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September 7, 2008

Coonawarra

Filed under: Australia 2008, Travel — anotherheader @ 5:36 am

The suspicious characters at Henry's Drive in Padthaway

The suspicious characters at Henry's Drive

Breakfast for me, or “Breky” in the Australian parlance, consisted of a sausage roll acquired by Becky from the local bakery. We’re not sure why, but the Aussie’s slang seems to prefer adding the “-y” sound to the shortened form of the word (like “breky”, “Aussie”, “Tazy” for Tazmania, or “footy” for football). As Becky (hum, maybe her name is Aussie slang) waited in line at the bakery, she received the complete update from the local farmers and ranchers queuing for the ubiquitous sausage rolls and meat pies. Aside from the sausage roll, Becky came back to the room with the update on cattle and wheat futures along with the weather forecast and harvest plans. This is in addition to the usual minor personal details (mother’s maiden name, number of children, employment status, credit card number, and bank account passwords) that she seems to always acquire when chatting with the locals.

Coonawarra vineyards

Coonawarra vineyards

This day the rains came and broke the intense heat that we had been experiencing. In South Australia, New South Wales, and Victoria, the rains were welcomed, as the areas had been experiencing severe drought over the last several years. The lack of rain has resulted in particularly intense, concentrated wines, but it has otherwise been devastating to the agricultural industry. For us, the rain, and the cool weather the rain brought, merely meant a slight wardrobe change.

Meet Trevor from the winery dog book at Redman's

Meet Trevor from the winery dog book at Redman's

Out of Keith, we drove south. Well, OK, we eventually drove south. The CPS system had some initial lag adjusting to the morning’s haze. Mental haze, that is. The lag resulted in us going east for a few klicks before turning south.

Vineyards started appearing 50 kilometers or so south of Keith. We stopped at the second winery we saw, Henry’s Drive. The winery building at Henry’s Drive was a beautiful, small, modern building set back from the road on a small rise. As we parked in the empty lot, the winery’s Jack Russell Terriers, not accustomed to frequent guests, vigorously greeted or attacked us (it’s hard to tell with Jack Russell “Terrors”). When we stepped into the tasting room, Becky and I mentally measured the space to see if our furniture would fit. We would have been more than happy to live there.

Many of these are available at your local store, unless we get there first!

Many of these are available at your local store, unless we get there first!

As we tasted the Henry Drive’s wines, we learned that we had entered the Padthaway vinicultural region. Padthaway adjoins the Coonawarra Valley to the north and appears to be a slightly warmer growing region than The Coonawarra. For us, the best wines at Henry’s Drive were Cabernet Sauvignon based. The Shiraz blends were good, also. We liked these blends much better here than we did in The Barossa. Happily, we learned that Henry’s Drive wines are available at the well-known purveyor of high-end wine in the States, Costco. All the wines were priced less than $ 26 US. We found out later that the lowest priced red, marketed under the Pillar Box label, costs around $11 in the States and received 91 points from Parker. It is a screaming deal.

Henry’s Drive was an impressive introduction to the Padthaway region. While at the winery, in between sips of wines and being chewed on by the dog, we received suggestions for cellar doors to visit further south in the Coonawarra Valley. Our anticipation was building as we rolled down Henry’s Drive (the road to the winery this time), carefully avoiding the impulse to turn a Jack Rusell Terrier into road kill, and back onto the highway.

As a sign by the road announced our emergence into the Coonwarra Valley, the terrain opened up into a broad, gently sloped valley carpeted in lush, green, grape laden vines. Our next stop was Redman Wines in The Coonawarra.

At Redman, we were greeted by another winery dog, Trevor, also a Jack Russell Terrier. Trevor must have been taking his doggie downers, as he was particularly mellow for his breed. In The Barossa, we noticed a picture book featuring the winery dogs of Australia. It took us awhile to realize it, but most of the dogs we saw at the wineries we visited, including Trevor, had their pictures in this book. It was a brush with fame for us, in a small sort of way.

Heyward's Royal Oak

Heyward's Royal Oak in Penola

Harvest in the Coonawarra Valley had not yet begun. Our host at the Redman cellar door was the winemaker, who clearly had some time on his hands. We had a long and informative discussion about viniculture and winemaking in Australia. The downside of the conversation was that the pace of the tasting was very slow making us wonder just how many additional cellar doors we would be able to visit before the closing hour came. We never asked for the next wine to be poured. Eventually, our host would break from the conversation, notice our fixed, longing, desperate stares at the next bottle to be tasted and transfer some more wine to our empty glass.

Poplars in The Coonawarra

From Redman, we went into turbo tasting mode and stopped at Wynn (excellent Cabs, available in the States), Di Giorgio, and The Poplars (good Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon that’s not available in the States). At The Poplars, we took a little break and had a tasting of the excellent local cheese and ate a succulent lamb sandwich that functioned as our lunch. We still had some more time before the cellar doors were shuttered for the day. Continuing on our list from Henry’s Drive, we visited two excellent, smaller wineries, Majella (good Merlot, Cabernet, and the sparkling Shiraz) and Hollick (nice winery, good Cabernet, good sparking Merlot). Fortunately, all of the wineries are located pretty close to each other in The Coonawarra. As you can probably tell, we preferred the Bordeaux varietals in the Coonawarra Valley to the Shiraz. This is not real surprising as The Coonawarra’s claim to fame is their world class Cabernet Sauvignon.

At Majella and Hollick, we had our first tasting of the sparkling red wines that are seemingly ubiquitous at the cellar doors we visited in Australia. In retrospect, it was a mistake to wait so long to try these. The Sparkling Shiraz we tasted at Majella was a very interesting wine. The wine was slightly off-dry and concentrated with the intense fruit flavors from the grapes coming through by the boat load. The finish was complex, but wine did not taste as if it had seen much, if any, oak, so the complexity was basically limited to the wide varieties of fruit flavors you can get from grapes. Between the slight sweetness, the carbonation, and the fruit flavors, it reminded us, in a good way, of a refreshing wine cooler. The exception is that the red sparkling wines we tasted were made with really good grapes and used sound winemaking skills. These are wines we would like to get to know better. It is easy enough to characterize the sparkling reds as porch wines, but I would not be surprised to see them used in adventuresome wine pairings at top restaurants. We’ve included a link at the end if you would like to learn a little more about these wines.

With the cellar doors closing, we headed the short way down the road to the town of Penola. At this point, we had acquired more wine than was reasonable and we were worried about getting the bottles back home in one piece. We stopped at the Post Office in Penola to find out about shipping and to purchase packaging materials in the form of Styrofoam wine containers. We quickly determined from a friendly, talkative, and hard of hearing staff member that the cost of shipping the wine back to the States would likely exceed what we paid for the wine (OK, it would exceed what we would like to admit we paid for the wine). We got all that information, a restaurant recommendation, and Becky got the Post Office staff member’s personal financial details, too! That skill of hers could sure come in handy, some day! In the end, we decided to take our wine purchases back with us in our check-in luggage using the Styrofoam containers were purchased. Good thing we brought a collapsible duffle with us. If the wine doesn’t fit in our luggage, we are going to have one hell of a bender in Melbourne.

Given the allure of a decent restaurant option in Penola, we decided to stay in the town. We chose to stay in the old style Pub Hotel, the J. W. Heyward Royal Oak. We’d seen the old style hotels in virtually every place we’ve visited on this trip. This was the chance to satisfy our curiosity about what these hotels were like on the inside. The Royal Oak hotel was built in 1872. It has only been modestly remodeled since then, preserving the high, molding accented ceilings. The bathrooms were down the hallway and there was no air conditioning in the rooms. Fortunately, the outside temperatures were in the fifties so the lack of AC was not a problem for us.

Our hotel at night

Our hotel at night

After settling into the room, we headed down the street to the restaurant that had been recommended at the Post. The restaurant was closed. The owners were getting married and were away for the month. Seems as if, in a small town like Penola, the folks at the Post should have known this. As a result, we are suspicious of the validity of the personal financial details that Becky acquired at the Post at the same time we received the restaurant recommendation. You just can’t trust anyone these days.

It was on to Plan B for dinner. Too bad we didn’t have a Plan B. A search of main drag in Penola turned up the pub at our hotel and a restaurant serving Crumbed Brains with Bacon as a “special” as the only food options. Though everything is better with bacon, as we all know, we decided to head out of town and up the road to The Chardonnay Lodge. The Chardonnay Lodge is associated with our lunch location, The Poplars Winery.

We sat down and ordered our meal at The Chardonnay Lodge. It then came time to order wine for dinner. We had earlier tasted and very much liked The Poplar’s 2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. The restaurant’s wine list offered both the 2003 and 2005 vintages of this wine. While it is true that some of the dialog reported is trip log, up to this point, has been, err, how can I say, “embellished,” ever so slightly, the following conversation was not:

I (Dave) said to the waitress: “What’s the difference between The Poplar’s 2003 and 2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignons?”

The waitress stared, suspicious, for a moment. Then she said, hesitantly but with certainty, “The 2003 is two years older than the 2005.”

I paused, thinking, perhaps, that she was saying “2005…” and something more would follow. After a pregnant, nervous moment, I glanced at the waitress.

Realizing that “two years older” wasn’t going to satisfy me and still wary that I was asking a trick question, she finally continued, “And it will taste different.”

I paused; finally speechless, and replied, after a beat passed, “OK” still hoping that something more would be added.

It was quickly obvious that our now nervous and suspicious waitress was ready to leave well enough alone and had no more to add, so I went ahead and ordered the wine we tried at lunch, the 2005. The food and wine came out quickly enough. The food was decent and the wine was excellent. Our waitress, feeling that she had passed our test, was our friend for the rest of the meal.

Coonawarra signs:

http://picasaweb.google.com/wonderdog1/CoonawarraSigns

Coonawarra sights:

http://picasaweb.google.com/wonderdog1/CoonawarraPenolaSights

To learn more about Australian sparkling red wines see: http://www.winerackshop.com/sparkling.htm

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