When Stephen Pannell was 15 years old, he found an old ship’s bell on the ocean floor while diving at the end of Busselton jetty in Western Australia. It turned out to be from the SS Koomilya, a wood-lugger that sailed between WA and South Australia. Stephen took it home and cleaned it up. Now, 35 years later, he has called his recently-purchased vineyard Koomilya, and the first release is Koomilya DC Block Shiraz 2013 – the label featuring an illustration of the old bell.
Stephen’s desert-island Australian wine is Wendouree and there are shades of that famous Clare brand in this wine. The fruit is from a vineyard planted in the 1850s. Wendouree is an Aboriginal word meaning sense of place; Koomilya means woman in Port Lincoln Aboriginal dialect. The words SC Pannell only appear in fine print on the back label.
The 2014 Jimmy Watson winner says he wasn’t happy coming out with a premium Shiraz until he owned the vineyard and grew the fruit himself. “Australia still needs to do a lot more work in the vineyards and make wines that reflect a site,” Stephen says. “The truly unique thing about wine is it can express a sense of place, and the understanding and protection of this sense of place is paramount in all my winemaking decisions. So I don’t pick it at 15 baume, over-acidify, add artificial tannins or over-oak the wine. It concerns me that now the Australian exchange rate has come back into favour, we will go back into the export game with the same Frankenstein Shiraz that people didn’t like last time. Great wine has one thing in common all over the world: it is not over-ripe, over-acidified or over-oaked.”
Koomilya DC Block Shiraz is tannic. “And I like real grape tannins, not tannin from oak or chestnut tree,” Stephen says. “Tannin is our number one tool in controlling the natural fruit sweetness of McLaren Vale Shiraz, and I’m not scared of it. In fact I think every grape variety has a tannin character or signature, the same as it has a varietal fruit character or signature.”
Stephen says he is proud of the wine and has never worked harder on any one wine. “I am aware, though, that the driving force is the site,” he says, “and there is a degree of freedom about this experience.”
He says he never wants SC Pannell to be a huge company. “I want to always be in control of the winemaking side of it and so I can’t see us growing a lot more, but I can see us consolidating,” he says. “Some people judge how successful a wine company is by how many cases of wine it makes, and how fast it grows, but all you’re doing is turning money into new product, you’re not actually consolidating. Wendouree is the perfect model. We’ve got a way to go to reach that. I’m a programmer’s nightmare, in a good year I make more, in a bad year I make less.”
Asked what the cellar door has brought to his business, Stephen quips, “People can find me now. After Greg Trott, I was the best hiding champion. I have strong ideas about food, so having the opportunity to put a restaurant in has been great. This is only the beginning of where we sit with this – putting food out to people that marries the ideology behind the wine, is important for us. Our wines are designed for food and drinking. Sometimes wine is all about impact and not enjoyment. I am still concerned about whether we are making wine that reflects our climate and way of life and, most importantly, that suits the food we like to eat. Quite often that is Asian style and contains chilli.”
And is the Jimmy really worth a million dollars? “I’m not sure, but it’s been a wonderful thing for us,” Stephen says. “It was perfect timing for us – absolutely sensational.”
The RRP of Koomilya DC Block Shiraz is $100.