Clonakilla shiraz — birth of a Canberra blue chip

International and local acclaim for Clonakilla Murrumbateman Shiraz Viognier has terrific implications for the Canberra district – especially for shiraz growers in the vicinity of Murrumbatemen.

The implication is that Canberra shiraz – either in tandem with the white variety viognier, or on its own – has the potential to be world class. And if Clonakilla leads the way to date, it does not have to be alone in the future.

Indeed, the quality of shiraz from Roger and Fay Harris’s Brindabella Hills vineyard at Hall, Andrew McEwin’s Kyeema Estate, Murrumbateman, and BRL Hardy’s Kamberra winery (using fruit from Murrumbateman) all point to an emerging regional specialty: shiraz in the elegant and supple mould.

Yet, when Dr John Kirk, a scientist at CSIRO’s division of Plant Industry, planted his first shiraz vines at Clonakilla in 1972 it was just one of many varieties. Who could have predicted then that twenty nine years later, respected UK-based global critic, Jancis Robinson, was to rate Clonakilla as one of her two favourite Australian shirazes, or that in 1999 American guru, Robert M. Parker would give a remarkable 92/100 rating for Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier 1998. The same wine was nominated as New South Wales’ wine of the year.

So where did this strikingly beautiful wine come from? Was it simply an accident of nature – planting the right variety in the right spot, and bingo! Or was it brilliant winemaking by John Kirk and his son Tim? Perhaps the answer is that nature pointed the way, then human ingenuity ran with it.

In fact, from the first crop in the mid seventies until vintage 1990, John Kirk blended Clonakilla’s shiraz and cabernet sauvignon together. That first straight shiraz enjoyed remarkable success, winning a silver medal at the Cowra Wine Show, a gold medal at Stanthorpe and a gold medal and two trophies at Griffith.

Prior to this, though, John Kirk and another son, Jeremy, made a decision that was later to have a profound impact on Clonakilla’s winemaking direction. Looking for another variety that might suit the district and offer a point of difference, John identified a Rhone valley white, viognier, as having potential. They planted the first vines in 1986.

Then, in 1991 while the second Clonakilla shiraz lay in barrel, Melbourne-based Tim Kirk, having completed his Diploma of Education, headed off to France where I’d organised an appointment for him with Marcel Guigal, one of the Rhone’s great winemakers.

There he tasted Guigal’s stunning single vineyard Cote-Roties (blends of shiraz and viognier): the 1998 vintages of La Mouline and La Landonne from barrel and the 1987 La Turque from bottle.

At a dinner in Sydney last week, Tim said that this meeting and tasting had been a ‘transforming moment’ and that he was ‘transfixed and delighted’ by the perfume and sheer dimension of Guigal’s wines. ‘I’ve got to get this shiraz-viognier thing going back home’, he thought.

With this powerful vision driving Tim, the stage was set for a rapid evolution of the Clonakilla shiraz style.

From the 1992 vintage Tim and John included viognier in the blend in varying quantities: starting at one per cent each in 1992 and 1993, rising to four per cent in 1994, peaking at ten per cent in 1995 and 1996, then falling back to 5 per cent in 1997, 1998 and 1999, and lifting to six per cent and seven per cent in the 2000 and 2001 vintage respectively.

The viognier component adds to the wine a lovely floral fragrance. But, Tim asks, at what point does it become too much? And when does the addition of white wine to red create a rose rather than enhancing the perfume or texture of the red?

While trialing various levels of viognier, Tim and John worked on the winemaking regime, too, eventually settling on limited whole bunches in the ferments (these add a gamey dimension) and on about one third new French oak for maturation.

And after 1995 they altered the trellising system for shiraz, opening the canopy and using vertical shoot positioning to improve fruit exposure and maximise ripening.

In 1997 Tim moved from Melbourne to Canberra to focus on winemaking full time. As a result Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier’s journey to greatness accelerated. The trend has been steadily upward. And the 2001 vintage now available at cellar door ($48) is as beautiful an expression of cool-climate shiraz as Australia makes.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2002 & 2007