PENOLA, Australia — It's no longer a surprise that Australia turns out some good wines that are popular with Americans. And with more than 600 wineries scattered across all six of its states, Australia has many touring areas for the wine-loving traveler.
As California's Napa Valley has turned from an agricultural zone to a prime tourist destination, South Australia's Coonawarra wine region, southeast of Adelaide, is turning into something of an undiscovered Napa Valley. With roughly 24 miles of wineries clustered along Penola/Naracoorte Road near the town of Penola, and a host of B&Bs and other friendly lodgings, the region is an excellent place to sample wines that are winning a number of awards.
Although less explored than some of Australia's other wine regions--the Hunter Valley northwest of Sydney, and the Barossa Valley near Adelaide being the best known--the concentration of Coonawarra's wineries in a relatively small area makes exploration easy in a couple of days. When I visited last spring, I took four days for my sojourn, exploring surrounding beaches and seaside towns, wildlife reserves and majestic limestone caves between wine tastings.
Here in the Coonawarra, on a cigar-shaped sliver of land only 1.2 miles wide and 7.2 miles long, 21 wineries (only 18 are open to the public for tastings) produce a mere 6% of the national vintage. Yet Coonawarra winemakers are walking away with a surprising number of awards. Thus far, most have been for reds (Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz), but the whites (Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc) also are starting to pull in a few. So often have they brought home one of Australia's most important wine awards--the Jimmy Watson Trophy--that the locals like to think of it as their own.
It was not simple thirst that inspired me to take the four-hour drive from Adelaide--where I was visiting family--into the autumnal lushness of the Coonawarra last April. I was looking for the restorative country ambience of Australia's southeast to savor a lifestyle I fondly remembered from past trips to the area's small towns--where folks treasure their heritage, preserve their buildings and find time to stop and chat with strangers. Anticipated, too, were wilderness forays along wetland lagoons rich with bird life and afternoon walks on deserted beaches to sharpen my appetite for fresh country fare, superb wines and evenings beside a crackling fire in a stone-hewn cottage.
As I drive into the Coonawarra along the main road between the two principal towns of Penola and Naracoorte, grazing country and pine-forest plantations give way to 6,000 acres of russet-colored vines marching across the rolling countryside. It is a sight that must have pleased John Riddoch, a Scottish pastoralist who sensed the agricultural potential of the area and planted the first vines here in 1890.
Riddoch's dream of a viticultural mecca was almost snuffed out as the region languished in the years after World War II, due to the population's preference for beer. But a 1960s wine boom came to the rescue, kick-started by European immigrants and an increasingly sophisticated and affluent middle class.
"In 1965 we had only 415 acres of vines in the Coonawarra. Today, booming wine exports have seen every available square foot planted," said Greg Clayfield, southeast wineries manager for Southcorp Wines, which owns several wineries in the region. Not only is it popular at home, but overseas sales of Australian wine are up 40% over the last three years, according to wine-industry statistics, testament to its improving quality and competitive pricing.
As is the style in all of Australia, wine tasting in the Coonawarra is a relaxed affair with families welcome and none of the stiff pretentiousness sometimes encountered in other wine regions of the world.
Whether they are giants of Australian wine production--Penfolds Wines, Seppelt Wines or Mildara Wines--or small family affairs such as Zema Estate or Laira Wines, tasting rooms are usually functional in style and not intimidating.
At the small establishment of Highbank Wines, I attended a tasting in a tiny rustic field stone building with a corrugated iron roof, where the vintage was poured by the winemaker himself.
At Laira Wines I shared a glass of cold Chardonnay with two young German couples and their children, who were cooking a barbecue lunch on the winery's picnic grounds. "Imagine doing this at a German winery," said one of the men, laughing at the thought.
In the tasting room at Wynns (the oldest winery in the region, established in 1896) I sampled a delightfully smooth 1990 Cabernet Sauvignon amid the musty smell of the surrounding wine barrels. At $12 a bottle, it was too good a bargain to pass up, and I bought a few, adding to the three-dozen bottles already crowding the trunk of my rental car.