Canberra’s Eden Road buys Doonkuna Estate

Last week Chris Coffman’s Eden Road Wines took over Doonkuna Estate, one of Canberra’s oldest vineyards. The purchase lands Eden Road plum in Murrumbateman’s reputation-making shiraz and riesling belt – giving the vineyard perhaps its best hope in nearly forty years.

Doonkuna’s history of hope, death and almost making it, began in 1972 when Wing Commander Harvey Smith established the first vines. Smith sold the property to Sir Brian and Lady Jane Murray in 1978. The Murray’s built a winery in 1980 and made their first estate-grown wines in 1981.

But the Murray’s tenure, too, proved comparatively short, and interrupted by Sir Brian’s term as Governor of Victoria. After he died in 1991, Lady Janet continued the business for a time, but in 1996 sold to pathologist, Dr Barry Moran and wife Maureen.

With great energy and vision, Moran and family expanded the vineyard sixfold and built a new winery and cellar door. Despite these efforts, however, Doonkuna’s wines still lagged the quality of Canberra’s best when Moran died in 2009.

But Eden Road winemaker Nick Spencer sees great potential in the vineyard, located on granite soils, similar to those at Clonakilla and other proven sites nearby.

We always had a long-term plan to look for a vineyard and build a winery in the district”, he says. And when Doonkuna came on the market it proved almost a perfect fit.

It’s in a plum location, has mature vines and there’s a well-equipped winery with capacity to process around 500 tonnes of grapes (equivalent to around 35 thousand dozen bottles).

There’s something exciting about Murrumbateman in general”, says Spencer. “It’s a special feeling walking up and down rows of vines every day, getting to know them intimately. It helps quality and it’s an inspiration. We need to have a home and it’s very exciting having our own patch of soil and trying to express a sense of place”.

Even before last week’s settlement, Eden Road had begun moving wine barrels from its old home in Elvin Group’s Kamberra complex, Watson, to Doonkuna. But the main game, once they’ve moved the tanks of bulk wine, will be in restructuring the vineyard.

Spencer expects to halve the current plantings of around 14 hectares to around seven or eight, “focusing almost entirely on shiraz and riesling, with a touch of viognier”.

The half that’s coming out lies in a frost hollow, so nothing can save them. But the vines, many of them mature, are in generally in good shape. Spencer expects in reshaping the vineyard to graft rather than replant, especially among the older vines.

Though he expects to commence vineyard work this winter, Spencers says they’ll look carefully at the whole vineyard before restructuring.

Even with its own vineyard, though, Eden Road intends to continue sourcing grapes from growers in Canberra and surrounding regions. Spencer sees great excitement in material from Canberra, Hilltops, Tumbarumba and the Southern Highlands.

Though Hardys left the area five years ago, he says they left two lasting legacies: vines planted by numerous growers, originally to meet Hardy’s needs; and grape growing know-how as they taught growers how to manage vineyards for wine production. He adds that as these vines mature, they’re contribution to a huge improvement in local wine quality.

And while shiraz and riesling remain the main game in Canberra, he points to the white viognier as an important niche variety. Small amounts co-fermented with shiraz contribute to fragrance and structure.

But he says, “Canberra is an exciting area for viognier. Here you can pick it early while the acid’s still high and it still has varietal flavour – this is special. It means you can make nice tight wines”. Elsewhere, he says, it tends to deliver flavour at high sugar levels, meaning big, soft, sometimes oily wines.

And Tumbarumba he singles out for two varieties, chardonnay and pinot noir. The area already enjoys a strong and growing reputation for taut, long-lived table wines made from chardonnay. But pinot has been principally grown for sparkling. He believes this is changing.

Spencer attributes the big price difference between Tumbarumba chardonnay and pinot noir to the earlier recognition of chardonnay as a table wine variety.

This probably dates back to Southcorp’s “white Grange” project, to make the best white it could from whatever variety or region, and a similar quest by Hardy’s with its Eileen Hardy chardonnay. Both companies included Tumbarumba chardonnay in their searches.

But Spencer believes growing demand for pinot noir will see Tumbarumba emerge as an outstanding region as growers reduce yields and change overall management in return for higher prices. The wines, he believes, will be become more concentrated and complex but “remain light and graceful and feminine”.

The beautiful wines we’ve seen from Eden Road to date suggests that Doonkuna’s vines will, at last, produce wines up there with the region’s best. And they’ll be accompanied by others from surrounding areas.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2011