This story began with the intention to write about the women winemakers of the Coonawarra.
There is a surprising number of them in senior positions, large and small producers, families and corporates. Viticulturists, too, as well as business owners and managers. They all add up to a unique feature of the far-flung Coonawarra region. (There are a few more in neighbouring Limestone Coast districts as well.)
However, after speaking with many of the women down that way, in their wineries, homes, farmhouses and cellar doors, the story became something more – a fascinating window into how such a winemaking community works, how the tyranny of distance brings people together, and how the Coonawarra, its namesake village, and main township of Penola have thrived – told here via the experiences of the region’s leading wine women.
There’s been a fair bit of attention in recent times to women in the wine industry. In the past week the Governor of South Australia Frances Adamson hosted a special dinner gathering of leading SA female winemakers – the social media images beamed with overwhelming pride. And recently the Australian Women in Wine Awards, run by a board of female winemakers, was awarded the inaugural McWilliams (Calabria) Excellence in Action Award at the elite industry Maurice O’Shea Awards night in Adelaide.
In the Coonawarra, the influence of a remarkable group of women in the region’s wine community – and the district’s wellbeing at large – is profound.
Among them are established families now run by their next-generation women: Kirsty Balnaves as business manager at Balnaves Estate, with young winemaker Jacinta Jenkins in control of the winery; and Emma Bowen, winemaker at Bowen Estate, while her dad Doug Bowen remains, overseeing the estate’s vineyard.
There are the long-time residents and winemaking partners at Wynns Coonawarra Estate, Sue Hodder and Sarah Pidgeon, who have worked 28 vintages together and been central to the ongoing success of that brand as well as vital members of the local community. With them at Wynns, which is part of the Treasury Wine Estate corporation, are leading viticulturists and technical team heads Cath Kidman and Kerry DeGaris.
Across the road in the Coonawarra village, at Ottelia winery, cellar door and restaurant, young Matilda Innes, daughter of vigneron and restaurateurs John and Melissa Innes, is now winemaking partner with her dad while establishing her own brand Taschini, which is as adventurous as anything gets in the mostly traditional south-east wine landscape.
Then there’s long-time Coonawarra identity Sue Bell, who lived in the district while working many years at Stonehaven winery in the neighbouring Padthaway region before buying, with business partner Andrew Rennie, and fully rebuilding the Glen Roy shearing shed to become Bellwether Wines, known also for its camping and glamping as well as exciting food, wine and music experiences. The Bellwether cellar door also carries another Coonawarra producer, Peta Baverstock’s Cuvee Co sparkling wines, all made from Limestone Coast fruit.
Meanwhile, at Penley Estate, the winery is now fully owned by sisters Ang and Bec Tolley, with Kate Goodman and Lauren Hansen working wonders as progressive winemakers.
And, next, there’s a relative newcomer to the district, Nat Cleghorn, winemaker at Katnook Estate, one of the premium producers under the Accolade banner. While she’s a newcomer in terms of living permanently in the area, Nat has made wines from Coonawarra for more than a decade with former employer Yalumba.
Each is here via their own life’s journey, but collectively they reveal a complex picture of how their region lives and breathes day to day. There are countless stories of struggling country townships but, it appears, Penola and Coonawarra are not among them.
The common thread through all the conversations undertaken for this story is the close and accommodating sense of community. Coonawarra’s distance encourages this, Sue Bell notes.
“Unlike a lot of wine regions which are on the periphery of a city, and people commute, here you can’t. You have to make friends in the community,” she says.
“My friends here range from 20 to 80 years old, and I find that multi-social demographic really stimulating. I’ve made such great friends and connections within the community.”
Emma Bowen agrees: “The population is small, and if you’re not friends with your neighbours, who are you friends with?”
The mix of ages, backgrounds and personalities makes for a vibrant society, generating the day-to-day needs of the area, she notes.
“People wear many hats, and everyone puts something into the community,” Bowen says.
“You might not see it, whether it’s a wine event, or the Coonawarra Club on the last Friday night of each month (an open-house event at the Coonawarra Hall where locals cook, bring salads, and generally get together), or the National Trust, or shopping with the aged, or going into school and reading, the kitchen garden at the school, the arboretum out of town.
“People are generous with their time. They’re not just making wine, but they might have to quickly dash off and drop off a plate of food for someone’s funeral, or they’re on the CFS in summer when you might have to be picking your white grapes. We’re all very accommodating.”
Bowen is the current convenor of a special group of women in the area known as the Black Swans who meet regularly over dinner, usually with their own collection of cellared wines, themed on my visit as a guest at their Pipers of Penola restaurant gathering in three brackets of 2009 Cabernet Sauvignons. While one might say the members are cellar treasures in their own right, they invite to tea the occasional male and younger women winemakers in the region. The discussion is vintage quality, and clearly important in maintaining the lifeforce of a small country community.
There among the guests that night was Lauren Hansen, winemaker at Penley Estate, as well as a handful of other younger winemakers, including Balnaves’ Jacinta Jenkins and Ottelia’s and Taschini’s Matilda Innes.
Hansen, who had been raised in nearby Naracoorte, came to the Coonawarra eight years ago, beginning as assistant winemaker at Balnaves to Pete Bissell before moving to Penley Estate, where she runs the winery and winemaking along with Kate Goodman.
“The community wraps itself around you,” Hansen says. “I love going into the supermarket and having chats – the conversations you have in the fruit and veg section at Penola IGA…” she laughs.
A member of a local book club, again, mostly made up of women, and also a fitness boot camp, which is a mix of genders, Hansen reckons her calendar has never been as full as it is here. She recalls the first weekend after arriving in the district, going to a monthly cellar door get-together, and by the end of the night being invited to dinner night after night.
“It’s a really lovely mix of people – you stay a bit longer and see all the different levels,” she says. “There are plenty of creative things going on in town, and you become immersed in it.”
The Royal Oak Hotel in Penola – one of the many convivial meeting places for the Coonawarra wine community. Photo: John Krüger
Hansen and friends Jacinta Jenkins and Matilda Innes are a younger crew who have made the Coonawarra home, all reporting that the nurturing nature of the district has been an immensely positive experience.
Both Jenkins and Hansen have had close-up mentoring by former Balnaves winemaker Pete Bissell, and both also echo a common thread that the men of the region have welcomed and supported them unconditionally.
“There are a lot of great mentors here,” Jenkins says. “The men have been incredibly welcoming and generous – it’s been enlightening.”
But the number of women in leading winery and community roles has been a great benefit to the younger folks, she says, facilitating deeper connections through the district.
“Probably a lot of us wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t like that – the opportunities here exist because of the networks.”
Matilda Innes recognises that the women winemakers, and especially the “elders”, have been a key reason why she has felt so at home since returning to the region after years away studying, travelling, working, marrying and having a son.
“There is a nurturing of the younger women – I feel part of it,” Innes says. “The knowledge is here and it’s shared and passed down – that Coonawarra legacy.”
Among the leading custodians of that legacy are Wynns winemakers Sue Hodder, celebrating her 30th vintage in the region, and long-time colleague Sarah Pidgeon.
Hodder came to the Coonawarra at the time needing a life change. It didn’t take long to fall in love with region’s “beautiful, medium-bodied fruit”.
During her tenure there have been many great women and men in the company and the district, and she’s felt it’s never been a really blokey culture.
“It’s not always been a refined culture, either, but you can’t assign that to a gender – we’re an agricultural community, after all,” Hodder grins.
“What I like about it is the proper farmers – it’s not hobby farmers. When we talk about things, about issues like water for instance, it’s with farmers who know what they’re doing and not with a lawyer who’s bought a little place.
“I like that: I like being in a community that is a productive region. I love that it is deeply agricultural but there also is some refinement.
“We have a little arts festival with its own credibility and style, and people move here for the community. It’s not just people who have always been here over generations.”
… while we don’t all dance exactly to the same beat of the drum in winemaking, we’re all heading in the same direction
All the classic things about country towns are true, colleague Sara Pidgeon says. The swim club, the lifesavers at the Penola pool, the Community Club, the wine show, the CFS, the arts festival… the list seems endless.
“It’s all the social connections in a country town – there are so many committees and things to run here, which can be frightening for young people to join and then soon find themselves running.”
Pidgeon also recalls that when she came to the Coonawarra it was more traditionally a male world, but she was always comfortable with the way she was treated.
“I didn’t feel like I was a woman amongst men: I felt respected and equal and valued in my opinions on wine, food and in the committees and clubs.
“I think that is a Coonawarra attribute, and maybe that’s why more women come here.”
Sue Bell agrees: “I’ve never felt, ever, that there was a male-dominant, patriarch-like culture here – never.
“I’ve been in plenty of meetings where I was the only woman, and you’re included, supported, and everyone is genuinely interested in what you have to offer.”
She came to the region on a graduate program more than 20 years ago, not by intention but obligation.
“In the first week I was invited to dinner four times, gin and tonics were dropped off on the way home from the winery – it was just so friendly.
“I worked three months of night shift at Rouge Homme in 1998 and saw all this amazing fruit come in, and I went from thinking this was a place of stuffy old men and green wines to this being fabulous, structural, interesting wine.
“I’d meet up with other winemakers, men and women, after night shift. It was an amazing learning environment.”
When she started Bellwether she was borrowing equipment, had her ferments and barrels in several winery cellars and even recalls negotiating access to fruit at the local swimming carnival where she and a grower and his son were participating.
“I cannot express how amazing the community was at helping me at having a crack in 2014. I was able to start doing all my winemaking here at Bellwether – and what comes around goes around. Now I can lend things to people.”
The Coonawarra community spirit is not just a thing of the past.
“The winemaking community is very cohesive and very welcoming,” Nat Cleghorn says.
“You come down here and everyone is involved. We are all here for a particular reason, and that’s to make fantastic wines from a fantastic region, and while we don’t all dance exactly to the same beat of the drum in winemaking, we’re all heading in the same direction.
“You come here because you really believe in the space and the terroir and what we are doing down here, and if you come here with that mentality, you will be welcomed with open arms, male or female.
“You can walk into the Royal Oak hotel, The Prince of Wales, or the Coonawarra Club on the last Friday night of every month, and you get big smiles and a ‘How you going?’
“It’s just a strong community of winemakers – that’s what‘s great, big or small, medium-sized, male or female, it doesn’t matter. We’re all down here, we’re trying to make the best wines we can, and we all pull in the same direction.
“It’s really refreshing.”
The Coonawarra Cellar Door in the City Roadshow, with more than 25 wineries and scores of wines for tasting, is on Friday, August 26 (5.30pm-8.30pm), at the National Wine Centre, Hackney Road.
Wynns Reframed Cabernet Franc Cabernet Sauvignon 2021
Coonawarra / 12.9% / $26
From a new range out of the traditional Wynns Estate listings, Reframed does exactly that in this case, taking the estate’s talisman Cabernet Sauvignon fruit, witnessed famously in its Black Label and iconic John Riddoch iterations, and matching it with familial variety Cabernet Franc to create an all-new style. The Cab Franc aromatics rise delightfully, fragrant with crushed red berries that then continue into the palate providing fresh flavour lines, medium-bodied structure and backdrop peppery spice notes without sacrificing too much of the overall Cabernet tannins in the finish. A breath of Cabernet lightness.
Penley Estate Project Field Blend 2021
Coonawarra / 14.5% / $35
In a rare vintage when the components here – equal parts Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot – ripened more closely together than usual, the fruit was picked from half rows in the same vineyard before going two different fermentation methods, one with 100% whole bunch, the other de-stemmed to be whole berries only. The wine is fragrant with a clear sense of density and texture from the very start, packed with flavour, dark berries and a faint touch of earthiness and regional mint, without being green. The structure is softer than expected given the plate depth, which offers a final satisfying drinkability.
Limestone Coast / 13.1% / $30
Wider sourcing here but created and nurtured in the Coonawarra by one of the region’s more adventurous winemaking women, Matilda Innes, who also helps her dad John in the Ottelia wine brand. Here a 40:30:30 blend of Robe-grown Pinot Gris with Padthaway Graciano and Sangiovese, co-fermented, left of skins for three weeks or so, then settled for three months in older oak puncheons. Lovely orchard blossom and dried flower-like aromas, then plenty of fun in the drinking, watermelon-like juiciness, a lick of red licorice. Chill it down for great warm weather splashing. The 2022 vintage is out in late spring.
Bowen Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2020
Coonawarra / 14.5% / $27.50
From the well-established Bowen family estate, with Doug Bowen overseeing the vineyard and his daughter Emma totally on top of the winemaking arts. Here there’s a delightful crimson fruit crush feel to start, with delicate mint in behind, the wine’s feel for ripeness and freshness beautifully balanced. Medium weighted with Cabernet’s trademark tannins well-manicured and supportive of the flavourful palate. Comfortable, assured, proud Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon.
Bellwether Cabernet Sauvignon 2016
Coonawarra / 14% / $70
Decidedly premium in approach, there’s a lot of care and attention in the creation of this wine. Hand-pruned, fermented with indigenous yeast, traditionally basket pressed then matured in really good French oak, the wine is extraordinarily youthful even after six years. Classy cassis notes and forest leafiness to start, then a palate that echoes these with enticing licorice elements as well. Very adult in flavour senses, as well as a refined and finessed mouthfeel – classic fine chalk dust tannins. Pure, medium-bodied bliss in high-end Cabernet style. Absolutely delicious. (Try also the Bellwether Wrattonbully Shiraz 2019, a crackingly good cool-climate style and sporting a beautiful piece of label art.)
Balnaves The Tally Cabernet Sauvignon 2012
Coonawarra / 14.5% / $90 for current 2018 vintage
While this particular vintage is no longer current, it’s here to highlight what many Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignons are designed for – the cellar, at least 10 and up to 20 and more years. The Tally is regional royalty, and at a decade old with 20 months in 50% new French barriques, the wine is wearing its oak with pride to begin, but delve deeper and the dark fruits, spice and licorice are calling from inside as its full-bodied structure and mid-grainy tannins frame the finish. It’s old school and benchmark in that mode. Raid your dad or grandad’s cellar to find some or similar. It’s a joy to behold.
Katnook Estate Prodigy Shiraz 2019
Coonawarra / 14.5% / $110
A limited release, reserve, major-event-style release in only the top vintages, this showcases in no uncertain terms just how grand Coonawarra Shiraz can be alongside it’s better-known regional partner Cabernet Sauvignon. (Under the Katnook banner, its current sibling is the Odyssey Cabernet Sauvignon 2019.) Expressing ultimate cool-climate savvy, bluer-berried flavours rather than rich, darker and riper notes, while maturation characters after 19 months in French oak tend to aromatic, woody suggestions, subtle and integrated with black-pepper-like palate seasoning and fine, high-percentage dark chocolate mouth feels. Elegant and sophisticated to the highest degree.
This story was originally published by Solstice Media via @indaily and its not-for-profit arts and cultural journalism masthead @inreviewau