On an overcast day, the wind blows hard over the denim blue waters of the Great Southern Ocean, rupturing ripples into white caps, agitating waves into crests of foam. This cool breeze billows beyond the primordial shoreline of pockmarked rocks, made mostly of weathered granite, and inland to where the region’s relatively diminutive patchwork of vines share space with the scraggly, straw-green coastal scrub.
The story goes that when an ex-chairman of Southcorp first visited the region to inspect some new vineyards that had been planted, he asked, “What the hell are we doing here?”
For this is harsh country – windswept and interesting, and not for the faint of heart. Trial vines were first planted here in 1978, over shallow, undulating soils of sand and loamy clays.
Such earth was formed from ancient dune systems spread out over prehistoric limestone reefs that run right throughout the aptly named Limestone Coast; the coast is comprised, north to south, of the wine regions Padthaway, Wrattonbully, Mount Benson, Robe, Coonawarra, and Mount Gambier.
Of these six, certainly Coonawarra is the most familiar.
Yet, it’s the lesser known – more coastally confined – Mount Benson and Robe that really ought to draw some of your attention for their wines.
“I remember the time I tasted the first cabernet harvest from a new Mount Benson vineyard, from barrel, in 1992,” recalls Cape Jaffa’s Derek Hooper. “It was so vibrant and exciting, and so different from anything else I’d ever tasted before from the Limestone Coast. I basically decided to plant a vineyard here, that day.”
According to local grape growers, it’s the cool ocean spray arising from the immense expanse of the Great Southern Ocean just beyond the azure waves, which swell and break between Kingston SE and Robe, that give the region’s wines their signature elegant expression. The climate is distinctly cooler than further inland, mostly because of the prevailing south-easterly winds that blow super-cold air up from the Antarctic.
The result is a mean temperature that’s warmer in winter and cooler in summer, particularly compared with those of the Barossa, or even Coonawarra.
“These cool sea breezes give us excellent natural acid retention and aromatic capture, as well as increasing the vibrancy of colour in our reds. The resulting wines are often elegant, aromatic and bright,” says Wangolina winemaker Anita Goode.
She makes wine from the family’s 11.5ha vineyard, which is planted mostly to traditional grape varieties, including semillon, sauvignon blanc, shiraz and cabernet sauvignon, as well as a few alternative ones, such as grüner veltliner.
“I think, for now, our regional wine style is driven more by the winemaker than the viticulture, because our climate gives us the versatility to choose the style that we wish to target,” Goode continues.
“For example, shiraz is one of the most widely planted varieties in our region, and you will taste both richer and riper styles, right alongside lighter, brighter and fresher styles.”
Alice Davidson of Karatta Wines says they’ve recently shifted focus in their wine style.
“For about the last five years, we’ve been heading in a whole new direction, letting go of the fuller-bodied styles that used to be so popular with many consumers, and focusing more on making medium-bodied, fresher styles of wines, which are more representative of this hidden gem of a place, within our unique coastal climate.”
Hooper agrees: “We’re not restrained by history here. We can pretty much grow what we want, grape wise, and make what we want, wine style wise. We’re free to experiment more, because we’re not held back by tradition.”
This experimentation is one of the reasons Robe and Mount Benson are increasingly admired by wine lovers, so too the vast expanse of the sea and the shore, which captivated this region’s early wine pioneers, and now attracts visitors from far and wide.
There are a number of wineries to visit in and around the Mount Benson and Robe GI. The region’s most prominent are spread out along the stretch of narrow asphalt aptly named the Limestone Coast Road.
Before moving to the Limestone Coast, Ralph Fowler (ralphfowlerwines.com.au) got his start working for Tyrrell’s Wines in the Hunter Valley.
He has planted predominately shiraz, viognier, merlot and cabernet, all just 10km from the coast. The old-school cellar door is brimming with seaside cottage charm and more than 50 years of Fowler’s dedication to producing high-quality Australian wine.
The cellar door is managed by Ralph, alongside his wife Deborah, so there’s a good chance you’ll get to meet the maker as you taste a selection of his outstanding wines, including, the refined elegance of the Ralph Fowler Classic Methode Traditionelle sparkling wine, or the aromatic intensity of the 2018 Shiraz Viognier.
Don’t hesitate to try the 2018 Merlot, which may force you to reconsider your opinion of this much maligned grape (tasting notes below).
Next door, a few hundred metres up the road from Fowler, is one of the region’s best and most sustainable wineries, Cape Jaffa Wines (capejaffawines.com.au).
Certified biodynamic, it is one of the pioneers of the adventurous attitude that’s come to embody the spirit of many wineries in the region.
Its range of wines aims to encapsulate a sense of site, style and creativity: take blends like the 2019 Mesmer Eyes Red & White, a curious combination of lucid shiraz and fragrant gerwürztraminer; the 2018 La Lune Field Blend, composed of 11 different white and red varieties that are transformed into vino via an egg-shaped fermenter for enhanced flavour and texture; and the 2018 La Lune Shiraz, which expressed this windswept place in all its cool-climate, coastal splendour.
The old-stone cellar door, built with rocks found on the farm, is located on top of a hill with plenty of space to sit outside to take in the panoramic view of the vine rows below.
A taste through their expressive range of wines must be accompanied by a delicious Cape Platter, filled with local foodstuffs from the coastal surrounds.
Rounding out the cellar doors is Wangolina (wangolina.com.au), where some of the region’s most delicious varietal wines are made by the Limestone Coast’s own home-grown winemaker Anita Goode. Goode is a fourth-generation landholder, whose family has lived in the Mount Benson region for more than 100 years.
Her determined and creative streak has led to the planting of some less-than traditional varieties in the region, including grüner veltliner, pinot gris, and Malvasia Istriana, a grape that hails from the peninsula of Istra in north-west Croatia.
It tends to make deliciously zesty and lightly spicy wines, particularly when left to a long skin maceration.
You will most likely find Goode working in the modern and colourful Wangolina wine room, where guests can enjoy abundant space and sunshine while tasting her range of wines, including the wonderful 2020 Grüner Veltliner.
Those producers whose vineyards and wineries lie too far from the local foot traffic or who otherwise don’t have adequate facilities to host intrepid oenophiles, have gone to great lengths to expand the meaning of a cellar door, by popping up in specific locales in downtown Robe, where they pour their wines and inspire visitors with stories of grape growing on these wild lands.
One such vintner who has taken its wines to town is Woodsoak Wines (woodsoakwines.com.au).
In the old Evans Cottage at the western end of Victoria street, Robe, Will and Sonia Legoe share their love of farming, wine, and their children, whose names appear on three of their wines: Rani (pinot noir rosé), Raj (shiraz), and Vijay (cabernet sauvignon).
The couple also produce a gorgeous Blanc de Noirs Methode Traditionelle sparkling wine that’s redolent of the briny air in which the grapes from the region grow. Sonia suggests snacking on their signature samosas or BYO fish and chips from the nearby takeaway.
I suggest you explore the matching potential of their 2015 Sparkling Shiraz with a local Robe favourite, hot chips layered with lamb yiros, tzatziki, and sweet chilli sauce, from the same takeaway, across the road.
Another local producer taking its wines to the streets is Karatta Wines (karattawines.com.au). Its cute-as-a-button tasting room hosts a mix of both locals and out-of-towners, all keen to try the wines that grow at their 12 Mile and Tenison vineyards, over sandy loam, limestone, and the famed terra rossa soils, which are intrinsic to the wines of the Limestone Coast.
Recently rebranded, Karatta Wines boasts bold, modern nautical and botanical themed labels – such as those on the pretty 2020 Sugarloaf Hills Pinot Rosé and the 2016 Pincushion Malbec.
Despite its relative isolation, Robe is abundant with great places to eat (and drink). The local seafood, especially the crayfish and rock lobsters, is famous for its freshness, while regionally reared Angus beef features on most menus, right alongside other locally grown or sourced produce.
Breakfast at the Adventurous Spoon (adventurousspoon.com) is a must. The skylight dining room attached to an old stone-built stable lets the sunlight stream in, bathing your ‘Build Your Own’ breakfast of bacon and eggs and an Adventurous Bloody Mary with the right kind of energy required for the day of wine tasting ahead.
The Project (theprojectrobe.com) is highly prized for its dine-in pizzas and pulled beef bolognese pasta; or there’s Robe Seafood & Takeaway (facebook.com/robeseafood), with their now famous yiros and chips, plus fresh cooked seafood, perfect for sharing, down by the water, right on sunset.
The Caledonian Inn (caledonianinnrobe.com.au) dates back to 1858 and was recently voted the best country pub in South Australia. It’s the local landmark for outstanding food and drink, enjoyed by the beach in summer, and inside by cosy fires in winter.
There’s comfy accommodation too, so you don’t have to go far to get back home for the night.
Elsewhere in Robe, Sails Restaurant (sailsatrobe.com.au) is regarded as the best place in town for perfectly cooked local southern rock lobster, served char-grilled, oozing with garlic butter, or as a creamy thermidor.
If you fancy a night in, Sky Seafoods (skyseafoods.com.au), located on Robe St, is brimming with fresh (and frozen) local seafood. Lobsters here can get as big as 2.5kg, which is plenty of crustacean for two people. Select one along with a few fresh prawns, plus a dozen Coffin Bay oysters, to prepare the ultimate seafood feast back at your accommodation.
There are plenty of places to stay in Robe and its surrounds; caravan and camping spots are everywhere from the beach to the hinterland, plus there are hotels, motels and self-contained apartments. Here’s a few of my favourites:
Bottles for the Boot
2016 Woodsoak Wines Blanc de Noirs, $A45
Arriving in wine country after the initial panic of a global pandemic is as great a cause for celebration as anything else I can think of. Be sure to do it with this Blanc de Noirs. Gorgeous, with a fine bead. Sweet pear, tart apple, orange zest aromatics lashed by briny ocean spray. Lively acidity, dry, crisp, a little chalky and thus savoury. Delicious, with decades to age.
2019 Norfolk Rise Pinot Grigio, A$19
Were I to find myself sitting in sunshine by the sea, close to the coast, with a plate of freshly caught crayfish laid before me, then I could do little better than to pair it with the crisp apple, pear, and floral freshness of Norfolk Rise’s fundamentally delicious pinot grigio. Texturally slippery with chalky acidity.
2020 Wangolina Grüner Veltliner, A$28
The great white grape of Austria has found a home on the ancient undulating dunes on the coast of the Great Southern Ocean. Anita Goode’s interpretation is redolent of lemon, lime, and stone-fruit trees grown beside a garden of white florals, beside the seaside, of course. Quite fleshy, with texture and an abundance of fun and frivolity, typical of the wines from here.
2018 Ralph Fowler Wines Merlot, A$35
Soft, simple, and straightforward are notes you’re not likely to assign to this quite elegant wine. This is serious merlot. Pretty, plummy colour, and fragrant with fruit and green peppercorn contrasts. Boysenberry, black cherry, bay leaf and cedar, with wood a deftly integrated presence, to be sure. Quite juicy, equalised by supple herbal tannins. A fine fireside wine for winter.
2016 Karatta Wines Pincushion Malbec, A$30
The pivot to freshness and finesse is paying dividends for Karatta. Where richness and headiness once stood, now fruit-forward, super juicy, and, dare I say, lusciousness now abides. Such a lithe and lovely nose on this dark beet-red coloured wine. Fleshy plums and squishy strawberry scents countered by a lift of blueberry acidity and sweet tobacco tannin. Embracing tannin, affirmative, and mouth-filling. Big, easy drinking.
2018 Cape Jaffa La Lune Shiraz, A$60
The moon must shine bright on Block 6, at Cape Jaffa’s vineyard. Otherwise, it must be the invigorating effects of their biodynamic regime that accounts for the brash colour and aromatic intensity of this cool, coastal climate shiraz. Dark and inky with mulberries, blueberries, black pepper, blood plums and Amarena cherry. Dark fruits backed by portents of power framed by juicy tannins. Line, length and elegance in abundance, much like its namesake, the moon.