Coonawarra is only 7.5 miles long and 1.2 miles wide, but its wines more than make up for its small size. The first vines were planted in Coonawarra (which means "honeysuckle" in the native Aboriginal language) in 1890. But it wasn’t until the 1950s that Coonawarra got serious about producing good wine. Two families led the way — the Wynn family, who released the first vintage of Coonawarra wine in 1896, and the Penfolds, both of whom produce high-quality wines in the region, as well as in other areas of Australia, today. The region lies only 37 miles inland from the coast, so it benefits from the cooling effects of the ocean, much like Bordeaux, Napa Valley, and other top wine-growing regions around the world. Coonawara is known for its terra rosa soil, a bright red clay soil overlaying limestone. Besides being striking to look at, this soil is perfect for cabernet sauvignon and shiraz vines, which dig their roots deep into it. However, only a small portion of Coonawarra is made up of terra rosa — the rest is a black, poorly drained soil that produces much weaker wines. The 1990s were filled with ugly lawsuits between neighbors as "black soil" producers sued for the right to use the Coonawarra name. Some vineyards are now cut down the middle by the line delineating the region.
Cabernet sauvignon is the standout star of the Coonawarra, producing structured wines with blackberry, black plum, green tobacco, and green herb flavors and aromas. Shiraz also does very well here, and was the main grape grown in Coonawarra for much of the region’s history. Coonawarra shiraz is known for its classic rich red and black fruit and sweet spice flavors like cinnamon and clove.
Wines we recommend:
WOLF BLASS "Gold Label" Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 (Coonawarra) $26
HARDYS "Thomas Hardy" Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 (Coonawarra) $89
WYNNS "Coonawarra Estate" Shiraz 2011 (Coonawarra) $15
PENFOLDS "Bin 128" Shiraz 2011 (Coonawarra) $29