Alan and Nelly Cooper, the founders and winemakers at Cobaw Ridge, go very quietly about their venture in the Macedon Ranges. The area is known for its expansive pine and eucalyptus forests and although it is located only an hour by car from Melbourne, stepping into the ranges is like stepping into a different world entirely. At an altitude of 610 metres, Macedon Ranges is the coolest wine region on the Australian mainland.
As the second lockdown is enforced on Victoria, we got in touch with Alan and Nelly to see how they are coping. Interestingly, Alan responded reassuringly: “Doing what we do and as we have done for the last 35 years, self-isolation has always been a bit of a thing here! Sometimes we don’t leave our island for a couple of weeks.”
And so we started a long conversation about the older days, the beginnings, stories and challenges of establishing the winery all with their own hands. It’s about time we tell their story…
After returning from an extended working holiday hitchhiking around Europe in 1979, Nelly and Alan had decided to settle down, buy land, build a home and start a farming venture.
Alan was used to making a living off the land as a fifth generation farmer and as such, it was not a leap as huge as it might seem for some.
Nelly reflects: “We spent the first few years building our home so we could move from the city in 1984. During that time we had tossed around quite a number of different ideas. Small land holding in a quite challenging climate, dictated the end decision. Plus, our love of wine…
We knew at the time that there were a couple of vineyards / wineries locally, so after a fair bit of questioning we had decided to plant some vines! (How hard could it be? If others could do it, well maybe we could too!).”
The first vines were planted in 1985.
As we were discussing the early days of Cobaw Ridge, Nelly reflected: “We did not initially set out to make wine but after doing some numbers and thinking about the tiny amount of potential crop we would eventually pick, it added up.”
Alan and Nelly’s aspiration was to plant and manage the vineyard organically. However, juggling full time work in Melbourne to pay for everything, together with establishing and working the vineyards proved increasingly challenging. “We could not manage to keep up with the rapid amount of growth of everything including the weeds ... we relented!” said Alan.
He carried on, explaining: “During that time we used only herbicide, never pesticides, and all the fungicide sprays were soft options.
Once the majority of the vineyard was very well established, we again started to rethink about organic.
Given that all the work in the vineyard is done by us, we did not want to be working in a chemical soup - all very logical!”
The changes towards converting to a fully organic vineyard began in 2005. A larger tractor that was able to run an under vine cultivator was a great help.
Vintage 2008 marked our "organic in conversion " year followed by full certification organic in 2009.
The next stage of evolution, logically, was to take the vineyard and winery into biodynamics. Hence now, all wines produced at Cobaw Ridge brush on the "natural" with a touch of sulphur being the sole addition.
Fully certified Biodynamic status was achieved in 2011.
Nelly reflected: “Since that first decision to build a winery, we have been constantly adding to the equipment and plant to be totally self-sufficient.
Now we have the final pieces in place, including our own small bottling line.”
“We see organic and biodynamic practices purely as a method of farming to achieve the cleanest, most pristine fruit we can grow. Great wines are very much born in the vineyards!”
They work with fruit right at the outer margin of ripeness, but on the right side of ripeness. The big advantage being their ability to achieve a natural expression of a wine without resorting to earlier and earlier picking dates and lots of added acid. “True cool climate” as they like to refer to it “Syrah is picked at the end of April and into early May. Heathcote, which is only a 25 minute drive north, would be picking Shiraz around 6-8 weeks earlier and at 2 extra Baume. Even the ‘cool’ Yarra Valley is around 5 weeks earlier.”
Biodynamic principals have their sceptics however, and to quote Alan, “We feel these practices will further our holistic, sustainable, and above all natural approach to grape growing and winemaking, and provide an even greater opportunity for the wines to speak of the land which bore them.”
You would be wrong if you believe these to be just fluffy words, which lack substance. We kid you not, all wines from Cobaw Ridge are multi–layered, exceptional and offer extraordinary value. Wines full of individual character and style showing full flavours which richly reflect this special vineyard site which they almost lost in the bushfires of 2009. Luckily, they remained unaffected by the horrific bushfires Australia had seen at the beginning of this year. Alan and Nelly’s longstanding experience and thorough knowledge gives us wines free of the hype surrounding natural and biodynamic wines and instead, they give us truly remarkable wines which they continue to make 35 years on.
COBAW RIDGE PINOT NOIR 2017
An incredibly exciting release, this wine sees a small percentage of grapes picked from the new high density vineyard Alan planted a number of years ago. All blocks processed separately. 10% whole bunch in base of fermenter and gently destemmed the balance on top. Total time on skins 30 days. Gentle hand plunged twice a day while actively fermenting. Basket pressed to tank before going into oak. About 20 % new French oak. Thirteen months in oak before blending and bottling in the middle of 2018.
The finished wine shows that vintage '17 was indeed on the cool side showing elegant restraint on the palate. The wine needs time to unfurl and allow the amazing focused core of red fruits to shine.
Gourmet Traveller Wine 'Best buy wines to cellar' - "Cobaw Ridge produces scintillating wines in which charisma is never lacking. This pinot noir asserts many things from the glass, with wild-edged herbal, spicy, pickled cherry scents and a palate that spreads luxuriously with brambly, blackberry flavours. So much going on, so unique. It’s fun to approach, but will be all autumn scents and flavours with 5-10 years of maturity."
RRP £29.50 per bottle
Special Offer Price £24.95 per bottle
This stunning Syrah comes from the singular Cobaw Ridge Estate, the only biodynamically farmed vineyard in the Macedon Ranges. This high-altitude site sits at 610m above sea level, yielding Syrah imbued with floral aromatics and spicy flavour profile. The fruit is always impeccable when it enters the winery, every effort taken in the vineyard by the Coopers to ensure little needs to be done in the winery to bottle a pure expression of their unique vineyard.
Alan Cooper, Founder & Vigneron “Very much typical of our Syrah from a cooler year, aromatic on the nose, savoury spice and a fine dusting of black pepper to finish. The essence of granite. Focussed and expressive of our amazing terroir. The classic iron fist in a velvet glove. Huge latent power and structure to burn. This wine will reward you even more with age!”
Gourmet Traveller Wine 'Best buy wines over $30' "The time is long past for comparing Australian wines to French wines. We’ve all grown up, the industry has matured, we can stand on our own two feet and be proud of who we are and what we do in Australia without having to fawn to France.
Having said that though, it’s really hard not to think of the great Syrahs of the northern Rhône (St-Joseph, Hermitage) when tasting this exceptional, nervy, peppery, thrillingly dark-fruited Syrah. And even harder to ignore what great value it is in comparison to them."
RRP £29.50 per bottle
Special Offer Price £24.95 per bottle
COBAW RIDGE CHARDONNAY 2017
98 Points - Stuart McCloskey “The nose is immensely grown-up and would not be out of place in a Grand-Cru white Burgundy line-up. A wondrous bouquet of honey, beeswax, citrus, apple, jasmine flower, and limestone. The palate is equally captivating, tensile and the biodynamic principles provide an almost perfect sense of naturality. Balletic is its movement from fruit to structure. So glorious and completely unforced. The wine’s intricacy is quite remarkable, and the complexity offers an intense, satisfying experience. This is a flat-out great wine regardless of its origins. Deeply impressive and will be mesmeric in a decade. Decant for 20 / 30 minutes and served using Zalto Bordeaux glassware. Do not overchill…”
RRP £29.50 per bottle
Special Offer Price £25.95 per bottle