Coonawarra: More Than Meets The Eye 

By Steve Leszczynski 

Coonawarra needs no introduction. This celebrated wine region is home to world-famous labels draped in history such as Wynns, Bowen, Hollick and Katnook. But today, there’s a buzz of excitement in the air with a new wave of winemakers, movers and shakers making their mark. 

Cabernet sauvignon is still king in Coonawarra – that will never change. But it’s what some of the new generation winemakers are doing that’s reinvigorating this historically blessed town.


Some locals have banded together to make a cider of all things. The Cide Project came about when Jamie and Sally McDonald moved to the UK for a couple of years and fell in love with the fermented apple juice. When they moved back to Penola, they hooked up with Jamie’s parents, Joe Cory (winemaker at Zema Estate) and Steve and Emma Raidis (Raidis Estate). A trial batch of 1000 litres was made in 2015 and production since has increased significantly. The team used no less than 25 varieties of apples and have also planted an additional 250 trees. Not satisfied with their success, the group are now producing their own beer. The brew is made at Corry’s mate’s facility in Melbourne at the moment, with the aim to raise enough funds to build their own brewery in Coonawarra.

What else is new apart from some cider and beer? Check out Raidis Estate. In recent years they have played around with pinot gris, trialling skin contact in separate batches – PG Project Skins and PG Project Oak. The skins projects saw ten days on skins before pressed to barrel for twelve months. A little rest in the bottle before release and it seems more should have been made. The popularity of these wines even took the Raidis’ by surprise. Perhaps Steve Raidis’ laid-back personality was a key contributor here, ensuring that the process wasn’t rushed. On the back of that idea came a red field blend with extended skin contact. Steve’s aim to produce a nouveau style, called Low ‘n’ Slow, also seems to have hit the mark.

Penley Estate have turned around their approach and have engaged the talented Kate Goodman to oversee their winemaking. The interest level in these wines has increased with two new releases that have struck a chord - the Spring Release Cabernet Franc and Wild Shiraz. Wild fermentation took place after the cabernet franc fruit was picked a little earlier than the norm (13% alc). Fruit driven deluxe, there’s not a splinter of oak in sight. Brilliant packaging and labelling seals the deal – a big heavy bottle making a statement with a wax seal for good measure. Walk over broken glass to get your hands on it. And the shiraz? Damn it’s inviting. Vibrant and energetic, the mouth is coated softly and generously. Again, fruit forward and a superb quaff.

Further up the road, good mates Danny Redman and Tim Bailey have produced a smashing field blend too. “The laziest wine I have ever made,” says Danny Redman. Over a beer in late 2016, they decided to create a Coonawarra cabernet expressing juicy and bright fruit ready to leap into now. And leap into it you should – it’s absolutely delicious! A curious take on what’s known as a ‘field blend’, whole bunch shiraz and cabernet franc was handpicked and thrown into a picking bin before being driven two kilometres down the road to have 90% cabernet tipped on top. Blended in the field it was...

Buzzing with this excitement, “This is cabernet as far as we could push it,” Bailey tells me. Minimal intervention was used - punched down morning and evening, the wine spent three months in old oak before being gravity fed to bottle. No additions, fining or filtration. Punch Down Boys Field Blend 2017 was born - Coonawarra cabernet but not as you know it. 

There is some other progression with cabernet too. Balnaves planted some of the first new clones from France, obtained through Yalumba nurseries several years ago. Currently, two crops of ENTAV cabernet sauvignon are in the dirt (338 and 412). A hectare of ENTAV 181 merlot was also planted. Balnaves have been making experimental wines each year. Such trials have enabled them to move towards a fruit forward and drink-early style. 

“This 2016 release shows off the beautiful blueberry accented fruit seen in these clones,” says winemaker Pete Bissell. A touch of petit verdot from new plantings has completed the blend. The wine was cold soaked for 5 days (to enhance colour) followed by 5 days on skins before pressing. Maturation took place in the form of five months in tank and in new Francois Freres large format barrels to give just a little touch of oak. Bissell goes on to say, “We have had a good response especially from younger consumers, so see this wine as something different and an extension of our existing range.”

The old adage ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ still holds with cabernet. Cropping levels are steady, and Sue Hodder from Wynns Coonawarra says, “Rather than trying to keep up with the hipsters, profound investigation of the past has taken place to continue refining vines and wines for the future.” Reflecting on the past has allowed her and her team to inform their current winemaking practices and viticultural decisions. Sure, they have new plantings, new rootstocks and various new clones are being used and trialled but there’s much excitement in the air with the anticipated release of a fortified PX from 100 year old vines. “The fact we can make this style reflects climate change in Coonawarra,” Hodder tells me.

The tourism landscape has changed significantly too. Simon and Kerry Meares moved to Coonawarra from Melbourne, as they saw an opportunity to offer personalised premium tours. In the twelve months they’ve been on the ground, Coonawarra Experiences has raised the bar - showing off the region’s wineries, winemakers and back vintage wines like never before. Picks-ups from the Coonawarra airstrip as well as Mt Gambier, tied in with golf and dinner package options, have ensured anything is possible to ensure guests have a memorable ‘Coonawarra Experience’.

If you’re thinking of visiting, It’s worth keeping your ear to the ground - the rumbles coming out of Coonawarra are nothing but a positive sign.

To read more of Steve’s work, check out Q Wine Reviews!