New blood in Coonawarra

Two new ventures in Coonawarra are staking their chips on the wine industry’s future in vastly different ways. Coonawarra Jack is a monster new start-up which oozes entrepreneurial confidence; Raidis Estate is a boutique-sized operation with no winery, making fine wines from its own small vineyards. Both are family-owned, Coonawarra Jack by the Lees family, the other by the Raidis family.

At a time when almost nobody in the winemaking industry is in expansion mode, the Lees family’s bold ambition might seem positively rash. They bought a 12,000-tonne winery in Coonawarra and a 300-hectare vineyard near Mildura which they plan to soon boost to 400 hectares.

Adrian Lees, who has spent his working life growing tomatoes and nuts in the Riverland, bought the winery which was formerly known as The Poplars (tastings), and before that Jamieson’s Run (tastings) and even earlier, Mildara. He bought it from receivership so no doubt it was a bargain. It’s a good time to be buying infrastructure in the wine business, because there are a lot of assets for sale, few buyers, and prices are rock-bottom.

The winery has been reborn as Coonawarra Jack, and the Lees family, with Adrian’s son Matthew running day to day operations, have hurried a few wines onto the market, two reds they bought as readymade wines and two whites which they made themselves in the 2012 harvest.

In their first vintage, with young winemaker Shannon Sutherland manning the pumps, the Lees (good name for a wine family) put through 4,000 tonnes. None of it was off their own vines: they had a windfall no-one could have dreamt up. The Riverina had a terrible flood during the 2012 vintage and one of the nation’s biggest wineries, Casella, was under water for weeks on end. Coonawarra Jack landed the job of processing much of the Casella grape intake from south-eastern South Australia. “It was a unique opportunity,” admits Adrian Lees.

In the beginning, Lees intended to grow grapes only. “It was diversification,” he says. “Something new. We bought the vineyard as a grower, but it’s not easy to sell grapes, so we decided to get into winemaking. Contract processing was a big incentive (The Poplars was already doing a lot of that) and we have 15 customers, mainly biggies, including Casella. And we got good prices for our 2012 fruit and very good quality, too.”

Lees is no stranger to large-scale agriculture, nor to exporting, which is where much of his nut crop goes. He has 1,200 hectares of almonds at Lake Cullulleraine in the Riverland, and 20 of walnuts. He’s also into broad-acre cereal cropping. Before the profitability went out of them, he was a tomato grower for 30 years. Like the winery, the vineyard was bought out of receivership, from one of the big Managed Investment Schemes that went belly-up. Asked why he wanted to plant more vines at such a time, Lees says 100 hectares are already trellised and ready for planting, so he might as well finish the job.

The winery – which has a battery of 30 massive rotary fermenters visible from the main road – is rated at 12,000 tonnes but word has it that previous owner Foster’s put 14,000 through it in 2008. The Lees bought it on July 1, 2011.

Their new wines are just a toe in the water, so they have something to sell: a 2012 Limestone Coast sauvignon blanc ($18 – tasting), 2012 Coonawarra chardonnay ($19), 2010 Coonawarra shiraz and cabernet (both $20). The whites are pleasant light, pure-fruit wines; the reds are more than serviceable. The cellar door with café and new wines officially opened its doors to the public on the October Coonawarra cabernet celebration weekend. We can expect to hear a lot more about Coonawarra Jack.

At the opposite end of the size spectrum is Raidis Estate. Chris and Fran Raidis originally used Coonawarra’s famous terra rossa soil for market gardening. But locals such as Doug Balnaves and Doug Bowen told them “That soil’s too good for growing veggies!” and inspired them to plant vines. Now the Home Block cabernet sauvignon vines are 21 years old and they have second vineyard south of Penola township, and a cellar door on the main road which was officially opened by Julia Gillard in 2009.

The Raidis family claim to be the first Greeks in Coonawarra – just as the Zemas were the first Italians. “We used to swap feasts,” says Steve Raidis, son of the founders. “We’d go over to their place and eat Italian, and they’d come to ours and eat Greek. It was Greek one week, Italian the next.”

Raidis Estate (tastings), headed up by Steve and his wife Emma, sell an excellent range of wines, all made from their own grapes and vinified at Rymill, except the shiraz and riesling which are made at nearby Leconfield. There’s a slightly zany goat theme in their labeling: the riesling for instance is branded The Kid (tastings).

Pinot gris is not widely grown in Coonawarra but Raidis’s 2012 (tasting) is very good, in a richly textured, fully-ripe 14 per cent alcohol style. There’s also a sauvignon blanc, a remarkably good 2010 merlot ($25 – tasting), cabernet sauvignon (the up-coming 2010 (tasting) is a cracker) and a flagship cabernet-based blend called The Trip. The 2008 ($38) is a chocolaty blockbuster (tasting). The 2012 riesling ($19) is exceptional and intensely fragrant.

Steve says people warned him not to plant merlot, but there’s a good market for it. It sells well. Because it’s a temperamental variety, though, he won’t make one every year. “People are surprised,” he says. “They say ‘It’s not what I thought merlot tasted like’.” Which is all good: pinot gris and merlot make a welcome addition to the usual varieties. The Coonawarra landscape is changing – in subtle ways.


First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Food – 20 November 2012.

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