The word "Coonawarra" comes from an old language used by native Australians in the 1800s. The meaning of Coonawarra is multiplex; different people say it means different things. Some of the popular possibilities are: "honeysuckle," "honeysuckle rise," "wild honeysuckle," "swan," or "black swan." Note that there are two Coonawarras in Australia-- one in the northern territory near Charles Darwin National Park (this Coonawarra believes that its name derives from the word "swan" or "black swan") and a different Coonawarra-- known for wine-- in South Australia right near the Victoria border (the Coonawarra in South Australia is believed to be derived from some derivation of "honeysuckle.). The Coonawarra wine region is sometimes referred to as 'The Cigar," because (in aerial view) it is a cigar-shaped strip of russet colored land.
John Riddoch & Wynns
John Riddoch (1827-1901): born in Scotland, moved to Australia during a gold mining boom, found a gold nugget, sold it, used the money to open up a series of shops that sold necessities to gold miners. In 1861 he came to Penola (right at "The Cigar!") where he farmed sheep and got lucky in a wool boom. He became extremely wealthy, built a mansion in Yallum Park, entertained royalty and was considered one of the best dressed members of the South Australian parliament. By the time 1891 rolled around he was ready to open up a new business and founded the Penola Fruit Company. He planted cabernet sauvignon, shiraz, malbec and pinot noir and made his first wine by 1895. (Wynns 2004)
In 1897 Riddoch rallied the local growers and suggested that they name their town Coonawarra. The name began to appear on labels and soon Coonawarra wines popped up frequently in the press. After Riddoch's death a distillery took over and spent decades turning wine from this incredible terroir into brandy. (!) To help the regional economy growers were offered subsidies to rip out crops and start dairy farms. Things were looking bleak for Coonawarra wine until S. Wynn & Co. bought the old Riddoch property in 1951 and started selling wine instead of brandy.
In 1982 Wynns decided to pay homage to John Riddoch by naming a top cuvee after him. It's made from only the top fruit in the top vintages, and after that only a few select barrels are chosen. The winemakers at Wynns estimate that less than 1% of their top cabernet sauvignon grapes go into this special bottling.
Vitis vinifera and Terra Rossa Soils
Coming full circle, if we rewind 6-10,000 years we come to the dawnings of civilization, and also a time when the Vitis vinifera species of grape vine (now used to make over 99% of all the world's wine) grew wild in modern-day Georgia/Armenia/eastern Turkey areas. There are several pockets of terra rossa soil in this part of the world-- especially in the sub-regions where vinifera grape vines have the most genetic diversity, and thus from whence they are most likely to have originated. (Robinson 1999:504, McGovern 2009)
Cabernet sauvignon is of the Vitis vinifera species and as such, I imagine that after thousands of years of traveling, cloning and transplanting, when the vine set down roots once again on terra rossa soil at the hand of John Riddoch, it may have unlocked something deep within its DNA, and the vine was able to speak something primal-- an echo of its genesis thousands of years ago. Terra rossa soils seem to coax something unique and special from the grapes, and I wonder if it has anything to do with the formation of the species.
MacGillivray, Lieth G., 'Riddoch, John (1827–1901)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/riddoch-john-8210/text14365, accessed 6 March 2012.
McGovern, Patrick E. (2009) Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages. CA: University of California Press.
Robinson, Jancis. (1999) Oxford Companion to Wine. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wynns (ed). (2004) Reflections: 50 Years of Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
*this is a promotional book put out by the winery to celebrate their 50 year anniversary & document a 50 year vertical tasting held in celebration of the anniversary.
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