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The Australian Wine Industry
Problems with Wine Australia Article on Coonawarra
Saturday, 31st December, 2016  - David Farmer

When seeking information about Australian wine you might decide that Wine Australia was a good starting place; after all it says, 'The Australian Grape and Wine Authority (AGWA), trading as Wine Australia, is the single Australian Government statutory service body for the Australian grape and wine community.'

The average enquirer would expect Wine Australia to be believable, a place from which to gather initial thoughts, like an encyclopedia or a companion guide, with a summary of the best information with perhaps pointers to more technical sources.

Importantly they would expect the information to be accurate and up to date and state clearly what was known versus opinion.

Thus I am concerned by a recent blog post, 5th October, 2016 about Coonawarra; titled 'Coonawarra: A Classic Without Reserve', as it contains many errors.

The heading 'A Classic Without Reserve' seems to imply that no one doubts that Coonawarra is a high quality region and perhaps that is what should have been said.

The body of the essay contains many inaccuracies and most of these are highlighted with my comments explaining what is wrong plus several phrases develop a marketing slant which is best left to the producers of Coonawarra wine and other sources.

Absolute neutrality is important for Wine Australia as all regions are equal.

- Coonawarra's agricultural history began in the mid-1800s when settlers recognised the potential of the flat, fertile plains for sheep farming and fruit growing.

The Penola district was settled in 1840 or very shortly afterwards, not the mid-1800s and no contemporary record mentions growing fruit till decades later.

- Enterprising Scottish settler John Riddoch planted Coonawarra's first grapevines in 1891, thirty years after establishing a lucrative sheep farm at Penola.

John Riddoch did not establish a sheep farm but purchased Yallum, west of Penola, an existing sheep run on October 1st, 1861.

- At a time when Australia was known for its fortified wines, Coonawarra became known as a reliable source of quality red table wines.

It seems table wines were made initially but who the buyers were is not known and we also do not know how much was sold for fortified wines or to make brandy. The inference is that Coonawarra had a success that other vineyards region did not and this is not so. After the initial excitement Coonawarra faced 50 years of hardship, as is mentioned later.

- In the May 1899 edition of 'Garden and Field', editor William Catton-Grasby commented on vines at Yallum, Katnook and Penola and wrote: 'One cannot doubt the suitability of land and climate for vine growing.’ With further foresight he added, 'It is generally agreed that there is a period of prosperity immediately ahead for grapegrowers and winemakers ... everything seems favourable for a great development at Coonawarra.'

It is not showing foresight when predicting something that did not happen. Australians did not begin to take an interest in table wines until the 1950s. Before then table wines were at best 3-5% of large company's sales.

- Perhaps more than any other region in Australia, the terroir and soil of Coonawarra plays a predominant role in the structure and longevity of its wines.

There is no evidence that soils play any role in structure and longevity and even if they did why should these soils be favoured over those of other wine regions.

- The terra rossa layer is no more than one-metre-deep over a base of free-draining limestone sustained by pure underground aquifers.

The terra rossa soil does not overlie a base of limestone. Limestone is a specific rock type made in specific ways, mostly marine. The terra rossa soil sits on top of a hard layer called calcrete which is cacium carbonate redeposited from solution. It is tough, cemented, and brittle and is not free draining. These two layers overly un-compacted, estuarine-lagoonal muds which are rich in calcium.

When it is said the water is pure to what is it being compared and what is being sustained. Like all Australian underground water resources salt content rises with misuse.

- The limestone was once an ancient seabed, formed over a million years ago.

As noted this limestone is not limestone and is thus not an ancient seabed. The date of the deposits at Coonawarra are well know as they sit behind a dune ridge dated at 680,000 years and are contemporaneous; though the calcrete and soils are much younger.

- The fossilised marine life now forms the bedrock of the Limestone Coast region that incorporates Padthaway, Mount Benson, Mount Gambier, Robe, Wrattonbully and Coonawarra.

It is true that fossilized limestone underlies much of the region called the limestone coast though this is deep down and the younger sediments deposited on top are not referred to as limestone. This older limestone does appear at the surface around Mount Gambier while the region of Wrattonbully is an elevated plateau of this limestone.

- Looking at a cross-section of the land, the distinct layers are clearly visible: a carpet of vivid red topsoil sits above a thick calcareous base of white-flecked limestone – a winemaker's dream – but in the early 2000s that dream took a darker turn.

This description is not correct. The narrow strip of red soil sits on calcrete and as the calcrete fades so does the red soil. There is no white flecked limestone and in any case why is a particular rock a winemakers dream when compared to any other rock.

- In January 2003 after nearly 10 years' of litigation and debate, the GIC finally outlined Coonawarra's legal borders. The decision increased the boundary to the north and south of the cigar shaped strip, and stretched it slightly further east, encompassing vineyards already established on terra rossa soil.

The boundary or Geographical Indicator that now outlines Coonawarra includes the original vineyards within the 15 km by 2 km area which so appealed to John Riddoch and the fruit growers of the 1890s. As noted: ‘For such a tiny stretch of land – the region is only 15km by 2km – the region has a rich red cigar shaped seam of terra rossa ... The terra rossa strip is just one-kilometre-wide and runs for 12 kilometres northwest through Coonawarra’ (i.e. within the larger cigar).

At a guess this cigar shaped area would make up 20% of the area which can now be planted and labelled Coonawarra. The boundary to define the eastern edge was moved to the Victorian border, a distance of 11 kilometres, not as stated and stretched it slightly further east.

- Coonawarra's cool maritime climate.. provides wines of elegance and structure that are a welcome respite from the fruit-filled wines of warmer regions like Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale and the Riverland.

Neutrality is lost when saying provides wines of elegance and structure that are a welcome respite from the fruit filled warmer regions like.. I cannot agree with any suggestion that Coonawarra reds have an elegance and structure that is not found in warmer regions. This is a matter of says who and belongs in wine magazines and blogs not on a Government sponsored site.

- Cabernet Sauvignon is sometimes overlooked by consumers in favour of 'look-at-me' Shiraz from regions like the Barossa Valley or McLaren Vale, but Coonawarra Cabernet is a truly noble wine, deep in colour with blackcurrant, mint and dried herb characteristics.

Neutrality is again abandoned with the comment look-at-me. I know consumers rather well and when they decide what to buy they do not overlook Coonawarra in favour of look-at-me wines. Customers buy what they want when they feel like it and do we need waffle about truly noble wine.

- Firm tannin structure is a key trait of Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon, often making the wines challenging to drink when young. After settling for a few years the tannins integrate with the primary fruit characters giving a more rounded and less architectural impression.

This is vague wine talk and I suggest the author has no idea what an architectural impression tastes like.

- Shiraz also thrives in Coonawarra, producing wines distinctly different to those of the Barossa, Hunter Valley or Margaret River. Coonawarra Shiraz often shows minty, wintergreen characters that add a savoury, herbal edge to the varietal dark blackberry, plum and pepper characters.

Yet more wine talk nonsense and in a masked tasting the writer of distinctly different will have no more idea than the rest of us which wine comes from which region.

- Coonawarra Sauvignon Blanc offers a smart alternative to the more structured, pungent styles from cooler regions like Adelaide Hills, Margaret River or Marlborough.

Whatever the meaning of smart alternative may be, Sauvignon Blanc from Coonawarra is no more or less structured or pungent than those grown in the other regions mentioned.

- This then is a region where the production of world-class wines is something that is woven into the community, a community that welcomes wine lovers with open arms – something many fine wine regions would do well to emulate.

In this passage all other regions are insulted as being less friendly. I have been to Coonawarra many times and to all of the other Australian regions and all of them are friendly and have nothing to learn from Coonawarra.

Concluding Thoughts

This essay is insufficiently factual or authoritative for the site Wine Australia. It also contains numerous phrases which are subjective and opinionated when a deft hand is needed to keep it informative and neutral.

To make Coonawarra interesting it also highlights differences with other regions (I did smile after being threatened by Wine Australia) but often in a negative way.

These opinions however are just detail which exposes a larger problem.

Growing grapes and making wine is a huge business and explaining on one site all the rules and regulations which those in the business need to know is a logical extension of the role of Wine Australia.

If in addition Wine Australia wishes to publish a world class web-site carrying news, opinion pieces written by contributors, and authoritative comment about all the regions of Australia this is another matter and they will quickly find it is a large and difficult job.

The smaller role of setting out useful technical information would at least require a copy-writer journalist who also acts as the editor but for the larger ambition the resources needed would be very large.

Wine Australia has two aims:

- promote the sale and consumption of wine, both in Australia and overseas.

- coordinate or fund grape and wine research and development, and facilitate the dissemination, adoption and commercialisation of the results.

Both of these aims are necessary but the problem is the two roles conflict as promoting sales and coordinating the funds for grape and wine research means a division of the budget and who can say which area should get what?

After all an editor-journalist promoting sales comes at the expense of a research-scientist and which is the most important?

The winemaker Robin Day said; The recent growth of process at the expense of outcome has come under notice by some major R and D providers. Executives of CSIRO Horticultue Division began noting several years ago that the GWRDC (Grape and Wine research Development Corporation) spends more levy dollars on administration than it grants to CSIRO s viticulture R and D programs. The expansion of 'marketing' capability within the GWRDC has largely escaped critical comment. Levy payers have a right to know the answers to two key questions – marketing to whom and for what purpose?

The board of the new statutory corporation [Wine Australia] will have a key challenge to demonstrate to industry, that process will not continue to grow at the expense of outcome. Its chair, who will have a daunting task, could feel a little like Hercules as he picked up the shovel in the Augean Stables.'
(The Rise And Rise Of Process At The Expense Of Outcome; Australia and New Zealand Grape Grower and Winemaker 586:6, 2012.)

Scientists and marketing types do not mix well and how the managers at Wine Australia can represent both has me puzzled.

The Coonawarra article is not a good start for the marketing side though it highlights well the size of resources which would be needed to create and maintain a portal open to all who wish to have an insight into Australian wine or wish a question answered.

To evolve the site into something exciting which alters consumer perception about Australian wine is another dimensional leap and I believe is beyond bureaucrats who are also pondering research and the mundane matters of compliance.

Which returns us to where we started as it's hard to be kind about an article with the desired outcome to entice consumers to visit Coonawarra or try the wines when it rates so poorly.

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The Answer is:

Tuesday, 2nd September, 2004

Glug visits the Adelaide Wine Show

Friday, 8th October, 2004

The Price Of Being One Industry

Tuesday, 29th June, 2004

Cork Amnesty The Move to Screw Tops Continues Apace

Thursday, 16th October, 2004

Coming to a Bar Near You?

Wednesday, 8th September, 2004

Andrew Garrett Goodbye?

Tuesday, 24th August, 2004

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