Murrumbateman’s Jeir Creek Winery

In October, fields around Canberra showed a little green fuzz instead of the usual rampant spring growth. Teasing drizzle underlined for local vignerons their absolute reliance on dam, river or bore water to produce a crop every year. Canberra’s rainfall pattern, as for most of the continent, just does not favour vignerons.

At the time, some were in good shape. For Roger and Faye Harris at Brindabella Hills, for instance, water from an irrigation bore seemed as sweet as ever and showed no sign of drying up. Vines flush with spring growth suggested all was well. But for Rob and Kay Howell at Jeir Creek Winery, Murrumbateman, the outlook was bleak.

The vineyard looked good. Under a warm spring sun, 10,000 vines sprinkled over 6 hectares showed delicate green shoots. But the dam was almost empty and Rob talked of budgeting $10,000 for buying water essential to maintain vine growth. The Howell’s simply could not afford to lose this year’s crop.

Then the rain came, mostly in dribs and drabs as we’ve seen in Canberra. Murrumbateman, however, struck it lucky with five inches recorded over the last two months, according to Ken Helm. As a result vines are surging ahead with new growth of up to 4 centimetres a day recorded in one vineyard.

Now we’re laughing”, Rob Howell told me on the phone, “we’re in for a potentially big crop.” But he’s not writing the $10,000 water bill out of the budget yet. Several hot, dry months to endure before vintage with a dam only part full don’t inspire confidence.

Uncertainty is the lot of the vigneron. And vintage differences are a big part of what all the fuss over wine is about. For all the scientific control within wineries, and all the prudent vineyard management, what the vineyard produces remains significantly at the whim of nature.

In 1993 warm, wet conditions promoted the growth of mildew; followed by a 1994 vintage blighted for local makers by a freak spring frost that nipped a horrifyingly large portion of chardonnay in the bud; and then a 1995 vintage first seeming threatened by drought then shaping up as a cornucopia. Hopes are up at Jeir Creek and for Ken Helm’s estimated 21 vineyard owners within 6 kilometres of Murrumbateman.

As Rob Howell says, the weight of vineyards and, more importantly for drinkers, the concentration of cellar-door outlets in the vicinity, makes Murrumbateman something of a hub in a wine district spread over literally hundreds of kilometres, from Yass to Bungendore to Lake George to Bredbo.

Jeir Creek you’ll find a few kilometres to the right of the Barton Highway up Gooda Creek Road, before Murrumbateman Village. The winery and cellar-door/maturation shed sit behind the vineyard, all on gently rolling country — a tranquil and quite lovely setting, conveniently close to Canberra.

Rob and Kay, like so many small-scale operators (there are 800 in Australia at last count) committed themselves to wine making in 1984 after a long passion with the product.

Planting at Jeir Creek commenced in 1985 and progressed through until 1992 when a final chardonnay planting brought the total area under vine to 6 hectares — small but, nevertheless, one of the biggest single holdings in the Canberra district.

Chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, riesling and sauvignon blanc are the dominant varieties planted, with a tiny patch of pinot noir. But following the success in the district, and strong demand for red wine, the Howells intend planting 2 hectares of shiraz.

Jeir Creek, for the Howells continues to be an extra career rather than alternative one. Like so many other small makers, the venture is funded by full time daytime jobs. Rob’s career has been in surveying and mapping — topics he now teaches at Bruce C.I.T. while Kay works in childcare.

Rob says the aim is to move full time into wine making but there are several more capital hungry stages to pass through before that’s possible. A new mezzanine level in the winery is about to go in (as a tasting cellar-door sales area), then there’s 2 hectares of vineyards, an air-bag press to increase juice extraction and quality; and finally, a proper sandstone cellar-door sales facility.

All that takes money, labour, time, and expertise.

In the Howell’s case it’s resulting in a small range of high quality wines, of which the sauvignon blanc and a sweet botrytised semillon-sauvignon blanc blend have become house specialties.

From my own tasting of bottled, tank, and barrel samples two months ago, I can vouch for the quality, and especially recommend the 1994 Riesling, 1994 Sauvignon Blanc and 1994 Bredbo/Jeir Creek sweet semillon/sauvignon blanc.

It’s well worth making a day of it and heading out to Jeir Creek.