Canberra’s wineries celebrate 21 years

Canberra’s local wineries this week showed a mature self-confidence in bringing Australia’s leading wine writers to the district. With generous help from Australian Airlines and the Canberra Tourism Commission, our local vignerons acted as one, flying the influential guests in and then busing them around on Monday and Tuesday.

That’s not the thing to do if you’re at all apologetic about the area’s wines. Certainly, the winemakers could not have mounted a public relations venture on this scale just a few years back without expecting brickbats and bouquets in equal measure.

Well, the scribes jetted home on Tuesday night leaving their hosts to ponder what the verdict will be. But speaking to the writers at The Vineyard Restaurant on Tuesday, and tasting a wide range of local wines, it’s hard to imagine the locals earning anything but praise.

I find it amazing when wineries as small as Kyeema and Clonakilla consistently turn out high quality wine. I was particularly impressed by a 1990 Shiraz from Kyeema. Andrew McEwin has made not just a sound red, but one with a lovely, fleshy depth of fruit flavour and good firm structure. Kyeema offers no cellar door service yet, but Andrew can be contacted after hours on 254 7557.

And what a delight it was to taste a terrific Rhine Riesling 1991 from David Madew’s Queanbeyan vineyard. The last batch of Madew wines tasted a few years back were badly flawed. Now, with the professional services of winemaking consultants, Oenotec, quality has been transformed. A couple of Madews reds also scrubbed up quite well on the night.

Christine and Allan Pankhurst are on a winner with Pankhurst Chardonnay 1990 (available mail order from the winery). It’s a full-flavoured dry white with fruit nicely backed up by oak flavours. Dr Roger Harris (of Brindabella Hills Winery) made the wine. But grapes were sourced solely from the Pankhurst vineyard. With the vines only three years old, we can expect future vintages to show even greater depth and concentration of flavour.

While on the subject of local chardonnays, Dr Edgar Riek from Lake George winery dropped in recently bearing a huge smile and an unlabelled white. The smile grew as the bottle emptied. Edgar’s mystery wine, a 1991 chardonnay, is the first made for him in the Hunter Valley by Murray Tyrell using Lake George grapes. It’s the most polished local chardonnay I’ve tasted to date. Again, it speaks volumes for the potential of chardonnay in the area.

At Lake George winery with a visiting Italian winemaker last August, Edgar produced for us a particularly good Cabernet Merlot 1988. He made this lovely, supple drop himself. It was the sort of wine you could drink by the bucketful. Which is about how much of it he made.

A similar blend topped my scoring at the Vineyard Restaurant last Monday. Lark Hill’s Cabernet Merlot 1988 is surely one of the best reds yet made in the area. Proprietors of Lark Hill, Sue and David Carpenter, tell me the last of it’s just been sold to the Australian Embassy in the Netherlands.

Another Lark Hill wine looking good at the restaurant was the 1986 Auslese Rhine Riesling. Where so many Aussie sweeties are just that, this little gem showed rich fruit flavour and fresh, lively acid…a few years bottle age had done it nothing but good.

Murrumbateman Winery…now something of a landmark on the left side of the Barton Highway on the way to Yass…never really made its mark as a winemaker under its old ownership. New management’s changing that. A 1991 Rhine Riesling served last Monday was clean, fresh, and easy to drink…better than anything else I can recall in the winery’s long (in Canberra terms) history.

The visiting scribes enjoyed nineteen local wines at the dinner, every one a medal winner. It was, literally, a showcase of Canberra’s show winners. A few old favourites like Helm’s Rhine Riesling 1990, Clonakilla Shiraz 1990, and Brindabella Hills Estate Cabernet 1990 opened particularly well on the night.

Many other wineries participated in the event and I hope that neither they nor readers take it as a criticism that their wines are not mentioned here. Other commitments kept me off the bus. My comments are therefore limited to what I tasted on Monday at Murrumbateman.

After twenty-one years, Canberra’s wine industry seems to have reached a new level of maturity. There are now over ninety hectares of vines planted and more going in. Qualified winemakers, working with modern equipment, consistently make wines good enough to win medals in open competition. As Ken Helm says, our winemakers now ring show organisers and ask not if they’ve won any medals but how many.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1992 & 2007