The pioneer of Australia’s famous Coonawarra region was an enterprising Scotsman, John Riddoch, whose name and image still appears on the label of one of the top wines from the region today.

Riddoch had been drawn to Australia attracted by the lure of the Gold Rush arriving on the Lady Elgin into Melbourne in 1852.  He sold mining equipment on the Victorian goldfields and set up a provisions store in Beechworth selling to miners.  Within eight years he had amassed enough fortune to buy himself a large estate, Yallum Park near Penola, just across the border in South Australia.

So impressed with the fruit grown there, Riddoch set up the Penola Fruit Colony.  He encouraged investors to plant orchards and vines – which later became known as the Coonawarra Fruit Colony – the original name for the area given by the local Pinjunga people.

Riddoch’s first Coonawarra vintage was in 1895 – and within two years he had built himself a large winery and cellar.  The famous ‘terra rossa’ soils of Coonawarra were attracting other settler families – with plots subdivided into 10 to 30 acre holdings – many of which became vineyards.

Since then the isolated Coonawarra region, some 400km from Adelaide and 450km from Melbourne, has had a chequered history with booms and busts, droughts and depression.  Originally Riesling and Shiraz were popular grapes here, but between 1960s and 1980s growers started to realise that the grape that always grew best here was Cabernet Sauvignon.

Today Connawarra’s wine region is 5,841 hectares – and Cabernet Sauvignon makes up 64% of plantings (and 51% of Australia’s entire Cabernet crush).  Today Coonawarra Cabernet offers an incredible brightness of fruit and freshness – but the styles have changed over the years.  In the 1980s wines were ‘leafy’, in the 1990s over-ripe and over-oaked – but since 2000s the wines have been more balanced, pared back to elegance and pure fruit.

So why does Cabernet Sauvignon grow so well here?  According to winemaker Jacinta Jenkins of Balnaves, Coonawarra is one of the coolest places in Australia to ripen Cabernet Sauvignon.  “We are just 50 miles from the Southern Ocean which has cold water from Antartica known as the Bonney Upwelling with water temperatures similar to Tasmania’s eastern coast – and 8 degrees cooler than near Adelaide”, says Jenkins.

“Our winters are cold with enough rainfall to fill our underground acquifers – giving us ample water all summer”, she says.  “Coonawarra is very flat, only with tiny 2 metre undulations, so warm summer evenings are cooled by ocean winds sweeping in across the region ensuring a long progressive ripening period – ideal for flavour and tannin development in Cabernet Sauvignon”.

“It’s the ‘magic dirt’ that we have here that is our key to success”, says Professor Brian Lynn of Majella winery.  “You could grow anything here in Coonawarra – from lemons, apples to grapes – and you can really punch flavour into any fruit”.

The magic dirt is a reddish brown clay-rich ‘terra rossa’ soil layered over limestone, ideal for developing depth of flavour in wines.  This special soil is found in a 20km long and 2km wide strip within the region.  “It is slightly acidic, very free drained with porous limestone bedrock, giving the wines incredible acidity, minerality and elegance – with potential for longevity”, says Lynn.  The area is also phylloxera free, many vines are ungrafted.

There has been a lot of research on the eucalyptus/menthol character which is mentioned so often in tasting notes for Coonawarra Cabernet.  The jury is still out as to whether the proximity of eucalyptus trees to vineyards makes a difference, but it apparently comes from the volatile compound family of cineoles (1,8-cineole) found in Coonawarra fruit, which gives the notes of camphor and spearminty freshness.

Coonawarra offers some of the purest expressions of Cabernet Sauvignon.  “We belong to a special Cabernet Sauvignon club in the world”, says winemaker Tim Heath of the Endeavour Group who make Riddoch The Pastoralist, which recently won International Wine Challenge International Cabernet Sauvignon trophy.

“If you are looking for world renowned Cabernet, you now look to Napa Valley, Margaret River, Walla Walla, Bordeaux and Coonawarra – and in our region you find incredible brightness of fruit, all down to our magic dirt – proof that great wine is the story about site, not winemaking”, says Heath.

Recently Coonawarra has had a run of very consistent vintages from 2019 and 2021 – so it is an ideal time to try their Cabernets.  Listed below are some of the best wines of the region – but if you want a gentle inexpensive introduction to the region’s style – try plummy spicy Morrisons The Best Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon (£10).



£31.99 Selfridges; Cambridge Wine; Whisky Exchange; Latitude Wine for 2018 vintage

Blackcurrant aromas and green pepper notes, elegant length with touch of Petit Verdot adding freshness.


£24 Luvians; Flagship Wines; Noble Green; NY Wines

Big colour, rich ripe red cherry and plums, hint of eucalyptus, juicy freshness in approachable drinkable style – drink now but could last.


£23 Davys Wine for 2019 vintage; £22 Latitude Wine for 2019 vintage

Cedary aromas, soft rounded mouthfeel, vanilla notes, opulent fruit with a fresh finish.


£19.11 reduced from £25 Ashby Wines for 2019 vintage

Savoury earthy notes, restrained soft tannins, red cherries, spicy minty finish


£50 Bancroft Wines

Clear favourite of the tasting; deep dark fruits, cassis notes, beautifully balanced, silky tannins and lingering length made from 35 year old ungrafted vines.  Very good.

Join Rose’s Alsace Winemaker Dinner with Olivier Humbrecht MW of Domaine Zind-Humbrecht at The Peat Inn, Fife on Thurs 7 Dec

By Rose Murray Brown MW   Published in The Scotsman 7 October 2023

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