Redman and Balnaves release a special wine

(Left to right) Dan Redman, Pete Balnaves, Doug Balnaves, Mal Redman, Bruce Redman, Mike Redman, Kirsty Balnaves, Peter Bissell. (Photo: Redman Wines)

It’s a great story: two of Coonawarra’s best-known families, the Redmans and the Balnaves, who are distantly related, put their best grapes together to blend a special wine to commemorate their common ancestor.

“We’re not making this wine to throw at China. It’s for Australia. History is important.” – Peter Bissell

That ancestor is one William Wilson, who was a gardener and expert of growing things, who just happens to have advised the Coonawarra wine region’s founding father John Riddoch on the best soil in which to plant his first grapevines. Wilson’s cottage is one of several that remain in Penola, preserved in the town’s heritage street, Petticoat Lane.

The exact date is unclear, but it is believed Wilson was born in 1816, 200 years before the wine that bears his name was vintaged. That wine is the 2016 William Wilson Coonawarra Shiraz Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine that will retail for AUD $300. Just 250 dozen were produced, blended 55% from 85-year-old vine Redman shiraz and 45% Balnaves 45-year-old vine cabernet sauvignon. And it is a stunning wine, at least as good as any of the wave of super-duper flagship Australian red wines to appear in recent years.

I believe it will help light the path for other would-be icon-quality wines from Coonawarra, a region that desperately needs more icon wines. Coonawarra has in recent years lost a large share of the spotlight to newer regions such as Margaret River. Wines like this attract attention.

The idea came from Doug Balnaves, a student of history who according to his daughter Kirsty, spends a lot of time in the State Library of South Australia.

On October 13, during the annual Coonawarra cabernet celebration weekend, Balnaves visitors will be able to taste the wine and be treated to an event: Heritage, Haggis and Headstones. Doug Balnaves, who is head of the Balnaves winery and a well-known player of the bagpipes, will pipe prospective buyers to the grave of William Wilson, which is in the old Penola cemetery, next-door to Raidis Estate, and give them a slice of haggis. (A perfect match with Coonawarra shiraz cab?)

The confusion over Wilson’s birth year stems from the fact that the gravestone bears the year 1816, but one history book quotes 1819 and other research came up with 1818. The families went with the gravestone.

So, how are the two families related? The current generation of Redmans (Daniel and Michael) and Balnaves (Kirsty and Peter) are all great great great grandchildren of William Wilson.

“There was never any doubt what style the wine would be,” says Balnaves chief winemaker Pete Bissell. “It had to be an old-style claret.”

In other words, the sort of red wine early 20th century Coonawarra winemaker Bill Redman and his son Owen Redman made. In truth, weighing in at 14.5%, it is quite a bit richer than those wines, which were normally just 12 to 12.5% alcohol. But it does possess the kind of restraint, structure, elegance and ageworthiness of traditional Coonawarra red wine. Oak is subtly played, and there is certainly no added tannin.

The bottle comes bedded in a beautifully designed box accompanied by some history, and the elegantly designed label features a remarkably good photograph of Wilson, suitably dressed in a bow-tie and bowler hat. Wilson died in 1891, when photography was still quite a recent invention.

The closure is also traditional cork – wax-dipped using very up-to-date techniques. In deference to mod-Oz sensibilities about cork, the closure is an NDT, which stands for Non-Detectable TCA.

Bissell adds:

“We’re not making this wine to throw at China. It’s for Australia. History is important. We sometimes get infatuated with the new, the young and the weird, but this is acknowledging the past.”

I can only add ‘Hear, hear!’

*The William Wilson Shiraz Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 is on sale at Balnaves and Redman cellar doors as of September 1, and can be ordered from their websites.

*Some of William Wilson’s story is recorded in Peter Rymill’s superb work “Penola and Coonawarra from Foundation to Federation”, released last year. It sells for AUD $20 in the Penola IGA – surely the best value history book anywhere.

A video about the wine:

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