Exciting wines from Canberra’s Long Rail Gully

At a regional shiraz dinner a few years back, Garry Parker told me he approached wine marketing as he did building a career as a barrister from 1963 – on the belief that good performance would attract a following.

And that’s exactly what he’s achieved at Long Rail Gully Wines – a deep respect among his winemaking peers and well-informed consumers, if not yet with the wider acclaim his wines deserve.

With wife Barbara and son Richard, Parker established Long Rail Gully at Murrumbateman in 1998 as a serious business investment, capable of standing in its own right.

Richard Parker managed the venture from the outset. As a science graduate from Sydney University, he’d helped manage the family’s wheat, sheep and canola interest out west. But he recalls resisting a move into vines – concerned about the instability of the market.

However, Hardy’s move into Canberra, with the promise of a fixed-term grape contract, settled the argument and underpinned the family’s new venture in the short term. At the time Richard was half way through an agricultural science degree at Charles Sturt University.

I was able to flip this into wine science”, he says, recalling how his mates said he’d not have to worry about viticulture as he’d know more about vines than the lecturers by the time he’d finished planting.

The family established the bulk of the 22-hectare vineyard, one of Canberra’s largest, in 1998 and in recent years replaced some of the cabernet sauvignon with pinot gris.

The vineyard now has seven hectares of shiraz, four of riesling, about three hectares each of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and pinot gris and one of pinot noir. These are rounded figures

While the grape contract with Hardy’s underpinned the early years, Long Rail Gully planned its own brand from the outset, making its first wine in 2001, just three years after establishing vines.

The business now has several strands – grape sales to other makers (including Clonakilla, Capital Wines, Eden Road and a couple of Hunter producers), contract winemaking for other grape growers and making the Long Rail Gully Range (current releases reviewed below).

Wine making demands considerable capital investment, so the Parkers now have on site a very large, insulated winery, all the right winemaking gear and even a bottling line (most Canberra producers use a mobile bottling contractor).

The Parkers are about to export to China. Exports will include purpose-made wines, now in barrel, as well as the Long Rail Gully range. Richard says the standard wines are to be cork sealed to meet market demands. But the premium wines will be screw-cap sealed – emphasising the quality benefits of the seal.

Long Rail Gully wines are available at selected outlets and cellar door. See www.longrailgully.com.au for details.

Long Rail Gully Riesling 2011 6-pack $17 ($92 for 6)
Pale straw to lemon colour; lime-like varietal aroma with a floral lift; intense lemon and lime varietal flavours on the palate, carried by the delicate, tart acidity of the cool vintage, with a touch of musk in the dry aftertaste. The wine continued to drink well for days after opening, suggesting a long cellaring life. It’s blended from the two clones in the vineyard: Geisenheim, contributing leaner lime and spicy notes; and McWilliams Eden Valley clone, lending lime and musk.

Long Rail Gully Pinot Gris 2011 $ 20 ($110 for 6)
Winemaker Richard Parker sees this as his stand-out white of the vintage – not surprising for a variety that thrives in cool ripening conditions. Although it’s only slightly more alcoholic than the riesling (12.1 versus 11.5 per cent) it’s considerably fuller bodied, with a rich, silky texture. This reflects the making technique: a component tank fermented to capture fruit flavour and aromatic high notes; another portion fermented and matured on yeast lees in old oak barrels, to build body and texture. The result is a vibrant, fresh wine, leading with a pear-like varietal aroma and flavour, with layers of succulent stone-fruit flavours adding further interest – all of this embedded in the rich, silky texture.

Long Rail Gully Pinot Noir 2010 $30  ($162 for 6)
A cellar door favourite and the priciest wine in the range, Long Rail Gully pinot noir challenges the notion that the variety doesn’t suit Canberra. This is a class act, certainly not reaching the heights of our best shirazes, but delivering the real pinot experience. The initial impacts are of fragrant, vibrant, varietal red berries with a stalky note – probably derived from whole bunches included in the ferment ­– and a smooth, velvety texture. With aeration, more savoury “umami” flavours arrive – layering the fruit with an earthy, beef-stock note. There’s drinking pleasure galore in this wine. A tasting of the 2005 vintage confirms its keeping ability.

Long Rail Gully Merlot 2005 and 2006 $22 ($119 for 6)
Is bottle age part of the marketing plan, we ask Garry and Richard Parker? Alas, no, they say. Merlot doesn’t sell; it seems to be giving way to pinot. But the almost-sold-out 2005, and 2006 that follows, offer delicious drinking – and a great opportunity to experience the extra flavour dimension that comes with bottle age. These are highly aromatic, plummy wines with the deep, sweet, earthy, chocolaty notes of age, a pleasant leafy edge and plush, juicy tannins.

Long Rail Gully Shiraz 2008 and 2009 $24 ($129 for 6)
These beautiful wines reveal the great strength of Canberra shiraz, albeit in contrasting styles. The almost-sold-out 2008 reveals a peppery side of shiraz not often seen in Canberra. In this instance we see both white and black pepper, the former normally associated with very cool conditions and sometimes with unripeness.

In Long Rail Gully it’s as if the grapes accumulated sugar (sugar ripeness), while flavour ripeness lagged behind – a common situation in warm Australia. However, ripeness, tinged with white pepper, seems to have just staggered over the line, giving a wine of 14.5 per cent alcohol and distinct, just-ripe white pepper flavour. This is a very pleasing flavour in one of our district’s better shirazes.

The 2009, however, moves another step up the quality ladder. Here, aromatic, floral red-berry varietal flavours stand at the centre – reminiscent of shiraz from France’s tiny Cote-Rotie region. The supple, sweet palate and savoury, spicy background flavours add to this impression. The wine’s delicious to drink now but should cellar well for many years. It’s phenomenally good – and undervalued. But don’t count on that lasting as it’s like to attract attention.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2012
First published 25 January 2012 in The Canberra Times