If you’ve driven the coastal route through Gerringong and Gerroa and along the Bolong Road past the Coolangatta Estate winery, chances are you’ve spotted a slightly podgy bloke toiling away in the vineyards.
The man under the well-worn straw hat is Coolangatta owner and viticulturist Greg Bishop, a quietly spoken, modest man who has enjoyed phenomenal success since planting his first vines on the historic estate.
Bishop, highly respected and driven in his desire to promote the region’s now thriving wine industry, is regarded as the father of winemaking on the Shoalhaven Coast.
Like his entrepreneurial dairy farmer father Colin before him, the younger Bishop dared to dream and it paid off handsomely.
Coolangatta Estate now sits among the upper echelon of Australian wineries, with a five-star rating and a trophy cabinet that’s literally bursting at the seams.
Coolangatta will be among 11 wineries to throw their cellar doors open for the annual Shoalhaven Coast Winter Wine Festival next weekend, a major food and wine event sponsored by the State Government’s tourism arm, Destination NSW.
But first a short history lesson on Coolangatta Estate, the first European settlement on the South Coast, and how Colin Bishop painstakingly restored it to its former majesty.
The estate’s history stretches back almost two centuries to 1822, when business partners Alexander Berry (after whom the quaint South Coast township is named) and Edward Wollstonecraft were granted 10,000 acres at the foot of Coolangatta mountain.
With 100 convicts at their beck and call they transformed Coolangatta into a self-supporting village boasting mills, workshops, tradesmen and artisans.
In its heyday the village had its own shipbuilding yard connected to the Shoalhaven and Crookhaven rivers by the first canal constructed in Australia, exported thoroughbred horses to India, cedar to Europe and cattle, tobacco, cheese and wheat to Sydney.
One of the first ships built by Alexander Berry was the Coolangatta, which was wrecked off Point Dagger and after which the famous holiday destination on Queensland’s Gold Coast is named.
The bustling village was a hive of activity but very quickly fell into disrepair after the deaths of Berry and his son David.
It stayed that way for decades until in 1947 Colin Bishop, an ambitious 25-year-old farmer, borrowed the money from his parents to buy 100ha of farmland adjacent to the then dilapidated Coolangatta village.
Bishop ran dairy cattle and quickly established himself as an astute, hard-working businessman, who later purchased the run-down Coolangatta buildings and at one time used them to store bales of hay.
But he had grander plans and knew a major part of the South Coast’s history would be gone forever if he didn’t act.
In an interview with the Mercury in 2008, Bishop recalled how people thought he had gone mad when he outlined his ambitious restoration plans.
Determined and certainly not daunted by the naysayers, he pressed on. It took several decades and hundreds of thousands of dollars but Coolangatta Estate re-opened with great fanfare and is now recognised as one of Australia’s premiere tourist locations, with colonial style buildings, Great Hall, restaurants, nine-hole golf course and refurbished stables and out-buildings, which form impressive accommodation units for guests.
Yet there were still more accolades to come after Greg Bishop, just like Alexander Berry before him in the 1800s, began to dabble in wine.
Coolangatta Estate is now surrounded by vineyards planted to varieties including semillon, chardonnay verdelho, sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon, tempranillo and tannat.
The envy of many much larger wine operations, its wines have won an astounding 140 trophies and 1500 awards and medals.
Its semillons are among the most awarded wines in the country and sit comfortably alongside the great Hunter Valley semillons like Tyrrell’s, Audrey Wilkinson and McWilliams.
Bishop’s first wine, a sauvignon blanc from a vineyard he planted on the slopes of Mt Coolangatta in the 1980s and vinified at Tyrrell’s in the Hunter Valley 1990, is probably his most important.
The importance of that first wine can’t be underestimated because in effect it heralded the birth of a new industry on the Shoalhaven Coast.
As word of Coolangatta’s success spread, several more vineyards popped up along the coast and the region now boasts 12 cellar doors and 20 growers from Gerringong to Kangaroo Valley, Berry, Bangalee, Milton/Ulladulla, Termeil and Bawley Point.
By 2002 the Shoalhaven had been recognised as Australia’s 95th officially gazetted wine region, a fitting reward for the hard slog and vision of the area’s growers and winery owners.
It’s taken a long time but the wine industry can now proudly boast its credentials as a major tourism drawcard, sought out by many of the tens of thousands of visitors to the Shoalhaven Coast each year.
Next weekend’s Winter Wine Festival is expected to draw upwards of 7000 visitors to what is now recognised as one of the best organised food and wine events on the calendar.
Eleven cellar doors – Yarrawa Estate, Roselea Vineyard, Crooked River Wines, Silos Estate and Wileys Creek, Mountain Ridge Wines, Coolangatta Estate, Two Figs Winery, Cambewarra Estate, Cupitt’s Winery, Fern Gully Winery and Bawley Vale Estate – have spent months fine tuning their festival programs, which will include live music, gourmet food, local produce, cheese tastings, market stalls, winemaker dinners, vineyard lunches and art and photographic exhibitions.
If you don’t have a designated driver there’ll be a hop-on-hop-off bus to take festival goers from one venue to the next.
Life doesn’t get much better than that.
■ For more details about the festival go to shoalhavencoastwine.com.au.