Vineyards in South Australia's Coonawarra region are under threat from a proposal to build a highway bypass around the nearby town of Penola. The local council has recently initiated a compulsory acquisition of more than 50 acres of prized terra rossa vineyard land, sparking a fierce response from vineyard owners. (Terra rossa is a famous red soil on top of limestone, known for being prime terroir for Cabernet Sauvignon.)
Under the plan, Parker Coonawarra Estate stands to lose 10 percent of its vineyard area, including part of a 1985 vineyard that supplies Cabernet Sauvignon to its Terra Rossa First Growth blend. "Coonawarra terra rossa soil is a limited resource," said winemaker Pete Bissell. "Regardless of what we are offered in compensation, the land is irreplaceable. There isn't anywhere else in Australia that can produce wines like Coonawarra can."
Fosters, which sources Coonawarra fruit for eight of its brands, including Penfolds, Lindemans and Wynns Coonawarra Estate, would also lose vines under the proposal. "We may be forced to shut our cellar door [there]," said Stuart McNabb, Fosters wine production director for Australia and New Zealand.
The Rathbone Wine Group, owner of Parker Coonawarra Estate, has presented its objections to the council alongside Fosters and a group of smaller Coonawarra vineyard holders under threat from the proposal.
"We have employed traffic engineers and a legal team to present an alternative bypass route to the council," said Darren Rathbone, Wine Group director. Under this new proposal, the route would largely utilise existing roads to bypass Coonawarra altogether, not only avoiding loss of vineyard land but at the same time circumventing traffic problems in Coonawarra itself.
"The alternative bypass would remove trucks from the roads used by tourist traffic and slow vineyard equipment travelling between vineyards," Rathbone said. "The Coonawarra Grapegrower's Association has wanted to do something like this for decades."
In spite of objections to the council proposal from some 36 vineyard owners and community representatives, the council released a statement this week reiterating its commitment to the original bypass plan. While the council has expressed its support of a long-term plan to build a Coonawarra bypass like the one proposed by the vineyard owners, it does not consider this to be a feasible alternative to its original proposal.
"The suggested Coonawarra Bypass would be approximately [15 miles] long and would be much more expensive than the proposed bypass route," said Mayor Mark Braes. "Indications are that funding for this alternative route would be very difficult to attract."
The council is scheduled to reconvene next week to consider the future of the project.
"One thing is certain—this won't be resolved quickly," said Bissell. "We'll be in for quite a few more rounds of trench warfare, I suspect."
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