Approximately halfway between Adelaide and Melbourne, the quiet town of Penola may seem unremarkable at first glance. But the narrow strip of terra rossa soil that sits above a limestone bed just north of the township has turned the Coonawarra area into one of one of the world’s great wine regions.
Today, the area has a global reputation for cabernet sauvignon that develop over a long growing season with warm days and cool nights. The resulting fruit has rich colour, thick skins and lots of tannins and makes wines that age exceptionally well. More than 25 cellar doors are closely packed into the small region (its about a quarter the size of the Barossa) and most locals are involved in some aspect of the wine trade, but that’s far from the only reason to visit. Here are a few more:
A reminder that this is a regional destination, the unassuming Coonawarra Store is a post office, petrol station, general store and bottle shop in one. Owner Marcia Gregory blends her own teas and bakes biscuits and cakes, but the real reason to visit is the house-made lunches. There’s no menu, just around five daily specials and the chicken and leek pie is worth seeking out. In the colder months, Marcia makes nine litres of soup a day that sells out early, so it’s best to get in quick.
Lot 710 Memorial Drive, Coonawarra
(08) 8376 3220
In an old schoolhouse just down the road from the Coonawarra Store, former Rymill winemaker John Innes’s Fodder specialises in simple but elegant sourdough pizzas. There’s also a rotating seasonal menu that makes use of abundant local produce thanks to a gardener who spends two days a week in the veggie patch and two in the restaurant. Locals also bring in spare fruit and veg from their gardens to swap for bottles of Ottelia wine made by John and his wife Melissa. The cellar door is housed in the same building.
5 Memorial Drive, Coonawarra
(08) 8736 3170
Pipers of Penola
Located in another repurposed building – an old weatherboard church – Penola’s fine-dining option reflects Coonawarra’s location in the Limestone Coast region with a seafood-heavy, modern-Australian menu. The dining room is cosy, the serving sizes are generous and the wine list has a wide selection of local drops plus a few standouts from other regions.
58 Riddoch Street, Penola
(08) 8737 3999
With the oldest blocks of vines in the region, Brand’s Laira has plenty of history and the best place to take it in is Eric’s Cellar. Eric Brand was the first “Patron Of Coonawarra”, and the tasting room looks onto the old garage where he’d invite fellow winemakers for a drink. Traditionally visitors would bring a bottle for cellaring and leave it in the racks, which are now filled with dusty bottles of all shapes and sizes. It makes for an atmospheric place to taste the hand-picked, basket-pressed 1968 Vines cab sav, and The Coonawarra Store can drop off a lunch platter with an hour’s notice.
14860 Riddoch Highway, Coonawarra
(08) 8736 3260
Located on the outskirts of Penola, this cellar door is a pleasant one-kilometre walk from the centre of town. It’s also the last winery open (until 5.30pm in summer), making this the perfect last stop. Owners Steve and Emma are incredibly friendly and alongside the obligatory cab sav they offer a few selections that move the Coonawarra tradition forward, like an aromatic sauvignon blanc that sits on skins for two days.
15741 Riddoch Highway, Penola
(08) 8737 2966
Robe Town Brewery
If you need a break from tasting wine, the seaside town of Robe is an hour’s drive away and provides a welcome relief in the warmer months. This craft brewery steers a course for tradition by using a woodfired brewing kettle and filtering the mash through hay. The result is intriguing beers that use local ingredients like barley malt, muntries and even ambergris (a waxy substance found in the digestive system of sperm whales).
97 Millicent Road, Robe
0415 993 693
Naracoorte Caves National Park
Half an hour north of Penola the same limestone that sits beneath the famed terra rossa is riddled with underground caverns. The galleries filled with a bewildering array of stalactites, straws, helictites, stalagmites and flowstones are impressive enough, but the reason these caves are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site is the abundance of fossilised animal remains. Up to half a million years old, they include extinct species such as diprotodons, giant mallee fowls and thylacines. Guided tours throughout the day explore different caves.
89 Wonambi Road, Naracoorte
(08) 8760 1210
Administered by National History Trust, this working garden provides the herbs for the Coonawarra Store and for a donation visitors can pick their own herbs and vegetables to supplement a picnic hamper. This was Penola’s first residential area, and 19th-century timber and stone cottages are also open to visit.
Petticoat Lane, Penola
(08) 8737 2855
Located in a lovingly restored shearing shed surrounding by imposing red gums, this winery is home to one of the friendliest characters in the region in winemaker Sue Bell. As well as hosting tastings by appointment during the day and six-course meals several nights a week, she’s also opened her back paddock to campers and glampers. Spacious bell tents come with cast-iron beds and avian alarm clocks, and the shower block includes a claw-foot bathtub.
14183 Riddoch Highway, Coonawarra
0417 080 945
If you prefer a solid roof over your head, these adjacent, self-contained cottages include a century-old limestone building that used to house a bank and several more recent structures. It may be hard to make it out of the king-sized beds, but fortunately you don’t have to go far – the accommodations are linked by a walking trail to five nearby wineries, along with Fodder and the Coonawarra Store.
3–5 Mary Street, Coonawarra
0411 249 304