The Good Life – vines by the sea on South Australia's Limestone Coast »

Part 2 of an extract from Almost an Island: The story of Robe by Liz Harfull

Contributed articles and stories
Subscribe to
Almost an island - the story of Robe by Liz Harfull

Almost an island - the story of Robe by Liz Harfull

Robe Customs House, Limestone Coast
Lake Butler, Robe, Limestone Coast.
Lake Butler Marina, Robe, Limestone Coast.
Cellar at Cape Jaffa Wines, Mount Benson, Limestone Coast


Robe is a small village tucked away on South Australia's rugged Limestone Coast. It has played a variety of roles throughout its history: Australia's busiest port in the 1850s, seaside health resort, home of one of the world's oldest surfing competition and of course, now home to fines wines with growing reputations.

Almost an Island: The story of Robe by Liz Harfull captures what makes this place so special to so many with stories of past and present accompanied by evocative images. The following extract explains the birth of the wine industry in the region:

While visitors to Robe have long enjoyed the town’s seafood, only in recent years has locally produced wine been on the menu. Now there are two officially proclaimed wine regions on the town’s doorstep and the area’s reputation is growing for fine wines influenced by the sea.

In 2012 the Mount Benson region encompassed five cellar-door outlets and 20 or so vineyards covering about 600 hectares of gently undulating terrain close to the coastline north of Robe. They range from small enterprises run by young families to corporate operations developed by international investors. No matter their scale, they have all been drawn by the area’s mild, maritime climate.

Most of the grapes are red varieties, particularly cabernet sauvignon, but the region’s sauvignon blanc and chardonnay have won acclaim too.

‘The wineries here are fairly small so there is a lot of attention to detail,’ says winemaker, local vignerons association president and 2013 South Australian Rural Woman of the Year, Anna Hooper. ‘And we all produce quite different styles so there are some interesting variations,’ she says. ‘As a winemaker, I can’t think of another place I’d rather be.’

Just over the Woakwine Range is the official Robe wine region. Nestled between ocean and lakes stretching from Robe to Beachport, it is home to a much smaller number of wineries. Only formally designated in 2006, the region’s history of experimenting with vines actually dates from the mid 1960s.

John Lee was among a team of scientists working on coastal disease in the area with the CSIRO. One day he brought some cuttings from Adelaide and handed them to the Quinlan-Watson family to plant at their farm about 15 kilometres out of Robe. ‘He wanted to see if they would grow here,’ says Mick Quinlan-Watson. ‘Not knowing anything about grapes, I planted them in the wrong place, at the wrong time of the year, and I didn’t care for them very well so the whole lot failed.’

Thirty years later, the push was on to develop new premium grape-growing areas. One of Australian wine’s biggest companies, Southcorp, bought  300 hectares of land in 1994 and planted a full-scale vineyard. Watching over the fence were Mick and his brother Bill who decided it might be time to have another go. They rounded up investors and in 1995 planted 15 hectares of cabernet sauvignon, shiraz and merlot, with Southcorp providing advice on soil preparation and irrigation. The following year the brothers added another 24 hectares of chardonnay, pinot noir and more shiraz, and in 1998 Governor Robe Wines harvested its first commercial-scale vintage. While the yield was low, the quality was excellent.


Mount Benson ‘madness’

‘A moment of madness’ is how the Wehl family explains what made them plant the vineyard that triggered development on the Mount Benson side of the range.

Bill Wehl had been a fisherman all his working life, operating out of Kingston and Cape Jaffa. A couple of years after retiring in 1985, he decided he was too young just to sit around so he went looking for a new hobby. He and wife Margaret bought a block of land on the road to Wrights Bay and thought about growing almonds but after talking with a friend involved in the wine industry they decided grapes might be the way to go. A nursery was established in 1987 to propagate cuttings and two years later a single modest hectare was planted with cabernet sauvignon.

The concept of growing grapes in the area wasn’t completely new. Well-known Coonawarra vigneron Colin Kidd planted a trial patch of four varieties near Cape Jaffa in 1978 while he was working for Lindemans. They showed promise but the timing wasn’t right for the company to invest in a new region. The Wehls’ timing was much better. ‘People were looking for new areas to plant because the Australian wine industry was growing, and the wool industry was pretty depressed,’ explains son Peter.

The Wehls realised their hobby had true commercial potential when they delivered their first two tonnes of fruit to Brands' winery at Coonawarra for crushing in 1992. ‘There was a lot of interest from winemakers from all over the place,’ Peter says. What they saw and tasted showed so much promise that within a few years plantings in the district exploded.

The Wehls ended up with 24 hectares of mainly red varieties. Peter gave up shearing for a living and started working full-time in the vineyard in 1993, taking over the operation with his wife Leah about 10 years later when his parents retired – properly this time.

Across to the north, next to join the vine-rush was the Hooper family. Former livestock buyer Kym Hooper observed that sheep grazing in the region had the same red tinge to their wool as sheep from the Coonawarra, famous for its terra rossa soils. His winemaker son Derek took note and in 1993 the family bought a farm with a northfacing aspect. There they established Cape Jaffa Wines. For Derek, a keen surfer, it didn’t hurt that the farm was just kilometres from the beach!

Over the next few years, Kym and his wife Sue planted eight hectares with chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, shiraz and a little merlot while their son gained experience working in France and the Coonawarra. In 1997, the family built the region’s first winemaking facility, processing the first vintage the following year.

Alongside the winery sprouted a rustic cellar door fashioned out of rock found on the site, with a barrel room cut into a limestone ridge. By 2012, the vineyard had expanded to cover 25 hectares of fully certified biodynamic vines, an approach passionately pursued by Derek’s wife, Anna, who is also a winemaker with European experience and considerable business acumen.

Another first for the Mount Benson area was a series of vineyards set up under community title and run as community corporations. The first of their kind in South Australia, they were the brainchild of Sydney accountant Peter Davidson, who was inspired by a similar enterprise in New South Wales and a story in the Sydney Morning Herald by leading wine writer Huon Hooke. ‘He wrote a very persuasive piece about the Limestone Coast and mentioned the Robe area in particular and how it had very similar soil characteristics to the Coonawarra, but land was significantly cheaper,’ Peter says.

Peter and his wife Mary purchased farmland at Mount Benson in 1996 from Bob and Jeanette Emery and established the Limestone Coast Vineyards. Two years later another 34 hectares were developed as the Guichen Bay Vineyards, followed by the 52-hectare Wrights Bay Vineyards.

Each property has its own infrastructure and is managed by a community corporation made up of ten to 12 investors from as far as Sydney,  Melbourne and Adelaide who hold freehold titles over the lots, ranging in size from about 1.6 hectares to more than four. ‘I have no regrets about  doing it,’ Peter says. ‘They have not been as financially rewarding as I thought they might but it has been very satisfying, not least because of the lasting friendships made with the people involved, and because it has given us a reason to visit Robe.’

Looking around him at vineyards in the Mount Benson and Robe regions, veteran winemaker Ralph Fowler is generally pleased with what he sees.  One of the Australian wine industry’s more experienced hands, Fowler started making wine in 1971 with Tyrrell’s in the Hunter Valley, where he was a key player in the development of the now famous brand. He also made highly acclaimed award-winning wines for Hungerford Hill and Leconfield in the Coonawarra before buying 40 hectares of land at Mount Benson with his wife, Deborah.

‘I think we have come of age in the last few years,’ he says. ‘It’s taken a long time but I think I always knew when I came here that it would take us 20 years to prove ourselves.’

This extract is from Almost an Island: The story of Robe by Liz Harfull and appears with the kind permission of publishers Wakefield Press. It can be purchased online via for A$49.95. review to come soon.


  • Limestone Coast (SA)
  • Robe (SA)

Our Recommendations

To see our recommendations, ratings and reviews you must be a logged-in subscriber.

To subscribe please enter your email address in the "Subscribe Now - it's Free" box on the right and click the "Join" button, or fill in this form >

May 15th, 2014
Subscribe today - it's free
Subscribe Button

Subscribe now - for news and reviews, our newsletter (optional), to join our forums, and more.

Enter your email address and click the Subscribe button. We respect your privacy.

Log in

Enter your username...

Enter your password...

Log In Button

Forgotten your password?


Kerry's corner - your free benefits