formalising that yet,” said Brian “Prof” Lynn, owner of Majella Wines.
Coonawarra’s famous terra rossa
As one of those who acted as an expert witness during the 10 year period of litigation that surrounded Coonawarra’s current Geographical Indication boundaries until a final decision was made in 2005, Lynn admitted: “The wounds about the GI are still a bit raw.”
His feelings were supported cautiously by Sue Hodder, winemaker at Wynns, which accounts for around 15% of Coonawarra’s total grape harvest, making this Treasury Wine Estates subsidiary the region’s largest producer.
“We see a lot of difference in our own wines, but it needs to be done carefully – a lot of people have their own ideas,” she said of the case for creating sub-regional distinctions.
“At the moment Allen [Jenkins, Wynns’ viticulturalist] and I have been concentrating on understanding the distinctions in our own vineyards,” outlined Hodder. “We’ve already had controversy with the boundaries so we don’t want any more. That said, we still want to talk about the differences in our own sites and tell that story in the best possible way.”
For Hodder, the current priority focus lies in furthering her company’s understanding of its flagship Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz varieties. “There’s still a lot to do with those two grapes,” she remarked. “We have new plantings, we have to understand new clones and rootstocks, and work out how the sustainable approach to viticulture plays out.”
In addition, Hodder continued, “We’re working on some projects with tannin – a lot of that has been inspired by Wynns’ wines from the ‘60s. Those wines with low oak levels, bright fruit and moderate alcohol have aged so gracefully, we know they don’t have to be blockbuster wines to express the best of the region.”
Outlining his own, more forthright position, Lynn explained: “We were protagonists for keeping Coonawarra small. We lost, but we didn’t lose completely. Coonawarra is bigger than it should be but it’s not as big as it could be.”
Referring to the terra rossa soil at the heart of his region’s reputation, Lynn argued: “True Coonawarra is a strip of land 35 kilometres long and about 2-3km wide,” an area less than half the size of the region currently defined as Coonawarra.
“The best stuff comes from the terra rossa by far,” he insisted. “Second best is some soil to the east – it’s not as good as terra rossa, but it’s better than the black soil to the west. Some of those grapes still aren’t ripe.”
As a result of this variation across the region, Lynn advised: “If you are offered wine from Coonawarra then do your due diligence. Ask where on the strip it comes from, just like you’d do in Bordeaux.”