Coonawarra is a small town north of Penola in South Australia. It is best known for the Coonawarra wine region named after it.
Located 381 km from Adelaide, Coonawarra is one of Australia’s (and South Australia’s) most grape growing and wine producing areas. Along the road from Coonawarra to Penola (a distance of only 7 km) there are a total of 21 wineries. [The two entries on Penola and Coonawarra are designed so that if you are heading south from Coonawarra the wineries are in the order you will experience them and if you are heading north from Penola they are in correct order].This is the result of an extraordinary situation where there are beautiful red soils (terra rossa) stretching 14 km and lying on top of limestone. The town’s name, although no one is exactly sure, seems to derive from an Aboriginal word meaning ‘wild honeysuckle’.
The first Europeans into the area were the Austin brothers who arrived in 1840 and established a run of 109 square miles based on what is now Yallum Park. But the gold rushes of the 1850s ensured that their dreams were not realised.
The real beginning for the settlement of the area occurred when John Riddoch purchased Yallum in 1861. He acquired 35,000 acres on which he ran 50,000 head of sheep. In keeping with his exalted status he lived like a local lord (as can be seen for the richness of Yallum Park). Around 1890 Riddoch formed the Coonawarra Fruit Colony and 2,000 acres from Yallum Park were subdivided into smaller holdings of 10-30 acres which were sold, at very reasonable terms, to a group of farmers with the express idea that they all became vineyards and orchards. It was out of this that the Coonawarra vineyards grew.
The vineyards were more successful than the wineries but wine wasn’t really part of the Australian diet. It was not until the 1960s that the exceptional soils of the area, and their ability to produce superb red wines, was fully realised. Since then the narrow strip of red soil has been richly exploited by some of the finest grape growers in South Australia.