Parker Coonawarra Estate, Coonawarra (South Australia) Cabernet Sauvignon "Terra Rossa" 2003 ($25, Robert Whale Selections): I love Bordeaux, and maybe that's why this Australian Cabernet stood out when I tasted it in the midst of dozens of other wines at a trade convention this summer. Part of what caught my attention was the improbability of it all: A Cabernet from Australia, the land of fruity, flavorful wines, that reminds me of Bordeaux reds, which are generally low-key in flavor.
When I learned the story of Parker Coonawarra Estate, it all made sense. John Parker, who in 1985 founded this estate in the southern end of Coonawarra with his wife, Faye, was passionate about Bordeaux. He had been the founding chairman of Hungerford Hill Winery, in Coonawarra and Hunter Valley, which was subsequently acquired by Chateau Reynella. Reynella is one of Australia's oldest wineries, founded in 1837; its Cabernet Sauvignon cuttings came from pre-phylloxera Bordeaux via South Africa--and Parker used mainly cuttings from Reynella to establish his own vineyard. Those vineyards were predominantly Cabernet, with lesser amounts of Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc, in the spirit of Left Bank Bordeaux. Parker reportedly spared no expense in the production of his 1988 'Terra Rossa First Growth,' a Cabernet blend released in 1991, and his subsequent wines. He died in 2002, and the Rathbone Wine Group now owns the estate.
John Parker's goal was to make a top quality red wine from Australia's premier red wine district. With its rich 'terra rossa' soil on a base of limestone, Coonawarra vies only with the Margaret River district in Western Australia as the country's finest Cabernet zone. Although Coonawarra's reputation slipped a bit over the past decade, in the eyes of some critics--it now is returning to form--Parker Coonawarra Estate has always made acclaimed wines, and is one of Coonawarra's stars. Its winemaker, Peter Bissell, recently earned the distinction of being named the Qantas Winemaker of the Year.
In years that are not fine enough to make the Terra Rossa First
Growth--as was the case in 2002 and 2003--Parker Coonawarra Estate releases a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon instead. This 2003 Cabernet is medium-bodied (verging toward full-bodied), lean and aristocratic. It has aromas and flavors that suggest lead pencil, cedar, ink, minerals, mint and concentrated dark berry fruit. Although the wine is dry-textured with very fine-grained tannin, it is smooth and doesn't grip the tongue. It has great length on the palate, and a very long finish that suggests dark fruit and minerals. It seems to achieve near-perfect balance, not only between its alcohol (a surprisingly high 14%), acid and tannin but also between its flavors and structure.
The 2003 Parker Connawarra Estate is drinking beautifully now, but it will probably continue to drink well for another eight to ten years. Will it develop the complex secondary character of an aged Bordeaux? That question remains open for me, but I will happily continue tasting the wine for research purposes.