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.

Fly into Mount Gambier, an easy one-hour drive away, and if you’re in town on the last Friday of the month, pop in to the Coonawarra Hall for the Community Club Tea Night. There’s a bar – or you can bring a bottle and pay corkage – and the $15 steak and chips comes with help-yourself salads. Settle down at a communal table with the locals and, quite possibly, the person who made the wine you’re sipping.

Wander the centre of Penola, the area’s largest town, for beautiful sandstone buildings and country charm. Saint Mary MacKillop’s legacy beckons or perhaps the stories of historic Petticoat Lane, with original cottages from colonial days. At the National Trust Herb Garden you can choose from baskets of local produce and leave your donation in the honesty box provided.

Where to eat

Coonawarra wine region

For breakst: Divine Cafe
This friendly establishment in the heart of Penola serves filling fare to prepare you for a day of tasting. Try spicy beans with labne and spinach on Turkish toast or choose the signature full breakfast. Daily counter goodies such as brownies are a must-try and the gourmet dog treats make great gifts.

For lunch: Upstairs at Hollick
There’s no such thing as a light lunch at this eatery above Hollick’s cellar door. Choose the Feed Me menu for a selection of flavour-packed dishes delivered with flair. Head chef Justin Williams’ menu centres on quality local produce, such as Adelaide Hills venison served with blackberry foam, butternut pumpkin purée, roasted beets and chocolate shavings. Wine matchings are, of course, spot on.

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.

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.

Bowen Estate
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. 

Zema Estate
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. 

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.

SEE ALSO: Where to Stop on the Southern Ocean Drive

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