It’s little bit embarrassing to admit that until recently I had never been wine tasting in the Coonawarra region of South Australia. During my visit to the Limestone Coast I spent not one, but three days tasting the delicious wines of the region. Now that I have finally done it, I can share with you the best Coonawarra wineries for a wine tasting weekend.
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The Coonawarra Wine Region
Located around 275km South East of Adelaide, the Coonawarra may be the smallest of all of South Australia’s wine regions at approximately 20km long and 2km at its widest. But don’t that fool you, the wines made here are top notch, arguably the best region for Cabernet Sauvignon in Australia. The secret is the distinct terra rosa soil which covers the limestone in the area. In some places it’s only a few inches thick, but that’s enough for the vines to grow and thrive. Nearly every winery also offered Shiraz, Riesling, and Chardonnay too, along with various blends and some lesser known grapes.
While the first vines were planted in the area in 1890, it wasn’t until the 1950s that things really started to take off. That was when Samuel Wynn bought out one of the old cellars and started making and marketing wine. Today there are 34 wineries operating in the Coonawarra region. Not all of them have cellar doors in the region, and some others are open only by appointment.
Many of the cellar doors in the Coonawarra Region are still family run. We met many family members, some now in their third generation. One part of wine tasting that really outdid many other wine regions in Australia (and around the world) was the friendliness of the people. I put that down to the small community here and the genuine support the wineries have for each other. On more than one occasion we were given suggestions for other wineries to visit that may suit our tastes and recommendations for where to eat and things to do. Here I felt the wine tasting experience was more about having an overall enjoyable day rather than just about the wines.
Since Coonawarra is a small wine region the cellar doors are all relatively close together. You will need a form of transport though to get around. If you don’t have a designated driver, I suggest taking a look at the tours offered by Coonawarra Experiences. While we didn’t use them, they were recommended to me by multiple people during our time here.
Another option is the Coonawarra Walking Trail. While this won’t eliminate the need for transport altogether, this walking trail takes visitors to six wineries. There is an app that can be dowloaded to give information at some points along the way, which can be interesting to learn about the growing process and history while walking through the vines.
Best Coonawarra Wineries for a Wine Tasting Weekend
While I didn’t get to every cellar door, over three days I did get to quite a few of them, some of them twice as we were joined by friends one day. I am no wine connoisseur, but I thoroughly enjoy the experience of visiting wineries, learning about the wine, the people and the area, and yes, tasting some of the wines. I tend to be a white wine drinker, but do like a nice glass of red on occasion too. I am not so much into sparking wines or rosé. Here are my thoughts on these winery experiences.
Di Giorgio Family Wines
This was one of my favourite cellar doors, mostly because of the lady who served us during our first visit. The cellar door itself is quite small inside, so with us (my husband and I) and another couple it was as full as Covid allows. There is a large outdoors area though, perfect if you prefer to take your wine tasting outside. There are also local picnic items available, so visitors can put together a tasting platter to enjoy too.
Our tasting became a fantastic group conversation. The staff member was knowledgeable and fun, about both the wines and the region. For the tasting six wines are chosen from the tasting list and are all prepared in advance on a paddle. We then discussed as we drank, with almost the whole range of wines covered between the four of us. All the wines were described so well – the sparkling shiraz was “Christmas in a glass!” – we wanted to try them all!
We returned with our friends a few days later and while the tasting was still good, we had a different staff member and it wasn’t quite the same experience we had the first time. It did give us a chance to try the wines we hadn’t tried the first time though.
Tastings at Di Giorgio Family Wines are $10/person. That was taken off the total when we purchased.
We took home the 2019 Tempranillo x 2
Wynns Coonawarra Estate
Wynn’s Coonawarra Estate is probably the most well known of the Coonawarra wineries. It has the oldest remaining vines in the region planted just in front of the cellar door.
The cellar door itself is a huge, indoor space with plenty of room for tasting. It also includes some casual seating areas. Before your tasting, browse through all the displays about Wynn’s history and the Coonawarra growing region. I particularly like seeing the glass case showing the terra rosa (the soil really is red!) and the limestone, and the huge table in the centre, which has a timber inlay showing a birds eye view of the shape of the wine growing area.
We visited Wynn’s Coonawarra Estate twice for tasting, so got to try a wide range of their wines over the two occasions. While all their wines are commendable, there was one that really stood out to us, and it was completely different to what we expected to find here. It was a Pedro Ximenez fortified wine. Absolutely delicious. We didn’t buy a bottle only because we don’t tend to drink dessert wines and already have a stock at home to get through (and we know we can pick it up in our local Dan Murphy’s if we want to!)
Tastings at Wynn Coonawarra Estate were free.
We took home a 2020 Coonawarra Late Harvest Riesling and a 2018 Limited Release “The Gables” Cabernet Sauvignon
The Redman Wines cellar door is the most understated of all that we visited. In fact, when we turned up we weren’t actually sure we had even found the cellar door. But don’t let that put you off coming here to taste the wines.
The Redman family are Coonawarra’s oldest winemaking family, with the first member making wine in 1901. We were lucky enough to have his grandson helping us out during our tasting, and it was great chatting to him about the history of this winery and also the others in the region.
Unsurprisingly the wines here were predominantly reds, with a riesling and a rosé representing the lighter wines. They do a good job of their full-bodied reds though, and almost any of them would be a nice addition to the dinner table.
The tasting at Redman Wines was free
We took home a Cabernet Sauvignon (but it did not last long enough for me to note exactly which cab sav!)
Rymill Wines have a lovely big cellar doo, but it felt a little less personal that some of the smaller cellar doors. I loved the bottle rack behind the bar though. They had purposely left some of the squares empty to spell out “Rymill”. Tis was hard to see when actually there, but as soon as I lifted my phone to take a photo, it was very obvious.
We were offered a range of 6-8 wines to try. It was more of a standard tasting rather than one dictated by the customer, although we could say no to any of the wines listed if we chose. There were platters available to nibble on while we were tasting the wine.
While the staff were knowledgable here, there wasn’t as much of the friendly interaction as with some of the other places, but I think that was all to do with the way the tastings are being done at the moment due to Covid. Rather than sitting at the bar, each group of people is at their own small table. The staff members were going back and forth between the tables and the bar to keep each group tasting the wine they were up to. There wasn’t much time to chat.
Both times we visited we were offered a taste of a wine not on the list, and it just happened to be one of our favourite styles – a Gewürztraminer. Even better was that it was a dry version, which is also exactly to our taste.
The tasting. at Rymill Wines was free
We took home a 2020 “The Yearling” Sauvignon Blanc and a 2020 Dry Gewürztraminer
Balnaves of Coonawarra was one of the wineries that was consistently recommended to us, and it did not disappoint. This was another one that we visited twice, a few days apart.
The modern cellar door is in a picturesque location, sitting on the banks of a small dam and surrounded by rose gardens. It has plenty of room inside for tasting, and a small deck overlooking the pond. A section of glass flooring shows the water flowing underneath the building.
Our first tasting here was facilitated by the first member of the third generation of the Balnaves family. Ellie is only 19, one year out of high school, but she knows all the ins and outs of the Balnaves wines and was great fun during the tasting. We got all sorts of great tips about our further travels in the Limestone Coast area too.
Our second tasting we were not served by Ellie (although she was there) but by another young girl who was just as good as what she does. The whole atmosphere is friendly and relaxed at Balnaves, and this one should be on your must-visit list.
The tasting at Balnaves of Coonawarra was free.
We took home 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon
Katnook Estate have their cellar door in an old building that was used by the Coonawarra’s founding father John Riddoch to run his fruit colony. Now fully renovated, the cellar door is a lovely space to taste some wines.
Katnook Estate have a larger tasting list than many of the other wineries, including their more premium wines. They have three ranges of wine, and the most expensive Katnook Founder’s Block range was definitely the best. We almost took home a 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, but the budget dictated something slightly cheaper.
We indulged in a tasting platter while we were here. It was such good value and we loved the local products offered. The chilli fetta was delicious, and we will be looking out for it in stores.
The tasting at Katnook Estate was free.
2018 Limited Release Amara Cabernet Sauvignon
Brand’s Laira Coonawarra
Brand’s Laira Coonawarra have a lovely new purpose-built cellar door. It’s a really large space, with both inside and outside areas perfect for all kinds of weather. Enjoy the sunshine outside in the summer, and the huge open fire in winter. Make sure you take a look at the old cellar during your tasting and see some of the old wines stored there.
All of Brand’s Laira’s wines are available for tastings. It’s no surprise that the focus is strongly on red wines, with a single Riesling, Chardonnay and Rosé rounding out the selection. There is also a ploughman’s platter available if you would like some nibbles with your wine tasting.
The wines here were perfectly drinkable, but none impressed us enough to make a purchase. This may have been different had we visited the winery earlier, but by the time we came here we already had more wine than we said we were buying at the beginning, whoops!
The tasting at Brand’s Laira Coonawarra was free
After really loving so many of the other cellar doors, I feel a little bad about Zema Estate. There was nothing wrong with the tasting here, in fact I think we bought more wine here than we did from any of the other wineries, it was just that it was less memorable after so many amazing experiences.
The cellar door is smallish, with some outdoor tables, but it was nowhere near as spectacular as some of the other cellar doors. This is a smaller family concern though, and the focus is on their winemaking, and in that, I have to say they did a great job.
The tasting at Zema Estate were free.
We took home 2015 Family Selection Shiraz, 2016 Shiraz & 2020 Sauvignon Blanc
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Josie Kelsh is South Australian, born and bred. She has lived in the state for almost her whole life, just one short stint away as a teenager with her family. Travelling all over the world has shown her exactly how amazing South Australia is to live and travel in and she uses her passion to show it to you the way a local sees it.