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Wine regions - Coonawarra

Coonawarra   South Australia

Coonawarra Terra Rossa

Inside profile of one of Australia's greatest wine regions

With its terra rossa soil and passionate winemakers, the Coonawarra region can't help but make fine wine. With Cabernet Sauvignon the undoubted star, the region is renowned for the production of some of Australia's greatest red wines.

Coonawarra lies within South Australia's Limestone Coast Zone, which nudges the Victorian border 380km south east of Adelaide. It has two main towns, Coonawarra and Penola. Coonawarra is an Aboriginal word meaning 'honeysuckle rise'.

The climate is Mediterranean with cooling maritime influences off the Southern Ocean. Rainfall is low especially during the growing season, necessitating irrigation.

Soils and Topography

The region lies on a ridge 59m above sea level. The surrounding country is flat, frosty and poorly drained.

The region is blessed with three soil types, the famed terra rossa and black and brown rendzina soils.  Terra rossa is red-brown topsoil laid over a thin layer of calcrete (calcium carbonate) sitting on a white limestone base. It is the oldest and most fertile soil on the Limestone Coast. Its origins can be traced back to ancient submarine deposits, nearly one million years ago, when the ocean extended inland as far as the present Naracoorte (Comaum) Range, known as the Kanawinka Escarpment.  The region has experienced a number of ice ages that has left a series of dune-ranges stranded right across the Limestone Coast to the present shore line.  As the land continued to rise above sea level this limestone became the principal ingredient of the developing Terra Rossa soil. The wind deposited organic matters and iron particles which oxidised to a rich rusty-red, thus providing the terra rossa with its colour and consequently its name.

Grape Varieties

Coonawarra has become synonymous with Cabernet Sauvignon. It's the star performer on the terra rossa, however, winemaking has expanded over time till today you have generations of experience producing wonderful Shiraz, Petit Verdot, Pinot Noir, Malbec and Merlot as well as Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling and Semillon.


The first vineyard was planted in the 1880s at Yallum, a property established by John Riddoch, a Scot who arrived in the area in 1852.  Riddoch was primarily interested in sheep, however he planted vines that did well and by 1897 he had an operational winery which today is Wynns Coonawarra Estate. 

The next dynasty to forge ahead with wine production was the Redman family.  Bill Redman got his start in 1901 as a young fourteen year old working in John Riddoch’s cellar. The Redman label came into its own in the 1950s under the name Rouge Homme.  Today the label is produced by the fourth generation.

Samuel Wynns also took to the region in the 1950s buying the Riddoch winery in 1951.  Since that time the region has seen investment by large and small companies, which has led to expansion, securing Coonawarra's status as a great wine region. 


Coonawarra is very event orientated, so travellers, have the opportunity to experience the spirit and winemaking tradition of the region. 

The year kicks off with the Coonawarra Vignerons Cup on the second Thursday of January; so for lovers of horse racing who like the very best in wine this is a great start to the year.

Coonawarra then lights up for its vintage festival, Coonawarra After Dark held every April.  In May the arts flourish when artists from around Australia and the world come together for the Penola Coonawarra Arts Festival; four days of concerts, art, wine, cuisine and culture.

July is the month to discover the treasures in the cellars.   Coonawarra Cellar Dwellers allows wine lovers to taste and buy rare and sometimes hard-to-find Coonawarra wines.

In August the Coonawarra Vignerons head out across the nation to Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth to showcase their wines, so Coonawarra lovers can taste the latest releases and meet the winemakers without leaving home.

By October the winemakers are gearing up for the Coonawarra Cabernet Celebrations and Barrel Series Auction, three days of fun, food and fantastic wines.

For visitors there are excellent cafes and restaurants in the region showcasing local produce and accommodation services from luxury retreats to self-contained cottages.

Harvest time: late March to early May

Coonawarra Facts

1. It’s only an hour flight from Adelaide or Melbourne(daily flights with Regional Express). Come visit
2. Coonawarra is one of the very few major wine grape growing regions that was actually site selected by a series of
experts rather than be established near one of the larger settlements.
3. The town of Penola is located inside Coonawarra’s boundary.
4. The famous terra rossa strip is shaped like a cigar. The colour of this soil is due to its ferrous oxide content, which is otherwise known as rust.
5. Coonawarra is the aboriginal word for honeysuckle
6. There is no river in Coonawarra, yet we have River Red Gums........due to the supply of underground water.
7. The only producer of table wine in the district between about 1905 and 1950 was the Redman family, the matriarch of which, Lillian Redman, did not drink alcohol.
8. Construction of the first winery in Coonawarra was commenced by John Riddoch in 1896 and completed in 1897 and is known today as Wynns Coonawarra Estate.
9. The first horticultural initiative in the district was that of Alexander Cameron when he tried to establish an orchard in the 1840s. A few drinks were enjoyed to celebrate the occasion, which unfortunately went on so long that it was dark by the time the planting occurred. Some months later, budburst seemed to be unusually late. Upon closer inspection, it was found that all the cuttings had been planted upside-down; their roots extending forlornly to the sky!
10. Coonawarra has an average daily winter temperature 9.8 C and  the average summer daily temperature is 18.8C - perfect for grape growing and perfect for wine drinking

2010 Vintage Report

The 2010 vintage shows great promise, largely due to above average soil moisture levels, ideal growing conditions, minimal disease issues and above average summer temperatures prior to vintage. Due to this increase in temperature, ripening was accelerated and most wineries began picking earlier than usual - many of them in early to mid February.

Winter rainfall in 2009 was above average giving good soil moisture levels for budburst in early spring. Favourable conditions continued during spring with minimal frost and settled flowering conditions allowing for excellent vine canopy development and fruit set.

During November, much of South Australia experienced a protracted ‘hot spell’, however most vineyards were spared from damage as bunch development was still at an early stage.

Strategic crop manipulation and reduction was wide spread across the district to ensure fruit development was optimum, especially in Shiraz and Merlot varieties.

Harvest began approximately 10 days earlier than usual, commencing with white varieties. Flavours have been of a high standard showing vibrant varietal distinction, particularly Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc, however yields have been generally below average.

With a return to more stable weather patterns during January and February our key varieties, being Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz, exhibit the benefit of slow maturity, ripe seeds, and rich tannins.  The early ‘break’ to the season provided a freshening of the fruit and ensured all parcels were harvested by the 1st week in May.

Coonawarra Grapegrowers Association
Coonawarra Vignerons Association

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Copyright Wine Diva. Last updated: June 2010