Canberra wine region — a boutique affair

After the decade-long, tenfold expansion described here last week, Canberra’s wine industry remains – from a drinker’s perspective, anyway — principally a boutique affair.

While the announcement of Hardy’s Kamberra project in 1997 encouraged several large vineyard plantings and delivered us one quite big and outstanding winery, the district’s identity still comes primarily from the wines of small producers.

If their numbers approximately doubled in that ten-year period – from about twenty to forty – the scale of individual operations remains tiny. According to the Australian Wine Industry Journal thirty-two of our forty-odd local vignerons own twelve hectares or less of vines each – and nineteen of those have less than five hectares.

Of the older, established operators, only Doonkuna touches the still modest twenty-hectare mark, thanks to a substantial expansion in the late nineties under Barry Moran.

The Journal also tells us that between 1998 and 2000 – at the peak of Australia’s vine-planting boom – we gained four substantial new vineyards that subsequently developed their own wine brands as well as selling grapes to other winemakers.

These were all established between Hardy’s announced arrival and the opening of its Kamberra winery, Watson, in 2000. By that time Long Rail Gully, Four Winds and Shaw Vineyard Estate at Murrumbateman had commenced planting twenty-two, twenty-one and thirty-two hectares respectively.

At nearby Hall, Wily Trout planted fifty hectares and at Holt, Kamberra, in a joint venture with Alan and Helen Anderson, established eighty-three hectares that deliver the core of Kamberra’s local intake.

But because the Journal records only winemaker plantings, it doesn’t reveal the extent of plantings by those purely in the grape supply business. Of course, these are of less direct interest to wine drinkers.

Canberra’s mainly tiny vineyard plots and cellar door outlets are scattered across a vast landscape, stretching from Yass to Murrumbateman to Hall to Holt to Mount Majura, to top of the Lake George Escarpment and down to its western foreshore,

These vineyards lie in a variety of soils and aspects and — probably more importantly in terms of wine style — cover a variety of altitudes from a little over five hundred metres on the Murrumbidgee Valley side of Hall, through the mid six hundred metres at Murrumbateman, to the low seven hundreds along Lake George and into the eight hundreds at the top of the escarpment near Wamboin and Lark Hill winery.

As the area under vines and the number of vignerons expanded over the last decade, so too did the district’s winemaking capital – in both physical and human terms. The new talent and new equipment, added to the previous quarter century’s learning, saw a marked increase in the number and quality of our very best wines, if not the elimination of all winemaking problems.

The decade also saw shiraz and, to a lesser extent, riesling step forward as our regional stars; the emergence of viognier as another outstanding performer; and promising debut’s from pinot gris, marsanne, sangiovese and tempranillo.

Chardonnay’s performance remained solid, if upstaged by those from nearby Tumbarumba; pinot noir hit several highs at Lark Hill and remains a contender in our higher, cooler sites; sauvignon blanc can be delicious as at Brindabella Hills; cabernet sauvignon has proven challenging; and merlot struggles for identity.

Importantly, the decade welcomed the arrival of several sophisticated, modern cellar door facilities, notably those of Kamberra, Lambert’s, Madew, Lerida Estate and Shaw Vineyard Estate – as well as food offerings at Pialligo Estate, Poachers Pantry and Yass Valley Wines.

Helm Classic Dry Riesling 2006 $25 & Premium Riesling 2006 $39
Ken Helm’s been out of the blocks quickly with his 2006 rieslings having hit a gold-medal score for the Premium Riesling at the recent Winewise Small Vignerons Awards and winning bronze medals for both in the 2006 Melbourne Show – where the cheaper Classic Dry outscored the Premium. This is not unusual as the softer, slightly sweeter Classic Dry has strong drink-now appeal where the more austere, slow-evolving Premium blossoms with a few years’ bottle age. Unquestionably to me the Premium is the better wine in the long run. Both are to be released on September first at cellar door, phone 6227 0555.

Gallagher Canberra District Riesling 2006 $17
In a tasting of eight local 2006 rieslings Gallagher and Helm Premium drew my top scores with the victory finally going to Gallagher by a tiny margin. This is a lovely, fresh, citrusy and delicate drop sourced from Graeme Lunney’s Four Winds Vineyard, Murrumbateman. The previous vintage, from the same vineyard, won gold at last year’s local show and this one seems to be of a similar quality, if a little more full flavoured. The pale, bright, colour, varietal purity and fine structure all suggest a long and interesting flavour evolution in bottle. Cellar door phone 6227 0555.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2006 & 2007