Coonawarra wine; thoughts from another era

It is no secret that I enjoy reading old wine books.  This time it is Coonawarra a Vignoble by Doctor W.S. Benwell published in 1973.  I’ve extracted a few paragraphs that I think are rather fascinating typing this post 41 years later.

Dr Benwell on Coonawarra’s potential (p11):

“But it is Wynn and Mildara who have staked heavily, and confidently on this quite small piece of wine soil.  Both hold the view that the best dry wines in Australia, red or white, will come from Coonawarra.  It is no surprise therefore that the two choicest wine grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon and Rhine Riesling [riesling] are the favoured varieties.  There is no longer any doubt among vignerons, wine makers, merchants, judges and wine drinkers.  Coonawarra has lifted the whole concept of wine excellence in Australia.”

I very much enjoy Coonawarra’s wines, but I am not at all sure the same consensus would be reached today.

Dr Benwell on Coonawarra and its terra rossa soil (p40):

“Coonawarra is a confined viticultural space.  There can be no suburban spread, no ribbon development.  Once off the terra rossa, the soil is sour dead stuff, just no place for choice vines.  The select area, much of it still under grass, will eventually carry vines – more vines than you can see today.  But finally it will be covered, and that will be it.  Fortress Coonawarra.”

The legal boundaries of Coonawarra proved a fertile ground (pun unintended, but I’ll accept it) for disputes for many years to come.  The following article tracks the litigation in painstaking detail.

Dr Benwell on Coonawarra and its suitability for “appellation controllee” wines (p41):

“Of all the things a consumer likes to know about his wine, the thing he likes most is a reliable statement about its place of origin.  Australian bottles are apt to carry assertions, manifestos, technical secrets of little importance (‘This wine was stored in oak hogsheads for eighteen months and then bottled for a further period of maturation’), and often some insinuations about your palate if you fail to find the wine superb.  In passing we have coined some baffling expressions such as ‘soft tannin finish’, ‘brandyfied spirit’, and quite a bit of shaky label-grammar.  None of this is Appellation Controllée and if the wine drinker is ever to enjoy anything better, then Coonawarra might provide him with the first officially reliable wine label that the country has ever had.”  

I must admit I rather agree with the sentiments regarding some of the remarkable statements that can appear on wine labels.  It’s not unique to Australian wine though.  In terms of Australia more generally migrating from the current geographically defined system of wine regions to an appellation controllée regime, I mused on that topic on this site some years ago in 2010.  My view remains similar today, namely that for various reasons, it may be more effort than it is worth but it is still worthy of thought.  (I note that my links in that post, which were intended to be helpful, appear to have been defeated by changes over the years to the various reference websites linked.)

On the future of Coonawarra (p42):

“The expected state of the entire Australian wine market in 1980 [writing in 1973] is in fact not at all clear.  After a century of privilege, the Australian consumer recently found his wine glass shaking visibly from a swift upward rising price … Meanwhile, out in the world of the entrepreneurs, viticulture, which until just the other day was regarded as something not far removed from philately, began making profitable noises.  Almost overnight great and famous vineyards began disappearing into the embrace of people who have been notable for the production of petrol, metal polish, paper and antiseptics.  Coonawarra has not escaped, for Lindeman’s and Wynn’s are now the property of enterprises which make, among other things – beer.  All this may turn out to be a good thing, but to that most peculiar individual – the wine lover – these reports carry certain connotations which make him uneasy.”

“[Coonawarra’s] revival and emergence face the new economics of take-over and diversification, and whether Coonawarra will become established as a great vignoble in the hands of vignerons, or a wine production area as an item on a prospectus, is not certain.”  

The Coonawarra region produces great wine and I very much enjoy its style.  But could it do better?  Should it in fact be Australia’s pre-eminent wine region and well known all over the world?  Fairly or not, to an extent, perhaps some of Mr Benwell’s fears have come to pass.

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