South Australia is famous for its wines - and for good reason. They stand tall in a world where the standard of wine being produced is getting better and better.
Of all of the places in Australia which make wines, none have a better reputation than the region that overlays a small two-by-twelve kilometre stretch of red soil in South Australia's south-east, known as the Coonawarra. This soil is the subject of legal challenges (where does it start and end), vast money exchanges (it is worth about the same as land in a city, acre for acre) and snobbishness (my soil is redder than your soil). However, for the approximately fourteen wineries in the Coonawarra, the soil produces fantastic wines, both red and white.
The key to tasting wine in this region is to base yourself somewhere convenient and start each day from there. The region is very small, but it is about 400km from both Adelaide and Melbourne (actually it is marginally further from Melbourne than Adelaide). This place cannot be reached as a day trip from any likely starting point. Two largish regional centres adjoin the Coonawarra; Naracoorte 50km to the north and Penola, right adjacent to the south. The City of Mount Gambier is about 80km south.
The region is named after the small township right in the middle of the red strip, called Coonawarra and it is here that the best places to stay are. There is a large motel, the Chardonnay Lodge. Alternatively, there are a number of little cottages in the township available as Bed and Breakfast lodgings. The advantage of living in the motel or B&Bs is that you can walk to about six of the wineries very easily and it is a very short drive to the rest. The road through the middle of the strip, the Riddock Highway, is sign-posted with a speed limit of 110 kph, which makes walking on the road dangerous, so you need to walk way off to the edge.
The Coonawarra produces nothing other than wine, so don't expect to find anything other than vineyards and wineries (and a very tall communications tower in the middle of the township). This is not one of those wine regions set up for tourist daytrippers with lots of fun shops and local produce stores.
In previous times, fresh and dried fruit was the main produce and it is only since the 1970s that wine production has taken over so completely. The original grand farm buildings belonged to John Riddoch (1880s) who owned the whole region as a single farm. Now it is a winery operated by Wynns. The only other old winemakers (1907) are Redman who work from the block adjacent to their original holdings.
Tasting the Wine
It is nearly impossible to recommend particular wineries - they change hands regularly in the Australian market as the multinationals that own many of them shift and trade. In any case all of the wineries are excellent. However, the best way to taste is as follows:
Stock up on food provisions from the Central Market in Adelaide before you leave, because it is cheap and good. Buy wine in the Coonawara because they do it so well. Pack lots of yummy things.
Stay as close to the landmark Communications Tower as you can (that means one of the B&Bs).
Use your car in the mornings (you will have needed one to get there in first place) to travel the five or so kilometres to the wineries further out.
Go home and eat lunch from your stock of yummy things.
Walk to a couple of the six wineries in the half kilometre radius of the cottage you are staying in (being careful of the cars).
Drive into Penola to the Penola Take Away and buy takeaway (this essentially means fish and chips, hand-made hamburgers or a steak sandwich - you cannot go wrong here as the Penola fish and chip shop is excellent and they make their own chips).
Drop into the Royal Oak hotel and go to the bottle shop. They have wines from back-vintages in the region which are to die for (and at good prices) - so spend your money here and don't spend your money on food.
Go back home, smell the wine (the older the wine the more time it needs - it will smell 'off' for the first hour or so) and eat your chips.
The next day, go to the winery from which you tasted the back-vintage and see what you think of their current stuff. Most cellar doors for the smaller producers are run by the winemakers. They will happily talk to anyone who is willing to compare their older vintages to their current vintage.
This can be continued for a couple of days.
If you get bored, you can always see the Blue Lake in Mount Gambier or go caving in Naracoorte. Padthaway, the next big wine-producing region is only 80km to the north and is well worth a visit.