Lesson for Canberra winemakers — always put your best foot forward

A couple of weeks back well-known author James Halliday rated 13 Canberra wines among his top 100 in New South Wales. Buoyed by this, our local vignerons threw a dinner at the members’ dining room in old parliament house. The dinner paired flights of the Halliday 13, plus a ring-in from Hilltops, with food prepared by Janet Jeffs’ Ginger Catering – the ingredients coming from Canberra and surrounding regions.

Halliday’s top 13 unsurprisingly emphasised the strength of Canberra shiraz, which accounted for five of the thirteen wines. Surprisingly, until you enquire into conditions of entry, sauvignon blanc and blends (three wines) outscored riesling (two wines). And cabernet sauvignon, sangiovese and one dessert riesling earned one spot each on the elite list.

The glaring omission from the list is Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier 2008. On form it ought to have held number one spot in Canberra. And Halliday’s 97-point rating for it in his Australian Wine Companion 2010 should, in theory, put it as NSW’s top red, one point ahead of Collector Canberra District Reserve 2007 and Tulloch ‘Hector’ of Glen Elgin Limited Release Hunter Shiraz 2005.

The omission of so many of our top rieslings and the Clonakilla shiraz, though, gets back to quantity-based entry conditions, not skulduggery or inconsistency. It simply underlines the limitations of any rating system – and especially one endorsed, seemingly, by the NSW Government and the inherent pressure to spread the goodies around the regions.

While minimum quantity requirements ensure that drinkers have access to the winners, they skew the results for a small region like Canberra. The dinner would unquestionably haft lifted another few notches had we seen more riesling and our only (to date) red legend.

For Clonakilla’s Shiraz Viognier is to Canberra shiraz what Grange is to Penfolds – the halo over our region; the sizzle at our barbecue. And even if we make a handful of half decent sauvignon blancs and blends, they’re about knee high in quality and interest to our rieslings.

What this says to our vignerons is by all means harness third-party endorsement like Halliday’s, but don’t let it drive your agenda totally. You all know what out best wines are. So have the confidence to run with them. A showcase is just that; it shouldn’t hold any also-rans.

For the price of a dozen Clonakilla and the confidence to nudge the sauvignon blanc and blends aside with rieslings, we could’ve had a really stunning Canberra line up. Oh, and one last quibble, what was a shiraz from the Hilltops region doing in a Canberra line-up? It’s another beautiful Clonakilla wine anointed by Halliday, but it ain’t from Canberra.

A high point of the dinner was the grand setting – pre-dinner drinks in the members bar then an ‘oh, wow’ moment as the doors rolled back for us to surge into the members dining area.

We left the bar with a little sadness though, as only two of the five canapés had come our way and only one of the two rieslings. The Helm Classic 2008 is a favourite and we savoured it. But we would’ve loved another taste of the Wallaroo 2008, a delicious drop from Hall.

The well thought out menu produced a few gems: the simple pleasure of Gingerbread Bakery sourdough dunked in fresh, peppery, piquant Homeleigh Grove Olive Oil, from Hall (see www.homeleighgroveolives.com.au); and a mouth watering fricassee of Lake Bathurst rabbit, roasted root vegetables, Jerusalem artichokes and cardamom jus.

The latter came with three contrasting reds – the big, ripe, needs-more-bottle-age Lerida Estate Shiraz Viognier 2007; the sublimely elegant Clonakilla O’Riada Shiraz 2008 and the spicy, tangy Collector Reserve Shiraz 2007.

Another three shirazes followed, tastily matched with Wyntrade lamb shoulder (www.wyntradelamb.com.au)  and smoked, semi-dried tomato and mushroom ragout: Capital Wines The Frontbencher Shiraz 2007, an outstanding medium bodied style with distinctive firm, tight, tannin structure and great cellaring future; the perfumed, sumptuous and soft Clonakilla Hilltop Shiraz 2008 (but why, oh why was it at this dinner?); and a fading Four Winds Vineyard Shiraz 2005.

The final course put three Small Cow Farm cheeses (Robertson, NSW – www.smallcowfarm.com) alongside the bright but savoury and dry Ravensworth Sangiovese 2008; the austere Yarrh Wines Cabernet Sauvignon 2006; and the marvellously intense, fine, brisk and sweet Lark Hill Auslese Riesling 2008, from our district’s highest vineyard.

From this and other tastings it’s clear that 2008 was a great vintage for Canberra for both red and white wines. And because they’re available in greater quantities than the frost devastated 2007s, they should be more easily accessible. The 2008 whites, released for the most part last year, are now running down, but the reds are just coming into the market and will be worth pursuing.

The connection between local wines and food, too, is strong. It’s a passionate theme for Janet Jeffs, but that’s a story for another day.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2009

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