Red Dirt: An Exploration of Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon and the Terra Rossa

Written by: Matthew Raica



Time to read 10 min

Nestled in the heart of South Australia's Limestone Coast, the enchanting wine region of Coonawarra stands as a testament to the artistry of winemaking and the mastery of a single grape variety – Cabernet Sauvignon.  Coonawarra has carved its niche in the oenophile's world, drawing enthusiasts and connoisseurs alike to its terra  rossa soil-clad vineyards.

In this journey through the vine-covered landscapes of Coonawarra, we embark on a quest to unravel the secrets behind the region's exceptional Cabernet Sauvignon. From its unique terroir to the passionate vintners who cultivate the vines, every element contributes to the distinctive character and unparalleled quality of the wines produced in this Australian wine haven.

Join us as we delve into the vintners that make Coonawarra an special place for Cabernet Sauvignon enthusiasts. Prepare to savor the nuanced flavors, aromas, and textures that define the region's best Cabernets, and discover why Coonawarra stands tall as a beacon of excellence in the world of wine.


Coonawarra Cabernet and the Red Dirt: the renowned Terra Rossa

Coonawarra's renowned Terra Rossa soil stands as a geological gift to vintners, contributing significantly to the region's reputation for producing some of the world's finest wine grapes. This distinctive reddish-brown soil, characterized by its rich, crumbly texture, is a key element in the success of Coonawarra's vineyards. Originating from an ancient sea bed, the Terra Rossa is composed of limestone and decomposed fragments of marine life, offering a unique combination of nutrients and excellent drainage.

One of the soil's most remarkable attributes is its ability to regulate temperature. The Terra Rossa acts as a natural insulator, absorbing heat during the day and radiating it back to the vines at night, creating a moderate and consistent temperature. This thermal stability is crucial for the slow ripening of grapes, allowing them to develop complex flavors and retain natural acidity. Furthermore, the soil's superb drainage prevents waterlogging, ensuring optimal root development and reducing the risk of diseases.

Lying underneath the terra rossa is a deep layer of limestone.  Vines growind down into this layer push deep roots to find water in the underlying aquifer, with the rock contributing minerality and complexity to the  wines.


The Entrance to Coonawarra Cabernet wine country

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Wineries and Vineyards:

DiGiorgio Family Wines

DiGiorgio Family Wines building, home to Coonawarra Cabernet

Established in 1985 by the DiGiorgio family, the DiGiorgio Winery has become an iconic presence in the Coonawarra wine region.  The family's commitment to crafting wines of exceptional quality is reflected in their hands-on approach, from vineyard to cellar. Vineyards are split between 2 locations; the Lucindale estate spans 126 hectares. The first vines were planted in 1989 with the original 4 hectares of Cabernet and Pinot Noir.  The  Coonawarra estate, a part of the original John Riddoch Fruit Growing Colony, is over 227 hectares with the oldest vines left from the Riddoch planting turning over 115 years of gnarled winemaking brilliance.  DiGiorgio Winery is celebrated for producing Cabernet Sauvignon wines that capture the essence of Coonawarra's terroir. Their commitment to expressing the unique flavors of the region is evident in the wines' bold structure, deep color, and intense fruit characteristics,

The winery's portfolio extends beyond Cabernet Sauvignon to include other varietals, such as Merlot, Shiraz, and Chardonnay.  There is even acre or so of Tempranillo planted at the Coonawarra site.  DiGiorgio’s wines showed a classical elegance to them.  The Cabernet style felt much more old-world, with a higher focus on complexity and herbaceous characters rather than just hedonistic fruit and oaky spice.   Our preferences definitely leaned towards the Coonwarra wines over the Lucindale; both were delicious however that distinctive Coonawarra character doesn’t come out of the Lucindale wines which are not planted withing the terra rossa strip.  Definitely seek out the Cabernet and Shiraz from this site! 

Also be sure to try out the providore available here.  The selection of meats and cheeses is amazing!  We were first introduced to one of our favorite Tassie cheese here.  Bookings are not required for casual tastings on the patio or lawn; however they are preferred and are requisite for inside tastings, weekends, or for the curated tastings.


Majella Wines

Majella Cellar Door, masters of Coonawarra Cabernet

Majella Winery has a rich history producing Coonawarra Cabernet dating back to 1968. The Lynn family have been residents of the Penola – Coonawarra district for five generations, starting off as blacksmiths, wheelwrights, storekeepers and finally, graziers.  Founded by Brian and Anthony Lynn, Majella has remained a family-owned and operated estate, embodying the spirit of dedication and craftsmanship. Over the decades, the winery has evolved into one of Coonawarra's most respected producers, with a steadfast commitment to quality and a passion for showcasing the region's unique terroir.

The first vintage was in 1972, and from then until 1991 the Lynn’s were purely grape growers, selling their production to larger wineries, predominately to Wynn’s Coonawarra Estate.

In 1991 a decision was made to make 10 tonne of Shiraz into wine. This was done at the Brand Family’s “Laira” winery by Bruce Gregory, who along with the late Jim Brand was a winemaker there. Gradually more and more grapes were converted into wine until a winery was built on site and al grapes went into Majella wines.

The estate's flagship Malleea Cabernet Sauvignon wines exhibit a perfect balance between power and elegance, with deep, concentrated flavors of blackcurrant, plum, and subtle hints of mint and eucalyptus.   The characters continue to carry down through the lower tiered wines with less complexity but no less focus on quality.  The judicious use of oak adds layers of spice.

Majella’s Cellar Door is open daily to welcome you in for a taste!


Give me wine to wash me clean of the weather-stains of cares

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Wynns of Coonawarra


Founded in 1891, Wynns Coonawarra Estate boasts a storied history deeply intertwined with the evolution of the Coonawarra wine region itself. Established by Scottish pioneer and pastoralist John Riddoch, Wynns became a cornerstone of Coonawarra's winemaking legacy. Riddoch's vision was instrumental in recognizing the potential of the region's unique terra rossa soil for grape cultivation, particularly the Cabernet Sauvignon variety. Over the decades, Wynns has consistently contributed to Coonawarra's global acclaim, producing wines that showcase the distinctiveness of the region's terroir.

Wynn’s has also consistently been a go-to wine for us.  As “dedicated” wine enthusiasts we seek out producers crafting amazing wines at a lower price point for us to enjoy mid week and keep us out of the more expensive bottles.  We always have a few bottles of Wynn’s Shiraz around as the perfect weeknight wine with an easy dinner.

Wynns current winemaker, Sue Hodder, joined Wynns in 1993 as Assistant Winemaker.  With a background in agricultural science and extensive winemaking experience, she quickly rose through the ranks, eventually assuming the role of Senior Winemaker. Under Hodder's leadership, Wynns has continued to refine its winemaking practices, staying true to the region's heritage while embracing modern techniques to enhance the quality and complexity of their wines. We found a consistent elegance to the wines, almost a symphonic quality.  The premium and single vineyard bottlings are where Sue really wins with Coonwarra Cabernet; the Black Label Cabernet, produced every year since 1954, is full of bright red fruit characters and velvety tannins.  The Flagship John Riddoch Coonawarra Cabernet is a different wine altogether.  Showing more dark fruits, black olive, and floral notes, the palate is full of complexity yet remains remarkably smooth for a wine known to cellar for a decade or more.

Wynn’s Cellar door is open daily with a range of tasting options to suit any  level of wine knowledge.

John Riddoch Coonawarra Cabernet bottle, one of the best wines in Coonawarra

A few necessary Cabernet accessories!

Hollick Estates

Hollick Estates barrel room, full of Coonawarra Cabernet

Established in 1974 by Ian and Wendy Hollick, Hollick Wines of Coonawarra is situated in the heart of the Coonawarra strip. This family-owned winery has consistently demonstrated a commitment to producing wines that reflect the unique terroir of the famed terra rossa soil. Ian Hollick recognized the potential of Coonawarra's limestone-rich soil for cultivating premium grape varieties, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Over the years, Hollick Wines has grown both in reputation and scale, earning acclaim for its dedication to quality and the expression of Coonawarra's distinctive characteristics in each bottle.

Hollick’s top Coonawarra Cabernet, the Ravenswood Cab Sauv, is produced from toe top vines each year; typically from the oldest vines on the estate planted in the shallowest soils.  This wine is pure elegance.  Currants and cassis characters intertwined with faint tobacco and cedar notes, with a bright acidity carrying the backbone of this wine.  Definitely one to take home.

Hollick’s cellar door is open daily for tastings.  If you can get in, a booking at Upstairs at Hollick for lunch will be a treat!  The first winery restaurant in Coonwarra,  the simple menu features local ingredients and changes based what is in season.


Watch our YouTube video here as we seek out the best Cabernet in Coonawarra!

Redman Wines

Dan Redman pouring us their legendary reserve Coonawarra Cabernet

The Redman family first made their mark on Coonawarra winemaking in 1908 when Bill Redman purchased 16 hectares. The first wine was produced in 1909 and sold off in bulk to other wineries.  It wasn’t until 1952 that the first Redman family wine was bottled under the Rouge Homme label.  The label and winery were sold in 1965 as Bill retired and son Owen purchased another block to continue the family tradition. 1966 was the first vintage wit the iconic yellow Redman label.  Today, fourth-generation winemaker Dan Redman continues the family tradition of producing exceptional Coonawarra Cabernet. 


Over the years, Redman Wines has weathered the ebb and flow of the industry, adapting to changing tastes and technologies while remaining steadfast in their commitment to crafting wines that mirror the unique characteristics of the Coonawarra terroir. The winery's historic underground cellars, carved out of soft limestone, bear witness to decades of winemaking tradition, creating a fitting backdrop for the continuation of the Redman family legacy.

The Redman family has only (intentionally) planted two varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz.  However, a surprising discovery was made in one of the Shiraz plantings: 400 random Riesling vines scattered throughout the block.  A special treat for visiting the cellar door, this wines is a fun little departure from the standard wines you’ll find in Coonawarra.

The cellar door is open 7 days a week for you to drop in at taste through the wines.  While their standard (and delicious!) Cabernet and Shiraz can be found throughout Australia, some premium bottlings and museum releases make a perfect excuse to stop in to one of the oldest cellar doors in the area.


Balnaves of Coonawarra

In the Balnaves Cellar door, discussing our favourite Coonawarra Cabernet

Founded by the Balnaves family in 1975, Balnaves of Coonawarra has played a pivotal role in shaping the viticultural landscape of the region. Originally established as a sheep and cattle farm, the Balnaves property transitioned to grape cultivation under the vision of Doug Balnaves. Today, Balnaves of Coonawarra spans multiple generations, with Doug's children, Peter and Kirsty Balnaves, actively involved in the winemaking process.  Their commitment to sustainable farming practices and meticulous vineyard management has resulted in wines that capture the essence of Coonawarra's unique terroir.

The winemaking at Balnaves of Coonawarra was founded by Chief Winemaker Pete Bissell, who joined the estate in 1992. Pete's expertise and innovative approach significantly contributed to the winery's success. Balnaves wines are celebrated for their elegance, structure, and expression of Coonawarra's classic varietals. After Pete’s retirement in 2020, assistant winemaker Jacinta Jenkins continues to produce wines that rank amongst the top produced in Australia.   While Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon remains the flagship, the portfolio also includes Merlot, Shiraz, and Cabernet Franc, each crafted with a keen attention to detail.

Balnaves produces wine at every tier that compete for the best.  Their blend, named The Blend, combines Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot consistently ranks as on of our best wines in Australia under $20.  The Tally, their Flagship Cabernet, should have a home in every wine cellar.  This is a Cab that drinks beautifully now, but need cellar time to really show its muscles.  On our tour of Coonwarra, this was the best Cabernet in Coonawarra without a doubt

The Cellar Door is open 7 days a week.  Bookings are essential for the weekend, but walkins will be accommodated during the week.  Make sure this is on your list of Coonawarra wines to try/visit!


In the realm of world-class wines, Coonawarra Cabernet stands as a testament to the combined uniqueness of the terra rossa strip and the history of winemaking in this small part of Australia. The rich, brick-red terra rossa soil, unique to this South Australian region, has proven to be the silent maestro, conducting the symphony of flavors that dance within each bottle. As we conclude this journey through Coonawarra's vine-covered landscapes, it's clear that the terra rossa soil is not merely a foundation but a living, breathing entity, nurturing vines that yield grapes of unparalleled quality.

In the glass, the wines of Coonawarra tell tales of the ancient sea beds and limestone-laden soils, painting a vivid picture of the region's geological history. Each sip is a sensory exploration of the soil’s impact on flavor, structure, and character. Cheers to Coonawarra, where the soil tells a story, and every bottle is a chapter in the grand narrative of exceptional winemaking.

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