Canberra wine district — pre-spring stirrings

There’s plenty happening on the Canberra district wine scene at present. It’s the depth of winter, but the first of the 2008 whites are being released, along with the last of the 2006 vintage reds and what little there is of the 2007s.

New-release samples to date look good. And a tasting of the latest offerings from Ravensworth, Clonakilla and Brindabella Hills (reviewed in coming Sunday columns) inspired us to begin the season’s cellar door visits. It’s a big district, of course, so the reports can only trickle in from week to week. But there’s a bit of excitement out there.

For pure quality, the most exciting wine remains Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier – a beautifully fragrant and plush, world-class example of a style that originated in Côte Rôtie at the northern end of France’s Rhône Valley. The about-to-be-released 2007 vintage is sensational. But, sadly, frost wiped out ninety per cent of the 2007 crop, leaving just 150 dozen bottles for the world. It’ll sell out rapidly at $75 – a modest price for a wine of this provenance.

It’s worth asking for a bottle or two at cellar door. But if you don’t get lucky, Clonakilla’s Hilltops Shiraz 2007 ($25) and O’Riada Canberra District Shiraz 2007 ($35) provide tremendously satisfying drinking. And the 2008 riesling ($25) offers taut, brisk lovely drinking and good cellaring prospects.

Writer of The Canberra Times ‘Male order’ column, Bryan Martin, can’t spruik for his own Ravensworth wines (he makes them at Clonakilla) but they sit with the best in the district. Ravensworth Riesling 2008 ($18) is pure and fresh and a little plumper than the Clonakilla. And his Shiraz Viognier 2007 ($30) is savoury, spicy – in the fine-boned Canberra mould – but a little chunkier and earthier than the silky, ethereal Clonakilla version. There’s no cellar door, however, but you can google ‘Ravensworth’ and order online.

We’ve not yet visited Roger and Faye Harris at Brindabella Hills, at Hall, on the rim of the Murrumbidgee Valley. But we’ve tasted Roger’s idiosyncratic and delicious ‘Aureus’ 2007, a blend of chardonnay and viognier. It’s unconventional but it works and is good value at $22.50, cellar door. The 2006 shiraz is in a different style again from any of the Clonakilla wines or Ravensworth’s. It’s round and plump and very soft in it’s own fragrant, elegant way.

Roger generally makes one of the better rieslings in the district and arguably the best sauvignon blanc – good reason in their own right to visit cellar door.

Out at Murrumbateman, Graeme Shaw’s Shaw Vineyard Estate adds another dimension to the cellar door offering with a range of ceramics imported from Italy and a restaurant overlooking the vines.

In a former career, Graeme built the Kamberra wine tourism complex for Hardys – a relationship that brought him to grape growing and ultimately to winemaking. At cellar door, the early, rustic wines from the 2003 and 2004 vintage are giving way to the far more polished products from 2006 and on (there were no 2005s as Graeme sold the crop).

The reds, in particular, offer huge value at $22 a bottle. Graeme currently offers, from the 2006 vintage, a shiraz, a shiraz-cabernet blend and a cabernet merlot, with a straight cabernet sauvignon due for release shortly.

I favour the shiraz cabernet blend, but these reds are all true to the elegant Canberra style. They punch above their weight and can only add to the district’s reputation. In fact, Graeme recently completed an export deal with a major French wine club. They purchased his remaining stock of 2004 cabernet merlot, half of the production of the 2006 cabernet merlot and signed a ten-year supply deal.

Graeme grows his own fruit on the 32-hectare Murrumbateman estate, but has the wine made by Brian Currie in Bill Calabria’s West End Estate, Griffith. During vintage Graeme and his daughter Tanya travel to Griffith to help.

And in the next few years we’ll see two new Shaw labels: a budget-priced ‘winemaker selection’ range targeted at pubs, clubs and function venues, mainly in country New South Wales; and two ‘reserve’ wines – a shiraz viognier blend and a cabernet blend that he expects will ‘knock the socks off the wine writers’.

And that’s exactly what the Canberra district needs. To date we have only one wine that blows the right socks away – Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier. But there’s room for more. And the more we have, the better the whole district’s reputation. Go for it Graeme.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2008