Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Coonawarra Calls

With Melbourne and the Great Ocean Road behind us, it was time to dedicate ourselves to the new task at hand - taking in as much Australian wine country as we could in our remaining time.

We hoisted our Canucks car flag and left the coastal roads for a whole new series of landscapes. We figured we'd fly the team colours for as long as the boys remained in the playoffs. We were hoping to log a lot of miles with that flag flying high. Our first stop on the long-awaited Down Under Wine Tour was Coonawarra. We'd toyed with the idea of driving straight through to the Barossa Valley from Warrnambool but the thought of two eight-hour days of driving in a row seemed a bit much. Coonawarra wasn't only a good stop along the way, it was a chance to get in a little first hand experience in one of Australia most iconic wine regions.

Located almost halfway between Adelaide and Melbourne, the Coonawarra is found about 60 kms in from the coast and is thought to have weather patterns that are quite similar to those of Bordeaux. Although the first vines were planted in the region in 1890, there was only one producer of table wines from 1900 to 1950. The arrival of the 1950's saw the advent of investment and the expansion of local vineyards. By this time, the Coonawarra's famous terra rossa soils were discovered as being ideal for growing premium grapes. The underlying limestone may not have been so good for conventional farming, but the combination was sure ideal for grapes, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon - the varietal that has pretty much become synonymous with Coonawarra. The rest is history.

With more than 30 wineries in the region now, we had to hustle because we only had a couple of hours to explore. Realizing we couldn't really manage any extensive tours or tastings, we simply set out to visit and briefly taste our way through an assortment of known and previously undiscovered wineries. Having met the charming Brian and Ros Lynn at this spring's Vancouver Playhouse Wine Festival, Majella was the pre-determined starting point. Unfortunately, I knew that the Lynn's were going to be out of the country when we were passing through, but I also knew we'd be in good hands and, sure enough, we were offered the opportunity to try the entire line-up of wines. Good thing our hotel was just down the road.

Coonawarra's terra rossa soils now comprise one of the world's most famous terroirs, but those shallow soils are only found on a narrow limestone ridge that's about 15 kms by 2 kms. Swampy, poorly draining lands are found on either side of the ridge. I was surprised at how small the region actually was and, indeed, we were a bit confused when we found a block of barren dirt, with sheep on it, just outside of the Majella winery. We were told that the change in soil can be so abrupt that certain sections of the vineyard are just not worth planting. You might be able to pull off a decent crop over an ideal season - but encounter a wetter than normal weather pattern and your entire crop is more than likely shot.

Knowing that a good selection Majella's wines are available back home, we managed to forestall any purchases. We knew that the toughest part of this trip was going to be trying to cope with Canada Customs' ridiculous limit of two bottles per person when returning home. That and the luggage limits we were going to face flying home.

Majella led to Brand's Laira, which, in turn, led to Punter's Corner to Bowen Estate and, finally, Balnaves - each winery was quite different from the other despite the close proximity. Brand's Laira is part of the McWilliam's juggernaut and its 700 some odd acres are home to 99 year old Shiraz vines and old vine Cab Sauv, but just down the road, we ran across family-owned, small producer Bowen Estate. Balnaves also merited a visit since we'd tried one of its wines at dinner the other night at Bruce and Shelia's home.

We were fortunate that it was a Thursday afternoon, the Australian vintage was pretty much over and we were visiting after all of the kids had been called back to school. It meant we were often the only visitors at the cellar door and it allowed for some interesting - and definitely more extensive - visits. At Brand's Laira, our hostess called out winemaker, Peter Weinberg, and we toured the adjacent wine shed where 91 year old past owner, Eric Brand, has been storing wine for decades. More of a museum than a cellar, we couldn't help but offer our assistance in helping them drink through some of those endless bottles. After all, at 91, Mr. Brand is going to have to do some pretty decent quaffing in the days and months to come if he's got any desire to put a dent in all that wine. We couldn't convince of the merit to our offer, but Peter did tell us that he's only had two days off in the last two months; so, we were thrilled that he took a nice chunk of his day to chat us up.

Ultimately, our window of opportunity to visit came to an end and we had to make our way back to our room. Our return did allow us to pop the cork on one of our buys from the afternoon. Knowing fully well that we had another three wine regions to go and that we couldn't take much wine home with us, we still grabbed a good six bottles or so - with the understanding and hope that we were could drink some along the way.

1114. 2006 Punter's Corner Shiraz (Coonawarra - Australia)

It's always a goal of mine to visit wineries who's wines I likely won't encounter back home in Vancouver. I certainly don't think that I've ever run across Punter's Corner previously -understandable, given the fact that they only produce a total of around 7000 cases a year. Despite the limited production and Canadian profile, the winery has been awarded five stars by Aussie wine writer, James Halliday, the highest ranking Halliday gives out.

Established in 1988, the winery shares much of its day-to-day operations with Balnaves. They share the same winemaker and Balnaves is involved with the management of Punter's Corner's vineyards. I guess it just goes to show how intertwined and closely knit the wine fraternity really is and can be. Punter's Corner certainly saw its day in the sun though when its 1999 Spartacus Reserve Shiraz won the 2000 Jimmy Watson Trophy for the most outstanding one-year-old red wine in Australia.

Our Shiraz wasn't the premium Spartacus bottle but it was still well received. Indeed, Boo and I were both surprised to find that we preferred the Shiraz to the Cab we tried at the winery. To some degree, we found this Shiraz closer in profile to the Shiraz we get from the Okanagan than we would have expected. Not as big as many of the Barossa Shiraz wines that make their way to our market, the tannins weren't as prominent whereas the acidity was clearly noticeable and helped tame some of the fruit.

Knowing how closely associated Coonawarra is with Cab Sauv, I was intrigued to hear that Shiraz vines now comprise half of Coonawarra's plantings. Our visit to Punter's Corner - and its stylish cellar door - was also where we first heard about the glut of fruit Australia currently faces. We were advised that the folks behind Wine Australia are urging the country's wineries uproot a quarter of their vines. No one seems to be buying into the concept however.

An interesting start to the Wine Tour, I'd say. I wish we had more time to explore the Coonawarra but the Barossa beckons and I suppose the sooner we hit the road the better.

Arguably, the best news from the day though was that the Canucks managed to pull off a 3-1 win over the LA Kings. Our boys are still down three games to one, but our car flag will be in full flight through South Australia come the morning. Gotta love that as much as the wine to come.

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