111 years on Langhorne Creek’s Metala vineyard still pumps out a winner

Published in The Canberra Times 23 June 2002

The dazzling explosion of Australia’s wine industry is nowhere better seen than at Langhorne Creek, near Lake Alexandrina, South Australia.

What was once home to a few small to mid sized wine producers and grape growers, with combined plantings of just 400 hectares of vines in 1992, is now one of Australia’s biggest premium wine regions.

By 2000, plantings had reached 5,500 hectares, giving Langhorne Creek, even without further expansion, a production capacity of around 4.6 million dozen bottles of wine annually.

With almost all of that output destined to go into bottles selling for $10 to $15 a bottle – much of it in rapidly expanding export markets — Langhorne Creek now sits on a commercial par with the Barossa, McLaren Vale, Padthaway and Coonawarra as South Australia’s key high-volume, high-quality wine regions.

Langhorne Creek’s viticultural history began in 1850 when Frank Potts settled near the Bremer River. His descendent, winemaker Michael Potts, says the first vines, including verdelho, were planted in 1860.

Guy Adams, co-proprietor of the Metala vineyard, planted in 1891, says French vignerons find it hard to imagine how vines survived for more than a century in Langhorne Creek’s meagre 350mm annual rainfall.

For modern, well-capitalised viticulturists, low rainfall’s not an issue. Newcomers to the area simply build a pipeline to Lake Alexandrina, fill a dam and trickle irrigate the vines whenever necessary.

But in the nineteenth century that was not an option for Langhorne Creek’s pioneering grape growers. Vines survived from the earliest times thanks to run off from the Bremerton ‘River’, an often dry creek bed that spills onto the surrounding land whenever there’s substantial rain in the Adelaide Hills to the north.

This run off flows down the Bremerton and the nearby Angas across an alluvial outwash fan that drains lazily into Lake Alexandrina at the mouth of the Murray.

At the Metala vineyard, about fifteen kilometres from the lake, the older parts of the vineyard rise just 6 metres above sea level. Amazingly, says Guy Adams, the Bremerton, running adjacent to the vineyard, is slightly more elevated than the surrounding land. It holds only about ten per cent of the water that tries to run down it, hence the frequent inundations.

The early settlers learned to manage these generally gentle floodwaters, directing them where needed with floodgates and sluices.

Thanks to these frequent inundations, and the attentions of Metala’s owners, three very old vine plots continue to produce healthy crops today. A little under 5 hectares of shiraz and cabernet sauvignon, planted between 1891 and 1893, produce between 7.5 and 10 tonnes per hectare per year.

As reported in some detail here in March 2002, the Adams family sells this fruit, and the majority of its crop from newer plantings, to Beringer Blass. The fruit contributes to a number of Beringer Blass’s products, but the majority of the material from the Metala vineyard – and all of the wine made from the old vines – goes to the famous old Stonyfell Metala label.

Although the Metala label first appeared on the 1959 vintage, the single-vineyard wine behind it (a blend of cabernet sauvignon and shiraz from those old vines), made by Jack Kilgour, was released from 1932 as Stonyfell Private Bin Claret.

Jack was behind those highly regarded reds from 1932 until 1959. Between 1960 and 1966 Bryan Dolan made the Metala vineyard wines. When his 1961 vintage won the inaugural Jimmy Watson trophy in Melbourne in 1962, he designed the enduring Metala label, says his son Nigel, today’s Metala maker. And because he still had stocks of the 1959 and 1960 vintages in the winery at the time, the new label was applied to these.

From 1966 until 1979 the legendary Peter Lehmann made Metala. But after Dalgety’s sold Saltram (by now owner of the label) to Seagram, and Lehmann departed, Metala lost direction. For a while it became a multi-regional blend. But even after returning to its single vineyard origin, the quality, as I saw in a vertical tasting back to the 1951 vintage earlier this week, didn’t get back to the standards set by Jack Kilgour, Bryan Dolan and Peter Lehmann until Nigel Dolan took on the winemaking role.

Nigel joined Rothbury, by now owners of Saltram, after vintage in 1992 and stayed on when the then Mildara Blass group acquired Rothbury in 1996. Guy Adams says that when Nigel took over, winemaking standards lifted several notches. The key to the dramatic quality lift, he believes, lies in Nigel’s close contact with the Metala vineyard.

Management and cropping levels have not changed. But what Nigel did was to work with Guy and Tom Adams to select appropriated harvest times – based on fruit flavour — for the various plots. This delivered the rich but gentle flavours we’ve seen in Metala through the late 1990’s – and in particular in the 1998 and 2000 vintages.

Nigel allows Metala to be limpid, supple, sweet scented and unburdened by overt oak flavours. He allows Langhorne Creek’s subtle ‘eucalypt’ scent to blossom. And he allows Langhorne Creek’s unique, silky-textured fruit and soft, caressing tannins to express themselves in this affordable, pedigreed and delightful dry red.

First published 23 June 2002 in The Canberra Times

Copyright © Chris shanahan 2002 and 2024

Cork Vs screwcap Tyrrell’s Vat 1 Hunter Semilon 1998

What do you think asked Andrew ‘Spin’ Spinaze 20 years ago

Hi Chris, tell me what you think’, Andrew ‘Spin’ Spinaze scrawled on a paper scrap 20-odd years ago. His note accompanied a bottle each of cork and screwcap sealed Tyrrell’s Vat 1 Semillon 1998, a wine revered for its great longevity.

Plagued by failed corks that tainted or oxidised too many wines, Tyrrell’s tested alternative seals through the 1990s. Despite initial promise, plastic plugs failed. But screwcaps proved effective and Tyrrells used the seal on all their top-end reds and whites from the 2004 vintage.

Spin’s two sample bottles (‘picked @ random’) remained in Chateau Shanahan’s cellar for over 20 years. A long delay Spin, but here’s what we think:

We got got lucky. We drew a decent cork, and as a result enjoyed two amazing but notably different old whites. Most of the group preferred the dazzling, fresh-but-aged screwcap version. But a few favoured the deeper colour and mellow flavours of the cork-sealed wine.

One tasting of two bottles reveals little about the relevant merits of cork and screwcap. A good cork works. But earlier formal trials, and my own experience, show you might need to open several bottles to find a good cork, where every screwcap does the job reliably.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2023

Good wine from Canberra’s difficult 2022 vintage

It was a tornado’, says winemaker Ken Helm. January’s violent hailstorm swept north from Hall, cut a swathe through Murrumbateman vineyards, then split in two near Helms Wines before heading east and west. ‘It broke steel posts, flattened vines and uprooted trees. If you’d been driving on our access road you’d have been killed’, says Helm.

He’s still replacing bent trellising posts. But the storm merely sideswiped Helm vineyard, destroying only 10 per cent of the crop and leaving overturned vines undamaged and in good shape for 2023. Others around Helm lost all. The casualties included all the prized cabernet and half of the riesling Helm usually takes from the neighbouring Lustenberger vineyard.

Clonakilla’s Tim Kirk says the storm, ‘Bruised us, but didn’t smash us like some of our neighbours.

The 12.5-hectare Four Winds Vineyard lost everything, says Sarah Collingwood. But her family’s nearby 5-hectare Kyeema vineyard escaped damage.

Other Murrumbateman vineyards reporting major crop loss include Poachers Vineyard, Dionysus Winery and Wayne and Jennie Fischer’s vineyard, currently leased by Alex McKay and Nick O’Leary.

Jennie Fischer calls 2022 vintage, ‘the most difficult I’ve seen in 21 years’, while Eden Road winemaker Celine Rousseau sees it as, ‘The worst in 25 years, worse than 2011’. Even without the damaging hailstorm, fungal disease, rain, wind, and low temperatures took their toll across the district.

Consecutive La Nina patterns in 2021 and 2022 paused a long-term trend to higher temperatures and earlier grape harvests, pushing harvest dates back about a month on recent norms.

Below average temperatures and absence of heatwaves across the October to April growing season allowed grapes that dodged other seasonal bullets to ripen, albeit with significantly lower than normal sugar and higher acid levels. But in the end, the district produced smaller volumes of good wines reflecting the cool season.

Shaw Vineyard Estate, Murrumbateman, suffered an almost complete wipe-out, harvesting just 13.5 of a potential 200 tons.

Graeme Shaw says, ‘Things looked good in late January and early February, but the fruit was ripening slowly and wasn’t ripe enough when botrytis hit. I wasn’t happy with the fruit and left it on the vine. The birds have cleaned it up now’.

From his meagre harvest, Shaw made a malbec–shiraz rosé, due for release in July, and topped up the cellar with riesling from South Australia’s Eden Valley, and reds from nearby Gundagai and Hilltops.

Mount Majura Vineyard produced a smaller than average crop says winemaker Frank van de Loo. Under the cool conditions grapes ripened with high acid and low sugar levels. On first taste of tank and barrel samples, that translates to delicious, fresh reds, some on the leaner side, and bracing, intensely flavoured whites of modest alcohol content. Van de Loo’s riesling, tasted from tank, appears particularly promising.

Even the late ripening graciano, mondeuse, and touriga ripened, as did tiny amounts of the recently planted red variety parraleta and the white ansonica. White albarino and red mencia planted this year are yet to produce fruit.

Ravensworth owner Bryan Martin reckons the district’s signature red, shiraz, ‘Needs a good roasting, a run of over 35-degree days, to stop vegetal growth and ripen’. In 2022’s cool conditions he made a ‘herbal, spicy’ shiraz.

Eden Road winemaker Celine Rousseau agrees, ‘2022 was not a shiraz kind of vintage’. The company’s Murrumbateman vineyard lost its crop, while on its Lake George vineyard, ‘shiraz grew like trees’. Shoot thinning, green harvesting and leaf thinning curbed the vegetal growth and the vines successfully ripened their fruit, making a peppery, lean red, says Rousseau.

Jason Brown and Alicia Brown own Kerralee vineyard, Murrumbateman, Moppity Vineyard, Hilltops, and Coppabella Vineyard, Tumbarumba. The three regions produced healthy fruit in the end. But Jason Brown rates 2022 ‘The most difficult vintage in 18 years and I can’t believe we’ve come through’.

Timely sprays, and non-stop work opening canopies against humidity, protected fruit during the wet period. Then a dry, late summer and autumn meant, ‘great hang time and a long, even ripening period across the three districts’, he says.

Lark Hill’s Chris Carpenter reports good, healthy fruit from his family’s Murrumbateman vineyard, despite significant losses of shiraz, sangiovese and marsanne to hail. Lark Hill’s home vineyard, high on the Bungendore escarpment, produced good riesling, sparkling wine base, and smaller volumes of table wine. Carpenter also sourced ‘some great fruit from Hilltops’.

Lerida Estate’s Andrew McFadzean says he’s pleased with the wines after a challenging season, including a total loss a Murrumbateman vineyard to hail, low fruitfulness and wind damage to the northern end of the Lerida vineyard, Lake George.

At Yarrh Wines, Murrumbateman, Fiona Wholohan calls 2022 a challenging vintage with disease hard to control and volumes down 20–30%. She’ll be bottling white wines in July. Reds will be on the light, fresh side, she says.

At Wallaroo, Nick O’Leary, says rain in November and December 2021 affected flowering and reduced crop levels, but a dry February helped ripening.

O’Leary says he sourced shiraz from Hilltops and ‘went hard on chardonnay from Tumbarumba. It’s some of the best we’ve seen’.

Fruit from his Heywood vineyard, Wallaroo, produced good wine. He says tempranillo performed well as it seems to like humid conditions, where sangiovese struggled and in the end made rosé, not red wine.

In 2022 Canberra vignerons made good wines under some of the most challenging conditions yet experienced in the district. It’s a remarkable achievement, and we can look forward to a diversity of 2022 vintage wines to be released over the next few years.

© Copyright Chris Shanahan 2022
First published in The Canberra Times 4 July 2022

Wine reviews – Whitton Farm and Collector Wines – Canberra winemakers, Hilltops grapes

Whitton Farm Hilltops Fiano 2019 $27
The fiano grape, originally from Campania, southern Italy, makes distinctive, full-flavoured dry whites. Jancis Robinson says the variety was first mentioned in 1240, while others speculate it may have been the variety behind the ancient Roman wine Apianum. The heat-tolerant variety finds a home in increasing number of Australian vineyards, including Bryan Mullany’s Grove Estate in the Hilltops region, near Young, NSW. Whitton Farm owner Caleb Wearne says he made the wine (in the Nick O’Leary winery, Wallaroo) as he would a riesling. He cold fermented the juice to preserve the varietal fruit character. But ‘it’s a tough-skinned grape’, he says, requiring harder pressing than riesling and resulting in skin character in the wine – detectable as lightly gripping tannins. At just 12% alcohol, it’s a lighter bodied, full flavoured wine, with herbal aroma and a mouth-watering palate, reminiscent of sweet but pleasantly tart melon-rind. It remains vibrant and fresh almost three years after vintage. Available at whittonfarm.com.au

Collector Summer Swarm Hilltops Fiano 2019 $28
Like the Whitton Farm fiano above, Collector Summer Swarm comes from the Hilltops region (Peter Mullany vineyard, near Wombat). However, winemaker Alex McKay takes a different tack to Caleb Wearne, fermenting the wine on grape solids rather than as clear juice. McKay’s approach produces a similarly rich, tangy, pleasantly tart dry white, but the solids’ ferment gives a background texture and subtle character reminiscent of ‘struck match’. I like this winemaker-induced seasoning as it adds another dimension to the varietal flavour. But it may not be to everyone’s taste. It’s certainly worth enjoying Collector and Whitton Farm together to compare two quite exciting versions of the variety. Since the tasting Collector sold out of the 2019 vintage and now offers the 2021. I’ve not tasted it yet. Available at collectorwines.com.au

Whitton Farm Hilltops Corvina 2019 $35
Whitton Farm offers this delightful, local twist on those, medium-bodied Verona region reds, Valpolicella and Bardolino. The traditional Italian blend combines corvina veronese, rondinella and molinara. But Canberra winemaker Caleb Wearne opts for corvina, sourced from Brian Freeman’s extensive Italian-focused vineyard in the Hilltops region, NSW. Wearne made the first vintage, 2018, as a traditional pump-over red, resulting in heroic tannins, fit to suck the water from the brain. In 2019 he  mollified the tannins and preserved beautiful fruit flavour by using carbonic maceration (uncrushed berries) with a small portion traditionally fermented. The result is a mid-hued red with vibrant, floral and musk-like fruit aroma; the fruitiness washes across the palate, too, then the assertive tannins sweep through, giving a taut, savoury finish.

© Chris Shanahan 2021

Celebrating 50 years of Canberra wine

As Canberra wine celebrates its fiftieth anniversary, it’s fair to ask why, in 1971, two smart CSIRO scientists planted grape vines in sheep paddocks? Could the same soils and climate that produced fine wool also ripen wine grapes? Following different paths, and unknown to one another, Dr Edgar Riek and Dr John Kirk concluded that it could. And they set about doing so.

An old-fashioned natural scientist with a taste for wine, Riek explored wine in fine detail, seeking the company of people with similar curiosity. In 1953, eight years after joining the CSIRO in Canberra, Riek and others founded the men-only Canberra Wine and Food Club.

A frequent visitor to Rutherglen, Riek acquired an appreciation of fortified wine and, largely through his friendship with winemaker Mick Morris, became a skilled maker and blender.

In 1971 Riek and his wife Mary purchased land on the gentle, lower slopes of the Cullarin Range on Lake George’s north-western foreshore. Daughter Helen pastured her horse there while Riek established Cullarin Vineyard.

Collector Wines owner Alex McKay worked on the property during Riek’s ownership. He also led a rejuvenation of the site for the Karelas family some years after they purchased it from Riek.

McKay says, ‘His site selection was absolutely brilliant. It was brilliant how he worked it out’. Riek had figured that even on a very slight slope, warm air moved to the slightly higher northern end of Lake George, providing a measure of frost protection. And Riek had told winemaker Ken Helm how his car windows defrosted as he drove along that section of the lake.

McKay adds, ‘the soil, drainage and aspect” all suit grape growing, and ‘you would struggle to find better sites in the area’.

I thought we had Burgundy conditions’, declared Riek at a November 2015 industry lunch, explaining why chardonnay and pinot noir became the first of around 40 varieties he planted at Cullarin over the coming years.

John Kirk, now 86, acquired his taste for wine in post-World War II Ireland. After spending the war years in England, the under-age Kirk returned home to become the non-drinking (he claims) cellar manager at the family’s Hydro Hotel in Lisdoonvarna, a western Ireland spa and music town.

Curious, but knowing nothing about wine, Kirk learned on the job and by reading. The practical lessons came later, he says, over bottles shared with his father.

Kirk arrived in Canberra from Ireland in 1968 and recalls, ‘I’d joined CSIRO and we used to drive around the countryside, get the feel of the place and as I drove around I was always surprised that there were no vineyards here …I thought, sure, this is warm enough to ripen grapes. So I enquired around, but the story in the industry was that it was too cold. But anyway I did my research and got this climatic data for Bordeaux. And it turned out to be not similar but identical. The temperature variation through the season is exactly the same in Canberra as in Bordeaux. So clearly they can ripen grapes there, we should be able to ripen grapes here’.

Kirk decided to buy land and at Murrumbateman found what he was looking for. A man named Ian Widdowson, ‘had a spare block he wanted to sell and that was Clonakilla. So I was interested and asked if I could dig a hole. He said yes, so I came out with a spade and dug the hole. I liked the look of the soil, although I was no expert on soil. And I just liked the way the grass was growing. There weren’t many trees but such trees as there were looked good. It just spoke to me. This looked good. What I now know is this was on the volcanic rock and that gives rise over the thousands of years to much deeper, much better soils than the sedimentary rocks. So I made him an offer, he said he accepted. I actually paid $9,600’.

With land and Canberra’s perceived Bordeaux-like temperatures, Kirk ordered vine cuttings from Premier Nurseries of Griffith NSW. In that first year he planted riesling and the Bordeaux varieties cabernet sauvignon, semillon and sauvignon blanc. Four hundred ‘black shiraz’ cuttings arrived a year or two later.

Of the four varieties planted in 1971, riesling proved to be the standout. ‘Riesling is very good. It can’t fail in the district’, observes Kirk. But he didn’t know that in 1971. Nor could he have predicted the emergence of shiraz as the other district hero, nor of Clonakilla’s unique shiraz–viognier blend that from 1992 changed perceptions of Australian shiraz internationally and marked Canberra as a high-quality wine region.

And it turned out that apart from some temperature correlations, dry, continental Canberra bore little resemblance, in a wine-growing sense, to humid, maritime Bordeaux. At Clonakilla, conditions were more extreme than in Bordeaux, says Kirk, with damaging frosts and a greater diurnal temperature range. As well, warm, dry air from the interior meant evaporation rates twice those of Bordeaux and a consequent need for irrigation.

Despite the Bordeaux grapes cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and merlot being upstaged by other varieties, they survived and are among the oldest vines at Clonakilla, with no new planting (and none planned) since 1987. Winemaker Tim Kirk blends the three varieties into Clonakilla Ballinderry, an elegant red that tastes less and less like Bordeaux as the climate warms, says John Kirk.

During the formative years at Clonakilla, many in the industry regarded shiraz as a runner up to the so-called noble varieties, cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, chardonnay and riesling. Although shiraz ripened at Clonakilla, Kirk, partly because of this perception and the earlier hope for the Bordeaux varieties, blended it in a classic Australian cabernet shiraz style.

Then in 1990 he thought, ‘For the fun of it, let’s make a straight shiraz, just to see what it’s like’. Not wanting to rely solely on his own judgment, Kirk entered Clonakilla Shiraz 1990 in the Griffith show. To his surprise, the wine won a gold medal and trophies as best shiraz and best wine of the show. ‘We suddenly realised we’d been blending shiraz away with cabernet all these years, and we should’ve been keeping it separate’.

A year later, John Kirk’s son Tim visited me at Farmer Bros warehouse, in the inner Canberra suburb Braddon, seeking an introduction to French winemaker Marcel Guigal (Farmer Bros imported Guigal’s Rhone Valley wines). Visiting Guigal and blown away by his Cote-Rotie shiraz-viognier blends, Tim decided, ‘I’ve got to get this shiraz-viognier thing going back home’. And he was able to do so from 1992 because John Kirk, influence by another son, Jeremy, had planted viognier in 1986 (intended at the time as a stand-alone white wine).

Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier quickly established itself as the Australian benchmark of the style. It now sells for $110 a bottle.

From the start John Kirk wanted Clonakilla to be a business, not a hobby, and was prepared to take the risk and walk away should it fail. The decades long slog to success included Kirk, already with a science PhD, earning a Charles Sturt University wine science degree between 1984 and 1989.  ‘You don’t do that unless you’re serious’, recalls Kirk, adding, ‘It’s probably true to say my winemaking improved. By the end of the eighties it was becoming clear we could have a serious business here’.

Clonakilla later bought adjoining properties and today holds about 16-hectares planted to shiraz, grenache, mourvedre, counoise, roussanne, viognier, riesling, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot. It also buys grapes from other Canberra growers and from the nearby Hilltops and Tumbarumba regions.

And that’s how Clonakilla grew organically under two generations of Kirk family ownership, to become Canberra’s highest profile winery.

Riek’s Cullarin succeeded as a vineyard, too, but failed to achieve the profile or commercial success earned by Clonakilla. Riek’s property changed hands and names along the way. Riek’s early wines appeared under a Cullarin Cellars label. But in the early eighties he dropped that name in favour of ‘Lake George’, with a Joseph Lycett 1820s painting of the lake. In 1998 at age 78 Riek sold the vineyard to Canberra’s Karelas family. Karelas added the word ‘Winery’ to the label and now traded as Lake George Winery. Sam Karelas successfully trademarked the combined name and Lycett painting in 2005.

In 2008 Karelas bought the neighbouring Madew Vineyard (originally Westering Vineyard) and used the Lake George Winery brand for the combined properties.

In 2010 Karelas separated the two vineyards, selling Riek’s property to Peter Wiggs, while retaining the Lake George Winery brand for the former Madew–Westering vineyard. This left Riek’s historic vineyard without a trading name. With Hunter winemaker Peter Howland, Wiggs produced wine under a Cool Hand label and also sold fruit to local vignerons.

But in 2019, after taking a majority stake in Eden Road Wines, Murrumbateman, Wiggs brought Riek’s vineyard under the Eden Road banner. Riek’s site is now Eden Road Lake George Vineyard. Its grapes contribute to several Eden Road wines, including the new Cullarin Block 71 range, sourced exclusively from Riek’s historic vineyard.

In 2018 the Karelas family sold the Madew–Westering property, now trading as Lake George Winery, to Sarah and Anthony McDougall, making them the third custodians, after the Madew and Karelas families, of the vines planted by Geoff Hood in 1973.

Displayed in Westering Restaurant, Lake George Winery, Hood’s hand-written record details his planting of ‘7 acres’ of cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, riesling and traminer between August and November 1973, and cabernet sauvignon and semillon in October and November 1975.

Though Kirk and Riek were first to plant, others had similar plans. In 1973, five more Canberra vineyards were planted. Around Murrumbateman, Ken Helm established what we now know as Helm Wines, Wing Commander Harvey Smith planted Doonkuna Estate (now Eden Road Wines) and Geoff and Trish Middleton set up Broughton Park (now Murrumbateman Wines).

On Edgar Riek’s northern boundary on Lake George’s north-western shore, Captain Geoff Hood planted Westering Vineyard (now Lake George Winery). And high up on the Lake George escarpment, east of the Federal Highway, Dr Max Blake planted Shingle House (later Brooks Creek, then part of Little Bridge Partners, but now abandoned).

In this pattern Canberra’s wine industry developed over the next two decades. Individuals mainly from scientific and academic backgrounds, some with PhDs, established small holdings – supported initially by professional salaries and unrelenting work. The vineyards, scattered widely around Canberra, varied in altitude from around 550 metres to 860 metres.

Vineyards were largely in NSW, sprinkled along the Barton Highway, between Spring Range in the south to Yass in the north in what we loosely call Murrumbateman; at Wallaroo on the Murrumbidgee slopes; around Sutton-Gundaroo; along the elevated Lake George–Bungendore escarpment; on the lower slopes of the Cullarin Range, hugging Lake George’s north-western shore; with one outlier to the east of Lake George at Lake Bathurst, and another, since removed, at Queanbeyan. Only Pialligo Estate and Mount Majura Vineyard lay within the ACT.

By the mid-nineties, district heroes, shiraz and riesling, had only partly emerged (led by Helm Wines and Clonakilla respectively) while small makers across the district had built strong individual followings.

Then something big happened. Its positive effect on the industry’s scale and quality continues today – albeit if not precisely as foreseen by its architects.

In May 1997,  then ACT Chief Minister Kate Carnell announced an agreement between her government and South Australian winemaker BRL Hardy Limited. She says she stitched up the agreement with the help of Canberra liquor retailer Jim Murphy.

Carnell recalls seeing opportunities for Canberra wine as part of regional tourism. However, she believed a lack of scale restrained the local industry. ‘Wine fits well into regional tourism but to do that it needed a capital infusion. Canberra’s wineries were small and undercapitalised. If a big operator could invest substantially in the district it might give small operators certainty and confidence to invest’.

Her government offered BRL an assistance package totalling $2m – including land valued at $980,000 – and access to cheap grey water. In return BRL’s Stephen Millar pledged to invest $10million in new Canberra vineyards, winery, and cellar-door complex, to expand grape-buying contracts with independent growers and to develop a Canberra wine brand.

Hardys quickly built the Kamberra cellar door, entertainment complex and high-capacity winery at Watson. The company planned on processing thousands of tons of regional grapes annually and on launching two Canberra wine brands, Kamberra and Meeting Place. To scale up local grape supply, Hardys established an 83-hectare vineyard at Holt and offered attractive, indeed irresistible, fixed-price contracts to existing and would-be grape growers.

A decade later Hardys, departed Canberra. It ceased local grape and wine production and on short notice stopped taking grapes from growers. Most survived the shock by starting or expanding their own wine brands or by selling grapes to existing local vignerons. Their survival permanently increased Canberra’s grape supply.

Among the survivors were Jennie and Wayne Fischer’s 14-hectare Murrumbateman vineyard (currently contracted to Nick O’Leary and Alex McKay), Rob and Sue Bruce’s 20-hectare Poachers vineyard (with son Will now making wine), the Lunney family’s 12.5-hectare Four Winds Vineyard (now run by daughter Sarah Collingwood and husband John Collingwood), and the Parker family’s 22-hectare Long Rail Gully vineyard (with Richard Parker growing, making and bottling wine on site).

Shaw Vineyard Estate owner, Graeme Shaw, recalls, ‘When Constellation Brands acquired BRL Hardy [in 2003] the culture changed the day they took over. They were not interested in Canberra at all. There was stupidity. They tried to get people to abandon their grape contracts. Those who held out got a good deal, others got a poor deal. We got paid out three years and didn’t deliver a single grape to them. They didn’t want them’.

Shaw’s relationship with Hardys began when he won the contract to build their winery–cellar door complex. This led to a deal to plant 32-hectares, backed by a 10-year grape supply contract. With his wife and Ann and son Michael, Shaw completed a viticulture course and planted their Murrumbateman vineyard in 1999 and 2000. It remains, as far as I can ascertain, Canberra’s largest.

The contract allowed the Shaws to keep part of the crop and build their own brand, which they did on a scale not seen before in Canberra, with the exception of the failed BRL Hardy venture. A large, purpose-designed cellar door-restaurant, opened in 2005, expanded visitor experience beyond wine through the sale of Italian ceramics and balsamic vinegar. And in 2018 Shaw opened a new cellar-door wine-club -lounge building, separate from the restaurant and store.

Winemakers Alex McKay and Nick O’Leary decided to remain in Canberra following Hardy’s departure. Through Edgar Riek’s influence, Theo and Sam Karelas engaged the pair to overhaul the Lake George vineyard they’d bought from Riek a decade earlier. McKay was to also to make the wines and both were free to develop their own brands, Collector Wines, Nick O’Leary Wines and the jointly owned Bourke Street Wines. O’Leary and McKay went their own ways in 2010 but still work closely together.

At Kardinia Winery, Murrumbateman, McKay, with French winemaker Leonore Salancon, makes Collector wines, some of the Bourke Street range and wines under contract for other brands. McKay believes one of the most important developments for Canberra wine in recent years has been representation in the cities by some of Australia’s most prestigious distributors. His own wines sit in one of the most illustrious portfolios of all under Robert Hill-Smith’s Negociants Australia.

Nick O’Leary has his own 10-hectare vineyard and winery in the Wallaroo area, with plans to expand to 22-hectares over the next few years. The large winery produces the O’Leary brand, some of the Bourke Street products, and a range of contract wines. Indeed, the busy winery feels like a cross between production workshop and university as O’Leary mentors, and is challenged by, a new generation of Canberra winemakers developing their own styles: Hamish Young’s highly acclaimed Mada Wines, Caleb Wearne’s Whitton Farm, and Jake Carter’s Sholto.

As the Canberra winery industry celebrates its fiftieth birthday, the reality is that what we call the Canberra District relies increasingly on grapes from neighbouring regions, particularly but not limited to Hilltops and Tumbarumba. Grapes from these regions give volume and viability to some makers and enable production of particular wine styles by others. These areas are already deeply enmeshed in the Canberra wine industry.

With security of supply a growing concern to vignerons across the district, perhaps the most significant news of 2021 will be the construction of Jason and Alicia Brown’s Moppity winery and cellar door complex on Jeir Creek, to the south of Murrumbateman. The development will bring production from the Brown’s extensive vineyard holdings in Hilltops and Tumbarumba to Canberra.

And as the Brown’s sell much of their fruit, some Canberra makers hope proximity means first dibs for local vignerons.

The Browns own the 69-hectare Hilltops region Moppity Vineyard, 70-hectare Coppabella Vineyard, Tumbarumba, and the 10-hectare Kerralee vineyard, Murrumbateman, site of the new development. Jason writes, ‘We have the DA approved and should start building this side of Christmas or possibly early new year’.

The new winery will be by far the biggest in Canberra, adding to the industry’s scale and multi-layered offerings accrued over 50 years by the industry’s 40 or so independent vignerons and many independent growers.

It’s been a hands-on, non-stop endeavour by so many couples, families and individuals. The industry’s new branding, launched on 29 November 2021, captures the spirit of this interaction between our landscapes, vines, people and wine. Particularly moving is an audio-visual presentation, with song sung by Marty K (written by K and Tallagandra Hill’s David Faulks ) and Sammy Hawker’s evocative images.

Canberra District wines – a degustation


Lark Hill Canberra District Gruner Veltliner 2021
Vines arrived high on Lake George escarpment, between the Federal Highway and Bungendore, in 1973 (Max Blake’s Shingle House), 1976 (Affleck) and 1978 (Lark Hill). Lamberts, now reinvented as Contentious Character, arrived in 1990, followed recently by Enotria Wines. Lark Hill vineyard, peaking at 860-metres, sits about 200 metres higher than Murrumbateman. The site turned out to be too cool for the cabernet, shiraz and merlot Dr David and Sue Carpenter originally planted there. But riesling, chardonnay and pinot succeeded. Their son Chris later successfully introduced the Austrian variety gruner veltliner – a unique, delicious, dry white, fruity and peppery at the same time.

Pankhurst Canberra District Arneis 2019 $30
In 1986 vineyards spread into the Wallaroo area, on the edge of the Murrumbidgee Valley, West of Hall. Dr Roger and Faye Harris established Brindabella Hills, Alwyn Lane established Park Lane (now Surveyors Hill) and Allan and Christine Pankhurst planted the five-hectare Pankhurst vineyard. In 2016 the Pankhursts grafted Rhone Valley variety marsanne and Piedmontese variety arneis onto semillon and sauvignon rootstocks. Allan Pankhurst says, ‘We tried all sorts of styles of arneis in Piedmont and preferred the unoaked ones’. And that’s how Andrew McEwin made their delicious 2019, no oak, and all fruit, reminiscent of pear and melon-rind, bone-dry and grippy.

Helm Canberra District Classic Dry Riesling 2019 $38
Canberra wine pioneer Ken Helm championed riesling long before the variety became Canberra’s specialty white. He planted riesling in 1973, following plantings in 1971 by Dr John Kirk at Clonakilla and in 1973 by Geoff Hood at Westering Vineyard, Lake George. While the variety thrives across the district (it can’t fail says John Kirk), Helm’s promotion of it through the International Riesling Challenge lifted its quality across Canberra and profile nationally. And his own relentless fine-tuning keeps Helm’s two dry rieslings, Classic Dry and Premium, up there with the best in Australia. The 2019 Classic Dry shows the benefit of almost three years’ age, which intensifies the mouth-watering, lemony varietal flavour.

Collector Lamp Lit Canberra District Marsanne 2019 $38
Alex McKay explored Canberra’s vineyards from an early age. As a youth he worked with Edgar Riek at Lake George and later as BRL Hardy’s Canberra winemaker worked with growers across the region. Striking out on his own after Hardy’s departure from Canberra, Alex deepened the intimate connection between vineyards and winemaking. His ever inquisitive, inventive approach produces wine styles ranging from profound expressions of cool-climate shiraz, to earthy sangiovese, to this savoury, taut-textured, barrel-fermented blend of the Rhone Valley varieties marsanne, roussanne and viognier. It fills out pleasingly with a few years’ bottle age. Sourced from east of Murrumbateman, for release 1 February 2022.

Gallagher Sparkling Duet Pinot Noir Chardonnay NV $35
It can be said that Canberra selected its winemakers: Canberra existed, people lived here and some planted vineyards in proximity to their homes. Gallagher, on the other hand, chose Canberra. Researching suitable climates to grow shiraz in the late 1980s he selected Canberra before the variety became our signature red. Moving from Victoria, he planted the variety here in 1995 and subsequently made excellent long-lived shiraz. But he also makes exceptional riesling (like the gorgeous 2021), and specialises in traditional-method bubblies. The excellent Duet, made from locally grown pinot noir and chardonnay combines vibrant lemony flavour, fine bubbles and the texture and flavour complexity derived from maturation on spent yeast cells.


Clonakilla Canberra District Shiraz Viognier 2019 $110
Based on a temperature match, John Kirk established Clonakilla in 1971 with the Bordeaux varieties in mind. However, he soon discovered Canberra’s continental climate to be drier, with twice the evaporation rate of maritime Bordeaux, and more frost prone. The Bordeaux varieties survived but failed to shine. Shiraz and riesling proved to be the best performers of the early plantings. He made the first straight shiraz in 1990 and in 1992, following son Tim Kirk’s visit to France’s Cote-Rotie, made the first shiraz–viognier blend. The stunning 2019 offers exceptionally opulent fruit flavour meshed with assertive but fine, supple tannins.

Cullarin Block 71 Canberra District Syrah 2019 $55
Edgar Riek established Cullarin Vineyard, Lake George, in 1971 with Burgundy in mind. Chardonnay and pinot noir thrived. Indeed, Riek’s outstanding pinots inspired Jim Lumbers and Anne Caine to establish Lerida Estate on Riek’s southern boundary in 1997. But shiraz became the district hero. And this wine from old vines on Riek’s Lake George vineyard shows the qualities that put shiraz at the pinnacle: fragrance, fruit, savour and beautiful interaction between fruit and tannin. Eden Road winemaker Celine Rousseau says she added a tiny drop of viognier to the wine. The 2019 vintage won three trophies in the 2021 Australian Highland Wine Show. 2018 also available.

Mount Majura Canberra District Mondeuse 2021 $27.20–$34
In 1988 Dinny Killen established Mount Majura vineyard in collaboration with Dr Edgar Riek. Under Frank van de Loo the vineyard developed over time to include tempranillo (its signature red), graciano, touriga, mondeuse and ansonica. Van de Loo also hopes, in future, to plant albarino and altesse, making Mount Majura perhaps the most varietally diverse of Canberra’s estate-based producers. Based on this arresting mondeuse, bring on diversity! While often blended, this Savoy, France, variety offers a unique character on its own: lighter coloured and intensely aromatic, combining spice, black pepper and cherry-like fruit in the aroma and on the dry, gentle palate.

Nick O’Leary Seven Gates Canberra District Tempranillo 2019 $32
Nick O’Leary remained in Canberra following the departure of Hardys. He developed his own brand and, in the process, established deep connections with grape growers in Canberra and surrounding regions. He later bought a vineyard at Wallaroo, built a winery on site and has been extending the vineyard ever since. O’Leary’s $58 elegant but powerful Bolaro shiraz sits among the best and most awarded from Canberra. And the breeding shows, too, in his $30 Canberra District shiraz and $34 Heywood shiraz. O’Leary’s 2019 tempranillo, source mainly from his own vineyard, delivers plum-like and savoury varietal flavour, with a firm, taut, tannic structure.

Long Rail Gully Canberra District Shiraz 2019 $28
In 1998, encouraged by Hardys entry into Canberra, the late Garry Parker, wife Barbara, and son Richard planted Long Rail Gully’s 22-hectare vineyard. Richard Parker says a fixed-term contract with Hardys underpinned the venture in the short term, but the family always planned to develop their own brand. After Hardy’s departure Richard Parker continued making and bottling wine on site and selling fruit to local vignerons. Parker’s 2019 shows the drink-now appeal of Canberra’s medium-bodied shiraz style. It offers ripe, spicy fruit flavour with a juicy mid-palate and soft, easy tannins, subtly supported by maturation in oak barrels.

An abridged version of this story appeared in The Canberra Times Tuesday 7 December 2021
© Chris Shanahan 2021

Wine review – Clonakilla’s sensational 2019 flagship

Clonakilla Canberra District Shiraz Viognier 2019 $110 cellar door

Tim Kirk says the warm 2019 vintage produced some of Clonakilla’s richest, darkest fruit on record. The resulting shiraz–viognier blend, while bigger than usual, retains the flagship’s familiar, medium-bodied, aromatic style.

We served it masked and our little tasting panel admired the wine’s floral aroma, supple structure and layered fruity–savoury flavours, oak included. They quickly recognised the wine’s origin, while noting the bigger-than-usual dimension, and assertive, harmonious interplay of fruit, oak and tannin.

Indeed, Tim Kirk says the power of the fruit (and an empty winery when smoke-taint aborted the 2020 vintage) encouraged him to give the wine an additional six months’ oak maturation. Our conclusion: the opulent fruit absorbed the oak, and the combination expanded the dimension of one of the world’s notable shiraz–viognier blends.

Clonakilla is a Canberra District winery, located at Murrumbateman, New South Wales, Australia.

Dr John Kirk, father of winemaker Tim Kirk, established the vineyard in 1971.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2021

Wine reviews – Wynns Coonawarra Estate 2018 vintage reds

2018 – a highly rated Coonawarra vintage

Reviews of 2018 vintage reds tasted 27 October 2020 in Canberra with Wynns Coonawarra Estate winemaker, Sue Hodder, and Winewise editor, Lester Jesberg.

Wynns rate the 2018 vintage highly. ‘We love it’, says Hodder. High winter and spring rainfall, warm summer temperatures, followed by an extended cool ripening period into March resulted in harvest time at around the long-term average. ‘The cool finish was ideal for acid retention and freshness’,  Hodder concluded.

Wynns Coonawarra Estate V&A Lane Shiraz 2018 $58–$60
V&A Lane shiraz shows the floral, fresh, fruity face of early picked, cool-grown shiraz. Attempts at this style sometimes show green, unripe flavours. But the elegant, delicious V&A 2018 pulses with vibrant, ripe-berry flavours, tinged with spice and backed by structural elements and subtle flavours derived from oak maturation. It’s a plush, elegant wine with juicy drink-now appeal. An harmonious wine like this should also age for many years, but it’s hard to imagine its drinking appeal ever being greater than it is now.

Wynns Coonawarra Estate V&A Lane Cabernet Shiraz 2018 $58–$60
Vineyards on Victoria and Albert Lane produced the goods in 2018. The cabernet-shiraz blend provides a deep, dark, savoury contrast to the fragrant, buoyant shiraz reviewed above. It’s riper and fuller bodied than the shiraz, and the cabernet asserts itself with firm tannins and savoury black-olive and chocolate-like flavours. The shiraz component fattens the palate with supple fruit, balancing the assertive cabernet tannin. The finish is long, firm-but-fine, and satisfying.

Wynns Coonawarra Estate Black Label Shiraz 2018 $35–$45
Cabernet carries Coonawarra’s reputation today. But shiraz goes back to the earliest days. Indeed, says Hodder, fruit for Black Label comes from some of the region’s oldest vines, including shiraz from the Undoolya vineyard, planted 1894. While this is a riper, sturdier version of shiraz than the V&A wine reviewed above, it remains medium-bodied, in the cool-climate mould. Generous, ripe fruit flavour tinged with black pepper (another cool-grown shiraz signature) are bundled with tender but assertive tannins. This is a distinctive, satisfying red to enjoy over the next 20 years or more, depending on cellaring conditions.

Wynns Coonawarra Estate Harold Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 $75–$80
Where Black Label cabernet provides a powerful, pure, varietal expression of cabernet, sourced from a number of Wynns’ best vineyards, Harold shows the character of fruit from a single site, planted in 1971. The combination of the fruit, and sympathetic French oak, provides a more perfumed, medium-bodied expression of Coonawarra cabernet, with a particularly fine, persistent tannin structure.

Wynns Coonawarra Estate Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 $25–$45
If you try hard you can buy Black Label at its $45 recommended retail price. But in the real world, retailers rush to be lowest. Such is the allure to wine drinkers of one the world’s best (and best value) cabernets that it’s available, as I write, for as little as $25. The beautifully ripe 2018 delivers textbook cabernet sauvignon aroma, flavour and structure. It’s powerful and balanced, with the reassurance provided by still-drinkable vintages going back to 1954.

The geology of Coonawarra and origins of its terra rossa soils

Myths and misinformation recur in the popular discussion of Coonawarra and its famed strip of terra rossa soils. That famous strip occupies just a small part of the formally defined Coonawarra wine region, which itself sits within the larger Limestone Coast wine zone, comprising South Australia west of the Victorian border and south of the Murray River–Lake Alexandrina.

In geological terms, Coonawarra is a young landscape, certainly not part of an ancient seabed, and not overlying a limestone base, as is sometimes claimed.

Geologist–wine merchant David Farmer studied Coonawarra’s origins and soils for many years. He recently summarised:

The terra rossa soil does not overlie a base of limestone. Limestone is a specific rock type made in specific ways, mostly marine. The terra rossa soil sits on top of a hard layer called calcrete which is calcium carbonate redeposited from solution. It is tough, cemented, and brittle and is not free draining. These two layers overlay uncompacted, estuarine-lagoonal muds which are rich in calcium.

The date of the deposits at Coonawarra are well known as they sit behind a dune ridge dated at 680,000 years and are contemporaneous; though the calcrete and soils are much younger.

For interested readers, Farmer’s The red soils of Coonawarra – Part of a unique terroir provides a detailed discussion of current understanding, based on numerous field trips and scientific sources detailed in the article.

Though his maps and paper discuss Coonawarra in depth, Farmer concludes, ‘This explanation of the origin of the soils of Coonawarra is unlikely to be the final word. The discussion does, though, tighten the boundaries for future research and suggests areas for detailed investigation’.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 18 November 2020

Wine review – Miceli Mornington Peninsula

Miceli Mornington Peninsula Olivia’s Chardonnay 2017 $35
Pale straw colour; the aroma combines melon-like varietal flavour with strong leesy character of barrel maturation and a subtler caramel-like flavour derived from malolactic fermentation (a fermentation that converts malic acid to lactic acid); the palate reflects the aroma with pleasantly tart acidity and a bite of tannin in the finish.

Miceli Mornington Peninsula Lucy’s Pinot Noir 2016 $40
Medium depth of garnet colour, already showing some browning at the rim; not as aromatic as many others from the region; the palate is taut, tannic and dry.

Miceli Rosé Brut 2006 $70
Pinot noir 65%, chardonnay 20%, pinot gris 15%

Pale onion skin colour with lively bubbles; the aroma combines pinot noir varietal flavour with the influence of maturation on yeast lees – the latter also contributes backbone to a savoury style, dry rosé.

Miceli Michael Brut 2008  $50
Pinot noir 58%, chardonnay 23%, pinot gris 19%
My pick of the current releases, Miceli 2008 shows the richness, complexity and structure of the three-variety blend after extensive maturation on yeast lees.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan

Wine review – Four Winds Canberra District Riesling 2019

Four Winds Canberra District Riesling 2019 $28
Graeme and Suzanne Lunney planted Four Winds vineyard in 1998 during a period of rapid wine industry expansion, driven by Hardys’ arrival in Canberra. Hardys left town, but like other contracted growers, the Lunneys turned to winemaking. Today their daughter Sarah Collingwood and husband John Collingwood run a growing business. In 2019 they purchased the long-established nearby Kyeema Estate. They make excellent wines, including the vibrant 2019 riesling. We enjoyed a bottle recently at Canberra’s Sammy’s Kitchen. It’s light bodied and refreshing, with intense citrus-like varietal flavour and dry, refreshing finish. Unfortunately bushfire smoke wiped out the 2020 harvest, so there’ll be no follow up vintage until mid to late 2021.

More info and purchasing.

Copyright Chris Shanahan 24 October 2020

Wine review – Mada, Eden Road

Mada Murrumbateman Shiraz 2019 $40
Edgar’s Inn’s blackboard offered Mada Hilltops Shiraz 2019. Yes please, we thought, pizza and local red. Delicious, mouth-watering wine. Medium bodied, floral, sweet fruited, spicey and savoury, with fine, silky tannins. Beautiful red, lighter, finer, less robust than we’d anticipated from Hilltops region in the hot 2019 vintage. Winemaker Hamish Young explains why. Blackboard mistake he says. It’s not from Hilltops, but from cooler Murrumbateman, to the south, within the Canberra District – hence the lighter more savoury style. He sourced fruit from two vineyards: Neil McGregor’s, north-east of Murrumbateman village, and Will Bruce’s, to the south east of the village.

Winemaking: Whole bunches, including stems, comprise 40–50% of the ferment and add subtly to the aroma and flavour and significantly to the wine’s smooth texture. Maturation in a mix of older and new French oak adds depth to the palate.

Read more or buy Mada Murrumbateman Shiraz 2019

Two Tumba chardonnays

Tumbarumba region’s dedicated wine-grape growing began in the early 1980s. For much of the early years, largely through the influence of Southcorp Wines (now absorbed into Treasury Wine Estates) and BRL Hardy (absorbed into Accolade Wines), the bulk of the district’s chardonnay and pinot noir produced high-quality sparkling wine.

However, the big companies, and later an army of smaller makers, also saw the potential for table wine. Tumbarumba chardonnay in particular excelled and, indeed, in most years dominates the chardonnay classes at the annual Canberra and Region Wine Show.

Tumbarumba’s significantly cooler climate than Canberra or Hilltops – its wine-making neighbours in the high country of southern New South Wales high country – produces intensely flavoured, finely textured chardonnays. Mada and Eden Road versions are fine examples of the regional style.

Mada Tumbarumba Chardonnay 2019 $40
Winemaker Hamish Young sourced grapes from the Johansen Family vineyard, established 1994. He hand-picked the fruit and took it to Nick O’Leary’s winery at Hall, in the Canberra District wine region. There he loaded the whole bunches (that is, stems still attached) and pressed the juice to French oak barrels and concrete vessels for a spontaneous fermentation by ambient yeasts. Fermentation with grape solids, partial malo-lactic fermentation and a little lees stirring post-ferment, added texture and flavours to the wine. The result is a pale coloured chardonnay, with intense grapefruit-like varietal flavour. The mouth-watering palate combines that intense fruit flavour with lees-derived texture and natural acidity. This is an exceptionally high quality, bright and beautiful chardonnay – a joy to drink.

Read more or buy Mada Tumbarumba Chardonnay

Eden Road The Long Road Tumbarumba Chardonnay 2017 $25
We enjoyed this ahead of Mada shiraz at Edgar’s Inn, Ainslie, ACT. Winemaker Celine Rousseau made it at Eden Road Winery, Murrumbateman, using Tumbarumba grapes picked over a range of dates in March 2017. Whole bunch pressed and fermented in French oak barrels (20% new) using a selected yeast strain. More than three years after vintage the wine tastes deliciously fresh and vibrant. The varietal flavour is reminiscent of just-ripe nectarine. The barrel and yeast-lees influence come through in a rich texture and subtle vanilla-like flavours. It offers outstanding drinking at a modest price for a wine of this calibre.

Red more or buy Eden Road The Long Road Chardonnay 2017

Copyright © Chris Shanahan, 25 September 2020