The power of a regional specialty

The emergence of shiraz as Canberra’s strongest wine variety is fortuitous for the region’s vignerons. Why? Because it plugs in neatly to a growing global view that Australia is the world’s shiraz specialist. And, arguably, the greater the diversity of styles we deliver the wider the interest that we’ll generate.

Phil Laffer, one of Australia’s most internationally renowned winemakers, puts it succinctly, ‘We’ve adopted shiraz as our own because we’re one of the few countries that makes it really well’.

Shiraz enjoys the added advantage of being mainstream. Australia crushes and drinks more shiraz than it does of any other wine variety, opening a tremendous opportunity for Canberra vignerons.

Clonakilla was the first Canberra winery to succeed with shiraz. But when John Kirk planted it in 1972 it wasn’t the darling grape that it is now. Back then shiraz didn’t rate alongside the so-called ‘noble’ varieties – riesling, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir.

Like other district pioneers Kirk planted a range of varieties and through decades of trial and error learned how each performed. Ultimately, shiraz, blended with viognier, triumphed spectacularly.

But there’s a salient lesson in its slow climb to fame. Just look at this sequence in the Clonakilla shiraz viognier history:

  • 1972 – Dr John Kirk plants shiraz at Clonakilla, Murrumbateman.
  • Mid 1970s to 1989 – shiraz is blended with cabernet sauvignon.
  • 1986 John Kirk and son Jeremy plant the white variety, viognier.
  • 1990 – Clonakilla’s first straight shiraz wins silver and gold medals and trophies.
  • 1991 – John’s son, Tim, visits legendary Rhône Valley maker, Marcel Guigal, and is ‘transfixed and delighted’ by Guigal’s shiraz–viognier blends from the Côte-Rôtie’s impossibly steep slopes.
  • 1992 – Tim and John add viognier to shiraz for the first time.
  • 1997 – Tim Kirk moves from Melbourne to Canberra and becomes full time winemaker.
  • 1999 – The 1998 vintage receives a 92/100 rating from American critic Robert M. Parker and is nominated as NSW wine of the year.
  • 2001 – Influential UK wine critic, Jancis Robinson, rates Clonakilla as one of her two favourite Aussie shirazes.

The first thing we learn from this is that if a grape variety suits a site it’ll show in the quality of the wine – as it did in that first Clonakilla Shiraz in 1990, almost twenty years after the vines had been planted.

Secondly, we know that if a variety suits one site in a region, then there’s a good chance – climate being the biggest single determinant – that it’ll be generally well suited to the region. And so it’s proven to be.

Even before Hardy’s moved here in the late 1990s they’d been sourcing shiraz for top shelf blends, including the $100 Eileen Hardy. They’d been particularly impressed by fruit from Andrew McEwin’s Murrumbateman vineyard, planted by Ron McKenzie in 1982.

Former Hardy winemaker, Alex McKay, rated this fruit second only to Clonakilla in the district. He also identified several other promising shiraz vineyards.

Clonakilla’s success and the Hardy presence encouraged wider planting of shiraz in the district. And, over time, we’ve seen it dominate the local wine show, taking out top honours every year since 1998, and outnumbering all other varieties in the medal tallies.

The compelling argument for shiraz doesn’t rule out other varieties. Rather, it presents a powerful opportunity for Canberra to cut through in the crowded domestic and global wine markets.

A stunningly good wine like Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier has the potential to stamp a whole district with class. And as local peers emerge over time – and that’s already begun to happen – the reputation can gain depth.

A single, powerful regional specialty makes a dramatic impact on drinkers. Think of Marlborough and Sauvignon Blanc, Coonawarra and cabernet sauvignon or Burgundy and chardonnay and pinot noir.

An important difference between these French and Australasian examples is that in Burgundy, vignerons can’t diversify into other varieties. Their Aussie and Kiwi counterparts can plant what they like where they like.

For Canberra that means we can seize our overwhelmingly obvious shiraz advantage while continuing to work with other promising grapes.

Unquestionably our second major opportunity lies with riesling. It’s one of the great grape varieties. It drinks beautifully when young, but also ages beautifully. And it shows flashes of brilliance across the region. What Canberra hasn’t seen yet, though, is a riesling of a stature to match that of our best shiraz. But that will almost certainly come.

Riesling’s draw back is that despite being talked up for the last thirty years, volumes remain static. This limits opportunities for local makers. But, like shiraz, it has the potential to build our regional identity and reward those who excel at it. Full marks to Ken Helm for his huge efforts with riesling.

Viognier, the white variety now being blended in with shiraz around the district could be our third string, albeit occupying an even smaller niche than riesling. As with shiraz, Clonakilla led the way – and still does. But Hardys made a few crackers in their brief stint in Canberra. And we’ve seen several other lovely examples. It’s clearly suited to the district and has a long-term future here.

The pinot noir story has moved on since first being planted in a cooler Canberra in the seventies. The cutting edge stuff – and that’s what builds regional reputations – now comes from southerly locations including New Zealand, Tasmania, Mornington Peninsula and Gippsland. Show me the great Canberra examples and I’ll change my mind. But, by all means, if makers believe in it and customers like it, persevere.

Cabernet, too, to my palate, is an also ran for Canberra. It has a following and we make decent wine from it, but it’s not in the reputation-building league as far as I can see.

Ubiquitous chardonnay makes appealing wine across the district. As with pinot noir, however, the best now emerge from much cooler regions and I suspect that it will never be a Canberra hallmark. We could continue to see some exceptions, though, from Lark Hill high up on the Lake George escarpment.

Where I do see wonderful opportunities, though, and potential rewards for growers and drinkers is in largely untested Italian, Spanish and French varieties.

Tim and John Kirk, for example, are about to plant grenache on an elevated, warm site in Murrumbateman; Frank van de Loo makes exciting reds from tempranillo and graciano at Mount Majura (and a lovely white pinot gris); Bryan Martin’s Murrumbateman red sangiovese and white marsanne click the right hyperlinks; and out at Lake George Winery, Alex McKay has an impressive 2007 tempranillo in barrel.

Not everything that’s tried will work. But as the Kirk’s have shown, it’s what we trial today that makes tomorrow’s winners, provided we recognise quality and work hard to perfect and promote it.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2007