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Region Overview

Of all the Australian winemaking regions, Coonawarra - which is an Aboriginal word meaning 'honeysuckle' - stands alone in a number of aspects. Most other regions were established close to the major markets such as Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth. Coonawarra, however, is an isolated region 450 kilometres away from both Melbourne and Adelaide, but it's not on the way to either.

Thus, Coonawarra, as a wine region, owes its existence due to its proximity to any major market but to its unique geological and climatic features - ideal for growing vines bearing the highest quality grapes available for making wine.

With a location so isolated in the very south eastern Limestone Coast of South Australia, it is not surprising that Coonawarra has faced a long, hard road towards national and international recognition.

Terra Rossa

Coonawarra's fame comes mostly from a freakish natural phenomenon called the terra rossa. Meaning literally 'red earth', the terra rossa is a low, cigar-shaped ridge of soil some 15 kilometres long and up to 1 kilometre wide. It is, in fact, a section of old seacoast.

About 600,000 years ago, Coonawarra was under water. During that time the earth bore witness to about 12 ice ages. Each new ice age created a new, retreating shoreline and each of these ancient shorelines left a barely visible ridge built up of limestone over sandstone. Coonawarra is one such ridge.

Over the subsequent half-million or so years, a loamy soil formed on the surface as winter rain leached the calcium out of the limestone, and summer sun broke it down and coloured it red by dehydrating and oxidising the iron compounds left behind.

This layer of terra rossa topsoil is rich and free draining but thin - from just 5 centimetres to 100 centimetres deep. It is one of the best soils for growing vines in Australia.

Beneath the terra rossa soil is a band of calcrete: calcium carbonate leached out of the topsoil and redeposited immediately above the limestone. This layer, up to 15 centimetres thick, is usually broken up before vines are planted so that roots can go deeper.

Next is a layer of porous limestone up to 2 metres thick and below that the abundant water table. This subterranean water constantly seeps into the area from mountains situated hundreds, perhaps thousands, of kilometres away.

The vine roots explore the full depth of the terra rossa, but rarely venture into the limestone beneath because of high alkalinity and impenetrability. The excellent water holding capacity of the clay-loam terra rossa sustains the vine until early January, when if no rainfall impacts, the vines start to stress and the shoots stop growing. This naturally creates smaller, well coloured berries that develop in optimal sunlight, and result in low yielding, intensely flavoured grapes, ideal for making premium wine.


The second most important factor is the climate. Like all great wine regions of the world, Coonawarra's climate is cool and marginal. It is South Australia's southernmost wine region, only 80 kms from the chilly southern ocean and cold Antarctic winds.

The winters are cold and wet with most of the annual rainfall falling in the winter months. Spring is cool and often frosty. The mild, dry summers are followed by a long cool autumn. In many respects this is similar to the Medoc region of Bordeaux.

The result of this cool climate is that the vines are assured a long cool ripening period that builds up the intensity of flavours slowly in the grape and ensures a balanced acidity. The resulting wines will always be among Australia's greatest wines for their richness, intensity, depth of flavour and excellent longevity.

Wynns Coonawarra

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.

Cabernet sauvignon is Coonawarra's flagship variety but the region also produces fine reds from shiraz and fine whites from chardonnay and riesling. In particular, the Wynns Coonawarra Estate wines are known as the benchmark from the Coonawarra region.

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Edited December 9, 2007 (diff)

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