Riding along Coonawarra’s million dollar highway

One of the state’s most productive wine regions, Coonawarra is a mix of curious history, tasty offerings and gorgeous views, writes Alexis Buxton-Collins.

When the first settlers came to the Coonawarra region, about 380 kilometres southeast of Adelaide, they found excellent pastoral land but discovered that it was not an easy spot to get around. Their wagons would get bogged in the sandy soil to the east and the heavy black clay to the west held so much water that it was almost a swamp.

So when they discovered a firm patch in the middle that was just right, they immediately built a road running down this spine of good soil. Today the Riddoch Highway still follows that original path, right through the middle of some of the most prized grape growing land in the world.

“The strip” runs roughly North-South and is only a kilometre wide for most of its length (which is between 16 and 27 kilometres, depending on who you ask). As a result, almost every patch of available land on either side of the highway has been planted with vines.

What makes Coonawarra so special is the terra rossa soil, a nutrient-rich clay that holds a rusty red colour thanks to healthy amounts of iron oxide. Though this layer of soil is less than a metre deep, and in some places it’s as shallow as 20 centimetres, that’s enough to make this some of the finest cabernet growing country in the world. It’s why there are more than 25 cellar doors packed into the region, the oldest of them being Wynns Coonawarra Estate.

It’s where Scottish pioneer John Riddoch (after whom the million dollar highway is named) planted the first vines in the region in the 1890s, and the perfect spot to better understand the lay of the land. At the cellar door, a magnificent ten metre long table doubles as a map that shows the extent of the prized red earth. Walnut and stringybark represent the less desirable soil on either side and ebonised roads cut through the red gum of the terra rossa. It’s a beautiful piece of craftsmanship, and the inlays representing the Wynns’ blocks show just how many there are – they are by far the largest winery in the region.

The strip of terra rossa is often referred to as a “cigar”, but there’s nothing regular about the shape and to my eyes at least, the many fronds extending from it in all directions make it look more like a leafy sea dragon. Regardless, it’s the quality rather than the distribution of the soil that makes it famous. The red cracking clay and a long, cool growing season combine to make medium bodied cabernets that age extraordinarily well.

As I get a private tour of the area with Simon Meares from Coonawarra Experiences, he explains some of other the factors that make the region unique. For one, it’s far flatter than most wine regions and he jokes that you have to be a local to see the hills. But even a few metres of elevation can be enough to create distinct microclimates. Cabernet may be king (it accounts for about half the vines in the area), but the winemakers all vie to make best use of their plots with a range of other varietals.

At the southern end of the strip, slightly cooler temperatures allow Raidis Estate to grow Coonawarra’s only pinot gris, and their shiraz is spicier than anything else in the region. Most of their handpicked wines are named after the goats that tend the vineyards, with the exception of the Kelpie. That gets picked at 2am so the fruit retains the aromatics, resulting in a sav blanc with a ripe, fruity intensity. They’re usually the last cellar door open (until 5:30 in summer), and are literally within walking distance of Penola, the main town in the region.

The Coonawarra Wineries Walking Trail (Photo: Tim Grey)

One of the striking things about Coonawarra is just how easy it is to get around. Because it’s so flat and compact, it’s possible to visit a range of cellar doors by bike, or even on foot – The Coonawarra Wineries Walking Trail links five wineries and two lunch spots with an easy to navigate 5km circuit.

But for an overview of the region, there’s perhaps no better spot than Hollick. A black winery cat named Raven darts between the barrels as I head towards the cellar door restaurant, appropriately named Upstairs at Hollick. Looking out from the deck I can see a manicured lawn with a large pit dug out of it to show off the depth of the local terra rossa.

Beyond that, vines stretch out as far as the eye can see with barely a ripple in the landscape that is devastatingly flat. Just metres away from the ripening fruit, the highway cuts a swathe through the landscape and from this vantage point it’s easy to come to the same conclusion as those early settlers: this spot is indeed just right.

The author travelled to Coonawarra as a guest of the South Australian Tourism Commission.

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