Shiraz and riesling emerge as Canberra’s top wine varieties

Talking to a few local winemakers recently led to a little flurry of samples arriving on the tasting bench. While far from a comprehensive review of what the district has to offer, tasting the wines confirmed a view that Canberra excels with shiraz, looks increasingly good with riesling and offers pretty good value at the cellar door outlets sprinkled around our large district.

Sipping through an impressive shiraz line up, word came through that Lerida Estate Lake George Shiraz 2005 and Lambert Wamboin Shiraz 2004 had both won gold medals at the recent NSW Small Winemakers Wine Show, held in Forbes.

Both missed my tasting. But on their gold medal performances would’ve added to a very solid line up.
Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier 2005 led the charge (see Top Drops), but that’s no surprise for a wine that’s been in the making for thirty years and in its present style, more or less, since 1992.

While there’s considerable variation in the local shirazes, there’s a consistent thread dictated by our comparatively cool climate. This means varietal expression built on fragrance plus peppery, spicy, savoury flavours and fine-boned structure.

For those choosing, like Clonakilla, to include a portion of the white viognier in the blend, there’s an extra floral lift to the aroma and suppleness to the palate. In some wines, however, the viognier weighs in a little too heavily, throwing things off balance.

But as Tim Kirk found at Clonakilla in the mid nineties, getting the right balance is a matter of time and practice – at the rate of only one vintage per year.

Kamberra’s Shiraz Viognier 2004 goes close to the mark although I’m sure the ever-restless Alex McKay has even better wines on the way through. Bryan Martin’s Ravensworth Shiraz Viognier 2005, after a few months in bottle, seems to have tilted a little too far in viognier input although it’s still an appealing drop.

Of the straight Shirazes tasted, Meeting Place 2003 (from Kamberra) offers solid, tasty value at $15; Brindabella Hills 2004 is a standout (see Top Drops) and Clonakilla Hilltops Shiraz 2005 (from nearby Young) is also outstanding, albeit in a considerably more robust mould than the Murrumbateman wine.

A couple of local merlots looked above average, if green in comparison to the supple, ripe shirazes – but that seems to be the case generally in Australia. I rated the Gallagher 2005 a nose ahead of the elegant Brindabella Hills 2004.

The very pleasant, vibrant, cedary/leafy Brindabella Hills Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 won’t challenge Coonawarra but, to my taste, delivered more appeal than Helm Cabernet 2003 or Premium Cabernet 2003.

Canberra’s 2006 rieslings offer great excitement. Although I rated Gallagher 2006 a touch ahead of Helm Premium 2006 at the top, it was a close call — with another four wines in hot pursuit: Ravensworth 2006, Brindabella Hills 2006, Clonakilla 2006 and Helm Classic Dry 2006, followed by another appealing wine, Dionysus 2006.

Meeting Place Viognier 2005 is a full, tasty example of this Rhone grape variety. But it was outclassed by the amazingly deep, fine, slippery Clonakilla 2005.

The sole sauvignon blanc tasted, Brindabella Hills 2006 (Top Drops), is a ripper and Kamberra Tumbarumba 2004 (30) is a lovely example of complex, cool-grown, barrel fermented chardonnay.

While these wines provide a tasty snapshot of what Canberra produces, there’s lots more. We’ll look at these after the regional show in late September.

Brindabella Hills Canberra District Sauvignon Blanc 2006 $15
It seems appropriate that Dr Roger Harris — the scientist whose CSIRO colleagues identified methoxypyrazene compounds as sauvignon blanc’s pungent flavour source — should make such a wonderful expression of it. The 2006 is just delicious – fresh and zesty with juicy, refreshing tropical-fruit flavours to enjoy over the warm months ahead. It’s a bargain at $15, cellar door. And at $25 Brindabella Hills Shiraz 2004 offers the fragrant, fine-boned, savoury richness of cool climate shiraz. To my taste this is the best yet from Roger and Fay Harris’s vineyard on the lower, warmer Murrumbidgee Valley side of Hall.

Clonakilla Canberra District Shiraz Viognier 2005 $78
Canberra’s most celebrated wine easily topped a tasting of local shirazes at Chateau Shanahan this week. That it did so comes as no surprise. And it’s worth remembering, too, that like most style benchmarks Clonakilla is no overnight sensation. Shiraz from the Kirk family vineyard was blended with cabernet from the mid seventies until the first straight shiraz appeared in 1990. In 1992, Tim Kirk added viognier to the blend (from vineyards planted in 1986) and hit the spot with international critics consistently from the late nineties. What we see now is a highly perfumed, silky red of great intensity and remarkable finesse.

Meeting Place Canberra District Viognier 2005 $15
It’s grown on a new vineyard at Holt, it’s irrigated with grey water from the lower Molonglo treatment works and it’s already recognised as one of the best value viognier’s in Australia. If it lacks the restraint and depth of Clonakilla’s $50 version, it pleases with, pure, full, citrus/apricot flavour and thick, viscous texture of the variety — beautifully made at Kamberra Winery by Alex McKay. Alex believes that the wine will become increasingly intense and interesting in future vintages as the vines mature. While it’s probably best to enjoy the 2005 as a young wine, the 2004 is still remarkably fresh and enjoyable.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2006 & 2007