Killer Cabernet from Coonawarra and Friends 


The history of the Australian wine industry is rich with sliding doors moments. A point in time where seemingly innocuous decisions, 50/50 calls, have gone on to have significant long-term consequences. One of these was how the different states handled the threat of Phylloxera. While some saw the goings on around the world and decided to accept fate like other regions such as Bordeaux, others chose to fight. South Australia enacted a COVID-19-like response and locked out vine material imports until relatively recently. It saved the local wine industry and put down rock-solid foundations that still see the state as the national leader in terms of wine production. It also helped save priceless old vine stock that remains the foundation for many of the finest offerings.

One of the greatest forks in the road for the Australian wine industry was in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Penfolds winemaker Max Schubert had returned from Europe, particularly Bordeaux, having hatched a plan to craft a world-class wine that would compete with the best worldwide. His initial idea was to follow the Bordelais model with Cabernet Sauvignon to create Grange Cabernet Sauvignon. The first known vintage of an experimental icon was a 1948 Barossan Kalimna Cabernet Sauvignon, made with fruit from a block planted in 1888. The wine was never released for general sale and has rarely been seen outside company tastings.

Embracing sustainable viticulture in Coonawarra.

After the experimental 1951 Penfolds Grange Shiraz, which was hidden for many years and only emerged from the shadows in 1986, Schubert released both a Grange Cabernet and Shiraz in 1952 and 1953. Clearly, his mind was not yet made up as to the relative merits of the two varieties.

Considering that old vine Cabernet Sauvignon was quite rare at the time, as Coonawarra was yet to establish its credentials completely, Schubert’s experiments show serious faith in Barossa Cabernet, no doubt in part due to the quality of fruit coming out of the Penfolds Kalimna vineyard. The vineyard remains in production to this day and is home to the oldest Cabernet Sauvignon vines in the world. Over the years, at least partially, it has been the source of some of Australia's greatest wines.

Schubert's decision to go with Shiraz-dominant blends from the 1954 vintage was a seminal moment in the history of Australian wine. Arguably, it was the critical decision that set the country on its current trajectory with the nation’s efforts, fame, reputation and vineyard plantings heavily focused on this variety. A fascinating sideline is that it is likely that Schubert’s choice was not made because of issues with sheer quality as much as supply and reliability. It was more a question of greater vintage variation for Cabernet Sauvignon than for the more reliable and malleable Shiraz.

The reception for Grange, first locally with dozens of trophies and gold medals followed by international fame, set off thousands of aspirational Australian grape growers chasing their own little slice of history that saw Shiraz planted from Tasmania to Queensland, Western Australia and back again. Bordeaux’s illustrious reputation for Cabernet Sauvignon and the relative rarity of Shiraz internationally seemingly provided an opportunity to develop a unique Australian wine style and a grape variety that the nation could claim. But imagine what may have transpired if Schubert had chosen the other option and if Australia had embraced Cabernet Sauvignon as it had Shiraz. It is a tantalizing thought.

Today, Shiraz is the king in terms of total plantings in South Australia, with 27,000 hectares making up 37% of the total planted area. However, Cabernet Sauvignon is the second most planted variety, making up almost 25% of the total in the state, both far above Chardonnay, which makes up 11%. Cabernet Sauvignon is also the second most planted variety in Barossa and McLaren Vale, while it dominates Limestone Coast, which includes Wrattonbully and Coonawarra. This will no doubt come as a surprise to many, considering the broad reputation of Shiraz and Chardonnay, which in many quarters far outweighs that of the local Cabernet Sauvignon. Unsurprisingly, with such a wide variety of climates and terroirs, there are some locations where Cabernet Sauvignon can be outstanding.

Limestone Coast

The southeastern corner of South Australia is ground zero for Cabernet Sauvignon, competing with Margaret River and the Yarra Valley for the title of Australia’s finest region for the variety. Here, geology, soil and climate come together in a rare trinity particularly well suited to this revered grape. While the south-east may not have that bucolic feel of Margaret River where vineyards, beaches and surfers share the spoils, there is a deep focus on quality. Dedicated vignerons are happy to endure the region’s cold climate and isolation, as it sits halfway between Melbourne and Adelaide. But there are some very good reasons to put down roots here.

The local soils drew early growers before the concept of cool climate viticulture was even considered. The area is broadly known as the Limestone Coast thanks to its widespread and advantageous layer of this prized geology that attracted fruit farmers and prospective vignerons from the 1890s. For millions of years, this corner of Australia was under water, and much remains close to sea level, with Coonawarra sitting at only 50m. Over the millennia, a deep layer of soft limestone built up, remaining accessible and close to the surface.

In vineyards around Robe, it is still possible to uncover the remnants of coral reefs, perfectly formed and in their original shape from millions of years ago. A wide limestone sheet lies toward the eastern vineyards in Coonawarra, ranging from just beneath the surface to over a meter, although averaging around 50cm deep. At Wrattonbully, parts of a deep limestone layer have been hollowed out and opened into dramatic caves. It has not been unusual for farmers in the past to accidentally open sinkholes on their property, discovering caves close to the surface. In one such place, a prehistoric whale fossil sits below one of the region’s most highly regarded fruit sources, the Tapanappa’s Whalebone vineyard. The caves are, in fact, so unique and dramatic that they gained World Heritage Listing in 1994. The quality of the limestone and its impact on wine caliber only became particularly obvious with early releases from mature vines in the 1940s and 1950s. However, there were some promising signs, as many vineyards were planted in Coonawarra much earlier in the 1890s. Still, the area’s isolation and stiff competition from elsewhere saw the region’s quick demise with, unfortunately, very little left from those original plantings.

Limestone is not the only aspect of the local terroir working in the region’s favor. Soils also play a significant role. The most famous of these are the red Terra Rossa soils, found in three areas of the Limestone Coast: at Mount Benson, Coonawarra and Wrattonbully. Created by the weathering of limestone, their deep red color comes from reactions with iron. These soils have excellent drainage, which, combined with the water-holding capacity of limestone, offer exceptional sites to establish vineyards.

Coonawarra’s proximity to the ocean sees regular rainfall with free-draining soils a must, although the growing season is relatively dry. Recent winter rainfalls were particularly generous with vast stretches of lower-lying country, although not vineyards, under a couple of inches of water earlier this year when I visited. This has set up the 2024 vintage nicely.

The climate is also working in favor of the Limestone Coast, with its maritime region heavily influenced by the Great Southern Ocean. More exposed regions such as Mount Benson, Robe and Mount Gambier are home to elegant, refined white and red wines. Travel further inland to Coonawarra and Wrattonbully reveals a slightly warmer climate, with heat summations close to Bordeaux’s long-term rather than recent averages. Cooler than Margaret River, the combination of soils and geology makes the most savory and European-styled Australian Cabernet Sauvignon, particularly in Coonawarra. Coonawarra has also shown itself more resistant to climate change than some other global wine regions, which will only play to its strengths in future decades.

Coonawarra Magic - Terra Rossa over limestone soils.

The Red Cigar

Coonawarra is almost 6,000 hectares in size, stretching over a significant area close to and just over the Victorian border with South Australia. At its core is a tiny patch of land, cigar-like in shape and only two kilometers wide and twenty-seven kilometers long, based on Terra Rossa soils, the source for the finest wines. In many ways, geographically, the region is fairly unremarkable. The land hardly undulates and is, by and large, flat as a pancake. It does not immediately shout its fine wine credentials until you look at the earth's deep red ochre hue and rich texture. There are few other regions anywhere in Australia where soil and geology play such a pivotal role. Those soils promise and deliver powerful levels of flavor, but they are also very much tempered by the cool, great Southern winds that lash the region. Sometimes, there is little protection from biting winds rising from Antarctica, and it is not unusual to need a thick jumper in the middle of summer as the weather can turn on a dime. This sometimes-biting climate can deliver not classically bold, full-throttle Australian styles. These are Heath Ledger wines rather than Russell Crowe gladiators: brooding, strong examples that deliver substance over flamboyance. And they can have serious longevity. They also provide a strong base for blending with wines from other regions, particularly Barossa Valley Shiraz.

Coonawarra’s early start in the late 1800s had petered out by the Second World War, with only 121 of the original 364 hectares of vines left standing, with most of the fruit used for brandy production. The regional brand was also missing in action, with outsiders sourcing wines in the region but rarely attributing them to Coonawarra. But the pieces slowly started falling into place in the 1960s. Firstly, Woodley’s wines made a major investment in the region, buying what is now the Wynns winery with 52 hectares of vineyard, from which they crafted their famed Woodley’s Treasure Chest Series. The wines were predominantly Shiraz/Cabernet blends, but they did start to show the quality of Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon. Crafted from 1949 to 1956, some of these wines still drink well today. The big names in town started moving in, including Thomas Hardy, later Hardy’s, and Penfolds. What sealed the deal was the 1962 Penfolds Bin 60A blend, which was two-thirds Coonawarra Cabernet blended with old vine Kalimna Shiraz, a wine that is one of the best that the country has ever produced. After that, a gold rush was truly on as a stampede of wineries scrapped to pick up their own slice of Cabernet heaven with significant plantings in the 1950s and 1960s, which now provide an impressive base of old vine material. Many of these vineyards were planted with the Reynella selection Cabernet Sauvignon clone, sourced initially from Bordeaux and imported in the early 1800s.

In recent years, I have been privileged to taste 50-year verticals of Cabernet Sauvignon from Redman’s and Wynns Black Label, plus every vintage of the local highpoint, Wynns John Riddoch Cabernet Sauvignon, stretching back to the first vintage in 1982. Yes, there were hits and misses, but considering that Coonawarra was a vinous backwater for much of that time, there was more than enough to show that this is a world-leading fine wine destination. It is also an unpolished gem, somewhat misunderstood but most of all underrated in the local market where fine wine drinkers gravitate to fashionable regions. Ignoring the climate, Coonawarra is most definitely not cool, but it should be.

Shiraz is also widely grown here, but Cabernet Sauvignon is the undoubted star. It is fascinating to note that straight Cabernet Sauvignon, rather than blends, are by far the most successful wines. While this may potentially relate to some historic plantings of lesser clones, it seems more likely that the cooler Coonawarra climate is simply better suited to Cabernet Sauvignon than blending partners like Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.

One cannot talk about Coonawarra without touching on its largest and leading light, the wine that has defined the region for decades: Wynns Coonawarra Estate. It continues to evolve and flourish under the leadership of Chief Winemaker Sue Hodder. As the largest owner of vineyards on the Terra Rossa soils, Wynns have an enviable ability to pick the eyes out of the region to create exceptional wines in a range of styles, from earlier drinking to cellaring stars. The John Riddoch Cabernet Sauvignon is internationally styled, with a dense flavor profile and structure enhanced with high-quality oak and built for the long haul. Its sibling, the Black Label Cabernet, is one of the best value wines on the Australian market year in and out, offering classical chocolate-mint regional complexity over a strong bed of willowy tannins. For consumers, Coonawarra’s status as among the less fashionable Australian wine regions brings significant rewards in terms of price and availability.

The Redman family is another outstanding local producer and, although significantly smaller in production than Wynns, has built an equally impressive legacy stretching back to 1908. As both grower and winemaker, it was said that until the mid-sixties, Bill Redman had crafted most of the significant wines out of Coonawarra. The Redman wines have always been picked earlier than some and are old-fashioned claret-like in style; these are wines made to improve and age gracefully rather than deliver from day one. Today, the fourth generation has joined Dan and Mike Redman, adding a new polish to the wines while retaining the reserved Redman style.

A bit further north, inland and at a slightly higher elevation, is Wrattonbully. Around a degree warmer than Coonawarra, it shares its more famous neighbor’s potential with Cabernet Sauvignon; however, the climate provides adequate heat for a broader range of grape varieties. Shiraz, Merlot and Cabernet Franc are equally at home as single varietals and blends. No doubt its key attraction for vignerons has been the Terra Rossa soils that it shares with Coonawarra, the more generous climate producing gravelly, robust and hearty wine styles with more than a passing resemblance to the Left Bank. While there are some exceptional and mature vines, Wrattonbully remains, on the whole, a region yet to showcase its full potential. But all the natural ingredients are there for quality-focused operations to do so over the coming years.

The historic Wynns Coonawarra Estate.

South Australia - The Cabernet State

While the Limestone Coast is the home base for South Australian Cabernet Sauvignon, the variety’s flexibility to handle a range of climatic conditions has also seen impressive results elsewhere, particularly in the Clare and Barossa Valley, as well as McLaren Vale and Langhorne Creek. The warmer, more continental Clare Valley is responsible for the most unique wines, especially when blended with Malbec, a local specialty. Inky colored and flavored, with savory, almost slatey tones, they are robust, hearty and built for the long haul, nearly the antithesis of the fine-boned Coonawarra style. Generally, loamy soils with outcrops of Terra Rossa also play their part.

One almost surprising region for Cabernet Sauvignon is McLaren Vale. It is a bit of a local secret, with much of the wine siphoned off into larger premium South Australian blends, such as Penfolds Bin 389, with relatively few wines bearing a regional designation. The same can be said for the nearby region of Langhorne Creek. In most years, these areas deliver ample levels of flavor and tannin. According to Michael Twelftree, “McLaren Vale Cabernet almost makes itself.” They are not overly subtle but always richly flavored with a powerful core of sweet cassis fruit. The greatest wines can be spectacular, which is not unsurprising considering the Bolgheri-like Mediterranean climate. Local stalwart Wirra Wirra has recently employed ex-Penfolds winemaker Emma Wood, who has significant experience with Cabernet in McLaren Vale and Bordeaux, undoubtedly leading to greater emphasis on the variety. Despite its strong focus on Shiraz, the Barossa Valley also has a proud history with Cabernet Sauvignon, particularly amongst the more quality-conscious wineries.

Current local offerings give Barossa power with a generous open-knit tannin frame, and the very best can age well. The higher, cooler Eden Valley vineyards can also hold surprising delicacy and restraint.

A local quirk of South Australian Cabernet has always been the blending of Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz. Penfolds Grange remains, to this day, predominantly Shiraz with up to ten percent Cabernet Sauvignon. While the blend has historic roots in Bordeaux, with the 1775 Château Lafite apparently a Bordeaux/Hermitage, Château Palmer resurrected a similar blend since the 2004 vintage in their Historical XIXth Century Wine. The style has always been an important part of the industry. Historically, when the local Shiraz was more lightly framed, Cabernet Sauvignon was used to add mid-palate weight and structure, which is still the case. Today, Shiraz/Cabernet blends remain an institution for some of the country’s most historic wineries at the highest levels of quality. While they will always remain relatively niche, Penfolds and Yalumba with Bin 60A and The Caley, respectively, both blends of Coonawarra and Barossa, are wines that will be steeped in the Australian fine wine narrative for many years to come and showcase the best of both worlds.

Coonawarra Vintages


The 2021 season crafted classical claret styles with exceptional purity of fruit and restrained power which will build over time. The overall finesse and balance are outstanding, providing both immediate appeal and aging potential. Two thousand twenty-one will go down as one of Coonawarra's greatest years in recent memory and was a return to more temperate conditions. It began with a relatively warm and dry flowering period, which provided an exceptional start, leading to a very even berry set. The weather was even throughout the season without significant heat spikes or rainfall, which helped to provide healthy yields of high-quality fruit, with balance a vital feature of the resulting wines. The relatively dry season also resulted in small berries with thick skins and significant tannins, which will also see the vintage age well.


Wines from 2020 are flavorsome and generally approachable, with hearty dark fruit flavor profiles and broad textures suitable for enjoyment over the short and medium term. The 2020 vintage was unpredictable, to say the least. After a dry winter, Spring was cool and did not provide an ideal start, with a frost event also contributing to low regional yields. After this cool beginning, the weather then reversed with a significant burst of heat, putting some vines under stress. It flipped again with a cool end to the season, with low yields helping quality remain strong.


The wines in 2019 are generous, rich and powerful in a riper and well-balanced regional style with impressive depth of fruit and fleshy structures to enjoy over the medium term. Good winter rains in Coonawarra were very welcome in 2019 and set the vintage up well. Much of the vintage was warm and dry, the region only receiving 76% of average rainfall and having 20 days over 35 degrees, although canopies remained healthy due to those winter rains. The cooling weather in April in the lead-up to harvest came at just the right time, with powerful wines of excellent quality as the result.

A Final Word

Undoubtedly, South Australian Shiraz will continue to dominate the national conversation for some time. The country and its winemakers have embraced Shiraz with uncommon zeal, as have critics and the international wine-drinking public. This is understandable, yet a little regrettable, with its dominance and overly simplistic view of a country with terroirs as diverse as any other nation.

Among the most underestimated varieties is Cabernet Sauvignon, particularly from South Australia. With its warm and cooler climate zones, the state is uniquely suited to this variety, offering wines with power and depth of fruit. Fans of traditional Australian wine styles can still bathe in the ripe-fruited glory to be found in the Clare and Barossa Valleys as well as McLaren Vale, although the local Cabernets have never shown the decadence of the local Shiraz.

But there is also a more intriguing side, with Coonawarra and Wrattonbully having a foot in both the old and new worlds. These regions are right in the slot in the growing international movement towards Cabernet Sauvignon with dialed-back sweet oak and ripeness. And for Bordeaux fans in particular, against a background of a warming climate, the best Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignons from the classic 2021 vintage offer a doorway back in time to cooler claret vintages with rare refinement, integrity, elegance and longevity.

Most of the wines from the Limestone Coast were tasted in Coonawarra in July 2023, with follow-up tastings in Sydney.

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