Capital: the wines of Canberra District

Spread across three sub-regions (Murrumbateman/Yass, Hall and the ACT and Bungendore/Lake George), Canberra District may have 140 vineyards and over 30 wineries but, in the UK, pretty much one producer has put Canberra District on the map: Clonakilla, whose Shiraz Viognier has recently been elevated into the top (Exceptional) tier of Langton’s Classification of Australian Wine V.  Pictured is the original Clonakilla vineyard.

Having just visited this New South Wales’ cool climate region,  I reckon Clonakilla cannot be beat for Shiraz (a regional stand out) and Viognier, though some whipper snappers are whipper snapping at their heels, notably Alex Mackay of Collector, Chris Carpenter of Lark Hill and Clonakilla’s Assistant Winemaker Bryan Martin of Ravensworth wines.  Each make Shiraz with fruit from Murrumbateman’s granite belt vineyards, whose climate and soils suit this variety so well.

Rieslings are of a consistently high standard too and it’s no exaggeration to describe Helm’s Rieslings as not only Canberra District’s best, but also among Australia’s best.  Alternative varieties, Tempranillo and Graciano (Mount Majura) and Grüner Veltliner (Lark Hill) show great potential too.

Liquid geography

The range in temperature, vineyard elevations and soil types which inform this varietal diversity account for the Canberra District Wine Industry Association’s strapline, “Liquid Geography.” 

Vineyards range in elevation from 300 to over 800m which, together with the region’s emphatically continental climate, accounts for Canberra District’s pronounced diurnal temperature variation.  While brownish, shallow clay loams, often overlying shale or clay predominate, other soils types include granite, gravelly sandy loams of volcanic origin, ironstone and limestone.

The strapline, Liquid Geography, rightly mentions “the careful influence of the winemakers’ skill and individual character” which also shapes the region’s wines.  In the main, I found that the winemakers indeed had a light touch, which allowed their cool climate terroir to shine.  Both Tim Kirk at Clonakilla and Alex Mackay of Collector referred to making Shiraz in a Burgundian mold, as Mackay put it, “our wines are more like Burgundy in the context of Australian wines.”

Though short, my stay in Canberra was sweet, kicking off with a tasting/dinner attended by winemakers from Lerida Estate (Lake George), Lark Hill (Bungendore), Eden Road Wines (ACT) & Capital Wines (Murrumbateman) and hosted by Mount Majura Vineyard (ACT), who are a 30 minute drive out of Canberra.  The following day, I headed west, visiting Brindabella Hills (Hall), then Murrumbateman producers Clonakilla (including a Ravensworth tasting), Shaw Wines and Helm Wines.  Finally, I had dinner with Alex Mackay of Collector, who was short-listed for this year’s Gourmet Traveller Winemaker of the Year Awards.  Below you’ll find my highlights.

Capital Wines (Murrumbateman)

Capital Wines was represented by the ebullient Jenny Mooney who, together with her husband Mark, owns The Royal Hotel Gundaroo and award winning Grazing restaurant.  In 2008 the couple, both viticulturists, joined forces with Andrew and Marion McEwin of Kyeema Wines to establish Capital Wines.

Capital Wines contract makes wine for a number of producers but, for its own wines, draws on some of the Canberra District’s most sought after Shiraz from the Kyeema vineyard, now owned by Capital Wines.  In the past, Kyeema Shiraz has featured in Hardys Eileen Hardy Shiraz and today, former Hardys’ winemaker Alex Mackay of Collector, sources Shiraz from Kyeema for his flagship Reserve Shiraz.  For me, though the Merlot is much fêted in Australia, the Reserve Shiraz was a significant step up on the Reserve Merlot which, in comparison, seemed over-worked.

Capital Wines ‘The Backbencher’ Merlot 2008 – as the name suggests, this is the junior wine to the Reserve Merlot and includes bought in fruit.  I confess I preferred it to the 2008 Reserve Merlot which showed herbaceous notes and too much oak for my taste.  The Backbencher, on the other hand, revealed fresh sappy blackberry and blueberry fruit on nose and palate, supported by ripe but present cool climate tannins. Good freshness here – a world apart from blousy and overblown warmer climate examples.

Capital Wines Kyeema Vineyard Reserve Shiraz 2007 – made from the fruit of 30 year old vines (a very unique old Penfolds clone), this is dark and inky with a rich, velvety nose, a touch bloody/savoury.  The palate shows concentrated but succulent blackberry and cherry fruit, underpinned by a chassis of chalky, present tannins.  Good balance here with density and freshness in good measure.  Aged in mostly new French barriques for 22 months, the oak is well integrated and, overall, it’s an accomplished wine, if lacking the aromatic lift and finely honed structure of the region’s best.

Eden Road Wines (ACT)

Eden Road created waves last year when it beat more than 890 entries to win the Jimmy Watson Memorial Trophy for its Long Road Hilltops Shiraz 2008.  First awarded in 1962, the Trophy goes to the best young red wine at the Royal Melbourne Wine Show. Fitting perhaps, because Eden Road is a relatively new player in Canberra, who also make wine with fruit from neighbouring cool climate NSW regions Hilltops, Gundagai and Tumbarumba.

Despite its youth, Eden Road got off to a flying start when industry giant Hardys pulled out of the Canberra District.  The company (initially an Eden Valley producer) shifted its HQ to Hardys’ state of the art Kamberra winery in Canberra.  Though Eden Road sources fruit from Hardy’s former Holt vineyard, at 180 acres, by some way the region’s biggest, it doesn’t own any vineyards.  However, as the company’s website says “our success lies in the attention to detail and our investment in a modern technologically advanced facility that affords us total control.”

The wines, shown by assistant winemaker Hamish Young, were indeed very well made, though arguably a little too controlled.  The same aromatic yeast strain firmly stamps both Riesling and RHE with the hand of the winemaker.  But then prices are pretty sharp, making the portfolio well suited to the multiple retailers on the look out for well priced cool climate kit.

Eden Road The Long Road Riesling 2010 (Canberra District) – a pretty floral nose with orange blossom, fresh cut apple, talc and whetstone on the (dry) palate.  Linear and fine, with a pithy, tight finish suggesting it has scope for medium term development.

Eden Road The Long Road Chardonnay 2009 (Tumbarumba) – handpicked, whole bunch pressed fruit from a vineyard at 600m is aged in 1 and 2 year old oak with solids.  It’s pale, with a flinty, lemony nose.  In the mouth, the region’s taut acidity is delicately fleshed out with lemon cream puffs, cedar, oatmeal and leesy notes.  Well made with good regional typicity if lacking a little in concentration.

Eden Road The Long Road RHE 2009 (Canberra District) – RHE is a reference to the Rhone and this wine is 100% Viognier, sourced from a single vineyard.  Though around 25% of the fruit is barrel fermented, it is transferred to tank after ferment and so reflects the aromatic house style.  The nose shows slightly confected pears drops and candied citrus, together with pretty floral and talc notes which follow through on the palate, mingling with fresh pear, lychee, turkish delight and cedary oak.  Again well done, for me quite commercial but a real bonus here is the low alcohol – just over 12%.

Eden Road The Long Road Shiraz 2009 (roughly 60% Canberra District & 40% Hilltops fruit)– an aromatic nose reveals a dash of Viognier (c 2%) and cool climate red cherry fruit which follow through on a round, quite luscious though balanced, fleshy palate.   Aged in 4 year old French oak puncheons with a small element of tank aged wine which Hamish says introduces a degree of reduction, it’s a well made cool climate Shiraz with broad appeal.

Lark Hill (Bungendore)

Lark Hill was founded in 1978 by Dr Dave and Sue Carpenter, pictured with son Chris.  The couple released their first vintage in 1981 and Chris, who recently joined the family business having qualified in winemaking & viticulture, presented the wines.

Lark Hill came to my attention shortly before I headed out to Australia during a Cabernet Sauvignon Day “tweet up” (a synchronise watches co-ordinated Twitter-fest for those scratching heads).  Not because they make Cabernet Sauvignon – that would be a challenge at 860m – the Lark Hill vineyard is Canberra District’s highest.  Rather because they have pioneered Austria’s Grüner Veltliner on their shale slopes.  Now that does make sense!  Anyway, tweet traffic about said Grüner was excitable to say the least, so I was glad to taste it together with their signature strengths, Riesling and Pinot Noir, also a cracking Shiraz made with fruit sourced from Murrumbateman.

And Lark Hill are pioneers in more ways than one. The vineyard, an environmental protection zone and home to many species of birds and wildlife, is farmed biodynamically.   The Carpenters are Canberra District’s first (and currently only) certified biodynamic producer.  In common with other biodynamic producers whose wines have impressed, Lark Hill’s vinous output has a guileless quality and, to use a phrase I uttered with delicious frequency on this trip Down Under, the wines made their own shape as opposed to feeling shaped.

Lark Hill Grüner Veltliner 2009 – good richness, weight, texture and varietal typicity, with both floral and vegetal notes (white cabbage and tinned peas).  Much more attractive, by the way, than the school dinner description suggests!  Impressive for a vineyard first planted in 2005.  Chris is grubbing up an acre of Sauvignon Blanc and replacing it with more Grüner, which he says holds its acid very well, even if ripe – apparently the wine was much tighter/more linear in its first year in bottle.  The first fifth is barrel fermented and the wine is aged for 6 months on yeast lees.  As with all Lark Hill wines, its sees 100% wild ferment.

Lark Hill Pinot Noir 2005 – the vines are around 25 years old, the clone MV6.  It’s quite pale though, with small bunches and berries from a shy bearing site at almost 900m, it shows a good intensity of bright red fruits; MV6’s quite meaty, savoury undertones fail to detract from its delicacy.

Lark Hill Shiraz Viognier 2009 – Chris laughed when I asked if this came from their vineyard – too high, too cool.  Rather it comes from a very singular block of Murrumbateman fruit whose grower is adopting biodynamic practices and follows the Carpenters’ instructions as regards picking date etc.  Very much in the house style, with a lovely, subtle (not angular) freshness running through this, natural acidity which, combined with gentle, whispering tannins, ekes out the palate.  Good length here, if a tad vanilla oaky at the moment though, to be fair, it’s very young.  The Viognier (c 5%) is crushed but whole bunch fermented (co-fermented with the Shiraz) in closed static fermenters to preserve lift and spice.  Macerations are not prolonged (hence the whispering tannins) and the wine is then aged in 15-20% new oak, all French (different coopers), for 9 months.  A finely crafted wine.

Lark Hill Auslese Riesling 2010 – for Chris, now the vines are older this late harvest style, from a block of the oldest vines, is working really well.  Only pristine, super green fruit (no botrytis) is hand selected in the vineyard, then crushed and cold soaked for 24hrs on skins before a slow ferment.  It’s a vivid wine, bright, tight and aromatic on the nose, with blossom, honey and mineral notes which follow through on a very tight, pure and palate, with textured talc and honeyed notes to its long finish.  Very good.  Fabulous balance, with 100g/l of residual sugar and high acidity (pH 2.8, 14g/l TA).  As cool and crisp as the shot below of the vineyard under snow suggests.

Lerida Estate (Lake George)

Next year, Canberra District celebrates the 40th anniversary of the birth of its modern wine industry.  Its pioneers?  In common with other regions located close to state capitals, not horny-handed sons of toil or soil.  Rather, Dr Edgar Riek of Lake George and Dr John Kirk of Clonakilla, who both established their vineyards in 1971, worked as scientists at Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).

Though established established in 1997, Lerida Estate‘s founders, Jim Lumbers (a business strategy consultant) and Anne Caine (a lawyer), honour the tradition. In fact, inspired by Riek’s Pinot Noirs, a variety about which Lumbers is passionate, the couple planted their vineyard next door to Riek on the eastern slopes of the Lake George Range, whose alluvial soils are relatively infertile and drain freely. The east-facing aspect allows the rising sun to dry off any dew and reduce the impact of moulds and mildews, while the steepness of the slopes promotes good air drainage and reduces frost risk.

Lerida Estate Chardonnay 2009 – handpicked fruit is (free) run directly to French oak barrels (15% new) and fermented with 3 different cultured yeast strains and 20% wild yeast.   While the malolactic fermentation was avoided, the lees were stirred fortnightly during its time in barrel (11 months), after which it was bottled unfiltered. It’s a quite elegant, restrained style with citrus, cedar and flint on the nose and palate.  As I’ve found with other Chardonnays from NSW’s cool climate region, though attractive, it lacks a little concentration or intensity.  Lerida’s website mentions that, in this vintage, “on the advice of Australia’s top wine scientists, we changed our bottling line to blanket the wine in carbon dioxide and completely exclude oxygen.”I wonder if this contributed to the sense of leaness through the mid-palate – perhaps the wine just needs time and/or air.

Lerida Estate Josephine Pinot Noir 2008 – this flagship Pinot is named after a family member and is a selection the top 10 barriques which predominantly came from the vineyard’s Dijon clones and top-most rows, over 700 metres.  It was aged in French oak, 40% new, and, deeper in colour than the Lark Hill, it is more extracted on the palate too with denser fruit and tannins and more pronounced savoury forest floor notes to its plum fruit; it’s a little herbal too.  A big wine, which I found a little out of kilter at the moment; it needs time.

Lerida Estate Shiraz Viognier 2008 – the Shiraz was destemmed and crushed before being fermented with Viognier (skins only, which has been frozen after pressing for the straight Viognier).  It’s challenging making Shiraz at this elevation and this wine includes 15% of Murrumbateman fruit.  Its cool climate credentials are readily apparent on the lively, peppery nose with a herbaceous edge and its initially rather lean palate.  But as it opens up in the glass there’s a good concentration of blood plum fruit to balance, well supported by attractive textured, velvety tannins.

Lerida Estate Botrytis Pinot Gris 2008 – this whole bunch pressed sweetie includes 60-70% of botrytised fruit and it’s as flamboyant as the dry wines are restrained, with lashings of luscious, honeyed slightly caramelised strawberry fruit with sweet straw and spice.  It’s really very sweet so I wasn’t overly surprised that it comes in at a whopping 240g/l of residual sugar (10.5g/l TA, pH 3.5g/l).  Brassy!

Mount Majura Vineyard (ACT)

Mount Majura Vineyard, a mere 11km from the centre of Canberra, was the first of a handful of wineries sited within Australian Capital Territory (“ACT”) when it was established in 1988.   As at Lerida, Dr Edgar Riek’s role was pivotal as to vineyard location since he identified that Mount Majura’s red clay loam soils were rich not just in iron, but also limestone, a high quality growing medium for wine.

At an altitude of 660-700m, the 9 hectare vineyard combines south-easterly through north-easterly aspects, which means that later ripening red varieties ripen and, for me, the Spanish varieties Tempranillo and Graciano showed terrific potential.

Mount Majura Vineyard Riesling 2009 – a tight and steely, mineral nose and palate with hints of lime.  Long, persistent and very fine with a stonewashed quality to its acidity.  The 2003 vintage (a difficult, hot year apparently) was more evolved than I’d expected but signposted the direction of evolution in terms of flavour profile with its lemon butter and toast.

Mount Majura Vineyard TSG (Shiraz Graciano) 2009 – first made in 2008, this blend of 43% Tempranillo, 42% Shiraz and 15% Graciano is inspired.  It shows dried herbs on nose and palate with a ripe core of red, black and blue fruits, seamlessly supported by firm but ripe tannins.  For winemaker and viticulturist Frank van de Loo, Tempranillo brings the structure while Shiraz and Graciano are the seasoning.  The oak is well integrated.  Really good, a characterful, food-friendly medium weight red that really showcases the balance and subtle complexities of a blend.  The Tempranillo’s very good, but this gets my vote.

Mount Majura Vineyard Tempranillo 2009 – Winemaker and viticulturist Frank van de Loo says this low acid variety is very quick to show oak. I reckon he’d make a great tightrope walker because this walks the line very well.  Aged in a judicious 15% new oak, it retains a sappy cool climate vivacity with good definition and a sarsaparilla quality that I sometimes find in Aussie Tempranillo (and which I prefer to the flat Coke which I find more often).  Juicy damson fruit fleshes out a firm backbone of tannins.

Brindabella Hills (Hall)

Brindabella Hills was established in 1986 by Dr Roger Harris, a research chemist, who selected the 4 hectare site, an old sheep farm, based on its relative coolness and frost-ducking slopes (at 530m).  Light gravelly sandy loam soils of volcanic origin are very fast draining, which is good for stressing the vines.

Harris told me that, when he first planted, climatic conditions were much cooler and the area had adequate rainfall.  However, since 2001 drought set in; the 2010 vintage has been the first major wet year since and, in between, he says there have been some good years (notably 2008), “but some real shockers too.” Drip irrigation has been critical to maintain wine quality, though diurnal temperature variation has remained a helpful constant, ranging from say 5 to 20 degrees centigrade in the spring and, in January (summer), from 16-35 degrees centigrade.  Though it can get up to 40 degrees, even in late spring, Harris said that the weather systems that generate South Australia’s heat spikes may come through, but are never as severe – “if they get 45 degrees we get 40.”

Originally, Harris planted mostly Riesling and also Cabernet (some of which has now been grafted over to Shiraz), Chardonnay (some of which has been grafted over to Riesling) and Sauvignon Blanc.  Because the climate has become warmer in the last decade, he says the region’s reds have become fuller bodied and demand for Shiraz has increased, while demand for whites remain more or less static.  In addition to Shiraz, recent plantings include Sangiovese, partly in response to the trend in favour of Mediterranean wines, but also because of Harris’ love for Italian wines.

Brindabella Hills Riesling 2008 (Canberra District) – picked quite early at around 11.5 degrees potential alcohol both nose and palate are very bright, with pretty talc and lime blossom notes underscored by steely grapefruit and zesty lime.  The finish is subtly mineral.  Well done.

Brindabella Hills Argenteus Gewurtz/Riesling/Pinot Gris 2008 (Canberra District) – Harris doesn’t grow Gewurtztraminer so this dry blend may be a one off, which is a shame because it’s a very attractive aromatic style with turkish delight, rose petals and a gingery edge to its pear, lychee and citrus fruit.  Though the mid-palate is round, supple acidity keeps the fruit rolling.

Brindabella Hills Brio 2008 (Canberra District)  – made from bought in Sangiovese (Brunello clone) this is pale – clear ruby – with a herb/tea leaf and liquorice edge to its sweet core of red fruits, especially red cherry.  It finishes dry, with firm but ripe tannins behind.  Good varietal character, though could be better balanced.  Maybe a question of vine age?

Brindabella Hills Shiraz 2007 (Canberra District) – Harris says “we were frosted here” and had to get fruit from another vineyard.  This is a firmly structured wine, despite 3.5% Viognier, which sees 3 weeks post ferment maceration.  It has a sweet core of red pomegranate with a lick of dried herbs. A little lean now; needs time, but promising.

Brindabella Hills Shiraz 2008 (Canberra District) – a deeper colour and palate with savoury overtones of smoky bacon and peppercorn sitting a little proud of the red and black cherry fruit at the moment.  With tight, firm tannins behind, it just needs time to come into balance.  Promising.

Brindabella Hills Reserve Shiraz 2008 (Canberra District) – This barrel selection, aged in French oak (25% new) is a blend from 3 vineyards.  It’s a real step up.  Deep in colour, it has a lovely saturation of sezchuan pepper threaded blood plum fruit with savoury smoky bacon on the finish.  Though velvety on the mid-palate, a firm spine of tannins promises a long life ahead.  Impressive.

Clonakilla (Murrumbateman)

In 1971, Dr John Kirk, a CSIRO research scientist, acquired a 44 acre farm in Murrumbateman at 600m, located on sandy clay loams over friable clay and a deeper layer of decomposed granite. He called it Clonakilla and initially planted a modest 1.2 acres each of Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling followed by another 1.2 acres of Shiraz, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in 1972. After a bore hole was sunk in 1978, the vineyard gradually expanded with Shiraz, Viognier and Riesling the dominant varieties.

In 1992, just one year after his son Tim (pictured) visited Guigal in the Northern Rhone, he persuaded his father to experiment with co-fermenting Shiraz and Viognier since when, in a remarkably short period of time, Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier has attracted great international acclaim.  Tim left his teaching career in 1996 to join Clonakilla full-time and is Chief Winemaker and, since 2009, CEO.  He presented the Shiraz session at the Landmark Tutorial (about which I’ll report separately), speaking eloquently about his passion for cool climate Australian Shiraz, which he describes as “a celebration of spice.” 

Just before I visited, Tim has his own cause for celebration – it was announced that Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier had been elevated into the top (Exceptional) tier of Langton’s Classification of Australian Wine V.  The good news is that we can expect more great Shiraz from Clonakilla.  In 1998, Tim and his wife bought the 50 acre property next door.  He is extremely pleased with the quality of Shiraz and Viognier coming from vines planted on its warm north-east facing slope.  More recently, in 2007, Clonakilla acquired Euroka Park, a 55 acre farm on the northern boundary of the original farm, planting four acres of Shiraz in a high, north facing block along with a small block of Grenache, Mourvedre, Cinsault and Carignan. This gives a sum total of thirty acres (twelve hectares) of estate grown fruit, all in Murrumbateman, which sub-region Kirk would like to see become synonymous with top Shiraz.

Fruit is also purchased from growers in the Canberra District and the lower altitude, warmer Hilltops region about an hour’s drive north of Canberra District.  According to assistant winemaker Bryan Martin, less frost prone and with dry, low vigour soils, Hilltops’ Shiraz ripens more dependably some 2-3 weeks earlier and typically shows riper berries, plums, blackberries and anise.

Though I’d met Tim at the Landmark Shiraz session and attended a thrilling vertical tasting of the Shiraz Viognier (from 1997-2008) which he presented in London last year (see here), it was good to meet him on his own turf.  We focused on tasting barrel samples from the latest vintage together with Martin, who makes Ravensworth wines, some of which I also tasted from barrel.  Here’s a report of the tasting which provided a rare opportunity to look at the different component parts of Clonakilla’s finished wines.

We kicked off with Viognier.  Four rain incidents in 2010 resulted in more elegant wines than in 2009.  The 5 parcels of Viognier are handled in different ways: some whole bunch pressed, some receiving a period of skin contact for flavour and texture, which tends to enhance ginger notes, though acidity drops.

Clonakilla Viognier 2010 – barrel sample 1, this barrel whole bunch pressed.  Nice aromatics with  bright pear and some cedar spice.

Clonakilla Viognier 2010 – barrel sample 2, same (harvest) batch as sample 1, but this one received 6 hours’ skin contact.  It’s more powerfully concentrated on nose and palate with Turkish delight and a musky quality to its apricot fruit and yep, the acidity seems lower.

Ravensworth Viognier 2010 (barrel sample) – the vines were planted 10 years ago so quite young, but this sample is a deeper, quite yellow colour (Martin explains because the cooler climate means they crop lower).  A textured palate shows more candied notes as well as white pepper/ginger warmth and savoury bacon fat.  Very different from the Clonakilla wines and all three are interesting!

Then on to the reds.  At Clonakilla, Shiraz is the main game and the vineyards have a diversity of clones and parcels.  Throughout the year, Kirk and Martin continually assess the vinous output of each to work out which barrels and batches will make the cut for the final blend.  For Kirk, the key is “capturing [the vineyard] not making [the wine]” and it’s fun to review barrel samples and have a glimpse of the palette from which he paints and captures his vineyards’ expression.   First, a sample of Ravensworth’s Sangiovese:

Ravensworth Sangiovese 2010 (barrel sample) – again, made from 10 year old vines.  Though it doesn’t give you much on the nose, in the mouth it’s very bright and animated, with pretty red cherry and a core of almost creamy, ripe black cherry with firm tea leaf tannins behind.  Martin prefers the Coriole clone over the Brunello clone in Canberra’s cool climate because it produces larger (thinner skinned) berries which helps keep the tannins in check plus he can rely on natural acidity.

Clonakilla Shiraz 2010 – barrel sample 1 – the nose shows smoky bacon notes, new oak.  Kirk says if anything he’s moving away from new oak, but he emphaises that oak is important for its micro-oxygenation properties and because unoaked wines have “an unformed gum tannin character.” In the mouth, the mocha/smoky bacon notes come through on the finish, but otherwise the palate is marked by surprisingly delicate wild violets.  The tannins are chalky and firm but ripe.  For Kirk, violets are as much Shiraz as Viognier derived.

Clonakilla Shiraz 2010 – barrel sample 2 – more grunt to this Shiraz, with a good twist/ grind of black pepper on the nose and palate; positively savoury.  Interestingly the fruit comes from baby, 3 year old vines derived from “heritage clones” i.e. from old vine material from Tahbilk, the Barossa and Eden Valley.  Kirk reckons this old vine material produces more upfront fruit and even tannins: “a different shape, not the length.” 

Clonakilla Shiraz 2010 – barrel sample 3  – a marvellous combination and relatively complete with a restrained nose yet intense palate, awash with floral and spice box notes (lots of szechuan pepper) underpinned by firm, long distance tannins.  Yep, long and spicy.  While most of the Shiraz sees around 20% whole bunch for fermentation (i.e. with the stems), the whole bunch content for this, the best old block, is a little higher.

Clonakilla Shiraz 2010 – barrel sample 4 – the wines are just warming up from a cold winter and this sample, from one of the most southerly-facing, cooler vineyards is a cool customer indeed.  Very tight and complex, there’s a greenness/ a cusp of ripeness quality/edge to it, less fruit power, its substructure – lacy acidity and grainy tannins – more exposed.  Though the whole bunch/stem component is around 20%. It gives the impression of more stems.

Clonakilla Shiraz 2010 – barrel sample 5 – this barrel pushes the whole bunch/stem content even higher, up to 45%, to place the emphasis on savoury notes.  I’d not have guessed, because this is very even, sleek and muscular going through, with a pronounced mineral undertow to its bright red and black fruits.  This is the first barrel sample which has beem naturally fermented.   Interesting.

Clonakilla Shiraz 2010 – barrel sample 6 – more leavened , with a lovely floral quality from start to its delicately intense, lifted finish, though firm tannins lurk beneath.  The Hunter Valley is the source of this clone.

Clonakilla Shiraz 2010 – barrel sample 7 – firm, spicy tannins here, the firmest thus far but there’s a balancing juiciness too, with dark black cherry fruit, a swirl of violets in the mix and sweet red fruits coming through as it opens up.  This is a large batch component which, fermented in a larger vessel means it’s harder to shift the cap (of grape skins which rise to the top of the fermentation tank) plus it always ferments for longer after a slow start (so plenty of skin maceration explains the tannins).

Clonakilla Shiraz 2010 – barrel sample 8 – this is very complete, supple and seductive already with an intense core of fruity/earthy raspberry fruit.  Apparently this would normally be a single release, though perhaps not this year owing to low volumes.  It sees no Viognier or whole bunches and undergoes a longer post fermentation maceration.

Clonakilla Shiraz 2010 – barrel sample 9 – hmm, other than the violets/rock rose, this is very different, muddier with earthy, sweet raspberry and chocolate orange, the tannins firm but powdery.  It’s earmarked for Clonakilla’s O’Riada Shiraz and is made from fruit bought in from the Ravensworth vineyard, planted in 2003, which is 50m higher than the Clonakilla vineyards and, west- facing, bears the brunt of the weather.  It’s also on harder rock – decomposed, mineral rich and rocky basalt – which perhaps explains why Martin says it throws up a lot of structure for its relatively youthful vine age.  Martin adds where the soils are rockiest, you see it in the wine.

After the barrel tasting we head to Tim’s house for lunch – some impressively characterful local (Murrumbateman) artisanal cheeses, among the best I’ve tasted Down Under.  Plus a chance to look at Clonakilla’s Rieslings, which I’ve not previously tasted.

Clonakilla Riesling Canberra District 2010 – penetrating, rapier like nose with lifted, floral notes, a saline and talc quality too, all of which follow through on the tightly focused palate, together with lime.  It was picked just before a rain event and comes in at 12.5%.  Though it has 5g/l of residual sugar I cannot say I picked it up  – more than offset by the rapier-like acidity.

Clonakilla Riesling Canberra District 2001 – as with the Mount Majura 2003 Riesling, I found this relatively evolved in terms of flavour spectrum compared with Rieslings from elsewhere.  It’s yellow/gold, with limes on toast/lime cordial, some honey and a long, stony finish with that hint of salinity. I asked Tim about ageing potential – he said a recently tasted 1994 vintage was in better shape and, rule of thumb, he reckons the ideal drinking window is between 6-12 years.

Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier 2009 – though the summer had a couple of 40 degree heat spikes, plummeting night time temperatures – Canberra continentality – maintained line and structure.  This has a lovely concentration and sensual saturation of plum fruit; long on spice and (fine) tannins, it’s extremely svelte.  Very good.

Clonakilla Syrah 2009 – this wine is always slower out of the traps than the Shiraz Viognier – Tim says it’s typically quite closed until its 3rd year when it reveals “an intensity and density that’s lovely to consider.”  It is indeed very closed, meaty and dark with hints of earthy soy.  Well, a fine excuse to revisit if ever there was one!

Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier 2004 – and from closed to full flow.  You just fall into this fluid wine.  It has a silkiness of texture (no added tannins says Tim) and shimmers (or is that shimmies), with spice and dark berry and cherry fruit.  Gamey notes come through on the finish and I’m sorry to leave that bottle behind!  As Cape Shiraz maestro Marc Kent of Boekenhoutskloof says, “quality lies in the second half of the bottle” and this intense but not dense wine – a Shiraz for Burgundy lovers – more than lifts Tim’s paen to cool climate Shiraz off the page – it’s indeed “a celebration of spice.”

Shaw Vineyard Estate (Murrumbateman)

Graeme Shaw tells me he never intended to make wine.  Rather, his investment in Shaw Vineyard Estate (established in 1998), was motivated by the award of a contract to grow 32 hectares of fruit for BRL Hardy.  When BRL Hardy shipped out of Canberra District in 2007 following its sale to Constellation, Shaw decided to take control of his fruit, this time motivated by the fact his wines, in particular the property’s Cabernet Sauvignons, had performed well as wine shows.  For Shaw, the fact that Cabernet is always rich and ripe, makes the vineyard pretty unique in Canberra; apparently Bordeaux’s white variety Semillon also works well.

So what makes this vineyard tick?  Located in Murrumbateman at an elevation of around 640 metres, the estate features gentle slopes which provide reasonable air drainage, with a warm, well exposed northerly aspect which enjoys good wind protection from the west.  Soils are all granite based with sandy loam, then clay top soils.  Shaw, who with his son tends the vineyards says, when the vineyard was first established, they did lots of ripping and spread lime/gypsum to reduce soil acidity.  He conducts soil tests every year after harvest to maintain balance and reckons this is key to being able to work with big canopies and crop on the high side for the region at 9t/acre.  That said, you can’t account for nature and, in 2007, frost decimated the vineyard (a region-wide problem) while hail this year forced Shaw’s hand on the reds, which were picked earlier than usual.  He won’t make any premium reds in 2010.

Shaw makes 3 ranges: Winemakers Selection ($15), Shaw Vineyard Estate Premium Label ($22) and the Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling in exceptional years.  I found the range very solid, if lacking a bit of sparkle.

Shaw Vineyard Estate Sparkling Semillon Cielo NV – I’m pretty sure I’ve never had a Semillon sparkling wine before.  This tank method fizz is really very much like Semillon with bubbles with lemon, lemon curd and white porcini/tufa notes.  I think I might prefer it without the bubbles – good varietal typicity!

Shaw Vineyard Estate Premium Riesling 2008 – a lovely nose, very lemony, with hints of lemon butter and good mid-palate weight without losing line.  Quite chalky and mineral on the finish. Good.

Shaw Vineyard Estate Isabella Riesling 2009 – with 16g/l of residual sugar, this is made in a Germanic style.  To achieve that, half the fruit is picked when it shows lime/lemon sharp citrus notes, the other half when riper passoinfruit notes emerge, around 7-10 days later.  I found the nose a little sweaty (reduced/thiols?) with confected pear drop notes but in the mouth, it hits its stride, showing citrus and stone fruits on the mid-palate, while the finish has a chiselled mineral quality.  Pretty good.

Shaw Vineyard Estate Premium Shiraz 2008  – well made, rich and ripe with an earthy/herbaceous edge to its sweet but peppery red fruits.  Good, not overdone.

Shaw Vineyard Estate Premium Shiraz/Cabernet 2008 – apparently this picked up a Gold medal at the International Wine Challenge.  The Cabernet is, as you’d expect strong on the nose and finish with blackcurrant pastille while the Shiraz is more sweet black and red fruit gums.  Its cool climate origins are evident in the underlying freshness.  Well made commercial wine.

Shaw Vineyard Estate Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 – handpicked fruit avoided any shrivelled content (2008 was a hot year) and it shows very concentrated cassis.  Bottled a week ago after 28-30 months in predominantly French with some Hungarian oak, the oak is sitting very proud of the wine at the moment.  It needs time to integrate and, given the concentration of the fruit, I’d expect it to do so.  One to revisit after a year or two in bottle.

2008 Botrytis Semillon – made only once before, in 2004 and again in 2010, naturally occurring botrytis makes for a super honeyed sweetie with good depth of apricot and fruit salad.  Good if quite straightforward.

Helm Wines (Murrumbateman)

Ken and Judith Helm established Helm Wines in 1973.  Ken Helm who hosted the visit is quite a character and I’m sure there was more than a little tongue in cheek when he restored the historic Toual School House, a former meeting room for the Temperance League, making it home to his cellar door (pictured).

In common with other Canberra District pioneers, Ken started out his working life as a research scientist (insect ecologist) at CSIRO. Unlike his peers, however, he can lay claim to being descended from German “vinedressers” from the Rhineland.  I can believe it because, although he says “Riesling is the most demanding variety in the vineyard,” the man has no little skill with Riesling – it must be in his genes. In fact I’d go so far as to say Helm Riesling is among the country’s best – I was amazed that I’d never come across them before.  They must be one of Australia’s best kept secrets!

At any rate, Helm’s a Riesling nut.  He keeps in touch with his Germanic roots through regular visits to the Rhine Valley where, this year, he judged in the International Best of Riesling Competition.  He is also Chair of the Canberra International Riesling Tasting which he established in 1999 and has just co-authored a book with Trish Burgess called “Riesling in Australia”.

Helm sources Riesling from 4 separate terroirs including the outflow of the river flats, volcanic rocky soils over limestone, volcanic rocky soils over hard red shale and red ironstone.  As I taste the single vineyard Premium Riesling from Lustenberger’s vineyard, Helm opens the door behind him and points out the vineyard to me – well that lifted it off the page!  In the vineyard, the vertically shoot positioned vines are now all planted east to west with rows close together to avoid sunburn  – in effect, one row shades another.  He usually picks in early March when the grapes are perfectly ripe and describes Canberra District’s climate as “to die for,” with its dry conditions and cool nights (5-10 degrees) at this time of year.  He says even in summer, if it hits 37 degrees in the daytime, by 7 or 8pm a salty easterly breeze (Helm is about 90km from the coast) means that the temperature can plummet 10-15 degrees in a quarter of an hour.

Like other top Riesling producers, Helm describes the winemaker as “the custodian of the grapes.”  He harvests in small bins.  The fruit then goes into the cool room where it is kept at around 8 degrees.  Before dawn, it’s processed in the winery, destemmed, then pumped a very short distance into specially designed drainers which means that the juice flows away from skins as fast as possible.  As soon as the drainers are full, he stops draining, because he wants no more than one hour of skin contact – “I’m against kerosene which dervives from skin contact, especially if the grapes have been sun burned.”

The must is then drained by gravity into large stainless steel tanks and blanketed with nitrogen or carbon dioxide, cold settled (“I want it as clean as possible”), before being transferred to 3000 litre tanks where it is inoculated with fermentation yeasts.  The ferment usually lasts 10-15 days during which period Helm rigorously monitors the process, fine tuning the temperature as necessary and keeping a close eye on nitrogen levels because he says Australian soils are comparatively low in nitrogen compared with Germany (nitrogen feeds the yeasts).  Helm does not acid adjust.

The end product of this super-protective Riesling custodianship is an invigorating very pure, tight, tensile style of Riesling, though Helm also makes a Half-Dry Riesling which I didn’t taste.  Here are my notes on the dry Rieslings, also his Cabernet Sauvignon.

Helm Wines Riesling Classic Dry 2010 – a perfumed nose shows talc hints on the nose a a delightful talcy texture on the tight, lemony palate.  Very fine line; long and persistent.  Though Helm says it was a difficult vintage on account of rain spells interspersed with hot weather, fortunately the fruit didn’t split and it’s in his top 3 wines of the last 34 years.

Helm Wines Premium Riesling 2010 – this single vineyard Riesling comes from neighbour Al Lustenberger’s vineyard, which features almost exclusively ironstone soils. Helm picked up on its individuality in 2004 when he first made this wine, of which there are around 400 cases.  Down the track he told me he’d like to make more single site wines and has planted some heritage Busby Riesling clones.  According to Helm, this wine doesn’t start to open up until it’s a year old.  If I thought the Classic Dry was tight, this is positively tensile ‘n tightly coiled, with a flinty quality to its brilliant bright but subtle lime on the palate.  Very, very good with incisive length and great precision.

Helm Wines Premium Riesling 2009  – well it’s over a year old but it remains very tightly coiled.  There’s lime blossom hints and brisk, fresh cut apples with a quite mineral (I fancy), ironstone tang to the finish.  Again lovely purity and minerality.  Needs time.

Helm Wines Premium Riesling  2008 – this was a hot year, a great year for reds, and it shows with the Riesling too, which is more lemony, with hints of lemon curd even on the nose and palate. But don’t be fooled, because grapefruity, steely acidity courses beneath.  Long and tight with hints of sweet talc, it’s impressively hewn and precise despite the vintage.

Helm Wines Premium Riesling 2005 – this was the first officially released Premium Riesling (in 2004, he made a trial version).  It shows toast, minerals and lemon on the nose which flavours follow through in the mouth.  A long, animated but precise palate shows sherbetty lemon pips underscored by a mineral ironstone tang.

Helm Wines Classic Dry 2002 – a cool year and this is very fine and fresh with a steely nose and lemony palate, subtly enriched and complexed with hints of lemon curd and nutty lemon meringue pie meringue.  Very good, with a youthful, bright and precise finish.

Helm also make a Premium Cabernet Sauvignon.  Though fruit concentration, freshness and structure were good, I found the Missouri oak too pronounced in both the 2008 and 2006. (It’s aged in both French and American new oak for around 2 years).

Collector Wines (Murrumbateman)

A positive outcome of the Hardys’ debacle (Hardys arrived in 2000 and sold up in 2007 much to the dismay of its contract growers), is that Alex Mackay, ex-winemaker for Hardy’s Kamberra brand, decided to stay in the region. He is one of its brightest new stars.  Mackay was shortlisted for the 2010 Gourmet Traveller Winemaker of the Year and his label,Collector Wines, was named Best New Winery in the 2009 Penguin Australian Wine Awards on the strength of his small but perfectly formed artisanal range of two Shiraz, which he describes as “more like Burgundy in the context of Australia….fine-boned, medium bodied, aromatic and made a bit like Burgundy too.”

Over dinner, I found Mackay like his wines, reserved yet intense – he’s a cerebral winemaker.  You could be forgiven for thinking that the name Collector Wines reflects his high-minded vinous ambitions.   As he puts it, now Australians are buying more imported wines, “my wines must compare with the best of the Rhone as well as other parts of Australia.”  Or perhaps his degree in History of Art?  In fact, Collector is a town in Canberra where Mackay originally based operations!  He now leases a very modest winery shed in Murrumabateman, from which area and surrounds he sources his Shiraz.

All in all, Mackay’s runs a tight ship.  He doesn’t own vineyards either but, having worked with 24 growers while at Hardys, Mackay was in a position to cherry pick the best fruit when he started out making his own wines in 2005.  He currently works with half a dozen growers.  It has also worked in his favour that, at around this time, he says many of the vineyards planted in the 90s boom came into balance, making it possible to attain consistent ripeness at 12.5 to 13 baumé.  Nonetheless, Mackay spends a lot of time with his growers and says he has developed a good understanding of their vineyards.  Regarding his first 2005 vintage, he says his only regret is that the wines are a touch riper than he’d ideally like but, each year, the wines have become more elegant as he has honed down when to intervene and pick.

The chief point of difference between Mackay’s two Shiraz is vineyard selection.  The flagship Reserve comes from Capital Wines’ Kyeema Vineyard, where the Shiraz (mostly old Penfolds clone) is approaching 30 years old.  His parcel is located on a saddle between two valleys, which means air drains away from both sides, yet ventilation is good, the warm valley air a buffer against the region’s pronounced diurnal temperature variation.  Weathered ironstone soils with granite are free draining and breathe well.  Mackay treasures the qualities this special site brings: “a tightness of line, structure and persistence –some vineyards never get that,” not to mention “more interesting aromatics and flavours.”

As for the Marked Tree Red Shiraz, the grapes come 8-9 different blocks across five vineyards in and around Murrumbateman with around 50:50 granite and shale soils.  Vines (several clones) are younger though he reckons that the oldest, around 15 years old, are already throwing up good enough components for the Reserve.  Mackay declassifies some fruit and makes another red under a different label with someone else.

In the winery, he says his approach is consistent for both wines though the Reserve sees more new oak (around 40% versus 25% for the Marked Tree Red Shiraz).  All grapes (including around 4% of Viognier which is co-fermented) are hand harvested and partially destemmed – he generally retains 40% of whole bunches.  The crushed grapes undergo a cold soak for 4-5 days before spontaneously fermenting.  Mackay carefully monitors the level of extraction once the ferment has finished and, depending on vintage, the post-fermentation maceration could last up to 2 weeks but is more typically one week.  The wines are then aged in French oak for 12 months during which period Mackay regularly racks and aerates the Shiraz to avoid reduction.  Some parcels are aged on the lees which, together with the Viognier component and stems (whole bunch element), is aimed at adding layers and building up the textural quality of the wines.  Here we go, my notes on the wines:

Collector Marked Tree Red 2008 – very bright in the glass with god depth of colour too.  Ripe red fruits on the nose which follow through in the mouth those the succulent, juicy core is dominated by black fruits.  Though it’s quite fruit-centered, it’s an elegant wines, with its fine tannins and fresh acidity.  Very good.

Collector Marked Tree Red 2009 – fresher on the nose with more overt peppery cool climate credentials and, on the palate, better endowed in terms of structure too than the 2008, which hails from a riper vintage. A firm but fine thread of tannins make for an extended finish.  The tight knit fruit has yet to unfurl and catch up, but you know it’s there.  A really well-defined, precise cool climate wine, which has yet fully to reveal itself but promises plenty.

Collector Reserve 2009 – despite the more evident oak on the nose, this is not just a single vineyard wine, it’s more singular too with its bright but tight redcurrant and cherry fruit, spice and savoury pepper well supported by sinewy firm tannins.  An elegant, focused wine, less sensual than the Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier 2009, which makes Marked Tree Red look like it’s trying to please you!  Strong willed, it will take the strong willed to give it the time in bottle it deserves to show at its best.  Interesting to taste it because I tasted the previous vintage at the Gourmet Traveller Awards dinner and the 2006 vintage at Landmark and they perplexed me. Now I know why.

Finally, this year Mackay made his first white.  I didn’t taste it, but he told me it’s a Marsanne-led Rhone blend, so he’s not going down the tried and tested Viognier route.  Mackay says “I want Marsanne to be the focus because it’s the most interesting and noble of the three (Marsanne, Viognier, Roussanne) in terms of structure and ageworthiness – the others are the spicing element.”

Mr Kirk may disagree – when we met he told me that he’d enjoyed challenging perceptions of Viognier (its lack of ageworthiness) when he presented a bottle of Chateau Grillet at a Rhone tasting in Melbourne for sommeliers.  They placed the vintage between 2000 and 2004 whilst it was actually made in 1974!  That’s about the time this fascinating region kicked off its modern era and, while Kirk and Mackay may beg to differ about Viognier’s ageworthiness, I’m pretty sure going forward that both can make wines that compare with the best of the Rhone and, better still, will make comparisons with the Rhone redundant.  They will make their own mark on their own terms.

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