At only 15-years-old, Stephen Pannell wandered off from his family and found himself meandering across the diving end of the Busselton Jetty, standing on the tipping point of the rolling Margaret River. It was there where Steve, full of youth and wonder, plucked an old, blemished bell from the sea while scuba diving; instantly drawn to its curiosity as if it called to him. In a different time, the bell would reveal itself as an object belonging to a ship from the early 1900’s, the SS Koomilya. A wood-lugger that journeyed regularly between Western Australia and South Australia and was put to good use in the dark times of World War II. Steve liked that bell, took it home, and cleaned it up.
For Steve, time and his attention to detail were the essence that solidified his winemaking journey; a well-documented origin story spanning across his own family history from the Margaret River. During his time as Chief Winemaker at Hardy’s, Steve was exposed to many and varied vineyards from across the country, applying his craft to thousands of wines. There, a particular vineyard captured his palate; a good-sized vineyard on Amery Rd, established in the late 1800s. Nurturing this plot, Steve won his first Jimmy Watson with an Eileen Hardy Shiraz from that vineyard, and Steve was determined to own that property.
After hassling owners Don and Jill Cant for the good part of the next two decades for that property on Amery Rd, he finally wore them down, and both he and his passionate wife Fiona became the new custodians. “Steve is fulfilling both the potential of that vineyard,” breathed original owner Don as he was hand delivered one of the first cases of Koomilya DC Block Shiraz that Steve had crafted, “and my personal dreams that I wasn’t able to fulfill myself.” The rest is history and Steve’s love for wine goes on.
Koomilya means “woman” in Port Lincoln Aboriginal dialect. Quite serendipitous in many ways, as it resonated with Steve given his love affair with the idea of Mother Earth; to grow something from the ground up and turn it into something amazing. Grateful to the land and its gifts, and recognizing the privilege of calling it home, he founded Koomilya in pursuit of ensuring that each and every wine has a sense of place while connecting to its birth-land. Just like the bell, Koomilya is mystical and curious, from the old house, right to the central soaring gum tree which seems to reach the clouds. It’s a vineyard full of history and character, a site that encapsulates not only elements from Steve’s journey, both past and present, but the unquenchable history of Australian winemaking as a whole.
“These wines have strength, intensity and glorious grape tannins that wind the palate together, almost like a double helix,” says Steve. “The complex structure pulls you straight through. On the nose they have a unique characteristic which can’t be clearly identified but can only be described as Koomilya. They illustrate what I’m hoping modern McLaren Vale shiraz will be, which harks back to a tradition of what McLaren Vale shiraz was, without all the artifice of winemaking.”
The Koomilya wines are made in a classical style. They don’t see any new oak, or any small oak for that matter, and are aged in 2,700 litre foudres. These are serious, old-school wines with incredible potential for development. Many have compared these wines to that of a very famous winery north of Koomilya in Clare Valley, Wendouree. Wendouree has always remained quite old school in its approach and the wines have shown over the years that nothing needs to be left to chance. Just as with Wendouree, they are not wines to crack in their youth, but instead need cellaring.
The Koomilya vineyard is wedged between the original Upper Tintara vineyard which was planted by the famous Doctor Kelly in 1862, and the Hope Farm or Seaview vineyard which was established in the early 1850s by George Manning. It is hidden away at the dead end of Amery Road and includes 13 hectares of vineyards and over 15 hectares of native bush and scrub, with a creek line that flows through the heart of the property. It’s an old vineyard, but its history is poorly documented. The oldest vines here likely date back 120 years and consist of a block of gnarly old Mourvèdre. The Shiraz is pretty old, too, and there are two blocks from which he makes separate wines. He calls them JC and DC, after the growers he bought from. The scrub and creek line have a moderating influence on the microclimate of the property. The cool air from the 161 hectare Hardy scrub which sits above the property flows down the creek line in the evenings, keeping the nights cooler. The native bush hills to the north and west protect the vineyards from the strong and often hot winds in summer.
In 2016, Steve released the first two wines from this vineyard, the 2013 Koomilya DC Block Shiraz, and the 2014 Koomilya Shiraz. With the endless love and support from his family, especially his wife Fiona, Steve’s legacy has only just begun.