Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier Vertical (1994-2015)
I kicked off my last (2009) report of a vertical of Clonakilla’s flagship wine with a question: ‘Shiraz Viognier blends – fine wine or fashion?’ The question seems redundant today. Like clean eating, Shiraz Viognier blends have plummeted out of fashion. According to Clonakilla’s maker, Tim Kirk, you won’t find Shiraz Viognier classes in Australian wine shows these days.
On the other hand, quality never goes out of style. Tasting wines spanning twenty-odd years – “23 years of my life,” said Tim – it seems even clearer now than it was in 2009 that Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier is a fine wine classic. With the chops to age gracefully, it was elevated to the top tier ‘Exceptional’ category of Langton’s Classification of Australian Wine in 2010.
Clonakilla’s vineyard in Murrumbateman was established in 1971 by Tim’s dad, Dr John Kirk, a CSIRO scientist who emigrated to Australia in 1968. Brought up in Ireland by hoteliers, John oversaw his parents’ cellar, bar and wine buying during his school holidays. Wine was “a flame in his heart,” reflects his son, which, together with John’s knowledge of European wine regions, meant he was not deterred by the naysayers who warned him Canberra was too cold to make wine. In 1976, the pioneering biochemist produced Canberra’s first commercial harvest of the modern era.
If commercial is not over-egging it…. In the early days, Tim describes the winery as “a bootstrap operation.” With six children, there wasn’t a lot of money to go around, so the wines were originally fermented in the bath tub and aged in second hand whisky barrels. From 1990, after he left home to study, then teach at a Jesuit school in Melbourne, Tim started to help his dad make wine on visits home. It was the first year that Clonakilla produced a single varietal Shiraz (previously, it was blended with Cabernet Sauvignon). The 1990 Shiraz was very well received by James Halliday who, Tim reported, described it as a tour de force in peppery spicy varietal character.
The following year – 1991 – Tim visited the Rhône. If Halliday’s review was “like a word from the Lord,” a tasting of Guigal 1988 Côte-Rôties was, he says, “a revelation.” Blown away by their “extraordinary layered, complex, ethereal perfume and tannins that were silky and fine, but still with an authority about them,” he came back to Australia “with my head full of Shiraz Viognier blends.” When, lo and behold, Clonakilla produced its first tender crop of Viognier the very next year, the smitten twenty-four-year-old persuaded his dad that it should be co-fermented with the Shiraz.
In 1996, the call came for Tim to immerse himself in wine full-time. It took the form of seven wise words – a gift from a prayer retreat’s director to whom Tim confessed he could not meditate. Why? Because all he could think about was how to ferment Shiraz. Those seven words were “why do you assume it’s a distraction?” Within months, with “the goodness of creation” in mind, Tim had returned to Canberra to become Clonakilla’s winemaker and general manager. Through wine, his mission has been to express “the drama of the landscape – a living theological pulse.” A high-minded approach which has seen the wines go from strength to strength, especially the Shiraz Viognier which he describes as “the main game.”
For the first two years, Viognier comprised just 1% of the blend. Between 1994 and 1996, the Viognier component increased to 4%-10%, from 1997 settling down to 5-7%. “The day we pick is when we decide the blend,” says Kirk. Whole bunch ferments (20-35%) have been practised since 1993; Tim likes the element of carbonic maceration that enhances perfume (florals). The post-fermentation maceration process has now extended to around three weeks. As the vineyard has extended to 14ha with the purchase of adjacent land, 20 different parcels are now vinified separately. Save for the parcel from the top half of T&L block 1 earmarked for Clonakilla’s dark and brooding Murrumbateman (100%) Shiraz, each “has to earn its way into the wine.” Saying “I see wine as spherical,” he elaborates “nothing should stick out.” De-classified Shiraz goes into O’Riada. In 1994, just three barrels of Shiraz Viognier were made (which, incidentally, included 14% Pinot Noir); today, production of the Shiraz Viognier tops out at around 3000 cases.
I have always been impressed with the perfume, layer and energy of Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier. This tasting really brought home the delicacy and intensity of these medium-bodied wines – they have sensuality and restraint. Continuing to build in the glass, they finish on a fresh mineral note (mineral acidity), with wonderful lingering perfume to the back palate.
My picks of the flight (with pics, below)? 2015, 2013, 2004, while who could not be impressed by the 23 year old ’94 – still well knit and harmonious.
Clonakilla wines are imported into the UK by Liberty Wines. Of the older vintages, I notice Handford Wines have the 2005 (as well as the 2010 and 2011, not shown) at £75/bottle. Hedonism list the 2015 at £82.50/bottle. The 2013 is £64.99 at Oz Wines, £69.95 at Slurp & £70 at Villeneuve Wines.
Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier 2015 (Canberra District)
As seasons go, I’m not sure you can get better conditions than we had in 2015. There was higher than average rainfall in December and January. Enough to make us a little nervous at the time and adding focus to our efforts to have our spray programs in good order.
By late January things warmed and dried and the miracle began to unfold: Day after day of mid to high 20s, cool nights, light breezes, a steady, warm glow in the vineyard with no pressure from excessive heat, rain or wind. Ripening proceeded like a dream.
Given the year, this vintage saw marginally more than usual whole bunch (30%). The grapes (5% Viognier) were co-fermented with natural yeast and spent 18 – 21 days on skins and twelve months in one third new French barriques from Taransaud, Francois Freres, Mercurey and Sirugue.
A vibrant ruby hue with an equally vivid, markedly fresh palate. It sings with bright, pippy raspberry and the scent of dried roses, which builds headily going through. As it opens up in the glass, I detect an exotic, musky note; there’s a touch of creamy Mochachinno oak too. Neither detract from the overall impression of this wine. It is finely drawn, sheer almost, with a subtle but dynamic rasp of black peppery tannins and great impetus to its firm undertow of mineral acidity. Great line and length, with terrific floral and dried spice resonance. Young, with so much more to give, I really enjoyed coming back to this glass and discovering more. 14%
Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier 2013 (Canberra District)
2013 was a remarkable vintage. The days were warmer and the nights cooler than average and the rain came just when it was most needed.
Pre-fermentation maceration lasted three days, with 20% whole bunches. This blend of 95% Shiraz, 5% Viognier spent an average of three weeks on the skins, followed by 12 months in French oak (30% new). The coopers included Francois Freres, Sirugue, Mercurey and Taransaud.
With a couple more years under its belt, the 2013 vintage is a crimson hue, with a highly expressive nose and palate. Gorgeous sandalwood, black pepper, a piquant lick of salt and, with air, dried mint make for complex layers of flavour and aroma. Although the cherry and raspberry fruit is more opulent (it is fleshier than the 2015), this wine has an almost melt in the mouth quality – that signature delicacy. Silky, sheer tannins and mineral acidity carry a long finish with a crescendo of black pepper and Imperial Leather sandalwood and cedar spice. Emphatic spice. 14%
Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier 2009 (Canberra District)
2009 was a great vintage in the Canberra District, consistently warm by day with cool nights care of Murrumbateman’s elevation of 600 metres above sea level. Yields were lower than average adding an extra degree of concentration to the perfectly ripe fruit.
Pre-fermentation maceration lasted three days, with 20% whole bunches. This blend of 94% Shiraz, 6% Viognier spent an average of three weeks on the skins, followed by 12 months in French oak (30% new). The coopers included Francois Freres, Sirugue, Mercurey and Taransaud.
A deep burgundy hue, with dried roses and orange peel to perfumed nose and palate. In the mouth, this is a fleshy, yielding wine with black berry, cherry and raspberry and supple tannins. With its flamboyant but concentrated ripe fruit, this is a powerful wine which Kirk reckons will last 20-30 years. 14%
Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier 2008 (Canberra District)
2008 was a great vintage in the Canberra District. After a cool February, March rolled in with a series of gloriously warm days. The Shiraz and Viognier vines in our estate vineyards made the most of the autumn sun, producing wines with genuinely ripe fruit aromas and generous, rounded tannins.
Pre-fermentation maceration lasted three days, with 20% whole bunches. This blend of 94% Shiraz, 6% Viognier spent an average of three weeks on the skins, followed by 12 months in French oak (30% new).
The dried mint nuance I found in a couple of other wines in the flight was most pronounced in this vintage, here with a palpable sense of heat and dust. I felt like I was in Australia! Kirk said he could picture the big red gum by T&L block 4 which undoubtedly influences the wine profile. Like the 2009, this wine features fleshy berry fruits, black and red. Unlike the 2009, it has a gentle rasp of tannins and that dried mint note. Quite distinctive, in an interesting (good) way. 14.5%
Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier 2005 (Canberra District)
The excellent 2005 vintage has given us a Shiraz Viognier of considerable presence (no other details provided).
The team used a proportion of whole bunches, extended warm open ferments and maturation in new and seasoned French oak barrels. (No specific details provided). It is a blend of 95% Shiraz, 5% Viognier.
The first impression is of fleshy, opulent fruit; a little glycerol even. With plum as well as cherry, it seems slightly looser knit than other vintages. It really speaks to me when the pepper resonances start coming through, with a hint of pine needle and delicious earthy mushroom note. Ripe, supple tannins, nice length. Very good. 14%
Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier 2004 (Canberra District)
Another warm year, this time with some good Spring rain leading up to it. Picking started on April 3 continuing until April 15. The fruit was in excellent condition.
Pre-fermentation maceration lasted three to four days on most batches, with total maceration between 9-16 days. This wine included 7% Viognier and 23% whole bunch ferment. It spent 12 months in French oak (35% new). The coopers included Francois Freres, Sirugue, Mercurey and Taransaud.
I loved the energy of this vintage, with its lively, lifted thread of black pepper and violets and savoury undertones of green and earth. It retains a pure core of raspberry with exotic musk and subtly rounder, still juicy, lychee notes. With silky tannins and a push of mineral acidity, the 2004 is ever so fine, long and persistent – truly the perfect parry of flavours and textures. Hedonic, yet with incredible delicacy and fragrance to its lingering raspberry, minerals and pepper scented finish, it earns a WOW from me. 14.3%
Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier 2003 (Canberra District)
A drought year. Crops were down due to the big dry. Smaller berreis 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 Australia red exhibit from this vintage. Grapes were picked between March 18 and March 29.
Pre-fermentation maceration lasted two to four days, with total maceration averaging two weeks. This wine included 6% Viognier and 23% whole bunch ferment. It spent 12 months in French oak (one third new). The coopers included Francois Freres, Sirugue and Bossuet.
The 2003 has strikingly different cured leather notes (the Bossuet oak or the vintage?) to its black fruit. Compared with the others, it seems a little cooked, heavier, with a touch of alcoholic warmth to the finish. Still, it retains good depth of flavour – plenty to savour – with its peppery tannins, earth and dried mint. But it’s something of an outlier in this line up. 14.2%
Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier 1998 (Canberra District)
A warm year with a long series of very warm days leading into vintage. The grapes were harvested from 13 to 17 March, the earliest harvest on record at that point.
This wine included 5% Viognier and one third whole bunch ferment. It spent 12 months in French oak (30% new). The coopers included Francois Freres and Sirugue.
An evolved, bricky rim with paneforte and a whiff of iodine and dried mint to the finish, this wine or this bottle has evolved significantly since I last tasted it in 2009. Though still present with sweet fruit and mulchy tannins, it lacks the energy, precision and layer of the others. For Tim it reflects a phase of using low sulphur, which “is tricky for a wine with lots of racking…sulphur is your friend.” 14%
Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier 1994 (Canberra District)
A severe frost in October 1993 decimated yields for the ’94 vintage. The Shiraz yielded less than a tonne per acre. The quality of the fruit was superb, however very ripe and very concentrated.
This wine featured 4% Viognier and 14% Pinot Noir. It was foot trodden and fermented in open fermenters then matured in French oak (Seguin Moreau), two thirds new. It was bottled in September 1995 with no fining or filtration.
While the 1998 has lost its spark, the 1994 has an attractive high toned energy about it – a buoyancy, with spicy whole bunch lift to nose and palate. Going through, it riches out, with earthy, lentil nuances, finishing with a lick of spice. Still well knit and harmonious. Indeed, spherical, with nothing sticking out. Impressive given both vintage conditions and its age. 13.7%