An unsung hero of Australian wine has been recognised with two of Coonawarra’s most famous families – the Balnaves and Redmans – releasing the 2016 William Wilson Coonawarra Shiraz Cabernet.
The limited edition wine is $300 a bottle.
William Wilson’s great-great-great-granddaughter Kirsty Balnaves said the collaborative project is a tribute to the humble Scottish gardener who not only sired both families, but is also credited with the discovery of the region’s terra rossa soils.
“William Wilson was a Scottish gardener who settled in Petticoat Lane, Penola in 1861,” Kirsty said. “He was an expert in vine and fruit tree horticulture and was the first person to recognise the free draining properties of the red terra rossa soil.
“He advised fellow settler John Riddoch to establish his Penola Fruit Colony on what we now know as the terra rossa cigar, laying the foundation for Coonawarra’s reputation for world class Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz.
“Although he is not widely remembered, he really was the region’s founding father.”
Wilson was born in Scotland, served in the Scottish Highlanders in Ireland and Greece and emigrated to South Australia in 1849 at the age if 33. It was during his posting on the Greek Islands of Zephalonia, Zante and Corfu that he learnt about viticulture and the role that soil type played in vine health and vigour.
Wilson’s daughter Margaret married William Neilson and of their six children, one married a Redman and the other a Balnaves, starting a 120 year old winemaking dynasty.
“Coonawarra has a long history of sharing knowledge and collaborating, that started with William Wilson and John Riddoch,” great-great-great-grandson Dan Redman said
“My great grandfather Bill Redman, sold his first grapes to the Riddoch winery and when it closed he kept the Coonawarra wine industry alive by selling bulk Cabernet and Shiraz to other Australian wineries.
“In fact it was Bill and his son Owen who helped Doug and Annette start Balnaves in 1974.
“This wine is a symbol of that sense of community that defines us.”
The two families conceived of a tribute wine in 2016, the 200th anniversary of William Wilson’s birth. The Redmans set aside a small parcel from their 85 year old North End Shiraz vineyard and the Balnaves reciprocated with a parcel of Cabernet from their 43 year old Paulownia vineyard.
“Fortunately 2016 was a great year in Coonawarra,” Dan said. “Veraison was very even contributing to small berry size, and the mild conditions and cool finish allowed slow, even ripening.
“The 2016 William Wilson Shiraz Cabernet is very much in the traditional ‘claret style’ with medium body, fine grained tannins and a great balance of fruit and structure.”
Just 200 dozen of the limited release 2016 William Wilson Coonawarra Shiraz Cabernet have been made, with strict allocations to leading independent fine wine stores.
The wine is available by direct mail order or by visiting the Redman and Balnaves cellar doors.
The William Wilson story
On 10 September 1816 a young Scot named William Wilson entered the world, in the small town of Cupar, in Scotland’s Fife Shire.
William’s love of nature started young and his affinity with the earth saw him appointed as a gardener to a nearby estate in Fife.
He later enlisted in the 42nd Regiment of the Black Watch Highlanders , spending six years serving in Ireland and the Mediterranean, where he was stationed at various times on the Greek Islands of Zephalonia, Zante and Corfu. It was here he would learn about viticulture and horticulture.
Like many Scots, William and his family dreamt of adventure and opportunity in a faraway land and they left everything to emigrate to South Australia in 1849. William was 33 when he landed at Port Adelaide (known then as ‘Port Misery’) and from there the family boarded the 18-tonne Cutter Resource to Robe.
They then travelled to Killanoola, 26 kilometres north of Coonawarra, the journey taking two weeks longer than expected because the kegs of beer on the bullock wagon were frequently quaffed by the thirsty bullockies, rendering them too drunk to travel.
After arriving in Penola, William sought his luck on the Victorian goldfields returning with £300, purchasing Lot 133 in Petticoat Lane, Penola and building a four-bedroom home for his wife Agnes, using Mount Gambier stone.
William soon established a productive orchard and market garden, generously sharing his horticultural knowledge with other settlers, among then fellow Scot and pastoralist John Riddoch.
Riddoch owned a vast sheep and cattle station called Yallum Park but had a philanthropic dream to establish a fruit-growing colony populated by small independent farmers or “blockers”.
He sought advice from William Wilson about the best location of the settlement and the experienced horticulturist recommended that rather than the black soils of Yallum Park, he settle north of Penola due to its free draining, fertile terra rossa.
In 1890 Riddoch took Wilson’s advice, founding the 1150 acre Penola Fruit Colony (later the Coonawarra Fruit Colony) and overseeing the planting of Cabernet and Shiraz vines and fruit orchards and building a large and imposing winery (now Wynns Coonawarra).
William Wilson died in 1891 before the Great Bank Crash of 1893 that ended Riddoch’s dream.
However, while most of the small fruit growers returned to dairy farming or laboring some saw the future in wine – among them William’s grandson Bill Redman.
Bill purchased 40 acres of vineyard in 1908 and made his first wine in 1909. For the next 30 years Bill sold his bulk wine to other Australian wineries including Yalumba, Woodleys and Tolleys.
He was joined by his son Owen in 1937 and after years of hard work and patient investment, Redman Wines was able to capitalize on the Coonawarra boom of the 1970s.
Meanwhile, Bill’s sister in law Jessie had married local farmer William Balnaves, starting a lineage that would lead to the establishment of Balnaves of Coonawarra in 1974. Doug and Annette made their first wine in a concrete vat with the help of Bill Redman and went on to become one of the region’s most respected brands.
Today, William Wilson’s great-great-great-grandchildren Kirsty Balnaves, Pete Balnaves, Dan Redman and Michael Redman continue to produce some of the most famous wines from the Coonawarra terra rossa strip that their descendant discovered.