The Shoalhaven Coast wine region website (shoalhavencoastwine.com.au) lists15 wineries. They stretch about 130 kilometres by road from Yarrawa Estate, Kangaroo Valley, in the north, to Bawley Estate, at Bawley Point, to the south.
That's a reasonably big stretch of coastal land, covering almost a degree of latitude (34˚37' to 35˚31 south, says Google Earth). But as winemaking regions go, it's small, totalling, by my estimate, about 70 to 80 hectares of vines.
With temperature the main driving force behind the physical development of vines and grape ripening, the local climate, aided at the margins by human intervention, decides what varieties succeed and fail.
At first glance, Shoalhaven's latitude (about three degrees north of Coonawarra, for example) might suggest a home for reds like cabernet sauvignon and shiraz. But in fact, the region is significantly cooler than Coonawarra during the ripening season. As a result, whites, in general, fare better than reds, which struggle in most seasons.
Coolangatta Estate's Greg Bishop sees parallels between Shoalhaven and the lower Hunter Valley, to the north. Shoalhaven's grapes ripen about three weeks later than the Hunter's, but humidity and summer rainfall present almost identical challenges in the vineyard.
''It's a hard place to grow grapes,'' Bishop says. But constant vineyard work generally overcomes the disease pressure created by moisture. ''In the early days, Dr Richard Smart helped us, especially with canopy management.''
Open canopies maximise air circulation, helping the vines and fruit to dry out - aided by daily sea breezes. They also help sprays penetrate the vines.
The right spray regime, Bishop says, protects against mildew and botrytis cinerea. And tilling v-shape furrows between vine rows diverts water away from the vineyard.
Bishop's vigilance makes Coolangatta Estate the region's dominant producer in quality and quantity - and the only one whose wines stand up in any company, among those I've tasted. It's also a consistent winner of trophies (130 to date) and medals at Australia's top wine shows.
At the 2011 Canberra Regional Wine Show, for example, Coolangatta entered 13 wines and won nine medals, including golds for its 2009 tempranillo (reviewed today) and 2006 semillon.
Bishop rates semillon as best of the estate's varieties by a wide margin. And given its outstanding show success, he wonders why it's not more widely grown in the region.
I've tasted many vintages of these semillons over the past decade. They're lovely, low in alcohol, capable of prolonged ageing and very similar in style to those from the Hunter - that is, austere and lemony when young and developing mellow, honeyed flavours with age.
To some extent, the style is driven by the Hunter connection - as Tyrrell's, Australia's semillon masters, makes all of the Coolangatta wines. But Tyrrell's is merely custodian of the fruit - the source of the wine flavour. Clearly, what Coolangatta grows is very good.
However, the more widely adopted verdelho ''comes in every year'', Bishop says. Indeed, Coolangatta Estate 2011 ($22) and Cambewarra Estate's 2010 ($23), tasted for this article, offer pleasant drinking - with Coolangatta comfortably ahead.
Chardonnay also performs well and a couple in our tasting looked OK - Silos Estate Wild Ferment 2010, reviewed today, and Cambewarra Estate Unwooded Chardonnay 2010 ($24). Neither of these, however, matches the ones I've tried from Coolangatta Estate.
Coolangatta recently planted what it believed to be the Spanish white variety, albarino. But the variety (misidentified across Australia and, in fact, savagnin) performed consistently well in its first four vintages, 2009 to 2012. Bishop sees a good future for the variety in Shoalhaven.
Judges at the 2010 Canberra regional show support Bishop's view. They wrote that Coolangatta Estate Savagnin 2010, ''had lovely bright fruit with depth of flavour and should be received with some excitement in the region''.
While reds in general struggle to ripen, a few varieties get there and newcomer tempranillo looks exciting. The Coolangatta 2009 reviewed today drinks beautifully - and deserves the gold medals and trophies won in the Canberra and Kiama regional wine shows. Bishop says he planted it because as an early ripener it stood a chance in the cool region.
Coolangatta and other producers in the area grow another early ripening red, chambourcin. This French-American hybrid has the advantage of being resistant to fungal disease; and the disadvantage of making plain wine, in my experience. However, consumers love it both as a red and rosé, Bishop says, partly perhaps because of its novelty.
He also favours tannat, a tannic red variety, for its ability to ripen quickly and fully and, because of its loose bunches and thick skins, resistance to fungal disease The current release Coolangatta 2009 has three gold, eight silver and seven bronze medals to its credit.
Although Coolangatta Estate planted vines in 1988 and Silos Estate three years before that, the Shoalhaven Coast lacks the maturity of a region like Canberra. Canberra's maturity arrived over the past decade as all the threads spun over 40 years finally came together - throwing up shiraz and riesling as regional specialties and achieving a critical mass of high quality vignerons.
Shoalhaven straddles the important Princes Highway tourist route and, at the moment, its tiny, fledgling wine industry seems more plugged into tourism than wine, per se. That's a good start. But it'll only be taken seriously as a wine region as the number of really high-quality producers, like Coolangatta Estate, grows.
Coolangatta Estate Tempranillo 2009
Coolangatta Estate vineyard, Shoalhaven Coast, NSW
In the Canberra Regional Show 2011, this wine top scored in its class, winning a gold medal and proceeding to the ‘‘other red varieties’’ trophy taste-off. The Canberra gong added to the gold medal and four trophies won in the 2010 Kiama Regional Wine Show. Like Coolangatta’s wonderful semillons, the tempranillo is estate grown but made in the Hunter Valley by Tyrrell’s – clearly a successful arrangement. This is a fresh, vibrant and medium-bodied tempranillo, seamlessly combining sweet and savoury fruit with soft, persistent tannins.
Coolangatta Estate Wollstonecraft Semillon 2011
Coolangatta Wollstonecraft vineyard, Shoalhaven Coast, NSW
Coolangatta’s Ben Wallis says, ‘‘powdery and downy mildew are part of our life on the coast’’, so in the cold, wet 2011 season, ‘‘we upped the ante in the vineyard’’. The acidic grapes developed flavour ripeness very early in the cool conditions, but sugar levels lagged – the opposite of a normal year. Owner Greg Bishop and his team hand-pick the healthy fruit, shipping it to Tyrrell’s for vinification. The resulting wine presents rich, lemony varietal flavours cut with the season’s tart, bracing acidity. It’s slightly rounder than you’d expect in a cool season, 11 per-cent-alcohol wine, but it’s definitely built for ageing.
Silos Estate Wild Ferment Chardonnay 2010
Silo Estate vineyard, Berry, Shoalhaven Coast, NSW
The estate, located near Berry, grows seven grape varieties, including chardonnay, in its five-hectare vineyard. Looking young and fresh at two years, the 2010 chardonnay – fermented spontaneously by wild yeasts – shows fresh citrus and melon rind varietal characters. The palate is medium bodied and smoothly textured with an underlying nutty character, derived from maturation on yeast lees following fermentation. The vines are hand-pruned and the grapes hand-picked.
Chris Shanahan is a wine and beer judge, former liquor retailer and freelance writer.