Coonawarra's historic role in modern winemaking

Or how Australia proved malo-lactic to the French

By Ian Hickinbotham
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Wynnes Coonawarra Estate Winery, Coonawarra

Wynnes Coonawarra Estate Winery, Coonawarra

Wynns Coonawarra Estate Winery, Coonawarra, Limestone Coast, South Australia
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Winery, Coonawarra, Limestone Coast, South Australia
Australian Plonky by Ian Hickinbotham

 

Some authorities claim wine has been made for 3,000 years, others assert 10,000 years is more likely. Given this history, it is understandable if Australians are not exactly excited about our 200 odd years of winegrowing. But, importantly, we have much to be proud about, including the saga of Coonawarra, where a groundbreaking winemaking practice was deliberately introduced in 1952 at Wynns Coonawarra Estate, probably for the first time in the world.

At the time of writing, the Supreme Court in Adelaide has reserved judgment concerning a proposed road by-pass of Penola, the town closest to Coonawarra. But just as in the Mosel, Germany, the real issue is the loss of vineyards in a region that could be claimed to be Australia’s greatest, certainly if number of Jimmy Watson Trophies is the measure, and certainly one of the greatest.

(If you value your connection with the 26 winegrowers of Coonawarra, and their wines, at least send an email or postcard of support to them at this worrying time!)

The important oenological innovation of the 1950s that wonderfully softens the taste of dry reds was made possible because of the introduction of the glass electrode pH meter to winemaking by a young laboratory cadet named Ray Beckwith, at Roseworthy Agricultural College, in 1936. Beckwith had to live to the age of 90 before being recognised: he was the recipient of the inaugural honorary doctorate from the University of Adelaide (followed immediately by the coveted wine industry Maurice O'Shea Award in 2006).

There used to be a saying, 'When the vine flowers, the wine moves in sympathy'. It is attributed to the Romans, meaning it dates some 2,000 years! We now know what it means: that the saying concerns the very gentle secondary fermentation that often only occurs in the spring-time, when increasing warmth leads to re-activation of all vegetation.

Naturally, early winemakers thought the event was the concluding of the primary or yeast fermentation. But with better methods of analysis, scientists found no diminution of the sugar content in such wines. Importantly, this meant that yeasts were not involved.

In 1891, the eminent bacteriologist Koch had suggested that it was not yeast but bacteria that were responsible for secondary fermentations. Then in 1901, his successor the great Seifert proclaimed that when bacteria were active in wine, malic acid (the dominant acid when grapes are still unripe) was converted to lactic acid; so the definition, the ‘malo-lactic fermentation’ was introduced.

Significantly, the findings were being made in the cool countries – Austria, Germany and Switzerland – where grapes contain more malic acid. The French were besotted with the dictum of Pasteur and it was not till 1936 that the esteemed Professor Peynaud pronounced that there could hardly be any great wines of Bordeaux without the malo-lactic secondary fermentation!

In Australia, our oenologists, excessively influenced by the French (a remnant of which is still our almost exclusive growing of French grape varieties), believed – or assumed – that, because of adequate sunshine, our grapes ripened properly and did not contain malic acid.

In the spring of 1952, minute bubbles broke the surface of the new Coonawarra Estate dry red wine,  and for the first time in the world the secondary fermentation was monitored to conclusion with the glass electrode pH meter till all of the residual malic acid was converted to soft tasting lactic acid. A new era of winemaking and wine understanding was born!

 

Ian Hickinbotham, one of the most innovative and influential oenologists in Australia over his 50 year career, is the author of Australian Plonky (see related review below).

 

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  • Coonawarra (SA)

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May 11th, 2010
 
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