Zema Estate, Coonawarra 1984.
Grape growing and winemaking has been a large part of our family’s history since the early 1800s.
Demetrio Senior’s great grandfather Matteo opened the first wine bar and tavern in Armo, Reggio Calabria, Italy in 1835 - much to the angst of the local authorities at the time. This great legacy accompanied by a passion for wine has been passed down from generation to generation of our family.
In 1952 Nicola Zema (Francesca’s father) left Italy to escape the aftermath of war and to seize the opportunities that a strange and peaceful country called ‘Australia’ offered. Soon after he started working for Wynns Coonawarra in the vineyard and cellar - a job that continued through until his retirement in 1975.
Back in Armo, a love affair between Francesca and Demetrio had blossomed and in 1957 they became engaged, however not long after in April 1958 Nicola, who had established himself in Coonawarra called for his wife Domenica and children, including Francesca, to join him after six long years of separation.
Upon arriving in Coonawarra, Francesca’s family went about establishing a home, securing work, and adapting to a new language and culture.
Back in Italy, Demetrio who was impatiently awaiting his fiancée’s return decided to travel to Australia to marry Francesca and bring her home to Italy. After more than twelve months apart the couple was reunited in May 1959 and married in Penola in June that year. Francesca was reluctant to leave her family and convinced Demetrio to stay, at least in the short term, so the couple settled in Penola. For Demetrio the move was a major loss – unlike Francesca, none of his family joined him and he felt acutely the separation from his family and Italian roots.
Demetrio and Francesca wedding, Penola June 1959.
Demetrio soon found work helping a local painter and after a short period established his own painting business. In March 1960 Demetrio and Francesca’s first son Matteo (Matt) was born and in 1966 Nicola (Nick) arrived. Demetrio worked hard, painting houses and buildings throughout the Limestone Coast, with Francesca and later Matt and Nick helping on weekends and school holidays. Demetrio gained a reputation as a meticulous painter and a very engaging one, as there was always a good story to be told and one of his homemade wines to be shared.
Francesca, Matt, Demetrio Snr and Nick, Coonawarra 2009.
Francesca’s love for food and cooking helped integrate them into the community. “I teach a lot of people to eat spaghetti … not many people back then knew about Italian food,” said Francesca.
Whilst painting was our family’s livelihood, the passion for wine never diminished and the dream was to one day own a piece of Coonawarra land and create our own label.
"Australia was the land of opportunity for Mum and Dad," said Nick. “All their hard work was to achieve one goal - to purchase a Coonawarra vineyard and establish wine under the Zema name."
In March 1982 the dream became a reality when our family was able to purchase 20 acres right in the heart of Coonawarra’s famed terra rossa - 8 acres of which were already planted with mature shiraz vines.
Demetrio Snr harvesting the 1985 Zema Estate vintage, Coonawarra.
Our family moved into a small house on-site and went about establishing our new venture with assistance from our family and friends who rallied, helping us plant new vines, hand prune, and pick.
In May 1982 our Cellar Door Sales opened from the kitchen of our home.
When Scottish pioneer John Riddoch planted the first vineyard and orchards of his Coonawarra Fruit Colony in 1891, he made two recommendations to his growers: that they should only plant on the fertile terra rossa soil that extended north from the township of Penola and that they only plant Cabernet Sauvignon or Shiraz.
This wasn’t just based on instinct – Riddoch and his gardener friend William Wilson had already undertaken several trials of different soils and grape varieties and were confident this was the right recipe for the future success of the fledgling Coonawarra region.
When our family purchased our first 20-acre property in 1982, of which 8 acres was planted with Shiraz, we saw no reason to depart from Riddoch’s original plan, planting Cabernet Sauvignon on the remaining. We bought this vineyard because it was located in the heart of the famed terra rossa strip adjacent to Coonawarra landmarks Mildara, Rouge Homme, and Wynns.
“Coonawarra and our whole business are actually built on these two great grape varieties; Cabernet - vibrant and rich with a great line of length, and Shiraz for a great mouthfeel and loads of flavour,” said Nick.
Francesca hand picking, 1989 Coonawarra.
The first vintage of Zema Estate wines was made with very little equipment, a tin shed, and an old milk tanker under the generous guidance of veteran Coonawarra Winemaker Ken Ward. Matt was living in Melbourne as a Electrical and Computer Systems Engineer, returning to Coonawarra on weekends to work in the vineyards and the winery. Nick was in high school at the time and found that his education was instantly transferred from the classroom to the vineyard.
Nick reflects on entering the wine industry at such a young age.
“I was interested in wine but apprehensive as I was 16 and didn’t really know what I wanted to do. My main goal was to open the bowling for Australia and play full forward for Collingwood!” he said.
Zema Estate wines now have 150 acres of vines in three prime Coonawarra locations and although our family deservedly takes great pride in our achievements we have not lost sight of our original philosophies – estate-grown, hand pruned, hand-crafted, and to create consistent wines and today really feel a part of the Australian wine landscape.
Whilst remaining true to the core values, passion, and tradition that launched Zema, we also acknowledge the need to continually move forward, improve and embrace change.
This year we’re excited to reveal the final stage of our brand refresh with the release of our 2018 Cluny, 2018 Estate Cabernet, 2018 Estate Shiraz, and 2016 limited release Saluti.
Our fresh look doesn’t mean we have forgotten who we are – a true and trusted Coonawarra winery, forged in Australia but based on the undeniable passions, traditions, and values of our Italian heritage. Our long-term goal remains the same, continue being a family-owned winery that produces premium quality Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz, with a consistency that defies vintage and seasonal fluctuations.
We’re enormously proud of our family’s achievements and wish to build on this legacy for future generations.
We look forward to the future and to continuing our focus on the care and attention to detail that is required to consistently create exceptional wines.
Here’s to the next 40 years!
Nick, Francesca and Demetrio Zema.