Gallagher marks ten years of Canberra shiraz

These days Canberra and shiraz is a no-brainer for aspiring vignerons. It’s our most successful grape variety thanks, initially, to Clonakilla, but now thoroughly bedded down across the district.

But when Greg and Libby Gallagher planted shiraz at Murrumbateman in 1995, Canberra’s reputation for fine wine was a fraction of what it is now – and shiraz had barely emerged as a contender for top spot.

Clonakilla founder, Dr John Kirk, included shiraz among the many varieties he planted in the early 1970s. But until 1990 it joined cabernet sauvignon in the blending vat. That impressive first vintage won two gold medals and two trophies – guaranteeing shiraz a solo role in future Clonakilla vintages. Well, almost.

Four years earlier, Kirk and his son Jeremy had planted viognier – a Rhone Valley white variety. They believed it suited the climate and would a point of difference in the market.

Then, in 1991 while the second Clonakilla shiraz lay in barrel, Melbourne-based Tim Kirk, having completed his Diploma of Education, headed off to France where I’d organised an appointment for him with Marcel Guigal, one of the Rhone’s great winemakers.

There he tasted Guigal’s stunning single vineyard Cote-Roties (blends of shiraz and viognier): the 1988 vintages of La Mouline and La Landonne from barrel and the 1987 La Turque from bottle.

Tim described the meeting and tasting as a “transforming moment”. “Transfixed and delighted” by the perfume and sheer dimension of Guigal’s wines, he decided, “I’ve got to get this shiraz-viognier thing going back home”.

From the 1992 vintage Tim and John Kirk included viognier in the blend in varying proportions: starting at one per cent each in 1992 and 1993, rising to four per cent in 1994, peaking at ten per cent in 1995 and 1996, then falling back to smaller percentages thereafter.

Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier’s reputation grew rapidly, and by early in the new century had won acclaim from leading international critics, including the USA’s Robert M. Parker and UK’s Jancis Robinson. But when the Gallaghers planted shiraz in 1995, the Kirks had barely begun the shiraz viognier journey. Indeed, it would be another two years before Tim Kirk from Melbourne to Canberra to run Clonakilla full time.

The Kirks came to shiraz through trial and error. But the Victorian based Gallaghers put Canberra and shiraz together “after doing climatic data searches for about two years, looking for the best area to grow shiraz”, says their website.

They purchased land at Murrumbateman and in 1995, with Greg still making wine for Taltarni in central Victoria, established a vineyard overlooking the Murrumbidgee Valley and Brindabellas. They believed this site would produce the elegant, multi-layered shiraz they had in mind.

As the vines grew, Greg continued with Taltarni until 1998, then from 1999 to 2004 trained young winemakers at Charles Sturt University, Wagga. During this period he also established Canberra Winemakers, in partnership with Rob and Kay Howell of Jeir Creek. The business continues to make wine at Jeir Creek for growers in and around Canberra.

As their vineyard matured, the Gallaghers launched their own label, making the wines at Jeir Creek. They established a cellar door at the vineyard, on Dog Trap Road, and offered their own delicious cheeses, made on site by Libby (a skill she learned at Charles Sturt Uni).

Greg’s expertise with sparkling wine, developed at Taltarni, opened a unique opportunity, first for Canberra Winemakers, then for the Gallaghers. Initially, Canberra Winemakers prepared base wines for others to turn into bubblies. But Gallagher, seeing the opportunity to complete the process, established a sparkling cellar adjacent to his cellar door.

The cellar, with two computerised gyro palates and bottling line, allows Gallagher to clarify bottles of sparkling wine following secondary fermentation, top them up and seal the bottles for market.

The Gallaghers currently offers two bottle-fermented sparklers under their own label – Duet Pinot Noir Chardonnay NV (pinot from Mount Majura Vineyard, chardonnay from Gallagher vineyard) and Blanc de Blanc 2007 (all from Gallagher vineyard).

These are both fine, delicate wines – the sort you can make only if all the bits line up: vineyard management, harvest timing, fruit handling, winemaking, maturation and finishing off. Clearly, it’s a valuable skill for Canberra to have. But it’s not the cutting edge stuff we see from much cooler areas like Tasmania. So, good as they are, bubblies won’t put Canberra on the wine map. That role remains principally with shiraz – which is were this story started.

The Gallaghers came to Canberra for shiraz and, indeed, it became the district hero. And just four years after establishing their shiraz vines – they finished planting on their 16th wedding anniversary – Greg made the first wine from them.

1999 was the year BRL Hardy trucked grapes from South Australia to help Canberra vignerons wiped out by the October 1998 frost. A mass of cold air had moved up from Antarctica on a wide front, nipping vines in the bud across Victoria, South Australia and southern New South Wales.

The Gallaghers lost all but three tonnes of their anticipated 20 tonne shiraz crop. But in a recent ten-year retrospective of Gallagher shirazes, the 1999 drank beautifully – to my tasted the best of the older wines, and on a par with the vibrant 2006, my pick of the younger vintages.

The 1999 stood out for its amazingly youthful colour, round, juicy, mellow, maturing fruit flavours and soft tannins – probably very much the style the Gallaghers hoped for when they came to Canberra.

The browning 2000 vintage hadn’t held up nearly so well. But the 2001, while mature, still showed maturing plummy, spicy varietal flavours, in a slightly leaner style than the 1999.

The 2002 looked good, 2003 combined both prune-like over-ripe flavours and a touch of greenness, and the 2005 seemed a touch tart in the finish. The 2004 failed to please. But the 2006, 2007 and 2008 all looked good in their own ways.

While neither completely young, nor mature, the 2006 showed a tremendous vitality and intensity of dark berry and spice flavours with a supple mid palate and lovely soft tannins.

While 2007 lacked the intensity and weight of the 2006, it remains vibrant and fresh with a delicious interplay between the fruit and spicy oak. The current release 2008 seems fuller and riper again even than the 2006 ­– a big wine in the medium-bodied Canberra style.

The 1999 and later vintages, especially 2006, show that the Gallaghers backed the right variety in shiraz and when they get it right, it’s of a very high calibre. They didn’t plant our other district specialty, riesling. But Greg makes a brilliant riesling using fruit from the Four Winds Vineyard (see a full review next week).

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2012
First published 22 February 2012 in The Canberra Times