Connection to county

From the Riverland to Coonawarra, with love.

The beauty of wine is its ability to transport us to a place. That’s what happens when Bellwether owner and winemaker Sue Bell pours the wine she makes using fruit from regions across South Australia and Tasmania. The magic happens at her winery and cellar door; a rustic 1868 shearing shed in Coonawarra on South Australia’s Limestone Coast.

Sue’s Bellwether Ant Series includes a Riverland Touriga, Montepulciano, a Rosato with Nero d’Avola as the majority component and a Bianco d’Alessano (a variety originally from Puglia, Italy). They are all varieties that need heat to ripen and the wines have pride of place on wine lists at bars and restaurants nationwide.
The first time Sue sourced Riverland fruit was in 2012. It happened fortuitously, and was a relationship that began with rosé.

“The Riverland wasn’t really on my radar or agenda,” she says. “I was very cool climate focussed.” To cut a long story short, she made a Cabernet using Coonawarra fruit (with an extremely low baumé – thanks to wet conditions in 2011). She used the runoff to produce a dry, savoury rosé; not the way she usually did things but it proved a hit.

“I decided to do another one but I didn’t want to use my Cabernet,” she says. “I thought it would be good to use an Italian variety for that savoury spectrum. For some reason, Nero d’Avola came into my head.”

She hadn’t worked with it before but asked Riverland grower Ashley Ratcliff if he knew anyone with Nero (who wouldn’t be offended if she made rosé from it). “He said, ‘I’ve got Nero and as part of the CSIRO Climate Change Project, I’ll give you some’. The condition was, I had to enter it into the Alternative Variety Wine Show.”

When she did, the Rosato (made using Riverland Nero d’Avola and eight per cent Wrattonbully Pinot Gris) won a gold medal, was the best Rosé out of 60 entries in the category, and clocked in as third best wine of show.

“Ashley put his arm around me and said, ‘this is the best day of my life’.” She laughs. “I just remember saying, ‘We should do this again’.”

Breaking down stigma, especially in South Australia, is an ongoing mission.
“I remember showing it to a few restaurants in Adelaide and they wanted to say the wine was from Coonawarra rather than the Riverland,” she says. “I insisted it said Riverland. I always put the region on the label too because if we’re going to change perceptions, we need to proudly say where the fruit is from.”

Sue was buoyed the response from South Australia’s Parliament House. “They had it on the list as ‘proudly Riverland’. I explained to them what a great story this wine was about resilience to climate change, or more a ‘correction’ to agriculture in climate understanding, getting to know our country better and how a culture that strives for quality over quantity can lead to better profitability.”

A year later, she travelled to Sydney for a trade tasting. “It showed me that the stigma was largely based in South Australia,” she says. “I explained that Riverland growers were working with varieties that are climate appropriate (using less water and not relying on water allocation for the survival of their business). A guy there looked at me and said, ‘This is great.’ He was young, he wasn’t bigoted, and he’d not yet been told that the Riverland was largely commercial. This was someone who just went, ‘Woah… these Riverland wines are delicious!”

It was a turning point. “I realised we could change things. I was so excited.” She smiles. “Great wine made with Riverland fruit is going ballistic now. It’s so good.”
Sue has always paid Riverland growers the same as she does for Wrattonbully and Coonawarra grapes. “My grower payments are based on the price of the wine,” she says. “With Bellwether, I can’t play in the low margin space – it has to be premium. My volumes are small and my bottling costs high so I have to get a higher price per bottle to even bother. When choosing fruit, it needs to be something worthy.”

Sue is continually impressed by the Riverland’s ease of tannin ripeness. “They are supple, fine and ripe. It’s great. I’ve just had to teach some growers that if they’re going to handpick, not to handpick everything – just the top-quality fruit.”

The extra care pays off. “The growers love it when they taste the wine, see their name on the back label, and see the wine poured in great restaurants,” she says.
Sue is a thoughtful type, and her wines reflect that.

“Wine is a really beautiful thing in that it’s about place, what you plant and what you make,” she says. “The Riverland has always supported high populations of people and we go back to pre-colonisation, one of the highest density populations in Australia was from the Riverland down to the Coorong. There is a long history of human knowledge of land, food and trading here. If people want to find out about Aboriginal culture in Australia, they often go to Arnhem Land or the Kimberley, yet here we are sitting on a goldmine of past knowledge. It is in all our interests to seek this knowledge out; the appetite appetite for hearing it is growing at a rate of knots, as is the confidence to speak it so I think we’ll learn a lot over the next 10-to-20 years.”

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