JOHN ROZENTALS finds plenty of time in South Australia's Coonawarra to taste some of the world's finest red wines

Drive along the Riddoch Highway between the village of Coonawarra and the town of Penola, in the extreme south-east of South Australia, not far from Mt Gambier and its stunning Blue Lake, and you know you’re in wine country. The road is literally lined with vineyards.

Look at the names on signposts and you know you’re in great red-wine country: Hollick, Yalumba, Balnaves, Leconfield, Katnook, St Hugo Lindemans, Brands, Redman, Petaluma, Rymill, and perhaps the greatest and best known of them all, Wynns Coonawarra Estate.

They’re all there, cheek-by-jowl, and while not all offer cellar-door facilities, there’s sure to be enough to satisfy even the fussiest aficionado.

Yes, this fabled cigar-shaped strip of red dirt, more formally known as ‘terra rossa’, is certainly recognised as one of the world’s greatest red-wine districts.

It has been virtually since 1890, when Scotsman John Riddoch, whose surname graces the main thoroughfare, established the Penola Fruit Growing Colony.

These days, much of that history can be gleaned at Katnook Estate, where Riddoch planted vines, had his administrative headquarters and owned the woolshed in which his first vintages were made.

Senior winemaker Wayne Stehbens has been at Katnook since 1980 and shows enormous pride in being the caretaker not just of the original buildings but also their rich historical tapestry.

The wines, especially those crafted from cabernet sauvignon, are excellent, too, and Katnook should be on any visitor’s Coonawarra itinerary.

So which other wineries would I recommend for you to visit? My initial response is that you really should try them all, but that’s probably too huge an ask, so I’ll narrow it down a bit.

Wynns Coonawarra Estate, with its famous stone cellars and gabled roofline, is an obvious must.

I’d also add Balnaves, especially if you can talk winemaker Peter Bissell into taking you to the top of the winery’s tower and giving you a rundown on Coonawarra’s geography.

I reckon that family-owned Zema Estate’s very traditional approach to viticulture and winemaking is paying off in some of the district’s finest wines. Their winemaker, Greg Clayfield, spent many year years making wine for Lindemans in Coonawarra and brings a wealth of experience to the operation.

At the smaller end of the scale, I’d recommend getting touch with John Innes at his Ottelia operation.

John learnt his trade working with highly regarded Italian winemaker, the late Carlo Corino, in Mudgee and moved to Coonawarra as winemaker for Rymill, which is also worth visiting as much for its stunning architecture as its fine wines.

John’s wines are exceptional and his thoughtful approach makes him well worth spending some time with.

But Coonawarra isn’t on my list just for its wines. I love its almost forlorn, dead-flat terrain, I adore the character it seems to bring out in its people and I find its historical value, especially in the town of Penola, gripping and irresistible.

This is, after all, where Mary MacKillop spent years teaching and gained many of the points towards to sainthood. The centre commemorating her achievements is well worth visiting.

So, take some time out to enjoy some great wine and soak up the atmosphere of one of Australia’s most remote vineyard regions. Combined with a drive from Melbourne along the Great Ocean Road it’s a particularly attractive proposition.


Coonawarra Vignerons: http://www.coonawarra.org

Katnook Estate: https://www.katnookestate.com.au

Wynns Coonawarra Estate: https://www.wynns.com.au

Balnaves of Coonawarra: http://www.balnaves.com.au

Zema Estate: http://www.zema.com.au

Ottelia: https://ottelia.com.au

Rymill Coonawarra: http://www.rymill.com.au

Mary MacKillop Penola Centre: http://www.mackilloppenola.org.au

A serene landscape … looking from the tasting room at Balnaves.

John Innes … his thoughtful approach makes him well worth spending some time with.

Forlorn and naked … Katnook vines in mid-winter.

Peter Bissell … winemaker at Balnaves.

Greg Clayfield … bringing a raft of Coonawarra experience to Zema Estate.

Wayne Stehbens … shows enormous pride in being the caretaker not just of the original buildings but also their rich historical tapestry.