The vision behind Clonakilla shiraz viognier — part 2, a 20-year tasting

Part 1 of the Clonakilla shiraz viognier story last week recounted how great wine begins in the brain – with a vision or dream or hunch. We saw how Max Schubert created Grange after tasting half-century-old reds in Bordeaux in 1950; then how in 1991 Tim Kirk tasted Marcel Guigal’s Cote-Rotie shiraz-viognier blends and decided, “I’ve got to get this shiraz-viognier thing going back home”.

In both cases great French wines inspired the creation of a new and enduring style in Australia – the first from 1951, the second from 1992.

Schubert returned to Australia and in 1951 made Grange Hermitage – the first in a continuing line of deep, powerful, tannic reds made intentionally for the long-term. That he did so with warm-climate shiraz, rather than cool-climate cabernet sauvignon and related varieties used in Bordeaux, simply reflected the grapes available to him at the time.

Kirk, on the other hand, returned to Canberra with an altogether different shiraz style in mind. Schubert desired a big, powerful wine, capable of becoming fine and elegant over time; Kirk’s inspiration came from the perfume and sheer dimension of two- and three-year old reds, two of them still maturing in barrel.

Kirk had already recognised the medium bodied, aromatic character of the early Clonakilla shiraz vintages, made in 1990 and 1991. He was aware, too, that on a suggestion from brother Jeremy, father Dr John Kirk, had planted viognier in 1986. Kirk snr sourced cuttings from what is now Charles Sturt University, Wagga, where he was studying wine science. The ingredients for a Clonakilla shiraz-viognier blend therefore lay in the vineyard, awaiting Tim Kirk’s return from France.

At a Clonakilla tasting in Melbourne on 11 September, John Kirk recalled planting the viognier for its own sake – a white variety suited to the Murrumbateman climate and capable of giving tiny Clonakilla a point of difference over larger competitors.

In 1992, then, the viognier from these young vines found its way into the fermenter with shiraz and small amounts of pinot noir and mourvedre (aka mataro).

This inaugural Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier (still drinking well at the September 11 tasting) sits a long way stylistically from the later wines that built then cemented it as the gold standard for this style in Australia. The remarkable aromatics and silky tannins remained a few years in the future.

The 1992 is lower in alcohol at 12.5 per cent (compared with around 14 per cent through the noughties); it was matured in older American oak rather than the mix of new and old French oak that came later; and the grapes were all crushed and de-stemmed before fermentation (but from 1993 the inclusion of whole bunches, including stems, affected the flavour and structure of the wine).

The 1993 (12.7 per cent alcohol) again contained a small amount of pinot noir which, along with one third of the shiraz, was whole-bunch fermented and foot trodden. The rest of the shiraz was crushed and de-stemmed before fermentation with a small amount of viognier. The two batches of wine finished their fermentations in French and American oak barrels and were bottled without fining or filtration. In the tasting the 1993 showed a little of the stalky character of whole-bunch ferment, but overall held up less well than the 1992 or 1994 either side of it – a sound wine still.

1994 to my taste marks a maturing of the style: it’s a little more alcoholic at 13.7 per cent, the colour remains youthful and it delivers thrilling aromatics and silky tannins, though the oak tannins intrude ever so slightly. The wine – comprising 14 per cent pinot noir and four per cent viognier – was 100 per cent whole-bunch fermented and foot-trodden in open fermenters, followed by maturation in French oak (two thirds of it new), from cooper Seguin Moreau. 1994 was a frost-reduced vintage says Tim Kirk.

The style continues to mature in 1995 and 1996, separated in the tasting mainly by the vintage conditions. 1995 produced the first decent crop of viognier, Kirk says, and the proportion in the blend leapt from four per cent in 1994 to 10 per cent in 1995 and 1996.  The lovely, elegant 1996 appealed more on the night. Both wines showed their age.

1997 presented the first real excitement of the tasting – a wine blossoming with bottle age yet still limpid and youthfully coloured, with sweet berry and spice flavours, alluring perfume and silky texture. In this vintage Kirk wound the viognier back to five per cent and used 30 per cent new Sirugue (France) oak.

The notably more robust 1998 vintage, still at five per cent viognier content, seemed like a bigger, riper, sweeter version of the 1997 – all the alluring features pumped up proportionally and therefore well balanced.

In October 1998 a jet stream of frigid air destroyed vine buds across south-eastern Australia, including Canberra. Clonakilla’s 1999 was therefore a tiny crop from a second budding – five per cent viognier, co-fermented with shiraz, matured in Sirugue and Francois Frere barrels, 36 per cent new. The wine’s holding in there in a distinctive spicy, peppery, stalky way.

The 2000 vintage, from a cool, wet season, is lighter coloured, lean on the palate and drying out now. The alcohol is 12.8 per cent, compared to the 14.1 per cent in the beautiful 2001. Kirk calls this vintage a turning point as he’s now soaking the juice on skins for 16–18 days before fermentation, creating even finer and silkier tannins. At 11 years, this is Clonakilla in full flight – maturing but youthful and fresh at the same time. Beautiful floral and spicy aroma and lively, fresh, silky, medium-bodied palate are in a class of their own.

By now the pinot noir component in the wines is absent or tiny. Tim Kirk emailed, “Once we started making the Hilltops [shiraz] in 2000, the pinot would end up there if I felt it wasn’t going to contribute anything positive to the SV [shiraz-viognier]. Sometimes there, sometimes the SV and, from 2007, possibly the O’Riada [shiraz].”

From 2001 on we’re seeing a mature Clonakilla style, but still being tweaked, Tim Kirk said, particularly in the maceration phase and the type of oak used. He acknowledged recent work on this with winemaker Bryan Martin.

From 2001 the wines all receive gold-medal scores in my notes, with exception of 2003, 2006 and 2011 on silver. All this says is that some wines are more exceptional than others, silver medallists included.

I rated the 2009 as wine of the line up – a slurpy, juicy, utterly seductive red of exceptional dimension. The just-released 2011, too, is gorgeous. It shows the style of the very cool vintage – a slightly lighter colour and lower alcohol content than the warmer 2009 and 2010 vintages – but a triumph nevertheless.

Tim Kirk says he bottled just 1,000 dozen, less than half the usual volume, because disease destroyed much of the crop. He calls the wine “pretty”, which is not a bad description, albeit an understatement. I enjoyed the delicate musk-like aroma, seasoned with white pepper (a sure sign of cool ripening conditions) and vibrant, fresh fruit flavours – a spicier, more peppery, lighter bodied version of the style.

But that’s not all. We started this story with a quote from Yalumba’s Brian Walsh. “Great wine starts in the brain”. Walsh declared at an industry symposium last year.

There’s another story to come – from the same brain behind Clonakilla shiraz viognier. Tim Kirk’s encounter with La Chapelle 1990, a straight shiraz from Hermitage, just down the Rhone fro Cote-Rotie, inspired Clonakilla’s Syrah, a wine to equal the old flagship.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2012
First published 3 October 2012 in The Canberra Times