With no hills or valleys to speak of, blue skies seem to stretch forever over the lush plains halfway between Adelaide and Melbourne. But what the region lacks in elevation, it makes up for in flavour. This is our essential guide on the best things to do in Coonawarra, from which wineries to visit, where to stay, and what to eat and drink.
A drive along the arrow-straight Riddoch Highway, through plots of lush green vines anchored in terra rossa soil, offers a fleeting preview of Coonawarra’s high-end cellar doors – from historic Wynns and Redman to Bowen, Balnaves and Brand’s Laira. Much more than a pleasing vista, that rich, red soil blown in from central Australia imbues Coonawarra’s famous cabernet with its blackcurrant flavours and hallmark minty character.
On an old seabed with layers of sedimentary limestone, the remote region has a marine climate; brisk breezes off the Southern Ocean push harvest several weeks later than warmer areas such as McLaren Vale and the Barossa, encouraging intense varietal flavours. Yet Coonawarra’s relative isolation (it’s about four hours drive from Adelaide and five hours from Melbourne) only adds to its attraction: cellar doors are uncrowded and prices are reasonable.
Where to eat
For lunch: Upstairs at Hollick
There’s no such thing as a light lunch at this eatery above Hollick’s cellar door. The modern Australian menu changes with the seasons, delivering flavour-packed dishes such as a 36 degree eye fillet served with confit garlic potato mash, roast beets and truffles. Wine matchings are, of course, spot on.
For a wine and food: Ottelia Tasting room & Restaurant
Conveniently located near the highway right in the middle of Coonawarra, Ottelia Tasting Room & Restaurant is a casual lunch-only spot that slings sourdough pizzas and veg-forward small plates.
For paddock-to-plate: The Tasting Room
The Tasting Room at Mayura Station in Millicent is a steak-lover’s dream, where the distance from a herd of full-blood Wagyu to the restaurant can be measured in metres and the ultimate paddock-to-plate set menu includes three extravagantly marbled cuts prepared in different ways.
For dinner: Pipers of Penola
Husband and wife team Simon and Erika Bowen run a tight ship at this unpretentious fine-diner. Housed in a converted church, Pipers sources much of its produce and wine from the surrounding area. They also have a smoker out the back, making Shepherds Lane label bacon and adding delicious complexity to menu items such as “Thousand Guineas” eye fillet served with smoked potato.
For a pub meal: Penola's Royal Oak
With the upstairs walls at Penola’s Royal Oak knocked down, the hotel rooms are now impressively large and the vision for the kitchen is equally expansive, introducing a sensory fine-dining experience that heroes local producers.
To take home: Koonara Wines
Part cellar door, part one-stop shop, Koonara encourages you to taste its organic wines as you browse the homewares, gifts, jewellery, clothing and gourmet treats. The concept is “everything you need for a good dinner party”, such as Rouge Vintner glassware designed by the winery’s director Dru Reschke.
The best wineries and cellar doors
Housed in the 1868-built Glen Roy Shearing Shed, this offbeat cellar door is the brainchild of winemaker and director Sue Bell. Art, music and food mingle with Sue’s innovative wines; the glamping Bell Tents are a bonus.
Doug Bowen led this low-key family affair from its inaugural 1975 vintage, with daughter Emma now capably managing the presses. Shiraz vies with cabernet sauvignon for the honours here, with a side bet on chardonnay.
The horse motif at Rymill dates back to its founders, Judy and Peter Rymill, who are descendants of John Riddoch and top equestrians and showjumpers. Though ownership has changed, the equine statues still grace the gardens of this pristine cellar door.
The Zema family is proudly Italian, offering a genuine and generous welcome along with fine Mediterranean food and value-for-money wines. Mrs Zema’s homemade preserves and olive oil are Mrs Zema’s homemade hot chilli paste from Zema Estate irresistible.
Balnaves of Coonawarra
Stop at Balnaves and you may see (and hear) Doug Balnaves, resplendent in a kilt, squeezing his bagpipes. If he’s not around, simply enjoy Peter Bissell’s potent wines and the property’s magnificent rose gardens.
Despite the unwieldy name, Brand’s Laira offers seriously easy-to-drink wines from an impressively modern tasting room built around a quaint historic cellar. Even more venerable are the nearby 1893 vines that produce the silky flagship Stentiford’s shiraz.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate
The best place to appreciate the extent of Coonawarra’s famed terra rossa is Wynns Coonawarra Estate, where you can taste the region’s pre-eminent medium-bodied reds, including the iconic Black Label cab sav, then blend your own by a giant table that doubles as a geological map of the region.
Right on the edge of Penola, Raidis Estate isn’t afraid to break the mould, making several fruit-forward whites (including the region’s only pinot gris) and fragrant reds, all accompanied by a warm welcome at the family home.
The best accommodation
Punters Vineyard Retreat
A modern corrugated-ironand-glass exterior is softened by rough-hewn internal timbers, a rustic Aga and a wood-burning stove at this idyllic getaway among the vines. The fridge comes stocked with the makings of a full country breakfast and there’s room for four couples. Take your meals in the mezzanine dining area or relax outside, where a long table is shaded by a leafy grape arbour.
Merlot Verdelho Residences
Conveniently located just off Penola’s main street, Merlot Verdelho offers comfortable townhouse-style accommodation in one of two spacious, self-catering residences. Each is equipped with two large bathrooms (one with a freestanding spa bath), a mezzanine-level master bedroom, plus two additional bedrooms if you’re visiting with a group. Wi-fi is fast and free if you’re keen to stay connected.
Grazing sheep and centuries-old redgums ring lantern-lit glamping tents at Bellwether Wines, where the campfire and bathroom facilities are both shared. That communal spirit extends to the winery, where guests can join in during vintage.
The White House
The White House is a spacious villa in Penola that lives up to its name with immaculate light-filled rooms and gorgeous Spanish tiles.
Finding your way around is easy but the guides at Coonawarra Experiences can get you behind-the-scenes access at many wineries.
Image credits: Coonawarra Vignerons (Wynn's Cellar Door; Upstairs at Hollick; Bellwether; Brand's Laira Cellar Door); Ockert Le Roux/South Australian Tourism Commission (Raidis Estate); Adam Bruzzone/South Australian Tourism Commission (Rymill Wiery).