Canberra District wines

Canberra’s wine industry was born twenty three years ago when two CSIRO scientists, quite independently of each other, established vines in the district. Dr Edgar Riek planted ‘Cullarin’ on the gentle slopes at the base of the escarpment overlooking the Federal Highway just a few hundred metres from Lake George. At the same time, Dr John Kirk established Clonakilla Vineyard at Murrumbateman.

Both seminal vineyards flourished over time. Edgar Riek chose never to establish cellar door sales, instead selling his grapes to other makers in and out of the district, while making and bottling small quantities of superb wines in the vineyard.

John Kirk continues to hand craft terrific estate-grown wines and these are available at the cellar door and at some retail outlets and restaurants.

The area under vine has increased steadily, if slowly, in little pockets scattered mostly outside the ACT boundary ever since Kirk and Riek led the way. There are no broad-acre ventures as we see in areas like Coonawarra, Padthaway, or McLaren Vale, or, closer to home, at Cowra and Young. Rather, viticultural Canberra consists of a series of isolated vineyards with no major aggregations and, therefore, no large-scale production.

As far as I can see, the largest grouping of vineyards is the little Pankhurst-Harris-Lane cluster high up above the Murrumbidgee River at Hall. But I understand there are several mooted 20 hectare-odd plantings in the wind between Yass and Murrumbateman and possibly at Sutton, as well.

If these proceed the district may yet develop the mass to survive long term as a viticultural region.

Under the terms of our recent trade agreement with the EC, Australian wine growing regions need to be formally defined before a district of origin may be included on labels. Appropriate Federal legislation has been passed and the unexpectedly difficult task of defining production regions is under way.

Although the ‘Canberra District Wines’ boundary has yet to be recognised under the new law, local vignerons recently presented a proposal to the Geographic Indications Committee of the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation (AWBC), the body appointed by Parliament to control the process.

Dr David Carpenter of Lark Hill Winery, perched high up on the escarpment between the Federal Highway and Bungendore, tells me the boundary was fixed, in accordance with AWBC guidelines, “with reference to natural features.”

In Canberra, in the absence of a unifying geological structure dictating where vineyards might lie, that means rivers and mountains in proximity to our widely scattered vineyards. David says the proposed boundary is the Great Dividing Range to the East, the Yass River catchment area to the North, the Murrumbidgee River to the West, and to the South “a little river just over the ACT border.”

Take a drive around that quite large area — or simply look at a map, and it seems clear that Canberra’s vignerons’ major link is, as David Carpenter puts it, “some uniformity of climate with variations according to altitude.” He points out that altitude varies from about 550 metres to 860 metres above sea level.

That variation alone ensures a wide variation of wine styles from the district. Throw in the vastly different aspects, soils, and bedrocks of all the hills, gullies, and flats where vineyards lie, and it’s hard to imagine a distinct regional style emerging as it has say in comparatively homogenised Coonawarra or Padthaway.

The AWBC wants to define larger regions as well as specific districts. Just as the French break, say, Bourgogne into the sub regions Cote de Nuits and Cote de Beaune, and within those sub-regions into communes, and finally into individual vineyard names, Canberra appears set to be a sub-region of a larger Southern Tablelands zone embracing also Cowra and Young. (Just as Coonawarra and Padthaway are to be sub-districts of the Limestone Coast region).

For the future, as the district wineries and vineyards mature, it is quite possible that further sub-divisions might occur. Perhaps by 2020 we may have within Canberra District, distinctive wine styles (and names) for Murrumbateman, Hall, Yass, Sutton, Bungendore Escarpment, and Lake George.

For the present we have an industry producing high-quality table wines from professionally managed vineyards and increasingly high-tech wineries that probably sell more outside the district than they do within it. I’ll be telling the modern Canberra winery story over the next few weeks.

October 30th, 1994

Canberra’s wine production from locally-grown grapes (reckoned in conjunction with Ken Helm, a pencil, and the back of an envelope) runs at about 30,000 cases a year. That’s an appreciable increase on the 12,000 cases estimated in this column six years ago. And the volume appears likely to grow by 15 per cent a year for the next three or four years as new vineyard plantings come on stream.

The rate of growth may seem impressive. But the total really is small when we consider that production is spread over 17-odd wineries. Consider, too, that individual vineyards in nearby Young and Cowra produce far more than the combined Canberra District.

The fragmented nature of our local industry, and the minute scale of each individual operation, tells us that the Canberra industry has not, in any broad sense, come of age despite the high quality of wines.

Rather, we have a fragile wine industry, struggling for capital and almost totally reliant on the sheer hard graft of individuals and families devoting their lives and total wealth to a dream.

Unlike Young and Cowra, Canberra has no major players, no broad acres, no critical mass to underpin the industry and give it a power to endure beyond the lives of the individuals now involved.

As Ken Helm says, the life of the Canberra small vigneron has been one of long hours, and sleepness nights wondering how the bills might be paid, sustained by hope and a belief that the area can make top-notch wines. Ken now sees a light at the end of the tunnel as demand strengthens and prices firm.

Were wine simply a commodity, the locals might disappear from the map, unable to compete with better capitalised, more efficient makers elsewhere. But the romanticism of wine, and the desire by some drinkers to know the vineyard, the maker, and distinctive flavours produced by an area, keeps literally hundreds of small Australian wineries afloat— including our local ones .

Canberra’s wineries report increasing visits from Sydneysiders, thanks to improved roads and consequent ease of getting to Canberra, and stimulated by the promotional efforts in Sydney of, in particular, Helms, Lark Hill, and Madews. Melbourners look to Canberra as well, and the most visible brands there appear to be Clonakilla and Doonkuna Estate.

Bit by bit over the last few weekends, I’ve been visiting local wineries, chronicling what’s planted in the ground, stored in the cellars, and on offer to drinkers. I don’t have a complete picture yet, but I estimate about one third of local production sells outside Canberra, the rest — some 20,000 cases a year — selling to locals either direct from the winery or through restaurants and bottle shops.

The wineries are widely scattered, planted on numerous different soil types and, while marketed as ‘cool-climate’, actually vary from the warmish sites 540 metres above sea level at Hall, to the distinctly cool Lark Hill Vineyard 860 metres up on the Lake George Escarpment near Bungendore.

Murrumbateman has the biggest grouping of wineries: Ruker Wines, Murrumbateman Winery, Doonkuna Estate, Helms, Jeir Creek, Clonakilla, Yass Valley Wines and Kyeema Estate. And there is one, Benfield Estate, sitting all on its own at Yass .

At Hall, Park Lane and Brindabella Hills operate cellar door sales full time, while Allan Pankhurst, President of the Canberra District Vignerons Association, provides grapes to various local makers while having his own brand contract made at Lark Hill.

Towards Bungendore, Lark Hill has as its neighbours Afleck and Brooks Creek (formerly known as Shingle House under Dr Max Blake).

Queanbeyan’s one and only vineyard, belonging to the Madew family, recently went under the bulldozer. But the supply of excellent wines seems set to continue as the Madews have bought Geoff Hood’s Westering Vineyard at Lake George where I understand the vineyard is to be expanded and the winery and cellar door facilities upgraded.

Next door to Westering (on the Canberra side) Dr Edgar Riek maintains ‘Cullarin’, one of Canberra’s two original vineyards, selling most of the grapes to others while making some of the most exciting wines in the district. I think Edgar and trade visitors drinks most of what he makes, but wines under his Lake George label sometimes grace retail shelves and restaurant wine lists.

November 6th, 1994

Drive away from Canberra on the Barton Highway and turn left at the ‘wineries 10 kilometers’ sign near Hall. On a mild spring morning — a flush of green in the paddocks, blue Brindabellas serene in the distance beyond the Murrumbidgee Valley — you could almost be tempted to plant a vineyard.

Roger and Faye Harris did in 1986. Not so much for the scenery, but because a granite ridge 100 metres above the Murrumbidgee appeared well suited for wine-grape growing.

As Roger writes, the site enjoys “… brilliant sunshine in abundance, and cool nights in the ripening season which contributes to the development of intense berry flavours … red and yellow duplex soils are of low fertility but very well drained and vines thrive without excessive vigour. Their roots can penetrate the crumbly granite underlying the soil and once established the vines are very drought hardy.”

2.6 hectares of vines now test that last proposition. While those vines took root, the Harrises built and equipped a winery and cellar door building and made the first “Brindabella Hills’ wines. Roger added a Charles Sturt University degree in Wine Science to his Adelaide Chemistry Ph.D., finally quitting his job with the CSIRO to work full time in the new business.

While I’m sure Roger and Faye don’t wish to be type-cast, they share common threads with other Canberra District wine makers in their struggle to establish Brindabella Hills: pouring a life’s wealth into a dream; learning to be agriculturalist, manufacturer and marketer; and the sheer hard yakka of working two full-time jobs in the early years before finally casting adrift into uncharted waters.

Like most Australian wineries, Brindabella Hills concentrates on the classic French wine-grape varieties, semillon, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and merlot plus the great German grape, riesling.

The latter seems to have done extraordinarily well. A note just received from Roger says the riesling won a silver medal in the tough Adelaide Show and bronze at Stanthorpe.

While it’s too early to draw firm conclusions about which grapes do best in the area, Roger has already concluded from his own measurements that growing conditions are somewhat warmer than first anticipated. That’s one reason he’s considering grafting shiraz, a proven variety in our warmer areas, onto his pinot noir vines. (These make decent wine at Brindabella Hills but lack the fleshy richness the variety produces in cooler climates like the Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula).

He’s encouraged in that thinking by the lovely, sweet, intense cherry-like flavours found in wines made of shiraz grown at a similar altitude and in similar granite soils around Young. (Even closer to Hall, try Jan Murray’s Doonkuna Estate Murrumbateman Shiraz 1991 for those familiar rich, soft flavours).

To make wines as well as he does, Roger needs to be something of a magician. His counterparts in large wineries enjoy all the refrigeration, filters, membrane presses — in fact, every piece of modern equipment they want. Without the same capital resources to equip Brindabella Hills, Roger relies more on a sound understanding of wine chemistry, eternal watchfulness, and just enough of the right equipment.

Regardless of constraints in the winery, Roger’s wines from the very start were, in my view, above average for the district. As wine drinkers, we can confidently order any Brindabella Hills wine knowing we’ll get value for money.

Small makers have higher production costs per case than large producers and there was once a very large gap between small-maker cellar door price and large-maker retail price.

But the gap appears to have narrowed in recent times as bigger makers have jacked up domestic prices. To me that makes the $11.50 to $14 a bottle asked for a Brindabella Hills wine very reasonable indeed.

The best way to buy wines from the Harrises is to motor out to the winery, taste the lot and buy what you like. For me, the Rhine Riesling 1994 ($13 a bottle, $11.50 when bought by the case) is the stand out. After that I move to the lovely 1992 Shiraz ($14.50/$13) made from grapes grown on the Nioka Ridge vineyard, Young, and 1993 Chardonnay ($15.50/$14), a barrel-fermented and matured Young/Canberra blend.

Roger and Faye also believe wine drinking can be fun and offer the tasty Picnic Creek Les Trois Blancs at $6 a bottle, and Bulk Pinot Noir/Cabernet Franc blend at $3.50 a litre.