Kamberra — a legacy we can’t afford to lose

Despite a reputed $2million public subsidy, Hardy’s bailed out of its reported $10million Canberra wine investment after just six years. So, has the Kamberra venture turned from white knight to white elephant? Or can the legacy be sustained under new ownership?

Whoever the new owner might be, there’s one thing for sure: Hardy’s winemaking experience in the district provides profound insights into where future success might lie.

The new owners – and contract growers — will also be well aware that of the three-thousand tonne annual grape crush at the Watson facility, only a tiny fraction makes the winery’s Kamberra and Meeting Place brands. The bulk goes to other Hardy Wine Company products.

Take these out of the equation – which is exactly what Hardy intends to do – and you have a vastly under utilised capacity unless the new owner ramps up the local brands to an unprecedented level or takes on large-scale contract processing.

An optimist might suggest that the new owner take up the estimated fifteen hundred tonnes of contract grown grapes and crush them with the roughly eight hundred tonnes from Hardy’s Holt vineyard — for a total of two thousand three hundred tonnes.

That’s simple arithmetic. But it translates to somewhere in the vicinity of 170 thousand dozen bottles of Canberra wine – dramatically beyond current demand. It also ignores the fact that most of that fruit currently finds its way into out of district blends.

As well, the highly rated Kamberra and Meeting Place Chardonnays and sparkling wines rely almost entirely on fruit from Tumbarumba, not Canberra. Almost certainly Hardys will divert this resource to comparable brands in its portfolio.

These challenges dictate that a future, independent Kamberra has to be dramatically different from the Kamberra that was primarily plugged into global markets through its massive parent company — and in which the local brand was but a side play.

But the very scale of the Kamberra operation and the unrelenting benchmarking demanded by Hardys meant that a clear, realistic view of our region’s strengths emerged.

And that view, supported by my own tastings, puts Canberra’s shiraz at the top by a very large margin, followed by the white varieties viognier and riesling.

A new owner, focused only on Canberra fruit, and in tune with Hardy’s achievements could excite wine drinkers with the stellar quality of shiraz, supported by the whites.

One advantage of an intense focus on the most exciting wines is that the best independent growers might continue to provide shiraz and riesling to a revitalised Kamberra.

However, even if a quality-lead approach drives Kamberra’s future, it holds little comfort for growers that don’t make the cut.

While those growers are afforded some protection by existing contracts, the Hardy exit exposes the weak demand for Canberra grapes. That leaves two to three years for growers to find other buyers, develop their own brands (as some have done already) or even exit the market.

An entrepreneurial new Kamberra owner might or might not want to buy into the growers’ dilemma. There is certainly no obligation to do so.

But there’s no denying the opportunities presented by the Watson wine tourism complex and Hardy’s extraordinary winemaking achievements.

The best shirazes made there by Alex McKay are world class; the viogniers are up there with the best in Australia; and the rieslings are within sight of the classics from the Clare and Eden Valleys. That’s a unique legacy. We can’t afford to lose it.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2006 & 2007