Clonakilla Canberra District Shiraz Viognier 2019 $110 cellar door
Tim Kirk says the warm 2019 vintage produced some of Clonakilla’s richest, darkest fruit on record. The resulting shiraz–viognier blend, while bigger than usual, retains the flagship’s familiar, medium-bodied, aromatic style.
We served it masked and our little tasting panel admired the wine’s floral aroma, supple structure and layered fruity–savoury flavours, oak included. They quickly recognised the wine’s origin, while noting the bigger-than-usual dimension, and assertive, harmonious interplay of fruit, oak and tannin.
Indeed, Tim Kirk says the power of the fruit (and an empty winery when smoke-taint aborted the 2020 vintage) encouraged him to give the wine an additional six months’ oak maturation. Our conclusion: the opulent fruit absorbed the oak, and the combination expanded the dimension of one of the world’s notable shiraz–viognier blends.
Clonakilla is a Canberra District winery, located at Murrumbateman, New South Wales, Australia.
Dr John Kirk, father of winemaker Tim Kirk, established the vineyard in 1971.
Wynns rate the 2018 vintage highly. ‘We love it’, says Hodder. High winter and spring rainfall, warm summer temperatures, followed by an extended cool ripening period into March resulted in harvest time at around the long-term average. ‘The cool finish was ideal for acid retention and freshness’, Hodder concluded.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate V&A Lane Shiraz 2018 $58–$60 V&A Lane shiraz shows the floral, fresh, fruity face of early picked, cool-grown shiraz. Attempts at this style sometimes show green, unripe flavours. But the elegant, delicious V&A 2018 pulses with vibrant, ripe-berry flavours, tinged with spice and backed by structural elements and subtle flavours derived from oak maturation. It’s a plush, elegant wine with juicy drink-now appeal. An harmonious wine like this should also age for many years, but it’s hard to imagine its drinking appeal ever being greater than it is now.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate V&A Lane Cabernet Shiraz 2018 $58–$60 Vineyards on Victoria and Albert Lane produced the goods in 2018. The cabernet-shiraz blend provides a deep, dark, savoury contrast to the fragrant, buoyant shiraz reviewed above. It’s riper and fuller bodied than the shiraz, and the cabernet asserts itself with firm tannins and savoury black-olive and chocolate-like flavours. The shiraz component fattens the palate with supple fruit, balancing the assertive cabernet tannin. The finish is long, firm-but-fine, and satisfying.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Black Label Shiraz 2018 $35–$45 Cabernet carries Coonawarra’s reputation today. But shiraz goes back to the earliest days. Indeed, says Hodder, fruit for Black Label comes from some of the region’s oldest vines, including shiraz from the Undoolya vineyard, planted 1894. While this is a riper, sturdier version of shiraz than the V&A wine reviewed above, it remains medium-bodied, in the cool-climate mould. Generous, ripe fruit flavour tinged with black pepper (another cool-grown shiraz signature) are bundled with tender but assertive tannins. This is a distinctive, satisfying red to enjoy over the next 20 years or more, depending on cellaring conditions.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Harold Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 $75–$80 Where Black Label cabernet provides a powerful, pure, varietal expression of cabernet, sourced from a number of Wynns’ best vineyards, Harold shows the character of fruit from a single site, planted in 1971. The combination of the fruit, and sympathetic French oak, provides a more perfumed, medium-bodied expression of Coonawarra cabernet, with a particularly fine, persistent tannin structure.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 $25–$45 If you try hard you can buy Black Label at its $45 recommended retail price. But in the real world, retailers rush to be lowest. Such is the allure to wine drinkers of one the world’s best (and best value) cabernets that it’s available, as I write, for as little as $25. The beautifully ripe 2018 delivers textbook cabernet sauvignon aroma, flavour and structure. It’s powerful and balanced, with the reassurance provided by still-drinkable vintages going back to 1954.
The geology of Coonawarra and origins of its terra rossa soils
Myths and misinformation recur in the popular discussion of Coonawarra and its famed strip of terra rossa soils. That famous strip occupies just a small part of the formally defined Coonawarra wine region, which itself sits within the larger Limestone Coast wine zone, comprising South Australia west of the Victorian border and south of the Murray River–Lake Alexandrina.
In geological terms, Coonawarra is a young landscape, certainly not part of an ancient seabed, and not overlying a limestone base, as is sometimes claimed.
Geologist–wine merchant David Farmer studied Coonawarra’s origins and soils for many years. He recently summarised:
The terra rossa soil does not overlie a base of limestone. Limestone is a specific rock type made in specific ways, mostly marine. The terra rossa soil sits on top of a hard layer called calcrete which is calcium carbonate redeposited from solution. It is tough, cemented, and brittle and is not free draining. These two layers overlay uncompacted, estuarine-lagoonal muds which are rich in calcium.
The date of the deposits at Coonawarra are well known as they sit behind a dune ridge dated at 680,000 years and are contemporaneous; though the calcrete and soils are much younger.
Though his maps and paper discuss Coonawarra in depth, Farmer concludes, ‘This explanation of the origin of the soils of Coonawarra is unlikely to be the final word. The discussion does, though, tighten the boundaries for future research and suggests areas for detailed investigation’.
Miceli Mornington Peninsula Olivia’s Chardonnay 2017 $35 Pale straw colour; the aroma combines melon-like varietal flavour with strong leesy character of barrel maturation and a subtler caramel-like flavour derived from malolactic fermentation (a fermentation that converts malic acid to lactic acid); the palate reflects the aroma with pleasantly tart acidity and a bite of tannin in the finish.
Miceli Mornington Peninsula Lucy’s Pinot Noir 2016 $40 Medium depth of garnet colour, already showing some browning at the rim; not as aromatic as many others from the region; the palate is taut, tannic and dry.
Miceli Rosé Brut 2006 $70 Pinot noir 65%, chardonnay 20%, pinot gris 15% Pale onion skin colour with lively bubbles; the aroma combines pinot noir varietal flavour with the influence of maturation on yeast lees – the latter also contributes backbone to a savoury style, dry rosé.
Miceli Michael Brut 2008 $50 Pinot noir 58%, chardonnay 23%, pinot gris 19% My pick of the current releases, Miceli 2008 shows the richness, complexity and structure of the three-variety blend after extensive maturation on yeast lees.
Four Winds Canberra District Riesling 2019 $28 Graeme and Suzanne Lunney planted Four Winds vineyard in 1998 during a period of rapid wine industry expansion, driven by Hardys’ arrival in Canberra. Hardys left town, but like other contracted growers, the Lunneys turned to winemaking. Today their daughter Sarah Collingwood and husband John Collingwood run a growing business. In 2019 they purchased the long-established nearby Kyeema Estate. They make excellent wines, including the vibrant 2019 riesling. We enjoyed a bottle recently at Canberra’s Sammy’s Kitchen. It’s light bodied and refreshing, with intense citrus-like varietal flavour and dry, refreshing finish. Unfortunately bushfire smoke wiped out the 2020 harvest, so there’ll be no follow up vintage until mid to late 2021.
Mada Murrumbateman Shiraz 2019 $40 Edgar’s Inn’s blackboard offered Mada Hilltops Shiraz 2019. Yes please, we thought, pizza and local red. Delicious, mouth-watering wine. Medium bodied, floral, sweet fruited, spicey and savoury, with fine, silky tannins. Beautiful red, lighter, finer, less robust than we’d anticipated from Hilltops region in the hot 2019 vintage. Winemaker Hamish Young explains why. Blackboard mistake he says. It’s not from Hilltops, but from cooler Murrumbateman, to the south, within the Canberra District – hence the lighter more savoury style. He sourced fruit from two vineyards: Neil McGregor’s, north-east of Murrumbateman village, and Will Bruce’s, to the south east of the village.
Winemaking: Whole bunches, including stems, comprise 40–50% of the ferment and add subtly to the aroma and flavour and significantly to the wine’s smooth texture. Maturation in a mix of older and new French oak adds depth to the palate.
Tumbarumba region’s dedicated wine-grape growing began in the early 1980s. For much of the early years, largely through the influence of Southcorp Wines (now absorbed into Treasury Wine Estates) and BRL Hardy (absorbed into Accolade Wines), the bulk of the district’s chardonnay and pinot noir produced high-quality sparkling wine.
However, the big companies, and later an army of smaller makers, also saw the potential for table wine. Tumbarumba chardonnay in particular excelled and, indeed, in most years dominates the chardonnay classes at the annual Canberra and Region Wine Show.
Tumbarumba’s significantly cooler climate than Canberra or Hilltops – its wine-making neighbours in the high country of southern New South Wales high country – produces intensely flavoured, finely textured chardonnays. Mada and Eden Road versions are fine examples of the regional style.
Mada Tumbarumba Chardonnay 2019 $40 Winemaker Hamish Young sourced grapes from the Johansen Family vineyard, established 1994. He hand-picked the fruit and took it to Nick O’Leary’s winery at Hall, in the Canberra District wine region. There he loaded the whole bunches (that is, stems still attached) and pressed the juice to French oak barrels and concrete vessels for a spontaneous fermentation by ambient yeasts. Fermentation with grape solids, partial malo-lactic fermentation and a little lees stirring post-ferment, added texture and flavours to the wine. The result is a pale coloured chardonnay, with intense grapefruit-like varietal flavour. The mouth-watering palate combines that intense fruit flavour with lees-derived texture and natural acidity. This is an exceptionally high quality, bright and beautiful chardonnay – a joy to drink.
Eden Road The Long Road Tumbarumba Chardonnay 2017 $25 We enjoyed this ahead of Mada shiraz at Edgar’s Inn, Ainslie, ACT. Winemaker Celine Rousseau made it at Eden Road Winery, Murrumbateman, using Tumbarumba grapes picked over a range of dates in March 2017. Whole bunch pressed and fermented in French oak barrels (20% new) using a selected yeast strain. More than three years after vintage the wine tastes deliciously fresh and vibrant. The varietal flavour is reminiscent of just-ripe nectarine. The barrel and yeast-lees influence come through in a rich texture and subtle vanilla-like flavours. It offers outstanding drinking at a modest price for a wine of this calibre.
Despite delays caused by heat, drought, smoke and Covid-19, one of the most significant developments in Canberra’s wine history is planned for a site south of Murrumbateman.
In July 2019 Jason and Alicia Brown bought land at Spring Range (including the two-hectare Kerralee vineyard) straddling Jeir Creek and fronting the eastern side of the Barton Highway.
The Browns plan to build a winery and cellar door on site to make and sell wines from Kerralee and vineyards they own in the neighbouring Hilltops and Tumbarumba regions.
While Canberra vignerons commonly source grapes from Canberra, Hilltops and Tumbarumba, the Browns are the first to own substantial vineyards in all three regions. And they’ll be the first to make Canberra the centre of the three-district estate-based production and sales.
Jason Brown says he and wife Alicia originally planned to complete the cellar door in 2021. However, heat, drought and smoke taint destroyed the 2020 crop entirely, setting back plans for the winery and cellar door by at least a year. Despite the setback, Brown says his family intends to move from Moppity vineyard, near Young, to Kerralee before year’s end.
Within months of buying Kerralee, the Browns grafted the vineyard’s existing pinot noir and merlot vines (on the northern side of Jeir Creek) to the two best performing shiraz clones from their Moppity vineyard and two rows of viognier. On the southern side of the creek they planted eight hectares of shiraz, grenache, mourvedre and riesling, bringing the vineyard total to 10-hectares.
These new plantings bring the Brown’s vineyard holdings to about 149-hectares, alongside the 69-hectare Hilltops region Moppity Vineyard (acquired 2004), and the 70-hectare Tumbarumba region Coppabella Vineyard (acquired 2011).
These established vineyards produce outstanding wines, often highly awarded, and generally well distributed, under various Moppity Vineyard, Lock & Key, Cato, Crafted, Coppabella Vineyard, and Procella labels.
Each district produces its own established specialties based largely on local climate, although the Browns have new varieties and styles coming through as the climate warms and consumers seek new drinking experiences.
While cabernet and shiraz built Moppity’s reputation, the three Cato wines reviewed below point to an exciting future for nebbiolo, tempranillo and sangiovese. Jason Brown believes grenache suits the site, too, confirmed by a Canberra regional wine show trophy for the first vintage, 2018. Malbec also offers good potential – currently demonstrated, says Brown, by Nick Spencer’s flagship blend of Moppity malbec and Gundagai cabernet sauvignon.
The Italian white variety fiano looks exciting, too, Brown believes, though the promising 2020 fruit succumbed to smoke taint. To me, this is the most exciting of the Italian white varieties now being cultivated across Australia and beautifully made, for example, by Coriole (McLaren Vale) and Grosset (Clare Valley).
Coppabella Vineyard, Tumbarumba, to the cooler south of Canberra, in the lee of the Snowy Mountains, produces excellent chardonnay, good (and getting better) pinot noir, outstanding bubblies, and truly varietal sauvignon blanc. Brown is adding the Austrian white variety, gruner veltliner, plus pinot gris and Beaujolais’ red grape, gamay – varieties already showing promise in the district.
Plantings at the new Kerralee vineyard, play to Canberra’s proven strengths in shiraz (sometimes blended with viognier) and riesling. The addition of late-ripening grenache and mourvedre (traditional companions to shiraz in France’s southern Rhone Valley) acknowledge a warming climate and the growing appeal of multi-variety Rhone blends.
It’ll be a few years before we can enjoy the Kerralee vineyard wines. But Jason and Alecia Brown’s Moppity and Coppabella wines, currently made under Jason’s supervision at First Creek Wines, Hunter Valley, can be found in bottle shops and online.
These recently tasted wines from the Moppity Vineyard give great drinking pleasure and capture the distinct character of each grape variety.
Cato Hilltops Sangiovese 2017 $35 Lean and savoury, with underlying sweet fruit and fine, grippy tannins Cato Sangiovese provides a drinking experience far removed from say, a plump shiraz. But it’s the attention to detail that adds to the wine’s appeal. Observing sangiovese’s tendency to be too lean and too tannic, Jason Brown learned to plump up the berries by watering early in the season then turning the tap off at veraison (when berries begin to soften). He reduced the berry numbers, enabling the vines to fully ripen the remaining crop. This resulted in what Brown calls a ‘juicy ripeness’ underpinning an otherwise savoury wine cut with the variety’s distinctive firm tannins. Sensitive winemaking at First Creek captures the fruit’s quality, subtly enhanced by maturation in non-intrusive older oak.
Cato Hilltops Nebbiolo 2017 $35 In Piemonte, the reds of Barolo appeal with floral aromas but often descend into unrelenting tannins that suck the water from your eyes. The best versions, however, offer floral aromas and deep, dark fruit tightly held by grippy but harmonious tannins. These elegant but powerful wines may be hard to find but they offer one of the great delights of the wine world. Cato doesn’t take us to Barolo, but it sensitively reveals both the florals and savour of the variety, with a firm tannin backbone that builds with each glass. Again, the winemaker captures varietal character without intruding on it.
Cato Hilltops Tempranillo 2017 $35 The Spanish call their young, simple tempranillos joven, indicating a fruity, drink-now red, as distinct from more complex styles aged for longer periods in oak barrels. Cato, made in the joven style, drinks beautifully now, offering a great mouthful of lush fruit, reminiscent of ripe blueberries. However, savour and firm tannins push through, giving a satisfying finish to a more-ish dry red. Jason Brown says the variety to tends to crop heavily, meaning extensive fruit thinning to reduce yields and boost fruit flavour.
Clonakilla Hilltops Shiraz 2019 $35 The product of a hot growing season, Clonakilla Hilltops 2019 delivers a flavour spectrum we don’t usually experience under the label. The wine remains medium bodied, but instead of the usual red berries and spice, we encounter a powerful, fleshy palate featuring ripe, black-fruit flavours and deep, strong (but soft) tannins. A wine of this strength will certainly drink well for years, but it’s hard to imagine it being any more pleasurable to drink than it is now. Hilltops is a wine growing region in the high country around the town of Young, Southern NSW. Clonakilla is a winery in the neighbouring Canberra District, to the south of Hilltops.
On 1 August 1860, Tabilk Vineyard Proprietary paid Hugh Glass £5/10/00 an acre for 640 acres (260 hectares) of land on the Goulburn River, central Victoria. Tabilk appointed Mr T Marie to establish a vineyard, and by year’s end he’d planted 26 hectares of vines. Shiraz vines Marie planted all those years ago survive and continue to make wine.
Owner Alister Purbrick believes they’re the third oldest shiraz vines in the world after two Barossa Valley vineyards, Langmeil (1843) and Turkey Flat (1847). However, claims Purbrick, the Barossa vineyards combine younger vines with the originals, where the Tahbilk vineyard remains 100% 1860 originals.
Let’s cast our minds back to 1860. As the USA inched towards civil war, those shiraz cuttings took root half a world away at Tahbilk. Dark-horse Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln won the presidential election. Little Ned Kelly lived unnoticed in Her Majesty’s colony, Victoria. And the Eureka miners’ rebellion lay six years in the past – ancient history to leading rebel, Peter Lalor, now representing South Grant in a reformed Victorian parliament.
The years ticked by: Ned Kelly became man, died on the gallows, and rose again as legend. In 1901 Victoria and fellow colonies formed the new democracy of Australia.
Time passed. Australian women won the vote. World War I, death and maiming of young men on horrendous scale. The roaring twenties. The Great Depression. World War II. Post-war prosperity and immigration. Cold war. White Australia morphed to European-focused multi-culturalism. 1967: Australia’s aboriginal people win limited recognition and the vote. Vietnam War. Australian multi-culturalism embraces people of the world in new waves of immigration. 1992: Eddie Mabo case, native title replaces terra nullius. Sydney Olympics. 911. Kevin 07. GFC. Donald Trump. Covid-19.
Across those decades, century, and more decades, Tahbilk’s 1860 shiraz vines grew, bore fruit, and became wine.
They survived as others on the estate withered and died, victims of the vine pest phylloxera, devastator of European and Victorian vineyards.
Of Tahbilk’s 1860 shiraz vines, Victorian Government viticulturist, Francois de Castella, observed in the late 1920s, ‘…the vines have survived the insect in a truly remarkable manner owing to the sandy nature of the sub-soil…are not suffering at all from the presence of the insect…’
de Castella’s wider advice guided Tahbilk’s new owner, Reginald Purbrick. In 1925 Purbrick bought the property from London without inspection. In 1931 his son Eric moved from London to Tahbilk. He managed the property and made wine for the remainder of a long life, interrupted only by World War II service. Eric’s son John established a marketing arm in Sydney and, in time, John’s son Alister, a Roseworthy winemaking graduate, joined Tahbilk as CEO and winemaker alongside grandfather Eric. Alister’s daughter Hayley Purbrick joined Tahbilk in 2009.
Alister modernised Tahbilk’s winemaking with dramatic impact on the whites, extended the vineyards, and added new wine varieties. However, the two reds reviewed here offer refinements of a distinctive Tahbilk style developed by Eric during his long husbandry of the estate.
Tahbilk 1860 Vines Nagambie Lakes Shiraz 2015 $342 Tahbilk reds tend to be medium bodied with a strong backbone of tannin, as we saw in an extensive tasting of back vintages on site in 2005. But Alister Purbrick says, ‘If the tannins show, we haven’t done our job’. In that regard 2015 1860 vines shiraz appears to be the perfect vintage, combining intense fruit flavour and persistent, soft tannins. Although powerful in flavour, structure and savour, it’s elegant, refined, and tasting young and fresh at five years’ age. Purbrick says it’s fermented in small, open vats, with tannins extracted by gentle pump-overs, not the more extractive techniques of header boards or cap plunging. It was matured in small French oak casks, 50% new, 50% older. A beautiful and distinctive red.
Tahbilk Eric Stevens Purbrick Nagambie Lakes Shiraz 2015 $72 Alister says his grandfather first released his flagship Bin 11 Shiraz in 1948, a blend of the best barrels. Alister continued the style and admits ‘in the biggest mistake I’ve made’ changed the name from Bin 11 to ‘Reserve’ in 1985. From 2002 the name changed again to Eric Stevens Purbrick. Though still in the medium bodied style, ESP’s notably fuller than the 1860s vines red, with a little flesh added by the use of American as well as French oak. The wine combines fruit and savour with firm structure in harmony with the fruit.
Covid-19 Chateau Shanahan cellar clean-up. What’s this? Vintage Cellars Hunter Valley Shiraz 1997, last bottle of a dozen. It’s dinner time for you old friend. Upstairs of course. Nowhere else to go. Will it be OK?
No ullage. Cork intact.
Appearance: limpid, light to medium hue, fading red colour but not brown. Encouraging for a 23-year-old bought for less than $10 a bottle. Fingers crossed.
Aroma: savoury, earthy, Hunter, still fruity, meshed with the warm, gamey decay of age.
Palate: medium bodied, flavour reflecting the aroma, aged but fruity, with fine, grippy, savoury tannins. In the old ‘Hunter Burgundy’ style: elegant but earthy, idiosyncratic. Clean, fresh.
If only all cellared reds scrubbed up so well.
In the mid-1990s Hunter-based Len Evans introduced the wine to us at Vintage Cellars, the fine wine brand of Liquorland Australia, the retail liquor arm of what was then Coles Myer Limited.
We liked the wine and its provenance: medium bodied in the traditional regional style, sourced from the highly regarded Somerset vineyard, Pokolbin, and made by Hunter veteran Keith Tulloch.
‘Traditional’ and ‘medium bodied’ sound normal descriptors now for a Hunter shiraz. But it went against an Australian trend in the late 1990s towards powerful reds, often laden with oak. We saw this even in regions noted for elegant reds – for example the Hunter and Coonawarra. A good number of makers wisely avoided the trend. But for those of us judging at wine shows during this period, the heavy styles, largely the result of winemaking inputs, were widespread.
I liked the wine enough to buy a dozen bottles. It provided good drinking over the following 10 years. However, the last bottle sat there more by neglect than design until the Covid-19 clean-up unearthed it.
What a rare and lovely regional oldie. Here’s to the late Len Evans, Keith Tulloch and my old mates at Vintage Cellars.
Holm Oak The Protegé Tasmania Pinot Noir 2019 $25 Paint dries, grass grows and covid-19 lock-down drags on, relieved by two delicious Holm Oak pinots. Tim Duffy tends the vines, Bec Duffy makes the wine and over time their pinots evolved to deeper, richer, more textured styles. Medium-bodied Protegé brims with vibrant, varietal fruit aromas and flavours. But an underlying savour gives depth and interest to the palate, with fine, firm tannins completing the finish of a very good, reasonably priced pinot.
Holm Oak The Wizard Tasmania Pinot Noir 2018 $65 A deeper, darker wine, The Wizard delivers a broader spectrum of pinot varietal flavour than Protegé on a denser, more concentrated palate – a rich, chewy amalgam of fruit, savour and fine, strong tannins. The tannins combine spicy, lightly charry oak-derived elements (French oak) and silky fruit tannins. It’s medium bodied and lovely to drink now, but a few years’ bottle age should add an interesting new dimension.