Canberra grows

BRL Hardy’s decision to set up shop in the ACT, combined with Ron Bell’s proposed Harcourt Ridge Estate development and Dr Barry Moran’s quadrupling of planting at Doonkuna Estate, should see the region’s wine output jump tenfold from its present 30 thousand cases a year to about 300,000 cases by the time new plantings come into full bearing.

A few years from now, Hardys vineyard/winery/function-centre/cellar-door-sales complex on the Federal Highway – in the vicinity of the showground – will be one of the first things to be seen by visitors approaching Canberra from Sydney.

Visitors arriving via the Barton Highway will not be able to miss Doonkuna’s expanded vineyard plantings of about 24 hectares — more than four times the area currently under vine; and those arriving via Womboin or the airport road will see Ron Bell’s 50 hectare vineyard between Oaks Estate Road and the Queanbeyan railroad bridge.

These big new developments will add volume and ready availability to an already colourful spread of small operations that built what reputation Canberra has as a wine making region painstakingly over the past 26 years.

In 1971 CSIRO scientists, Drs Edgar Riek and John Kirk, established Canberra’s first modern vineyards at Lake George and Murrumbateman respectively.

Riek and Kirk were followed by Affleck Vineyard, Benfield Estate, Brindabella Hills Winery, Brooks Creek Vineyard, Doonkuna Estate, Helm’s, Jeir Creek Wines, Lark Hill, Madew Wines, The Murrumbateman Winery, Surveyors Hill (formerly Park Lane), Ruker Wines, Kyeema Estate, Pankhurst Wines and Yass Valley Wines.

An increasing number of independent grape growers also contribute significantly to local wine production. BRL Hardy estimates their numbers at 36 and claims to be already buying from them about 150 tonnes of grapes a year — almost a third of the region’s production.

Currently Rob and Kay Howell process these grapes at Jeir Creek Winery, Murrumbateman, and the juice is chilled and tankered to Hardys Reynella and Tintara Wineries, South Australia.

When Hardy’s new winery comes into operation, around 1999/2000, local grapes will be crushed there. Assuming a modest harvest of around 10 tonnes a hectare, BRL Hardys 250 Canberra hectares ought to yield 2,500 tonnes a years.

But as the winery will have a capacity of 4,000 tonnes, I think we can see behind BRL Hardy’s decision a wider interest in other regions along the western slopes of the Great Divide.

The Canberra decision apparently fits within BRL’s “newly-emerging region’s strategy”. Not only Canberra, but apparently Young, Tumbarumba, Cowra and Mudgee are also on the shopping list.

With Canberra as a solid marketing base, Sydney so close by road – and BRL Hardy’s other wineries so far away in Victoria and South Australia – it’s not too big a leap of the imagination to see Canberra, eventually, as a major regional processing centre for New South Wales’ grapes. The size of the winery suggests this may be on the agenda.

While BRL Hardy has not yet nominated its vineyard sites, a fear of spring frosts almost certainly dictates a spread of sites – perhaps 6 or 7 on well-drained north easterly aspects – to spread the frost and consequent financial risk of crop failure.

Although no announcement has yet been made, it appears vineyard development opportunities will be offered to small investors with stakes as low as $2000-$3000 per unit.

BRL Hardy intend having a top-notch viticulturist and a wine maker resident in Canberra to oversee vineyards and wine making.

The winery – to be strongly identified with a Hardys Canberra region wine brand – will offer function facilities, tasting and sales facilities for its own wines, and will, as well, be a show place and promotional centre for Canberra’s small independent wineries.

As I understand it, the aim is to produce a steady, reliable stream of high-quality Canberra table wines to retail in the $10-$14 a bottle range as well as very small quantities of ‘flagship’ wines, at around $30, representing the absolute pinnacle of what the area can make.

With the local market satisfied, BRL intends to take the Canberra name nationally and then internationally and foresees a time when local and export markets might each absorb about 100,000 cases of BRL Hardy Canberra wines.

With Canberra so deeply absorbed in its own problems at present, it’s a nice change to see a single enterprise prepared to foster a $30 million investment in Canberra – that’s about $10 million each in vineyards, winery and stock).

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