Which grape variety is best suited to Coonawarra?

Coonawarra wine region (Photo: Jacob’s Creek Wines)

This question was posed to me recently by Peter Rymill, founder of the Rymill winery and great grandson of the father of Coonawarra, John Riddoch.

His question was:

“I am writing a book on the early history of Penola and Coonawarra, and wonder if I may ask you, which grape variety do you consider to be the best suited to Coonawarra?”

At first glance, the answer seems obvious. Cabernet sauvignon. That’s what Coonawarra is most famous for.

However, shiraz has historically been more important. The early wines, through Bill Redman’s time including the wines he made for Woodleys, were all or mostly shiraz. And today, the biggest selling Coonawarra wines are shirazes: Wynns White Label Shiraz and Penfolds Bin 128.

It is said that Wynns Shiraz is Coonawarra’s biggest selling premium wine, but no-one at Treasury is giving the numbers away.

Either consciously or unconsciously, it has been part of Coonawarra’s strategy to position itself as a cabernet region. After all, there’s little to be gained from any region promoting itself on its shiraz, as there are so many regions that excel with shiraz.

Shiraz produces consistently great wines in at least 25 Australian wine regions, whereas cabernet is much more choosy where it puts its roots. There are probably 10 great cabernet regions – less than half as many – so we tend to make a disproportionate fuss of the regions where it excels.

Wynns has been much in the news lately with its 60th release of Black Label Cabernet. Wynns owns the best vineyard land in the district and the best of that land is planted increasingly to cabernet. But I’m sure there are many places in Coonawarra where cabernet is not the best variety.

Again focusing on Wynns, its best wines are always cabernet sauvignon, and if shiraz was better suited to the region, we might expect Wynns’ best wine would consistently be a shiraz.

So to return to Peter Rymill’s question, cabernet makes the more distinguished wines in the region. But, if the boot was on the other foot, and shiraz was both rarer and more prized in this country than cabernet, we might have seen Coonawarra concentrating more on shiraz than cabernet.

Rymill points out that ‘Viticulture and Environment’ author John Gladstones places shiraz in Group 5 (a group of regions based on climate), which is cooler than Group 6, where he places cabernet.

“This suggests we should be growing shiraz, and leave cabernet to the warmer regions to the north – which the industry seems to have got back to front,” Rymill writes.

“Add to that, I prefer drinking Coonawarra shiraz to cabernet, which makes me wonder what the general opinion will be in 100 years’ time!”

A quick email asking Wynns chief winemaker Sue Hodder what is Wynns’ and the region’s biggest selling wine brought this reply:

“Regarding Wynns, some years it is the Shiraz and other years it is the Cabernet Shiraz Merlot – depending on quality, volumes etc. To the best of my knowledge, they are bigger than Bin 128.”

Food for thought.

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