Great wine starts in the brain — the vision behind Clonakilla’s shiraz viognier

This is part one of the story of Clonakilla shiraz viognier, Canberra’s now world famous red, created by Tim Kirk and other Kirk family members over the last 40 years. But first let’s step back to a time long before Tim’s birth – detouring via a Brian Walsh (Yalumba) speech at University House Wine Symposium 2011.

Great wine does not start in the vineyard”, declared Walsh, contradicting an industry axiom. “I assert that great wine starts in the brain”, he continued. “The creation of fine wine is, at its source, an intellectual exercise. Someone has a dream, a vision, a hunch – then the desire, commitment, capability and energy to craft something special, typically with a desire for unique attributes that differentiate it from others”.

This vision, or dream or hunch comes in ways unique to each vigneron. Take, for example, Max Schubert and Penfolds Grange.

By 1950 Schubert was chief winemaker at Penfolds, concerned mainly with the production of fortified wines. But a trip to France that year, and an encounter with aged Bordeaux reds in the home of wine merchant, Christian Cruse, changed the course of Australian winemaking history.

In an interview with David Farmer and me in 1992, Schubert recalled,

These were 40 and 50 years old. The magnificence of these wines sort of remained with me and I still think that they are the best wines I’ve ever tasted. I mean you’ve got magnificence in front of you. You’ve got perfection and you should savour it. And I did savour it right to the bloody hilt.

You know, the thought went through my mind: Why, if they can do this, why can’t we at home. But then I thought, too, that I won’t live long enough to do it. How can you and yet here I am. I have a forty-year-old wine that I made forty years ago experimentally and the bloody thing is still alive. And that is a tremendous thrill to me.

… It [Grange] has a similar elegance [to those French reds], even after starting from a great big rough Australian red”.

Schubert wasted no time. He made the first experimental Grange in 1951, applying winemaking techniques he’d observed in France to mainly shiraz grapes sourced from favoured vineyard sites. The rest is history.

The Kirk family’s Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier builds on several visions, dreams and hunches – the smaller, earlier, more-modest dreams enabling fruition of Tim Kirk’s big dream following a tour of France’s Rhone Valley in1991.

The first, a seed of a dream really, dropped into John Kirk’s brain during World War II. Of Irish birth but living in England, he was shipped for a time to his grandfather’s farm, Clonakilla, in County Clare, for respite from wartime England and its poor diet.

The working farm appealed to Kirk, he said last week in Melbourne. Then after the war he returned once more to Ireland from England to help out in a family hotel. At 14 years the family gave him control of the wine cellar. “I knew nothing about it”, he said, “but I read up and bought the best”. He subsequently maintained an interest in wine, exclusively French, through his university years in the UK and Wales and brought the fascination with him to Australia in 1968.

Arriving in Canberra, he felt surprised to find no vineyards in this part of NSW. People believed it was too cold. But his own research suggested a climate similar to Bordeaux’s.

The working-farm concept planted in Kirk’s brain during the war years, and the later fascination with wine, coalesced into Clonakilla Murrumbateman vineyard in 1971. And the perceived similarity with Bordeaux’s climate, convinced him to plant cabernet sauvignon first – although shiraz (1972) and other varieties followed soon enough.

Although the shiraz-viognier phenomenon lay 20 years in the future, the first shiraz vines were now in the ground. Then in 1984 on son Jeremy’s suggestion, the Kirk’s sought another variety that might suit the district and offer a point of difference.

They identified the rare Rhone Valley white variety, viognier. John Kirk sourced cuttings from Charles Sturt University, Wagga, where he was studying wine science, and planted vines at Clonakilla in 1986.

So by the late eighties, the dreams, hunches and visions of the Kirk family coincided with nature – setting the scene for the fulfilment of the biggest dream of all.

In 1990 no one would have predicted shiraz as Canberra’s regional specialty. Even at Clonakilla, shiraz joined cabernet sauvignon in the blending vat until 1989 – eighteen years after the vineyard’s establishment.

Then, in 1990, “we made our first straight shiraz, on a whim”, says John Kirk. The wine enjoyed remarkable success, winning a silver medal at the Cowra Wine Show, a gold medal at Stanthorpe and a gold medal and two trophies at Griffith.

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 wines (blends of shiraz and viognier) from the impossibly steep slopes of Cote-Rotie: the 1988 vintages of La Mouline and La Landonne from barrel, and the 1987 La Turque from bottle.

This meeting and tasting, Tim Kirk recalled, had been a “transforming moment” and that he was “transfixed and delighted” by the perfume and sheer dimension of Guigal’s wines. “I’ve got to get this shiraz-viognier thing going back home”, he thought.

This powerful vision soon crystallised into the Clonakilla shiraz-viognier the world loves today. Tim and John Kirk included viognier in the blend from 1992 and the accolades followed remarkably soon after, as another great wine shifted from the brain to reality.

Next week we’ll look at the wine’s evolution from the first vintage in 1992 to the current release twentieth vintage, 2011 – based on a tasting at Melbourne’s Circa Restaurant on 11 September.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2012
First published 26 September 2012 in The Canberra Times