The year to be adventurous”, Tim Kirk

It started with a tweet by Clonakilla’s Tim Kirk, “It may not look like much but this is exciting I tell ya. Our first Tumbarumba chardonnay… 1.4 tonnes of it”. Playfully, Capital Wines’ Jennie Mooney tweets back, “Are you guys bored or something?” – drawing Kirk’s response, “This is the year to be adventurous Jen, and making small batches of interesting wine is a lot of fun”.

So why is it the year to be adventurous, we ask Tim Kirk, and what the hell are you doing out there? “We’re turning a negative into a positive in a difficult year”, he replies.

As we’ve heard a lot lately, it’s been a tough season across eastern Australia, Canberra included. The strong La Nina pattern, identified by weather forecasters last winter, crystallised into a wet, cool growing season.

The persistent wet periods brought serious outbreaks of mildew throughout the season, destroying crops in many vineyards and dramatically raising production costs through increased spraying and vineyard labour inputs.

As vintage neared, the botrytis cinerea mould arrived, wreaking more damage in some vineyards – but creating opportunities in others. Canberra vignerons therefore moved into vintage with a nervous eye on the weather and a fervent desire for sunshine and warmth, even heat.

If the sun failed to bear down with the heat loved by our local darling, shiraz, sufficient sunshine and warmth ripened most of the fruit remaining on vines. But the cool, wet season, in general, favoured whites more than reds. It also meant better prospects than usual for varieties that prefer really cool ripening conditions – pinot noir and chardonnay in particular.

The cool, wet season, then, provides the main rationale for Kirk’s vintage adventures. We’ll no doubt hear more stories from other wineries as the ferments settle down. But Clonakilla’s seasonal extras provide a good snapshot of the peculiarities.

This year, says Kirk, the season favoured pinot noir and chardonnay in his own vineyards. Then, serendipitously, Tumbarumba chardonnay grower, Steve Morrison, offered fruit from his vineyard at 730 metres above sea level.

The offer seemed too good to be true, says Kirk. Morrison said he’d send the fruit if Kirk paid the freight and to buy the fruit only if he liked it. But Kirk wouldn’t do business like that. He visited the vineyard over the weekend and tasted the “amazing” fruit. On Monday 1.4 tonnes arrived at the winery, setting off a train of tweets.

Kirk says the Tumbarumba chardonnay – in two barrels (600 litre and 228 litre) – sits beside a small quantity from Clonakilla’s vineyard. “It’s looking interesting this year”, says Kirk.

Kirk feels a new enthusiasm for chardonnay thanks to the taut, minerally, elegant styles now being made by some Australian producers, including Oakridge, Shadowfax, Hardys, Penfolds and Coldstream Hills.

He’s hopeful the Tumbarumba material might be in this mould. But if it’s not, we’ll never see it under a Clonakilla label, he adds.

Kirk loves great pinot noir, too. When he says, “I’ve observed and shared the frustrations of those who’ve made it almost but not quite good enough”, you know he wouldn’t be ramping up production this year without some hope of success.

Tim Kirk’s father, John, planted a small amount of pinot noir in 1978 and, in most years, Clonakilla makes about one barrel. Kirk generally blends this into the shiraz-viognier.

Then in 2004–05, Kirk planted another 500 vines on an east-facing slope of a vineyard he owns with wife, Lara. For the first time this year it cropped well. With fruit, some from the original plantings and a little from the neighbouring Long Rail Gully vineyard, he made 12 barrels.

Kirk seems hopeful of this “fruit from a monumentally cool season. It’s in very good French oak, 25 per cent new, and I’m watching it with intense interest”. He adds, he love to make a half-decent, succulent, juicy pinot. But it won’t appear under a Clonakilla unless it measures up.

While botrytis can be a great destroyer, on occasion it helps concentrate sugars, acid and flavour in local rieslings. Several makers, including Clonakilla, intend turning these disgusting looking, rotten grapes into golden nectar this year.

Kirk says Clonakilla’s last was in 1991 when his father made two versions labelled as spaetlese and auslese. He says this year’s pump-clogging, sticky juice achieved auslese-level sugars.

Clonakilla’s fourth adventure in 2011, though, presents a paradox. For the first time they’re making a grenache – a southern Rhone Valley style more likely to perform in hot, dry conditions, not in the cold and wet.

Kirk says his father, loving Rhone Valley grenache-based reds like Chateauneuf-du-Pape, planted small amounts of grenache, mourvedre and cinsault. A couple of days after I talk to Kirk, winemaker Bryan Martin tweets about the lovely grenache coming into the winery, adding “John’s mourvedre and cinsault”.

Shortly after, Tim Kirk tweets, “John and Julia [his parents] were out picking the grenache yesterday. Looks good”.

And what’s the grenache role model? Chateau Rayas, says Kirk, “The greatest grenache there is in my experience”. He’s referring to an all-grenache Chateauneuf-du-Pape made by the Reynaud family and regarded as the greatest (and most expensive) of the region.

Perhaps that’s a long stretch for vintage one. But by knowing the world’s best, wineries like Clonakilla become their own most relentless critics – and that’s what leads to such profoundly good wines.

But on the way to that destination they’re being adventurous, having fun and making terrific wines for us to enjoy.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2011