Do you remember Coonawarra? We do… Not long ago this small but cracking region was the darling of Australian wine and collectors across the country. It’s unique flavours, structure and power made it instantly recognisable and earned fans the world over. Yet, straddling the border of South Australia and Victoria, it is an awkward place to visit, and as Cabernet Sauvignon has been replaced in wine-drinking fashion by sexier sounded grapes like Pinot Noir, Sangiovese and Tempranillo, Coonawarra and its famous Cabernet grape became a little less ventured.
There is a bit more to this story, such as major wine companies buying land and farming a monoculture along conventional lines, but this is for another day. The important thing is, whilst these fashions and trends have been rolling on, there are some grape growers and producers in the region that have not changed a thing, other than improving the health and knowledge of their vineyards, and spending more money in their winery, making their wines truly world class.
One of these producers is Balnaves, and more specifically, the Balnaves family and their long serving winemaker Pete Bissell. We believe Balnaves is the jewel in the crown of Coonawarra, with an unmatched commitment to the region’s history, present and future. Pete Bissell, a New Zealander by origin, has been in Coonawarra for three decades and knows more about producing Coonawarra Cabernet than most.
For a quick geography lesson, this region is on the South Australian side of the SA/ VIC border, about 100kms from the Southern Ocean. It is traditionally a sheep farming community and the Balnaves family, multigenerational in the area, still have a sheep farming operation that they tend to as well as their winery. It is not uncommon to see their sheep wandering the vines, chewing up the midrow and providing some organic matter. The region is cool, which is important, as it gets a long growing season allowing slow flavour development of Cabernet Sauvignon whilst maintaining structure and a fresh austerity. Most importantly, it has a distinct red dirt, which is a metre of Terrarosa dirt, speckled with ironstone, a top a hard limestone subsoil. This is the key to quality Coonawarra wine.
Balnaves understand this, respect it and work with it to fashion fine, supple, tannic and dark fruited Cabernet Sauvignon. The prices have remained ridiculous relative to the quality, and they are a must include for cellars for those that enjoy Australian Cabernet Sauvignon. This week we are offering two wines from Balnaves, three bottles of each. The first is a drink now wine which we’ve accessed with some age on it… it’s a Friday night pizza or roast wine, that we believe is one of Australia’s best sub $30 reds. The second is a pure, 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from their best vineyards, that spends considerable time in the highest quality French oak. If it was from the Bordeaux or the Napa Valley, it would be $180, here it is $40, today cheaper. It will keep for ten plus years. This means the pack of six dials in at $32.50 per bottle or $195 for the six pack. This producer also produces one the countries best $20 wines in the country, shout out if you want some of that to fill the cupboard for winter.
Balnaves Cabernet Merlot 2013
This is where we tell you that Merlot is ok. It is a friend of Cabernet Sauvignon and supports Cabernet’s natural toughness and tannin with some softness and delicious fruit. In fact, Merlot is a classic and important variety and when grown well, and produced by intelligent winemakers, it plays an incredible supporting role. Here there is 18% included, with 82% Cabernet. You still get dark fruit, cassis and baked plum, dusty earth, tobacco and a light leafiness, a hint of chocolate and mocha. It is a great wine with some good age to it. Decant for an hour and serve with pepperoni pizza or a lamb kebab. 94 James Halliday
Balnaves Cabernet Sauvignon 2015
This is where Balnaves get serious and over deliver on price. From their best few vineyards, the wine is fermented with extended time on skins before 18 months in the highest-grade French barriques. It was bottled in December 2016 and kept in bottle at the cellar before release. Whilst it has some age, which high quality Cabernet deserves, it will hold well until 2035. If you can keep this for at least five years you will be rewarded. The flavours are intense and supple black berries, cassis, graphite, mocha, dry herbs and a lick of spearmint. The structure and length of the wine show the quality that surpasses the price. Keep this for a while, decant it off sediment, which is will develop, and leave for an hour. Save this for roast lamb and load it with rosemary. Aged Coonawarra Cabernet and roast lamb with rosemary is one of the worlds best and easiest food and wine matches you’ll find. 96 James Halliday.
We hope you enjoy these bottles. They are great company during the winter months… and when local tourism kicks in again, we recommend making a trip to Coonawarra and visiting the Balnaves family, they are Australian treasures.
Tom and Dan