To the north of the town of Penola, you will find the famous 14 km long strip of terra rosa soils of the Coonawarra which have produced excellent red wines for the past century. Along the road from Penola to Coonawarra (a distance of only 7 km) there are a total of 21 wineries.
Where is it?: Coonawarra is a comfortable four and a half hour drive from Melbourne and a four hour drive from Adelaide via Princes Highway. It is on the the scenic route between Adelaide and Melbourne via the world renowned Great Ocean Road. The nearest Airport to Coonawarra is located in Mt Gambier, a handy thirty minute drive south. Regional Express (REX) Airlines service Mt Gambier daily.
The Coonawarra is located in the Limestone Coast region to the south east of Adelaide. The region has gained a reputation in recent years as a culinary delight which is complimented by a relaxed, friendly lifestyle enjoyed by the locals. As home to Australia's Rock Lobster Capital, the Limestone Coast's crayfish harvested from the cold waters of the Southern Ocean is a sought-after delicacy. Inland, the harvests ranges from spring lamb and grain-fed beef to spring water barramundi, not to mention the produce from the Coonawarra - one of Australia's premium red wine producing regions.
A diversity of parks and reserves are located within a short distance of each other, but can vary so dramatically that you could be forgiven for thinking you have travelled to another country. Coastal beaches and inland lakes are popular for water sports of all types, whether it be surfing, swimming, sailing, or scuba diving along the Shipwreck Trail.
Over the years, the Limestone Coast has provided inspiration for a number of well-known writers. Among them is the man regarded by many as the nation's greatest lyric poet, John Shaw Neilson. Another famous poet who lived in the region is the balladeer Adam Lindsay Gordon, who is the only Australian to be installed in the Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey. Their works remain popular to this day, but while they provide an extraordinary insight into life more than a century ago, the history of the Limestone Coast stretches back much further than that.
About The Coonawarra
With its rich red Terra Rossa soil and passionate winemakers, the Coonawarra region can't help but make fine wine. Coonawarra is synonymous with classy Cabernet Sauvignon, full of plum and blackcurrant fruit. So much so, that successes with other grape varieties are often overlooked. In the early days Shiraz was the most widely-planted grape, and it produces some top class wines. With Cabernet Sauvignon the undoubted star today, the region is renowned for the production of some of Australia's greatest red wines from Shiraz, Petit Verdot, Pinot Noir, Malbec and Merlot grapes. White grape varieties include Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling and Semillon. Covering an area of just 15km x 2km north of Penola, Coonawarra lies on a shallow limestone ridge, raising it above the swampy land either side - it is no coincidence that the Riddoch Highway follows this ridge as carters sought the firmest ground in times past.
The secret to Coonawarra's wine making success is its Terra Rossa soil, a red-brown topsoil laid over a thin layer of calcrete (calcium carbonate) sitting on a white limestone base. This soil gives the wine its terrior or flavour of the soil. Black soil areas are interspersed amongst the Terra Rossa and these soils produce quite different wines. The Coonawarra terra rossa soil is one of the most famous terroirs in the New World and is one of the best soils for growing vines in Australia. This soil is clearly visible on aerial photos. Being just 60km from the sea, Coonawarra has a somewhat maritime climate not dissimilar to Bordeaux in France. Coonawarra lies well south of latitude 37 and it has a cooler climate than many of the other Australian grape-growing regions. This cooler climate results in a much longer ripening season, which in turn produces excellent fruit flavours, and unique tannin structure.
The first vineyard was planted in the 1880s at Yallum, a property established by John Riddoch primarily for sheep grazing. It was Riddoch who recognized the abundance of under ground water, Mediterranean type climate and Terra Rossa soil all combined to provide excellent fruit growing conditions. The region did not establish its reputation as a viticultural area until the 1950s, however, when Wynns and Penfolds purchased acreage on the back of a resurgence in the table wine market. Investment by large and small companies led to expansion, securing Coonawarrra's status as a great wine region which was founded on the pioneering work of vignerons like John and Owen Redman of Rouge Homme.
Vineyards in Coonawarra's very limited Terra Rossa soil have become highly sought after in Australia, making them the most expensive in the country at approximately $100,000 per hectare. Wynns Coonawarra Estate owns approximately 70% of the vineyards planted on the Terra Rossa soil (which is the lion's share, the most any producer owns) and as the pioneer of the region, also has the oldest vines. The Coonawarra has 31 wineries in total, 25 of which offer cellar door tastings and wine sales. The quality of the product and the passion of the winemakers is reason enough for any wine lover to include a Coonawarra stopover on a road trip between Adelaide and Melbourne. It affords the opportunity to sample some of the world's most acclaimed red wines at their place of origin.
Geology: Until about 1 million years ago the entire South East of South Australia was covered by the waters of the Great Southern Ocean. Since that time, geological activity which is raising this land at about the rate of 1.0 cm per 100 years, coupled with variations in the polar ice caps have caused the ocean to retreat westward. Over thousands of years erosion and air-borne dust have laid down the famous Coonawarra 'terra rossa' soil. Travelling westward from Coonawarra to the coast, you cross 13 former coastlines which have become stranded by the rising land mass and receding oceans and are now low ranges. The limestone that underlies the area is porous and has an excellent water holding capacity providing an excellent source of supplementary water during dry periods.