Little Bridge partner buys Canberra’s historic Brooks Creek Vineyard

One of Canberra’s oldest vineyards is about to make a comeback under the Little Bridge Wines banner. In December last year Stephen Dowton, one of the Little Bridge partners, bought Brooks Creek Vineyard, at Bywong, from George Brownbill.

The 2.8-hectare vineyard includes a block of mourvedre, and possibly other survivors of the original 4-hectare vineyard planted there in 1973 by Max Blake, a research officer at the John Curtin School of Medical Research. In Wines of the Canberra District, Brian Johnston reports Blake had previously planted a trial block of 100 vines near Bungendore in 1968 — three years before Drs Riek and Kirk established vineyards at Lake George and Murrumbateman in 1971.

I recall tasting wines, including mourvedre, at the vineyard with Blake in the late eighties. At the time the vineyard was known as “Shingle House”.  Later it became “Brooks Creek” and ownership passed to the Brownbill family (probably in 1992, Dowton believes).

The partners intend restoring Brooks Creek vineyard to full production over the next three or four years. It’ll then be the third vineyard contributing fruit to the Little Bridge label. The other two are John Leyshon’s 2-hectare Mallaluka vineyard, at Dog Trap Road, Murrumbateman, and Roland Clark’s 2-hectare Folly Run vineyard at Butmaroo, southeast of Bungendore.

Roland Clark says he and the other three partners – Stephen Dowton, John Jeffrey and John Leyshon – kicked off the Little Bridge venture in 1996. “You could say we were a fishing group – a men’s drinking club that went wrong”. Fourteen years later, they continue to make major decisions over drinks – generally on an annual trip to the Clark family farm near Bega.

In fourteen years they’ve done everything from scratch – establishing vine rootlings, planting vineyards and making and selling wine – even designing the wine label. They grew the original cuttings at a farm, since sold by Stephen Dowton, on Dicks Creek Road, Murrumbateman. Cuttings from these later populated Clark’s Butmaroo vineyard.

Partner John Leyshon makes the red wines at his Mallaluka property Murrumbateman. But the Carpenters make the Little Bridge pinot noir at Lark Hill from grapes grown on Clark’s Folly Run vineyard – one of the highest in the district, at 860 metres above sea level. And the whites are made by Greg Gallagher and Rob Howell at Canberra Winemakers, a contract production facility located at Jeir Creek Wines, Murrumbateman.

The three Little Bridge vineyards, totalling about seven hectares, produce an unusually wide range of varieties for such a small holding – riesling, chardonnay, merlot, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, shiraz, sangiovese and mourvedre; and a couple of hats full each of gamay, petit verdot and malbec.

Whether the partners maintain the diversity remains to be seen. But at least the minor varieties can be blended with others (for example, mourvedre with shiraz; or malbec with cabernet). As well, we can expect the varieties to perform differently at the three unique sites. Over time this may lead to specialisation, especially as the three vineyards feed into one brand.

But as greater volumes come on stream, Little Bridge will benefit by paying serious attention to wine quality. Very small makers hand selling wine might get away with making middle of the road wines. But to build a reputation and really prosper, mediocrity won’t do. The district’s reputation rests on the outstanding wines, led to date by shiraz and riesling.

The acquisition of Brooks Creek also gives Little Bridge a cellar door – the physical presence it needs to reach the public. The partners say they’re launching Little Bridge at Brooks Creek on mother’s day, Sunday 9 May, with wine, food and music from 12.30pm to 6.00pm.

Here’s a run down on the current Little Bridge offerings:

Little Bridge Canberra District Riesling 2008 $20
A bright, fresh riesling with ripe, citrus-like varietal aroma and flavour. It’s soft and easy drinking, but the flavours are a touch mature for a riesling this young. Drink up.

Little Bridge Canberra District Riesling 2009 $20
A vibrant, floral-scented riesling, quite intensely flavoured but delicate. A significant step up from the 2008

Little Bridge Canberra District Pinot Noir 2009 $26
Made at Lark Hill using fruit from the 860-metre Folly Run vineyard. To my taste it’s the best made of the Little Bridge reds. It smells and tastes of pinot, albeit at the leafier end of the spectrum, and has the texture, too.

Little Bridge Canberra District Sangiovese 2008 $15
Little Bridge Canberra District Shiraz 2008 $20
Little Bridge Canberra District Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 $20

I noted blemishes in these three reds that made them unpalatable to me.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2010