Clonakilla – a Shiraz Viognier vertical with Tim Kirk

Shiraz Viognier blends – fine wine or fashion? Discuss.  Not a Master of  Wine paper, but Canberra-based Clonakilla’s wine unquestionably falls into the former camp.  Winemaker Tim Kirk was on hand to explain why and you will find a good deal more information about the vineyards in particular on Clonakilla’s website here.

Beauty tames the beast

First, Tim was inspired – and who wouldn’t be – by Marcel Guigal’s iconic Cote Roties after visiting with him in 1991.  Second, while it’s one thing to be inspired by Guigal’s single vineyard Syrah Viognier blends, Tim recognised that a medium bodied style just might work in Canberra because of its similarities with Cote Rotie.  Not just granite soils but, located at 600m, Clonakilla’s vineyard also has a continental climate in cooler vintages of which Shiraz struggles to ripen.  This is where the Viognier comes in.  Beauty to tame Shiraz, the beast, it fleshes out the palate and brings its trademark ethereal, aromatic lift, a quality Tim values for its beauty over sheer power.

In 1992, just one year after the Guigal visit, Tim persuaded his father Dr. John Kirk (himself a pioneer responsible for planting Canberra’s first commercial vineyard), to experiment with co-fermenting Shiraz and Viognier.  The Shiraz, previously blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, was planted in 1972 and the Viognier sourced from somewhat virused Viognier vines (68 clone and a Chateau Grillet “gum boot clone”) planted in 1988/89.  The trial was successful and, by the time Tim met his UK importer, Liberty Wines’ David Gleave MW, his wines were being hailed as the future of Australian Shiraz.  For Tim, regionality is key and “Canberra one of world’s great Shiraz terroirs.”  His aim is “to capture its beauty and dignity and make wines that sing for you like Bordeaux and Burgundy.”

Hot property

Sure enough, in the last 5-8 years, the blend has become hot property, though Tim cautioned it’s not always successful. Though he didn’t spell it out, I suspect wines in his line of fire include those made because the style has become trendy rather than because it’s suited to the region of origin or by back-blending Shiraz and Viognier wine rather than co-fermenting the two varieties.  Suffice to say for him, “if it’s working as it should, it does it without you noticing it.”

How much Viognier?

Although wines incorporating more than 3% Viognier have attracted criticism, Tim’s stance is you cannot legislate for this because it depends on the intensity of the Shiraz and Viognier, which can vary according to vintage, clone, microclimate etc.

In his experience, Viognier often ripens ahead of Shiraz but sometimes the Shiraz is behind.  As for clonal differences, the Chateau Grillet Viognier clone shows more apricot and ginger, developing flavour earlier and ripening ahead of the 68 clone by a couple of weeks.  Tim has planted five different new Viognier clones to see how they’ll do.

Only once the Shiraz is ripe does he look for Viognier of similar ripeness and, if the Viognier has, by this time, gone “baggy,” Tim uses less of it.  At Clonakilla, the percentage of Viognier has ranged from 1% for the 1992 tentative maiden Shiraz Viognier to as high as 10%; latterly it has hovered around 7%.

The vertical  – Canberra District Shiraz Viognier

NB Tim attributes the difference between the wines chiefly to vintage variation, rather than changes in winemaking.  The notes on vintage and winemaking below were provided by Tim and are followed by my tasting note for each wine.

Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier 1997

  • A steady, warm summer followed good winter rains.
  • Moderate yields. Grapes picked 11th and 12th April at an average of 14.2 Baume.
  • 5% Viognier co-fermented along with approximately a third whole bunches.
  • 12 months in oak, 30% new Sirugue.

Vanilla, sweet woodsmoke, plum and mulberry to the nose.  The palate is dry, with quite firm tannins fleshed out with juicy, peppery plum fruit; spicy szechuan black pepper finish.

Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier 1998

  • A warm year with a long series of very warm days leading into vintage. Shiraz Viognier harvested from the 13th to the 17th of March, the earliest harvest on record at that point.
  • High sugars and rich, ripe flavours. Baumes between 14 and 15 degrees.
  • 5% co-fermented Viognier, one third whole bunches.
  • 12 months in oak, 30% new Sirugue and Francois Freres.

More expressive, riper nose and palate, round with sweet plum, orange peel and szechuan pepper, more integrated with the fruit; long and elegant with lifted white pepper on the finish.  Well balanced.

Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier  1999

  • A frost on October 28 made a mess of things. This wine is made from the second growth fruit. After starting again five weeks late the fruit was ripening in late April rather than March.
  • You can see the consequence of that: plenty of white pepper!
  • 5% co-fermented Viognier, one quarter whole bunches, 12 months in 36 % new wood, Sirugue and Francois Freres.

A fresh nose shows lifted red berry fruits, orange peel and spice – more Rhonish and, though more austere than the 1998, there is ample compensation in the sheer intensity and lift of the white pepper edged red cherry fruit.  Long, lovely, elegant and ethereal.

Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier 2000

  • Perhaps the most difficult vintage in the line-up.
  • Cold and wet through March and April. Some botrytis in the vineyard meant that careful picking was required. A more ‘European’ vintage perhaps.
  • 6% co-fermented Viognier, one third whole bunches
  • 12 months in 30% new wood.

More savoury, with a bloody gamey tang here on nose and palate. Round, exotic succulent palate with blood plum and lychee with a heady, floral lift on the finish – like having a vase of lilies on your mantlepiece.  Mmmm, heady and sensual.

Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier 2001

  • The first in a run of gloriously warm years. A benchmark Clonakilla.
  • Picked between March 31 and April 10.
  • 7% Viognier and 30% whole bunches included in the ferment.
  • 9 – 13 days on skins including three days pre- ferment maceration.
  • 12 months in oak, one third new Sirugue, Francois Freres and Bossuet barrels.

Ethereal aromatically and in the mouth with its orange peel spice and contrasting but harmonious earthy raspberry, bright red fruits and meaty black -v- lifted white pepper.  With textured firm but ripe tannins, it has more grunt than the 1999.  Excellent.

Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier 2002

  • A steady, warm year with good, progressive ripening. Fruit was picked in excellent condition between March 22 and April 6. The first vintage to incorporate fruit from the new, adjoining, north-east facing  T & L vineyard. This wine always strikes me as having a Pinot-like quality.
  • 6% Viognier, 30% whole bunches. Average of two weeks on skins including 2 – 4 days pre-ferment maceration.
  • 12 months in oak, one third new Sirugue, Francois Freres and Bossuet barrels.

A bigger, plummier wine, round, but I find the alcohol a little out of balance here and the wine slightly “blocky” – maybe just youthful and a little dumbed down or just not at its best today?

Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier 2003

  • A drought year. Crops were down due to the big dry. Smaller berries meant more polyphenols (colour and tannins); less juice in proportion to the skins and seeds where the tannins are. The wine manages to avoid the drying finish that many Australian reds exhibit from this vintage.
  • Grapes were picked between March 18 and March 29.
  • 6% Viognier, 30% whole bunches. Average of two weeks on skins including 2 – 4 days pre-ferment maceration.
  • 12 months in oak, one third new Sirugue, Francois Freres and Bossuet barrels.

A lovely heady floral nose and palate with with a good depth of red fruits balanced and supported by savoury, quite grippy tannins.  Terrific with lots of potential.

Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier 2004

  • Another warm year, this time with some good spring rain leading up to it.
  • Rich, ripe fruit characters and fine tannins are the hallmark of this vintage. Supremely drinkable even from the barrel.
  • Picking started on April 3 continuing until April 15.
  • The fruit was in excellent condition. 3 to 4 day pre-ferment maceration on most batches with total maceration between 9 and 16 days. 7% Viognier and 23% whole bunches were used in the ferments. 12 months in 35% new wood: Sirugue, Francois Freres, Taransaud and Mercurey barrels.

Expressive spicy and exotic orange peel and lychee nose and palate; this is warm and expansive with a core of ripe cassis.

Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier 2005

  • Close to a perfect season. Harvest commenced on April 6 after a warm late summer /early autumn punctuated by occasional, moderate rains. The pattern is well established by now: 3-4 pre-fermentation maceration, achieved through the chilling of the fruit immediately after de-stemming. Some batches were inoculated with cultured yeasts. All the fruit from the T&L block was fermented on its own native yeasts. 6% Viognier was co-fermented in 2005. Around 20% whole bunches were also included. Two to three weeks on skins by now the norm.
  • 38% new wood this year, with Sirugue, Francois Freres, Taransaud and Mercurey being our preferred coopers. 12 months in wood, over which time the wine are racked aeratively twice. They are taken off lees in November and blended within their individual vineyard batches then returned to barrel. At this time a sulphur addition is made. Bottling takes place in May, thirteen months after vintage.

Quite grippy with white pepper-edged succulent and juicy red cherry and raspberry; persistent, long and layered with an attractive savoury finish –  very good indeed.

Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier 2006

  • Excellent Winter and Spring rains set up another very good growing season and a slightly larger than average crop.
  • Harvest began on March 27 continuing until April 15. Total maceration times stretching out closer to three weeks. 32% new wood this year, with Sirugue, Francois Freres, Taransaud and Mercurey again being our preferred coopers. 12 months in wood, over which time the wine are racked aeratively twice. They were taken off lees in November and blended within their individual vineyard batches then returned to barrel.

A grippy nose, this has meaty, peppery, plum and damson, with lots of white pepper to the finish; a touch warm.

Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier 2007

  • A frost on November 16 was unprecedented for its lateness in the season and the amount of damage it inflicted on us. There was no second start this time. It was just too late. The crop on the estate vineyards was 92% reduced on the previous year. A disaster.
  • Seven barrels of Shiraz Viognier were produced from two vineyards that escaped the carnage: Six from the top section of the T&L block and one from a small block immediately adjacent to the winery. Yields from these two blocks was around one tonne to the acre. Around 70% new oak was used. 6% Viognier and 20% whole bunches.

A vintage ravaged by frost with only 8% of the crop of the previous year, so rare as hen’s teeth.  1800 bottles sold out in 2 days – grown men, those who missed out, cried.  Of little comfort I know, but with good reason.  Inevitably (given the low yields) deeper in colour, with a heady, concentrated nose and palate with red and black fruits, lychee, bacon fat and black and white pepper.  A sexy, textured wine.

Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier 2008 (this is the current vintage RRP £38.99)

  • After the devastation of 2007 the vines came back with a vengeance in 2008 producing good crops of beautifully ripe fruit.
  • A cool February lead into a very warm March with numerous days reaching thirty five degrees celcius.
  • 6% Viognier and 20% whole bunches were included in the ferments. A three day cool, pre-ferment maceration lead into largely un-inoculated ferments with temperatures peaking around the 33 degree mark. Twelve months in wood, 30% new, with Francois Freres, Taransaud and Mercurey again being our preferred coopers.

This put me in mind of a Touriga Nacional from Dao or Beira Interior with its elegant, fleshy, fine and floral nose and palate shot through with violets and rock rose.  There’s a real depth of flavour and youthful “grip,” yet it’s elegant with fine tannins.  Tim describes it as a Shiraz for Pinot Noir lovers (of which he is one).  Terrific, a different kind of sexy to the 2007.

Other current vintages

Clonakilla Hilltops Shiraz 2008 (Hilltops) 
– grippy fresh, peppery and plummy with more weighty black fruits and velvety tannins than the Canberra wine (Hilltops is a warmer climate), though floral violet notes and pepper to finish lend finesse. Very good.  RRP £14.95 – great value.

Clonakilla O’Riada Shiraz 2007 (Canberra District)– made from bought in fruit it shows creamy, plum and berry fruit with szechuan pepper and a touch of green peppercorn supported by textured tannins; it finishes savoury and long with smoky bacon and a bloody tang.  RRP £26.99

Clonakilla Viognier  2008  (Canberra District) –
 textured, rich and ripe with creamy apricot, some juicy, fresh pineapple chunks and lavender.  Perfumed, floral with a balanced but rich stone fruit character – everything Viognier should aspire to – lovely. RRP £27.99

For details of stockists, contact UK importer Liberty Wines.