Penley Estate and the Coonawarra Cabernets

xOne of the most sophisticated developments in Australian wine today is the Coonawarra Cabernet movement, spearheaded by experienced winemakers and a great terroir for this fruit. A case in point is Kym Tolley, founder and winemaker at Penley Estates.
A tall, dynamic and charming man, Kym Tolley may be in his 40s but he retains the boyish energy of a footballer. Running his hands through his windblown light-brown hair, he is disarmingly candid about success and failure, whilst retaining a single-minded vision that propels him toward success. Kym is a goldmine of information and experience about the region; after half a day in his company, his inclusiveness and genuine intensity tempted me to drop everything and join him in the high-energy adventure he calls Penley.

The Penley wines are rich and well-crafted, and have won awards and accolades in Australia and around the world. Jancis Robinson called Penley one of her two “Australian classified growths” as early as 1993. Robert Parker, Wine Spectator and other publications have agreed over the years. If you were curious: yes, the “Pen” in Penley does refer to the historic Penfolds winery. Kym’s mother was a Penfold, and Kym himself was a winemaker there until about a dozen years ago. When Kym (and his sister, a silent partner) decided to establish Penley, they did so with an eye to the proven excellence of the Coonawarra soil, particularly for Cabernet Sauvignon.

During my visit Kym toured us around the entire winery, up and down open metal stairways and across catwalks – a bit nerve-wracking even for him at the beginning, he admits – from the lookout tower to the floors of the wine vats. Then, with typical all-encompassing enthusiasm, he swept us up in a contest to blend the best barrel samples for his next vintage. What was Kym looking for? Boldness!

Kym Tolley’s wines are a microcosm of what is going on in the Coonawarra region: knowing the terroir, the winemakers are pushing fruit development and vinification to the limits of possibility. Learning from old world as well as new world winemakers, and experimenting on their own, the Coonawarra Cabernet-makers are developing the finest, boldest wines possible. As an American wine writer who has suffered through countless overly-tannic California Cabernets, I was pleased to find Coonawarrans not trying to emulate their Napa and Sonoma comrades. Rather than positioning their wines for the increasingly-important US market, winemakers in this region are aiming to create red wines that will be competitive on a world level.

When Kym set out to develop his own vineyards, he knew he had decades of proven grape history behind him. Notes kept in the family history – the Tolleys were barrel-makers in the early 1900s – reminded him that “Coonawarra wines were distinctly different…they were dark purple in color and they had a characteristic aroma whilst fermenting.” Penley may be the newest winery in the region, but it is built on 100 years of history.

Other Coonawarra wineries vary in size and age; former contract growers are now winemakers, at Katnook for example, or smaller family-owned wineries such as Balnaves and Hollick. All have their individual style based on their growing and winemaking preferences, but the material is there to make extremely good wines.

xWynn’s Coonawarra Estate is a beautifully manicured property on the site of the old Riddoch place. John Riddoch, a Scottish pioneer, first planted vineyards and built the oldest winery in Coonawarra in the 1890s. According to a History of Wynns Coonawarra Estate, Riddoch had “noticed the fertility of a small strip of red soil – terra rossa – in the far south-east of Australia.” This “terra rossa” consists of red clay layered at varying depths up to about half a metre, over two to three metres of limestone. The limestone’s porosity allows the vines access to a relatively high water-table. The limestone is the remains of many former sea-beds: 17 coastlines disappeared from here over the past million years, as the sea receded to the west. The land is very flat and low. Surveying the level fields of bare vines surrounded by barriers of green grass, hedges and trees, I half expected to see Dutch dykes bisecting the acreage.

Coonawarra is on the Southern tip of the South Australia region, almost equidistant from Adelaide and Melbourne. For those geographically challenged by this continent’s vastness, it might help to know that both cities are accessible only by either a half a day’s drive or an hour by small plane. Here, as in other wine regions of Australia, people seem to think nothing of hopping several hundred miles for any occasion. Coonawarra is part of the “Limestone Coast”, lying barely above sea level at under 100 metres. The land has been tamed for over a century, but the challenge remains to create great wines in every part of the region.


Coonawarra is a long, narrow region running north-south, with temperature variations of up to five degrees in a given day.

Essentially rural, the landscape is dotted with unassuming cafes for residents and cottages for tourists. But there are the beginnings of upscale restaurants like Pipers of Penola and accommodations such as the stunningly modern glass-and-stone Punters Corner Retreat, beautifully situated in the midst of the vineyards. Breezes and fogs from the sea keep the area cool so that grapes have a longer maturation period. This results in a characteristic intensity of fruit, both in colour and flavour.

According to the Coonawarra Vignerons Association, about 2.4 million cases of red wine and 1.3 million cases of white are produced. About one quarter is exported. The wineries are 58% corporately owned, and 42% family-owned. Of its 4000+ hectares of grapes, 50% is planted to Cabernet Sauvignon.

xWhile there is competition from smaller wineries and from corporate giants such as Southcorp’s Wynn’s and Mildara Blass’ Black Opal , Kym Tolley has created a niche for his wines, positioning them to reflect their quality. For the past decade, Kym has worked with his Cabernet in both American and French oak. Vinification techniques he is perfecting include aeration as well temperature control to bring out the best of the fruit.He has increased his plantings and his new 1999 winery buildings will give him scope to expand production. Though Merlot, Chardonnay and Shiraz are planted, Cabernet Sauvignon accounts for half of Kym’s land under vine.

He makes “Penley Estate Reserve Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon” and “Penley Estate Phoenix Cabernet Sauvignon.”

The more affordable Phoenix line was introduced in 1997, named for his great-grandfather’s business, the Phoenix Winemaking and Distilling Company. The Reserve spends up to 30 months in French and American oak, developing a complexity of flavour, colour and aroma.

In common with Napa, the other premier wine-making region of the world for non-blended Cabernets, Coonawarra is the most expensive vineyard land of it country. Though Coonawarra Cabernets span mass-market to fine wines, when you taste one Coonawarra Cabernet, you have tasted only one winemaker: trying more is highly recommended.