The Limestone Coast is a catch-all wine zone that captures half a dozen wine regions at the southern tip of South Australia, from the rugged coast of the Southern Ocean to where it nestles up against the Victorian border. It’s a zone of diversity, from maritime to continental climates, and from classic regions – like Coonawarra – to those that are just beginning to find their identity amongst wine drinkers – like Mount Gambier. But it’s also a zone that has firmly established connections, from the ancient seabeds that generated the limestone underpinnings to a laid-back lifestyle where community comes first.
The Limestone wine zone encompasses six regions: Coonawarra, Mount Benson, Mount Gambier, Padthaway, Robe and Wrattonbully. There’s no doubt that Coonawarra is the most recognised name there, and it’s also the zone’s biggest producer, with Padthaway followed by Wrattonbully the next most planted. Mount Benson, Mount Gambier and Robe have much more modest hectarages, and they are cooler and more affected by the maritime influences than those further inland.
“From the volcanic flint rock around Mount Gambier, the oceanic sand hills in Robe influenced by the Bonney Upwelling, and the rich mixed terra rossa soils in Wrattonbully that once were an ancient sea, the ability to grow grapes with limestone across the region is a winemaker’s dream.”
“The first thing that comes to mind when talking about the region is the south coast,” says Patrick of Coonawarra winemaker-owner Luke Tocaciu. “As a bit of a surfer in my youth, I know all too well that the water on the Limestone Coast is cold. Full-length wetsuits all year round, and it always seemed to get colder in summer for some reason. It wasn’t until I knew more about the region and growing grapes down here that I found out this was actually true.”
Tocaciu goes on to explain how the Bonney Upwelling that stretches from Portland in Victoria to Kangaroo Island pushes frigid Antarctic water to the surface from November through to May. Driven by winds, the ocean currents draw deep-sea water that has travelled across the Southern Ocean floor onto the continental shelf.
“This not only causes numb toes, but it also cools the night-time temperatures dramatically from a grape-growing perspective,” says Tocaciu. “This is why the Limestone coast is ideal for viticulture. It is also a large area so diverse in the varieties and styles it can produce.”
The Limestone Coast zone traces its eastern border with Victoria, with Mount Gambier stretching up from the coast before it gives way to Coonawarra, then Wrattonbully, with Padthaway the northernmost region, which arcs away to the north-west. Mount Benson sits on the coast, with Cape Jaffa close to its northern boundary, with it bordering Robe to the south, which then extends along the coast to Beachport. There are also other vineyards in the zone outside of the classified regions, such as around Bordertown and Mundulla, which have some of the warmer sites.
“I am completely in awe of our natural landscape here in the Limestone Coast,” says Peta Baverstock of Cuvée-Co. “Living 20 minutes from a World Heritage Listed site, the Naracoorte Caves, we now grow grapes on top of these extensive cave systems to make our wines, which is truly a privileged position. The sink holes, extinct volcanoes and the cliff tops are all an incredible experience to visit, and I never grow bored of this place I call home.”
While the zone has great diversity in soils, the underpinning of limestone is an over-arching theme, though in varying concentrations. The Naracoorte Caves are part of a large karst plain, which was once a marine environment, both 200 million years ago, and then again being submerged 20 million years ago. Across the whole zone, sinkholes sport both marine fossils and those of larger extinct fauna that fell into the myriad caves across the area that were revealed when the water level receded about a million years back.
A sparkling wine specialist, Baverstock believes that vineyards in the zone are ideal for her mission. “The chalk here in the Limestone Coast reminds me of the vineyards in Champagne – albeit a different type – and I have been influenced greatly by this Old-World winemaking region,” she says. “Experiencing both continentality and maritime influences, the sparkling wines are proving to be pretty amazing from here!”
Baverstock says that the vast array of soil types that complement the limestone base also offers the ability to grow a broad range of varieties in different pockets. “From the volcanic flint rock around Mount Gambier, the oceanic sand hills in Robe influenced by the Bonney Upwelling, and the rich mixed terra rossa soils in Wrattonbully that once were an ancient sea, the ability to grow grapes with limestone across the region is a winemaker’s dream,” she says.
Alice Davidson has been based in Robe for almost a decade, both making wine under her Aunt Alice label and working for established brands. A move to Tasmania in 2022 sees her working with Peter Dredge, while she continues her own label. “It seems the two regions are not that dissimilar, with a lifestyle on the water filled with quality food and wine at the forefront and laidback vibes so far,” says Davidson.
While Davidson has had senior roles with larger makers on the Limestone Coast, the relaxed lifestyle was a big part of the attraction. “This is where I have spent that past seven years making wine and enjoying a rural coastal lifestyle,” she says. “Laid back as, unassuming, yet packing serious quality in its wine and food, many visitors are left surprised and impressed. I’ve felt welcomed and appreciated making wine in this region, despite being a little left of centre.”
Being on the coast, Davidson has specialised in cool climate varieties, leading with chardonnay and pinot noir, although traditional red varieties are still heavily represented. Mount Benson and Robe both have more red than white grapes planted, but there are vignerons like Anita Goode of Wangolina, in Mount Benson, that are pitching for a future with not just whites leading the way, but also with a focus on emerging varieties.
Grüner veltliner, verdicchio, malvasia istriana and garganega have all found a permanent home in her site, while aligoté and melon de bourgogne will be planted out in spring 2022. Parellada, pecorino, ribolla gialla and teroldego (a red grape from northern Italy) are also being trialled before Goode commits to planting them. Cabernet sauvignon has made way for some of these plantings, and Goode now sources other emerging grapes from warmer Mundulla, such as mencía and tempranillo.
It is perhaps unsurprising that Goode is turning away from cabernet, as even though it is not the coolest of the Limestone Coast regions – Mount Gambier has that honour – it is certainly cooler than Coonawarra, which is one of this country’s emblematic regions for the Bordeaux variety.
“Coonawarra, with its famous terra rossa soil, is my home and the jewel in the crown in terms of cabernet sauvignon,” says Tocaciu. “It’s the coolest region and most southern region in Australia that you can successfully ripen cabernet. The long, cool growing season produces varietal, medium-bodied cabernet with a unique fine-grained tannin. It’s a small region with a big reputation. The terra rossa strip is just 2km wide and 24km long. When the industry speaks about ‘terroir’, people from Coonawarra understand this straight away.”
Tocaciu also makes wine from neighbouring Wrattonbully where he has vineyard holdings. “Wrattonbully, has exceptional soil, and the vine age is just getting to an ideal window to producing some seriously premium fruit,” he says. Those soils include the terra rossa that Coonawarra is famous for, and it is also home to the Naracoorte caves. It is also a tick warmer than Coonawarra (it is where Baverstock sources shiraz to make a classic Australian sparkling red), but both regions are firmly red wine territory, both hovering around 90 per cent of plantings.
While the Limestone Coast spans a wide area, with each having established or developing their own specialties, the connections, from climate and geologies to community run deep. “Being a small community, Coonawarra and the greater Limestone Coast work really well together,” says Tocaciu. “We are all friends, socialise together and help each other out when they need. From lending a tractor at vintage time to helping each other fill gaps in wine lists around the country.”
2021 Wangolina Grüner Veltliner
Mount Benson, 13% ABV, $28
There’s ample flavour to this, with citrus notes, from grapefruit pith to lemon and orange-skinned citrus characters, with a lilting note of summery flowers accenting and richer bass notes of pear providing volume. Those pear notes are more prominent on the palate, which has a plump of richness and a flex of texture giving this a sense of generosity that is focused through the palate with a driving line of ripe acidity.
2019 Cuvée-Co ‘The Kenneth’ Brut
Mount Gambier, 12.5% ABV, $45
Equal parts chardonnay and pinot noir, this has a complex nose of brioche and baking bread overlaying citrus notes, with lemon predominating in ample forms, from freshly peeled pith to lusciously set in a tart with buttery pastry scenting. A character of cracked toasted wheat adds more detail. There’s richness and plenty of presence of fruit here on the palate, but it’s whipped into line by a vivid line of acidity sheathed in leesy texture, leaving this very satisfying and intense but with real drive and verve.
2021 Aunt Alice ‘Ocean’ Chardonnay
Robe, 12% ABV, $33
Zippy and bright, this is unencumbered by apprent oak flavours, though it provides an edge of complexity, pulling the fruit back in a little, though very quietly. Lifted notes of yellow-skinned citrus and barely ripe white peach and white pear take the lead, with a little yellow grapefruit pith in both flavour and texture. Dry, linear and fine, but with texture giving it pleasing flex, a zippy line of acidity drives through the finish.
This is almost boisterously lifted, with salted plum, black cherry and tart mulberries on a fresh but engagingly wild nose, a spritz of carbon dioxide giving it a joyous energy on the palate. There’s weight and texture here, with pithy, grapey tannin, zippy acidity and that buzz of gentle CO2 giving this ample energy to carry this in a light-hearted way while delivering lots of flavour.
2021 Patrick of Coonawarra ‘Méthode Eucalypt’ Cabernet Sauvignon
Coonawarra, 13.5% ABV, $32
This could come from other country, with the distinct signature of Australian bush scenting the classic cabernet characters. Having said that, there are plenty of wines that wear eucalyptus more heavily than this without a declaration on the label. Layers of sappy gum and mint blend in neatly with the leafy cabernet notes, with lithe fruit coming up to greet them. This is a bright and fresh expression of the grape, with currant, mulberry and blackcurrant notes in a cooler vein, fine tannins and zippy acidity marshalling the palate down a linear route.
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