Category Archives: Wine

Celebrating 50 years of Canberra wine

As Canberra wine celebrates its fiftieth anniversary, it’s fair to ask why, in 1971, two smart CSIRO scientists planted grape vines in sheep paddocks? Could the same soils and climate that produced fine wool also ripen wine grapes? Following different paths, and unknown to one another, Dr Edgar Riek and Dr John Kirk concluded that it could. And they set about doing so.

An old-fashioned natural scientist with a taste for wine, Riek explored wine in fine detail, seeking the company of people with similar curiosity. In 1953, eight years after joining the CSIRO in Canberra, Riek and others founded the men-only Canberra Wine and Food Club.

A frequent visitor to Rutherglen, Riek acquired an appreciation of fortified wine and, largely through his friendship with winemaker Mick Morris, became a skilled maker and blender.

In 1971 Riek and his wife Mary purchased land on the gentle, lower slopes of the Cullarin Range on Lake George’s north-western foreshore. Daughter Helen pastured her horse there while Riek established Cullarin Vineyard.

Collector Wines owner Alex McKay worked on the property during Riek’s ownership. He also led a rejuvenation of the site for the Karelas family some years after they purchased it from Riek.

McKay says, “His site selection was absolutely brilliant. It was brilliant how he worked it out”. Riek had figured that even on a very slight slope, warm air moved to the slightly higher northern end of Lake George, providing a measure of frost protection. And Riek had told winemaker Ken Helm how his car windows defrosted as he drove along that section of the lake.

McKay adds, “the soil, drainage and aspect” all suit grape growing, and “you would struggle to find better sites in the area”.

I thought we had Burgundy conditions’, declared Riek at a November 2015 industry lunch, explaining why chardonnay and pinot noir became the first of around 40 varieties he planted at Cullarin over the coming years.

John Kirk, now 86, acquired his taste for wine in post-World War II Ireland. After spending the war years in England, the under-age Kirk returned home to become the non-drinking (he claims) cellar manager at the family’s Hydro Hotel in Lisdoonvarna, a western Ireland spa and music town.

Curious, but knowing nothing about wine, Kirk learned on the job and by reading. The practical lessons came later, he says, over bottles shared with his father.

Kirk arrived in Canberra from Ireland in 1968 and recalls, ‘I’d joined CSIRO and we used to drive around the countryside, get the feel of the place and as I drove around I was always surprised that there were no vineyards here …I thought, sure, this is warm enough to ripen grapes. So I enquired around, but the story in the industry was that it was too cold. But anyway I did my research and got this climatic data for Bordeaux. And it turned out to be not similar but identical. The temperature variation through the season is exactly the same in Canberra as in Bordeaux. So clearly they can ripen grapes there, we should be able to ripen grapes here’.

Kirk decided to buy land and at Murrumbateman found what he was looking for. A man named Ian Widdowson, ‘had a spare block he wanted to sell and that was Clonakilla. So I was interested and asked if I could dig a hole. He said yes, so I came out with a spade and dug the hole. I liked the look of the soil, although I was no expert on soil. And I just liked the way the grass was growing. There weren’t many trees but such trees as there were looked good. It just spoke to me. This looked good. What I now know is this was on the volcanic rock and that gives rise over the thousands of years to much deeper, much better soils than the sedimentary rocks. So I made him an offer, he said he accepted. I actually paid $9,600’.

With land that spoke to him, and Bordeaux in mind, Kirk planted riesling and the Bordeaux varieties cabernet sauvignon, semillon and sauvignon blanc.

Half a century later, Clonakilla, now expanded to around 16 hectares, remains in the Kirk family under John Kirk’s son Tim.

Riek’s Cullarin vineyard succeeded, too, but changed hands and names along the way. Riek’s early wines appeared under a Cullarin Cellars label. But in the early eighties he dropped that name in favour of ‘Lake George’, with a Joseph Lycett 1820s painting of the lake. In 1998 at age 78 Riek sold the vineyard to Canberra’s Karelas family. Karelas added the word ‘Winery’ to the label and now traded as Lake George Winery. Sam Karelas successfully trademarked the combined name and Lycett painting in 2005.

In 2008 Karelas bought the neighbouring Madew Vineyard (originally Westering Vineyard) and used the Lake George Wines brand for the combined properties.

In 2010 Karelas separated the two vineyards, selling Riek’s property to Peter Wiggs, while retaining the Lake George Wines brand for the former Madew–Westering vineyard. This left Riek’s historic vineyard without a trading name. But in 2019, after taking a majority stake in Eden Road Wines, Murrumbateman, Wiggs brought Riek’s vineyard under the Eden Road banner. Riek’s site is now Eden Road Lake George Vineyard. Its grapes contribute to several Eden Road wines, including the new Cullarin Block 71 range, sourced exclusively from Riek’s historic vineyard.

In 2018 the Karelas family sold the Madew–Westering property, now trading as Lake George Wines, to Sarah and Anthony McDougall, making them the third custodians, after the Madew and Karelas families, of the vines planted by Geoff Hood in 1973.

Though Kirk and Riek were first to plant, others had similar plans. In 1973, five more Canberra vineyards were planted. Around Murrumbateman, Ken Helm established what we now know as Helm Wines, Wing Commander Harvey Smith planted Doonkuna Estate (now Eden Road Wines) and Geoff and Trish Middleton set up Broughton Park (now Murrumbateman Wines).

On Edgar Riek’s northern boundary on Lake George’s north-western shore, Captain Geoff Hood planted Westering Vineyard (now Lake George Wines). And high up on the Lake George escarpment, east of the Federal Highway, Dr Max Blake planted Shingle House (later Brooks Creek, then part of Little Bridge Partners, but now abandoned).

In this pattern Canberra’s wine industry developed over the next two decades. Individuals mainly from scientific and academic backgrounds, some with PhDs, established small holdings – supported initially by professional salaries and unrelenting work. The vineyards, scattered widely around the Canberra, varied in altitude from around 550 metres to 860 metres.

Vineyards were largely in NSW, sprinkled along the Barton Highway, between Spring Range in the south to Yass in the north in what we loosely call Murrumbateman; at Wallaroo on the Murrumbidgee slopes; around Sutton-Gundaroo; along the elevated Lake George–Bungendore escarpment; on the lower slopes of the Cullarin Range, hugging Lake George’s north-western shore; with one outlier to the east of Lake George at Lake Bathurst, and another, since removed, at Queanbeyan. Only Pialligo Estate and Mount Majura Vineyard lay within the ACT.

By the mid-nineties, district heroes, shiraz and riesling, had only partly emerged (led by Helm Wines and Clonakilla respectively) while small makers across the district had built strong followings.

Then something big happened. Its positive effect on the industry’s scale and quality continues today – albeit if not precisely as foreseen by its architects.

In May 1997, ACT Chief Minister Kate Carnell announced an agreement between her government and South Australian winemaker BRL Hardy Limited. She says she stitched up the agreement with the help of Canberra liquor retailer Jim Murphy.

Carnell recalls seeing opportunities for Canberra wine as part of regional tourism. However, she believed a lack of scale restrained the local industry. ‘Wine fits well into regional tourism but to do that it needed a capital infusion. Canberra’s wineries were small and undercapitalised. If a big operator could invest substantially in the district it might give small operators certainty and confidence to invest’.

Her government offered BRL an assistance package totalling $2m – including land valued at $980,000 – and access to cheap grey water. In return BRL’s Stephen Millar pledged to invest $10million in new Canberra vineyards, winery, and cellar-door complex, to expand grape-buying contracts with independent growers and to develop a Canberra wine brand.

Hardys quickly built the Kamberra cellar door, entertainment complex and high-capacity winery at Watson. The company planned on processing thousands of tons of regional grapes annually and on launching two Canberra wine brands, Kamberra and Meeting Place. To scale up local grape supply, Hardys established an 83-hectare vineyard at Holt and offered attractive, indeed irresistible, fixed-price contracts to existing and would-be grape growers.

A decade later Hardys, departed Canberra. It ceased local grape and wine production and on short notice stopped taking grapes from growers. Most survived the shock by starting or expanding their own wine brands or by selling grapes to existing local vignerons. Their survival permanently increased Canberra’s grape supply.

Among the survivors were Jennie and Wayne Fischer’s 14-hectare Murrumbateman vineyard (currently contracted to Nick O’Leary and Alex McKay), Rob and Sue Bruce’s 20-hectare Poachers vineyard (with son Will making wine), the Lunney family’s 12.5-hectare Four Winds Vineyard (now run by daughter Sarah Collingwood and husband John Collingwood), and the Parker family’s 22-hectare Long Rail Gully vineyard (with Richard Parker growing, making and bottling wine on site).

Shaw Vineyard Estate owner, Graeme Shaw, recalls, ‘When Constellation Brands acquired BRL Hardy [in 2003] the culture changed the day they took over. They were not interested in Canberra at all. There was stupidity. They tried to get people to abandon their grape contracts. Those who held out got a good deal, others got a poor deal. We got paid out three years and didn’t deliver a single grape to them. They didn’t want them’.

Shaw’s relationship with Hardys began when he won the contract to build their winery–cellar door complex. This led to a deal to plant 32-hectares, backed by a 10-year grape supply contract. With his wife and Ann and son Michael, Shaw completed a viticulture course and planted the vineyard in 1999 and 2000. It remains, as far as I can ascertain, Canberra’s biggest vineyard.

The contract allowed the Shaws to keep part of the crop and build their own brand, which they did on a scale not seen before in Canberra. A large, purpose-designed cellar door-restaurant, opened in 2005, expanded visitor experience beyond wine through the sale of Italian ceramics and balsamic vinegar. And in 2018 Shaw opened a new cellar-door wine-club -lounge building, separate from the restaurant and store.

Winemakers Alex McKay and Nick O’Leary decided to remain in Canberra following Hardy’s departure. Through Edgar Riek’s influence, Theo and Sam Karelas engaged the pair to overhaul the Lake George vineyard they’d bought from Riek a decade earlier. McKay was to also to make the wines and both were free to develop their own brands, Collector Wines, Nick O’Leary Wines and the jointly owned Bourke Street Wines. O’Leary and McKay went their own ways in 2010 but still work closely together.

At Kardinia Winery, Murrumbateman, McKay, with French winemaker Leonore Salancon, makes Collector wines, some of the Bourke Street range and wines under contract for other brands. McKay believes one of the most important developments for Canberra wine in recent years has been representation in the cities by some of Australia’s most prestigious distributors. His own wines sit in one of the most illustrious portfolios of all under Robert Hill-Smith’s Negociants Australia.

Nick O’Leary has his own 10-hectare vineyard and winery in the Wallaroo area, with plans to expand to 22-hectares over the next few years. The large winery produces the O’Leary brand and a range of contract wines. Indeed, the busy winery feels like a cross between production workshop and university as O’Leary mentors, and is challenged by, a new generation of Canberra winemakers developing their own styles: Hamish Young’s highly acclaimed Mada Wines, Caleb Wearne’s Whitton Farm, and Jake Carter’s Sholto.

As the Canberra winery industry celebrates its fiftieth birthday, the reality is that what we call the Canberra District relies increasingly on grapes from neighbouring regions, particularly but not limited to Hilltops and Tumbarumba. They give volume and viability to some makers and enable production of particular wine styles by others. These areas are already deeply enmeshed in the Canberra wine industry.

With security of supply a growing concern to vignerons across the district, perhaps the most significant news of 2021 will be the construction of Jason and Alicia Brown’s Moppity winery and cellar door complex to the south of Murrumbateman. The development will bring production from the Brown’s extensive vineyard holdings in Hilltops and Tumbarumba to Canberra.

And as the Brown’s sell much of their fruit, some Canberra makers hope proximity will give them first dibs.

The Browns own the 69-hectare Hilltops region Moppity Vineyard, 70-hectare Coppabella Vineyard, Tumbarumba, and the 10-hectare Kerralee vineyard, Murrumbateman, site of the new development. Jason writes, ‘We have the DA approved and should start building this side of Christmas or possibly early new year’.

The new winery will be by far the biggest in Canberra, adding to the industry’s scale and multi-layered offerings accrued over 50 years by the industry’s 40 or so independent vignerons and many independent growers.

It’s been a hands-on, non-stop endeavour by so many couples, families and individuals. The industry’s new branding, launched on 29 November 2021, captures the spirit of this interaction between our landscapes, vines, people and wine. Particularly moving is an audio-visual presentation, with song sung by Marty K (written by K and Tallagandra Hill’s David Faulks ) and Sammy Hawker’s evocative images.

Canberra District wines – a degustation

WHITES

Lark Hill Canberra District Gruner Veltliner 2021
Vines arrived high on Lake George escarpment, between the Federal Highway and Bungendore, in 1973 (Max Blake’s Shingle House), 1976 (Affleck) and 1978 (Lark Hill). Lamberts, now reinvented as Contentious Character, arrived in 1990, followed recently by Enotria Wines. Lark Hill vineyard, peaking at 860-metres, sits about 200 metres higher than Murrumbateman. The site turned out to be too cool for the cabernet, shiraz and merlot Dr David and Sue Carpenter originally planted there. But riesling, chardonnay and pinot succeeded. Their son Chris later successfully introduced the Austrian variety gruner veltliner – a unique, delicious, dry white, fruity and peppery at the same time.

Pankhurst Canberra District Arneis 2019 $30
In 1986 vineyards spread into the Wallaroo area, on the edge of the Murrumbidgee Valley, West of Hall. Dr Roger and Faye Harris established Brindabella Hills, Alwyn Lane established Park Lane (now Surveyors Hill) and Allan and Christine Pankhurst planted the five-hectare Pankhurst vineyard. In 2016 the Pankhursts grafted Rhone Valley variety marsanne and Piedmontese variety arneis onto semillon and sauvignon rootstocks. Allan Pankhurst says, ‘We tried all sorts of styles of arneis in Piedmont and preferred the unoaked ones’. And that’s how Andrew McEwin made their 2019, no oak, and all fruit, reminiscent of pear and melon-rind, bone-dry and grippy.

Helm Canberra District Classic Dry Riesling 2019 $38
Canberra wine pioneer Ken Helm championed riesling long before the variety became Canberra’s specialty white. He planted riesling in 1973, following plantings in 1971 by Dr John Kirk at Clonakilla and in 1973 by Geoff Hood at Westering Vineyard, Lake George. While the variety thrives across the district (it can’t fail says John Kirk), Helm’s promotion of it through the International Riesling Challenge lifted its quality across Canberra and profile nationally. And his own relentless fine-tuning keeps Helm’s two dry rieslings, Classic and Premium, up there with the best in Australia. The 2019 shows the benefit of almost three years’ age, which intensifies the mouth-watering, lemony varietal flavour.

Collector Lamp Lit Canberra District Marsanne 2019 $38
Alex McKay explored Canberra’s vineyards from an early age. As a youth he worked with Edgar Riek at Lake George and later as BRL Hardy’s Canberra winemaker worked with growers across the region. Striking out on his own after Hardy’s departure from Canberra, Alex deepened the intimate connection between vineyards and winemaking. His ever inquisitive, inventive approach produces wine styles ranging from profound expressions of cool-climate shiraz, to earthy sangiovese, to this savoury, taut-textured, barrel-fermented blend of the Rhone Valley varieties marsanne, roussanne and viognier. It fills out pleasingly with a few years’ bottle age. Sourced from east of Murrumbateman, for release 1 February 2022.

Gallagher Sparkling Duet Pinot Noir Chardonnay NV $35
It can be said that Canberra selected its winemakers: Canberra existed, people lived here and some planted vineyards in proximity to their homes. Gallagher, on the other hand, chose Canberra. Researching suitable climates to grow shiraz in the late 1980s he selected Canberra before the variety became our signature red. Moving from Victoria, he planted the variety here in 1995 and subsequently made excellent long-lived shiraz. But he also specialises in traditional method bubblies. The excellent Duet, made from locally grown pinot noir and chardonnay combines vibrant lemony flavour, fine bubbles and the texture and flavour complexity derived from maturation on spent yeast cells.

REDS

Clonakilla Canberra District Shiraz Viognier 2019 $110
Based on a temperature match, John Kirk established Clonakilla in 1971 with the Bordeaux varieties in mind. However, he soon discovered Canberra’s continental climate to be drier, with twice the evaporation rate of maritime Bordeaux, and more frost prone. The Bordeaux varieties survived but failed to shine. Shiraz and riesling proved to be the best performers of the early plantings. He made the first straight shiraz in 1990 and in 1992, following son Tim Kirk’s visit to France’s Cote-Rotie, made the first shiraz–viognier blend. The stunning 2019 offers exceptionally opulent fruit flavour meshed with assertive but fine, supple tannins.

Cullarin Block 71 Canberra District Syrah 2019 $55
Edgar Riek established Cullarin Vineyard, Lake George, in 1971 with Burgundy in mind. Chardonnay and pinot noir thrived. Indeed, Riek’s outstanding pinots encouraged Jim Lumbers and Anne Caine to establish Lerida Estate on Riek’s southern boundary in 1997. But shiraz became the district hero. And this wine from old vines on Riek’s Lake George vineyard shows the qualities that put shiraz at the pinnacle: fragrance, fruit, savour and beautiful interaction between fruit and tannin. Eden Road winemaker Celine Rousseau says she added a tiny drop of viognier to the wine. The 2019 vintage won three trophies in the 2021 Australian Highland Wine Show. 2018 also available.

Mount Majura Canberra District Mondeuse 2021 $27.20–$34
In 1988 Dinny Killen established Mount Majura vineyard in collaboration Dr Edgar Riek. Under Frank van de Loo the vineyard developed over time to include tempranillo (its signature red), graciano, touriga, mondeuse and ansonica. Van de Loo also hopes, in future, to plant albarino and altesse, making Mount Majura perhaps the most varietally diverse of Canberra’s estate-based producers. Based on this arresting mondeuse, bring on diversity! While often blended, this Savoy, France, variety offers a unique character on its own: lighter coloured and intensely aromatic, combining spice, black pepper and cherry-like fruit in the aroma and on the dry, gentle palate.

Nick O’Leary Seven Gates Canberra District Tempranillo 2019 $32
Nick O’Leary remained in Canberra following the departure of Hardys. He developed his own brand and, in the process, established deep connections with grape growers in Canberra and surrounding regions. He later bought a vineyard at Wallaroo, built a winery on site and has been extending the vineyard ever since. O’Leary’s $58 elegant but powerful Bolaro shiraz sits among the best and most awarded from Canberra. And the breeding shows, too, in his $30 Canberra District shiraz and $34 Heywood shiraz. O’Leary’s 2019 tempranillo, source mainly from his own vineyard, delivers plum-like and savoury varietal flavour, with a firm, taut, tannic structure.

Long Rail Gully Canberra District Shiraz 2019 $28
In 1998, encouraged by Hardys entry into Canberra, the late Garry Parker, wife Barbara, and son Richard planted Long Rail Gully’s 22-hectare vineyard. Richard Parker says a fixed-term contract with Hardys underpinned the venture in the short term, but the family always planned to develop their own brand. After Hardy’s departure Richard Parker continued making and bottling wine on site and selling fruit to local vignerons. Parker’s 2019 shows the drink-now appeal of Canberra’s medium-bodied shiraz style. It offers ripe, spicy fruit flavour with a juicy mid-palate and soft, easy tannins, subtly supported by maturation in oak barrels.

First published in The Canberra Times Tuesday 7 December 2021
©Chris Shanahan 2021

Wine review – Clonakilla’s sensational 2019 flagship

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.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2021

Wine reviews – Wynns Coonawarra Estate 2018 vintage reds

2018 – a highly rated Coonawarra vintage

Reviews of 2018 vintage reds tasted 27 October 2020 in Canberra with Wynns Coonawarra Estate winemaker, Sue Hodder, and Winewise editor, Lester Jesberg.

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.

For interested readers, Farmer’s The red soils of Coonawarra – Part of a unique terroir provides a detailed discussion of current understanding, based on numerous field trips and scientific sources detailed in the article.

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’.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 18 November 2020

Wine review – Miceli Mornington Peninsula

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.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan

Wine review – Four Winds Canberra District Riesling 2019

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.

More info and purchasing.

Copyright Chris Shanahan 24 October 2020

Wine review – Mada, Eden Road

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.

Read more or buy Mada Murrumbateman Shiraz 2019

Two Tumba chardonnays

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.

Read more or buy Mada Tumbarumba Chardonnay

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.

Red more or buy Eden Road The Long Road Chardonnay 2017

Copyright © Chris Shanahan, 25 September 2020

Hilltops and Tumbarumba come to Canberra

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.

Jason and Alecia Brown, Kerralee Vineyard, Spring Range, Jeir Creek.

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.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan July 2020

Wine review – Clonakilla Hilltops, NSW

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.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2020

Wine review – Tahbilk 1860s vines shiraz

Tahbilk vineyard and winery on the Goulburn River and its anabranch, central Victoria

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.

Tahbilk shiraz vine, planted 1860 by Mr T Marie

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…’

Alister and Eric Purbrick

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.  

References

  • Tahbilk Purbrick family, five generations
  • Chateau Tahbilk: story of a vineyard 1860–1985, Enid Moodie Heddle and Frank Doherty, Lothian Publishing Company Pty Ltd, third edition, 1985
  • Phone interview Alister Purbrick, Chris Shanahan April 2020

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2020

Ode to an oldie – a salute to Len Evans, Keith Tulloch, Vintage Cellars

Vintage Cellars Hunter Valley Shiraz 1997

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.

History

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.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2020