Ken Helm grows grapes and makes wine at Murrumbateman in the Canberra District. He also sources riesling grapes from neighbouring regions of the New South Wales high country on the western slopes of the Great Dividing Range.
In the 2017 vintage, working from a new, dedicated riesling cellar, Helm produced three rieslings from the Canberra District and one each from Tumbarumba and Orange.
‘Murrumbateman’s the centre of the universe’, reckons Helm. Hence, I took great trouble to locate his village in the middle of the map below. Tumbarumba lies 130km to the southwest of Murrumbateman, while Orange is 190km to its north.
The three sites share a continental climate – amplified by altitudes between 600 and 700 metres – resulting in warm days and cool nights during the autumn ripening period. In these conditions, the late-ripening riesling grape develops clear varietal character while retaining fresh acidity.
The wines present subtle variations of riesling, driven largely by minor differences in growing and ripening temperatures of the sites.
Helm Tumbarumba Riesling 2017 $30 (sold out) The grapes come from Juliette Cullen’s Tumbarumba vineyard at 620-metres altitude. The site’s cooler and wetter than Helm’s at Murrumbateman and probably explains the apple- and pear-like character widening the spectrum of the usual floral and citrus nature of riesling. The shimmering fresh palate finishes bone dry, with scintillating acidity.
Helm Orange Region Riesling 2017 $30 Although Orange lies 190km to the north of Murrumbateman, growing temperatures are lower, influenced by cool air flowing from Mount Canobolas, the seminal landmark of the region, and the 700m altitude of the vineyard. The wine presents Granny Smith apple-like characters, cut with tangy lime-like acidity and flavour. It’s bone-dry and taut as a high wire.
Helm Canberra District Classic Dry Riesling 2017 $38 Helm’s original riesling, now in its fifth decade of production, presents a tangy, lemony side of riesling with notably rounder, fuller palate than the more austere wines from Tumbarumba and Orange. That extra body and up-front fruitiness mean absolutely delicious drinking now. But naturally high acidity and a decades-long track record mean you can cellar this wine for ten years or more and enjoy its flavour evolution along the way.
Helm Canberra District Premium Riesling 2017 $52 Possibly the best wine yet under this label, the 2017 is for the second time sourced entirely from Ken’s 2008 vineyard planted to the Pewsey Vale riesling clone. Previous vintages, with the exception of the 2016, came from the neighbouring Lustenberger vineyard. The wine presents the combined power and delicacy of riesling, with amazingly concentrated lime-like varietal flavour. The flavour lingers in the purest most delicious way.
Helm Canberra District Half Dry Riesling 2017 $30 With 12 grams per litre of residual grape sugar, Helm Half Dry lives up to its name, being neither dessert sweet nor bone dry. The sugar and fruit combine to give a plush, full mid palate, while high natural acidity prevents the cloying sensation that comes with unalloyed sweetness. Unlike the Helm dry riesling, this one’s intended for early consumption, not cellaring. It pairs well with all sorts of spicy and (chilli) hot food.
In 2017, Lonely Planet rated Canberra third best city in the world. But in keeping with a decidedly riesling mood enveloping the Capital’s winemakers, Gallagher Canberra Riesling 2017 topped 519 wines from seven countries in the Canberra International Riesling Challenge.
Murrumbateman winemaker Ken Helm founded the challenge 17 years ago. At the time, Canberra riesling, though very good, lived in the shadow of Canberra shiraz, which had attracted the attention of world critics by the perfumed beauty of Clonakilla’s shiraz–viognier blend.
Helm’s dogged pursuit of riesling as the region’s white specialty gathered momentum. The challenge became a practical workshop for local riesling growers and makers. Their expertise, applied to a variety well suited to Canberra’s climate, produced rieslings that increasingly stood comparison to the best in Australia – indeed to the world, as Gallagher demonstrated this year.
Show judges loved the style. And the love spread to wine waiters and consumers in Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne. Although the absolute volumes remain small on a national scale, Canberra riesling is achieving demand matched by few producers of the variety in other regions, Tasmania excepted.
Long before Canberra’s 2017 vintage commenced, winemakers scrambled for riesling grapes. With supply no longer meeting demand, grape prices shot up. During vintage winemaker David O’Leary called riesling the district’s hot variety. “Everyone’s after it”, he said, “including out-of-district makers. And if you can find it, expect to pay $2000 a ton”. Only Tasmanian riesling fetched more, at around $2300 a ton, he added.
O’Leary sees no let up for the coming vintage even though early signs point to another bountiful harvest in 2018. He says, “A lot of people are chasing it, but finally the [grape] price reflects how much the wine can sell for”. He expects the price to remain around $1800–$2000 a ton in 2018.
Like others in the district, O’Leary is either planting more riesling or grafting it onto less popular varieties, setting the scene for increased supply over the next few years.
If riesling attracted perhaps the most attention locally this year, our winemakers made beautiful and sometimes quirky wines across a wide range of styles.
Shiraz remains the district red specialty, though some makers say the sheer number of labels on offer now makes it harder to find restaurant listings or retail shelf space.
Partly for that reason, Nick Spencer, recently departed from Eden Road Wines, plans on offering reds from warmer Gundagai under his new Nick Spencer label. He reckons using appropriate varieties (shiraz, cabernet sauvignon, touriga and grenache) in warm-climate blends makes a good narrative and an alternative style for drinkers.
But for most, shiraz remains the main game in a wide and deep district offering. My gong for Australian shiraz of the year goes to Clonakilla Syrah 2015, a remarkable small-production wine from the warmest site on the Clonakilla vineyard. The wine never wins medals or trophies for one reason – winemaker Tim Kirk doesn’t enter it in wine shows.
However, Frank van der Loo shows his shiraz, and in November his Mount Majura 2015 won the Chairman’s Award at the National Wine Show of Australia. Former Canberran Jim Chatto wrote, “I generally look for a wine of excellent quality and character. My Chairman’s Award goes to a beautifully expressive cool climate shiraz from Canberra. Amazingly this very same wine was the runner-up to my award last year”.
Canberra shiraz fared well at the NSW Wine Awards, too, where Lerida Estate won the best young shiraz trophy. At the same show, Shaw Vineyard Estate Cabernet Shiraz 2015 topped the best young red blend category.
Canberra’s production of so-called alternative varieties continued to expand in 2017. Our makers now work with, among others, graciano, tempranillo, sangiovese, gamay, nebbiolo, colorino, mammolo, refosco, mondeuse, canaiolo, aglianico, nero d’avola and cinsault.
Of these, sangiovese and tempranillo became mainstream some years ago, with conspicuous success for Mount Majura’s tempranillo, now its signature variety, and its gold-medal winning mondeuse and TSG (tempranillo-shiraz-graciano blend).
In 2017, Pankhurst Wines, Hall, produced its first whites from marsanne (Rhone Valley origin) and arneis (Piedmont origin), varieties Allan Pankhurst grafted onto semillon and sauvignon blanc rootstock a few years earlier.
The wines, made for Pankhurst by Capital Wine’s Andrew McEwin, give us a new expression of marsanne, no newcomer to Canberra, and I believe our first glimpse of Canberra-grown arneis. The marsanne 2017 ($25) provides full, fresh flavour with the distinctive viscosity of the variety. Arneis 2017 ($30) shows a racy, pleasantly tart character and bone-dry finish.
In 2017, awards of another kind came to Four Winds Vineyard.
In March the vineyard’s new label became “supreme champion” of London’s Drinks International Wine Design Challenge. Five months later, and still in London, the labels were awarded “best redesign” and “supreme champion” at Harpers Design Awards.
In May, Wine Australia selected Four Winds’ Sarah Collingwood for its Future Leaders Program. Then in September Collingwood won Owner-Operator of the Year in the Australian Women in Wine Awards.
2017 also witnessed generational change at three wineries: founders Jim Lumbers and Anne Caine sold Lerida Estate, Lake George, to Michael McRoberts. Roger and Faye Harris sold Brindabella Hill, Hall, to Michael Anderson and Renae Kilmister. And Brian and Janet Johnston sold McKellar Ridge to John and Marina Sekoranja.
Lerida’s operations manage Andrew McFadzean, says new owner Michael McRoberts’ long-term plans include doubling the winery, barrel cellar and cellar door capacity as production lifts from 130 tons in 2017 to 300 tons.
McFadzean expects to source grapes from neighbouring regions, including Hilltops and Orange, as well as Canberra.
“We want not just more wine, but excellence in everything we do. We want to give customers a great experience in wine, at the cellar door, in restaurants and when they drink our wines at home”.
Lerida now offers cellar door sales and food service seven days a week.
Brindabella Hills’ vineyards had been out of action for a couple of years. But new owners Michael Anderson and Renae Kilmister retained chef Robyn Cooper and winemaker Brian Sinclair.
The couple then “worked around the clock for weeks”, says Anderson, revamping the vineyard and renovating the cellar door and café. They have further plans to add a big new deck to the café, with views to the Murrumbidgee Valley and also to renovate and move into the Harris’s former house.
At about the time John Sekoranja decided to leave corporate life and buy a winery or vineyard, he met McKellar Ridge founders Brian and Janet Johnston. Instant rapport led to a sales agreement.
McKellar Ridge changed hands in June 2017. But before that Sekoranja and wife Marina had worked vintage with Brian Johnston and both had enrolled in the wine science degree at Charles Sturt University.
They plan to modernise the cellar door, continue with the wine styles the Johnstons established and “expand and diversify the range”. They’ll experiment a bit with an existing tempranillo style and add a sparkling riesling to the range.
The Sekoranjas also plan to add sangiovese to a new one-hectare shiraz and riesling vineyard they planted at their home in Wallaroo Road, Hall.
And at Eden Road Wines, Murrumbateman, winemaker Nick Spencer left to create his own brand. His departure opened the door to another exceptionally talented winemaker, Celine Rousseau. Rousseau made many beautiful Hilltops and Tumbarumba region wines at Chalkers Crossing, Young. She now manages Eden Road and heads the winemaking team.
Change is also underway at Jeir Creek Winery, Murrumbateman. Founders Rob and Kay Howell put the winery and vineyard on the market recently and hope to find a buyer in the near future.
Meanwhile, Rob Howell remains on the vineyard and says, “Beautifully timed rain boosted the vines and inflorescences [that precede flowering, then fruit set] suggest it’ll be a big crop [in 2018]”.
Howell’s Murrumbateman neighbour, Ken Helm, felt apprehensive during his driest July–August on record. He said, “I’d just planted a new riesling vineyard, but glorious rain arrived just in time. Now I look in the riesling vineyards and I’ve never seen inflorescences like this. Every shoot has two bunches, some have three. It could be an enormous crop”.
As 2017 draws to a close and we enjoy this year’s Canberra whites and last year’s reds, vignerons remain hopeful of another decent crop in 2018 – giving Canberra a rare run of three consecutive decent vintages. But there’s a lot of weather to come beforevintage, so let’s celebrate what we have now and hope for the best in 2018.
Gundog Estate Canberra District Shiraz 2016 $40 Under winemaker Matt Burton, Hunter-based Gundog Estate makes wines from Canberra District fruit and also operates a cellar door in the Grazing complex, Gundaroo. Burton’s 2016 Canberra shiraz, from the Dahlberg vineyard Murrumbateman, shows the opulent fruit character of this early, warm vintage. It remains, however, a medium bodied red, in the Canberra mould, featuring ripe, dark-berry flavours, layered with spice, with fine but abundant, soft tannins.
Swinging Bridge Orange District #006 Experiment Series 2016 $29.75–$35 Winemaker Tom Ward’s experimental #006 blend combines two of the world’s great individual red varieties, tempranillo and pinot noir. Why? Well, says Ward, at 900-metres, tempranillo makes wine with varietal aroma and flavour but the palate lacks the flesh to balance the variety’s strong tannins. Pinot noir (39 per cent of the blend) brings fruit sweetness and flesh to the palate, successfully offsetting these tannins. A delicious wine, #006 combines vibrant, plush fruit with spice and tempranillo’s distinctive savoury, tannic finish.
Swinging Bridge Mrs Payten Orange District Chardonnay 2016 $27.20–$32 The high country of southern NSW, Canberra included, produces a diversity of wine styles, largely dependent on altitude-determined growing and ripening temperatures. The cool slopes of Mount Canobolas, Orange, produces intensely flavoured chardonnay like Mrs Payten. Sourced from a couple of vineyards at around 900-metres, the barrel-fermented wine offers powerful flavours at a modest 12.8 per cent alcohol. Grapefruit- and nectarine-like varietal flavours underpin a racy, shimmering, fresh palate with exceptional drink-now or cellaring potential.
Freeman Hilltops Prosecco 2017 $23 During a downturn in Hilltops region vineyard prices, Dr Brian Freeman has been adding to what is now a 175-hectare estate, “within a radius of 10 kilometres on a 560-metre ridge”, he writes. Freeman’s Italian grape varieties include prosecco, the grape behind north-eastern Italy’s delicate sparkling wine of the same name. Freeman’s Aussie version, released shortly after vintage each year, captures the juicy freshness of the grape, boosted by bubbles and pleasantly tart acidity.
Four Winds Vineyard Tom’s Block Shiraz 2015 $75 The release of Tom’s Block 2015 coincided with a couple of gongs for Four Winds’ new photography series labels from the UK’s Harpers Design Awards. The label does justice to a remarkable wine, sourced from a special block of vines dedicated to the late Tom Lunney, son of Four Winds’ founders. This is intense Canberra shiraz from a great vintage – saturated with spicy varietal flavour, bound with strong, supple tannins.
Clonakilla Canberra District Riesling 2017 $32–$38 In a Canberra Times interview on 22 March, winemaker Bryan Martin said Clonakilla had picked the last of its riesling that day. Ahead of the wine’s September release, Tim Kirk said, “Riesling parcels had a pH below 3.0 with 8–9 grams of titratable acidity at 12.0 Baume – perfect numbers”. Kirk’s winemaking jargon translates to a scrumptious dry riesling with vivid, lemon-like varietal flavour, intensified by the taut, zingy dryness of the naturally high acidity.
Clonakilla Hilltops Shiraz 2016 $28–$35 Tim Kirk sources fruit for his biggest selling red wine from five vineyards around the town of Young in NSW’s Hilltops region. Though slightly warmer than Canberra, Hilltops produces shiraz of a comparable, if slightly fuller style. The 2016 vintage pleases with its fruity–spicy fragrance, medium body, juicy palate and gentle, fine tannins. The wine will easily keep for a decade or so in a good cellar. But I doubt it will ever give greater drinking pleasure than it does right now with vibrance and fruit at full throttle.
Four Winds Vineyard Canberra District Shiraz 2016 $30 Four Winds Vineyard’s follow up to its gold-medal winning 2015 vintage nicely captures the fragrance, medium body and vibrance of Canberra’s shiraz style. While the 2015 offered denser, more concentrated fruit and more solid tannin, the 2016 is all fruit, spice, softness and seduction. Delicate, ripe, red-berry-like fruit flavours, combine with spice and fine tannins in a style well suited to casual warm weather dining.
A sixty-vintage tasting of Wynns Coonawarra Estate cabernet sauvignon on 12 and 13 July 2017 proved the amazing beauty and keeping power of this great Aussie red. Not that this was any news to the tasters. Many of us gathered at Wynns had participated in a similar tasting in 2004 – and we’d drawn the same conclusion: Wynns makes one of the world’s best, and best value, cabernets.
The 2004 tasting propelled winemaker Sue Hodder and vineyard manage Allen Jenkins, further into their long-term project of finessing an already proven wine style. In particular, the elegant beauty of the 1960s wines inspired Hodder.
At this year’s tasting we yet again marvelled at the older wines, many of which tasted much as they had 13 years earlier. More importantly, though, the tasting allowed us to appraise the new wines now so clearly benefiting from all the vineyard and winemaking changes Hodder and Jenkins so thoughtfully implemented from 2000.
The links below give details of those changes. I elaborate on them in my tasting notes below.
With the exception of the 1955 and 1956 vintages, Wynns cabernet sauvignons from 1954 to 1962 were labelled ‘cabernet’, not ‘cabernet sauvignon’. The 1955 and 1956 wines, blends of cabernet sauvignon (80%) and shiraz (20%), were labelled ‘claret’, consistent with Australian generic labelling of the time. In the 1950s, noted winemaker Sarah Pidgeon, Coonawarra grew more shiraz than it did cabernet sauvignon.
From 1954 to 1964 the labels were white. The black label, which ultimately became the wine’s name, first appeared on the 1965 vintage.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet 1954 Mid, limpid colour, brown at the rim; warm, sweet, earth, mushroom and chocolate-like aroma; elegant, refined old palate reflecting the aroma; still sweet and juicy with varietal character. Lovely, harmonious old red. Note, two bottles opened for the group, Huon Hooke (born 1954) led the discussion of the fifties vintages noted his bottle not in as good condition as the one I tasted from.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Claret (Cabernet Sauvignon—Shiraz) 1955 Similar colour to the 1954; sharper, more aged aroma; faded power here, still with intense flavour but a little tart and drying out. It doesn’t have the harmony of the 1954, but it’s still a delight to drink, albeit fading. The other bottle was apparently fresher.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Claret (Cabernet Sauvignon—Shiraz) 1956 A tone lighter in colour than the 1954 or 1955; aged, autumn-leaf aroma with a pungent edge, but still with old-cupboard charm; soft, sweet and gentle on the palate, with an elegant structure and fine, lingering finish. Light but lovely.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet 1957 Brown rim, a shade darker than 1956, but comparatively light in the line up. Less volume of aroma than 1954–56, earthy, savoury and aged – all the old, earthy elements, then a dry, quite tannic palate, firmer than 1954–56. Less ripe in flavour.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet 1958 Deeper hue than preceding wines; very old, chocolaty aroma of extreme age; very full, round palate – plusher than 1954–57 wines, with quite strong, firm tannins. Drying out, but with a trace of sweet fruit still there.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet 1959 Light to medium colour with brown rim; highly aromatic, reminiscent of old leather and autumn leaf, with a tart punch; elegant structure, intense palate with lingering aged and chocolaty aftertaste – fine tannins in harmony with the sweet, aged fruit. Wonderful old wine, with a touch of Coonawarra mint in the aftertaste.
No cabernet sauvignon wine was produced in 1961 (frost) and 1963 (wet). Vintages 1960, 1962 and 1964 bore the word ‘cabernet’ on a white label. The 1965 vintage was the first to bear the black label and the full varietal name ‘cabernet sauvignon’.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet 1960 Deep colour with brown rim; aged varietal aroma, both earthy and sweet; aged but vibrant palate with deep, sweet fruit, lively acid and assertive cabernet tannins all in harmony. Fresher on the palate than the aroma suggested.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet 1961 A frost year, not produced.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet 1962 Slightly lighter colour than 1960, brown at rim; warm and inviting aromas combining sweet fruit and a patina of autumn-leaf and other aged characters; elegant palate, finely balancing acid, tannin and intense fruit. A gorgeous old beauty.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet 1963 A wet growing season, not produced.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet 1964 A shade darker than the 1962, brown at rim; sharp, thrusting aroma revealing great age; the palate reflects the aroma – tannins now outweigh the fruit, and there’s a green, unripe note too. This was the driest season of the decade.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1965 Deepest colour of the 1960–65 group, brown at rim; chocolate-like aroma of age with a sniff of decay; big, tannic palate, tannin edging out the fruit. A powerful wine, now in decline.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1966 (magnum) Deep colour, but a shade lighter than the 1965; a harmony of fruit and age on both nose and plate and so fresh for its age. Long aftertaste. A great wine.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1967 Similar depth of colour to the 1966, perhaps a little more brown at the rim; the aroma combines aged character with freshness; the palate is fuller and rounder than the 1966, with a solid bite of tannin taking over the finish.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1968 Similar hue to 1966 and 1967; the aroma combines surprising fresh Coonawarra berry character, overlaid with age and a touch of mint; the berry and age characters flow through to the palate, along with a firm bite of tannin.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Claret Cabernet Sauvignon Hermitage 1969 Aged colour; some sweet, inviting elements in the aroma, but the palate seems all tannin and oxidation. (A co-fermented cabernet sauvignon and shiraz (at the time also known in Australia as ‘hermitage’. A poor year).
Sue Hodder says there were young vineyards contributing in this decade. Allen Jenkins calls it the wettest of the decades in review, meaning leafier canopies as a result of the higher rainfall. 1976 experienced the warmest flowering, setting the season up well. He says, ‘1978 was another average season, the sort we now look out for as a good year’.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1970 Medium depth of colour, brown at the rim; aroma of berry, mint, cedar and aged character; medium-bodied, ageing palate, still with fruit, but slightly outweighed by tannin.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1971 Medium to deep colour, brown at the rim; exuberant aroma combining fruit and age; lively, vigorous palate of sweet fruit and age in harmony with both high acid and assertive tannin.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1972 Medium to deep colour, brown at rim; warm, decaying aroma of age; a little sweet fruit on the palate but not enough to hold off the tannin, leaving the palate hollow and the finish to acid and tannin.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1973 Medium to deep colour, brown at rim; aged but fresh aroma, showing berries, leaf, and a mellow, earthy, sweet, character of age; sweet fruit tempered by age dominate a fine, firm, harmonious palate.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1974 Medium to deep colour, brown at rim; an initial impression of darker fruits than in the other 1970s wines, but also signs of decay; the palate is full but hot and dominated by tannin as the fruit slips from sight.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1975 Medium to deep colour, brown at rim; warm, ripe aromas of earth, age and sweet black-olive-like varietal aroma; the palate combines sweet fruit, age and firm tannins, with the tannins now dominant but overwhelming.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1976 The first bottle was not in good shape. It revealed a big wine in which tannin outweighed fading fruit. A second bottle served at dinner that night (alongside Chateau Latour 1975), drank beautifully – showing great perfume, power and supple, deep fruit in harmony with its tannins. One of the best.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1977 Medium to deep colour, brown at the rim; leafy, aged aroma; lean, austere palate, albeit with a lick of fruit, though subservient to the tannin.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1978 Medium to deep colour, brown at the rim; big, chocolaty aroma with leafy and aged character; full bodied in this line up, but the palate is hollow and tannins take over the finish.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1979 Medium to deep colour, brown at the rim; aged, chocolaty aroma with something tart and tangy pushing through; a big palate, with more sweet fruit than in the 1977 or 1978. But without flavour concentration, the fruit rolls over to the tannin.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1980 Medium colour, watery brown at the rim; herbaceous, vegetal, unripe aroma; a skerrick of sweet fruit on the palate gives way to tart acid, consistent with the aroma, then firm, hard tannins.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1981 Medium to deep colour, brown at the rim; aged aroma combing both ripe and herbaceous fruit; big, sweet, round and juicy palate with mild tannins.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1982 Medium to deep colour, brown at the rim; aroma of ripe berries, overlaid with sweet, aged character; generous, sweet, plush palate, still with lively berry flavours, though overlaid with lovely, mellow aged characters. Elegant, harmonious palate with lovely tannins complementing the fruit. One of the best.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1983 Deep colour, brown at the rim; earthy, savoury, aged aroma, with leafy cabernet sauvignon character; aged character and firm tannin lead the palate, with a mere skerrick of sweet fruit remaining.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1984 Medium to deep colour, brown at the rim; leafy cabernet sauvignon and berry combo in the aroma; fresh, acidic palate with leafy flavours, then lean, unripe tannins.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1985 Deep colour, brown at the rim; big, savoury aroma, a little oxidised; big palate with sweet, ripe fruit at the core, then loads of tannin slightly outweighing the fruit, though no overwhelming it.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1986 Deep colour, more brick red than brown at the rim; lifted, sweet, multi-dimensional aroma, with oak, fruit and age – volatile acidity noticeable and probably accounts for some of the aroma’s buoyancy; the palate reflects the aroma in its liveliness, though burly tannins, probably derived from both fruit and oak, detract from what may have been an outstanding wine.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1987 Medium to deep colour, more brick red than brown at the rim; attractive aroma combining ripe berry, age and leaf; sweet fruit is at the core of a big, tannic wine, albeit not so overwhelming as in the 1986.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1988 Deep colour with more brick red than brown at the rim; big, ripe aroma combining freshness with age; ripe, sweet fruit on the big palate, followed by similar burly tannins seen in the last few wines. There’s a winemaking style running through these vintages.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1989 Medium to deep colour, more brick red than brown at the rim; attractive, sweet aroma combines fruit, oak and age; after a run of tannic wines, the 1989 presents a gentle, comparatively soft palate; cabernet and oak tannins nevertheless provide structure, but without overwhelming the fruit or becoming a dominate feature. A surprise for such an unsung vintage.
Sue Hodder described the, ‘Many heralded vintages in this decade’, while Allen Jenkins saw the period as, ‘Even in temperature, more so than the other [decades] and drier. A dream decade’.
In a discussion after we tasted this bracket, Jeremy Oliver suggested tannin had been added to the wines. Sue Hodder countered that the tannin had been fruit and oak derived, noting the oak Wynns used in the 90s was, ‘Not a patch on what it is now’.
She added, ‘We were compelled to make as full a body as possible as medium bodied reds were not then accepted’. She went on, ‘The wines were forced a bit’. In an attempt to get away from green flavour, fruit was given greater hang time than it once had, which meant a higher pH and less brightness.
Sue noted that in the 90s oak comprised roughly 20% new across the decade, with an American oak influence in the first half. She lobbied for and got French – but was not anti-American. It simply didn’t suit Wynns wines.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1990 Deep red colour to the rim, with little sign of ageing; aroma of ripe plum, black olive and a warm, earthy, ageing character; clear, varietal cassis-like flavour in an intense palate of great vitality, with firm varietal tannins in harmony with the fruit. One of the best.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1991 Similar colour and hue to the 1990; mellow, warm, aged aroma with notes of chocolate and mint; sweet, harmonious palate, vibrant and fresh despite the age, with a fine, elegant structure. A wonderful contrast in style to the 1990 and of a similar stature.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1992 Medium to deep colour, more brick red than brown at rim; aged aroma without the freshness of 1990 or 1991; big palate, dominated by tannin, despite a vein of underlying fruit.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1993 Medium to deep colour, brown at the rim; warm, chocolate and leafy aroma with earthy, aged character; high acid, high tannin palate, looking tired and dried out.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1994 Medium to deep red, some signs of age at the rim; berry, leaf and age in the aroma; medium bodied, fresh and appealing palate of sweet berry flavours and age, with a modest bite of tannin in the finish.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1995 Deep brick red colour, some signs of age at the rim; big, black-olive and cassis aroma with an overlay of oak; full-bodied, round – a matrix of fruit, oak and tannin, with tannin ascendant.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1996 Deep red, still youthful at the rim; gorgeous floral aroma – a complex of fruit and age; lively palate, saturated with sweet, succulent fruit, held firmly by cabernet tannins. One of the best, with years ahead of it. We were served two glasses – one from bottle, the other from magnum. The condition of the wine in the two bottles varied. For some of us, the wine from the better bottle proved to be in better condition than wine from the magnum.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1997 Deep colour, ageing at the rim; spiky, very old aromas; still has sweet fruit on the palate, though the tannins sweep through and dominate.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1998 Deep colour with youthful tone at the rim; lovely, inviting aroma of ripe plum and dark berries, with subtle aged notes; ripe, plush palate, supple and pulsing with life; firm tannins grip the fruit in a potentially long-lived cabernet. One of the best.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1999 Deep colour with youthful tone at the rim; lifted, sweet-fruited aroma – lovely, classy cabernet sauvignon with a little age; subtle, elegant palate of deep, sweet fruit, interwoven harmoniously with firm tannin. One of the best – and an elegant contrast to the bigger 1998 (reminiscent of the 1990—1991 pairing).
In this period, Sue Hodder’s study of older Wynns vintages led to dramatic vineyard renewal and a new purpose-built winery. Greater control of fruit quality and harvesting time, backed by a winery capable of handling multiple small fruit batches, lifted wine quality.
Use of oak changed for the better as Sue’s team appraised barrels of differing sizes from various forests and coopers. She then designed maturation regimes for each of the Wynns wines. This work is ongoing – for example, the just-released 2015 Black Label was matured partly in 3000-litre vats, much as the earliest vintages were.
Winemaker Sarah Pidgeon described the oak quest as, ‘An epic journey to get the balance right’. The progression from 2000 to the present sought coopers whose barrels, ‘Push up our fruit’.
The introduction of the screw-cap seals from the 2006 vintage eliminated perhaps the most egregious risk to wines intended for long-term cellaring. As we saw time and again in this 60-vintage tasting and a similar event in 2004, cork-related oxidation, meant wide variability in the condition of the wines we tasted. As two bottles of each wine were required for the tasting, for any vintage some in the group tasted excellence, while others suffered a lesser bottle. This proved dramatically so with the 1954 vintage. Future drinkers won’t encounter this problem with wines made from 2006.
After we tasted this bracket, Huon Hooke asked Sue Hodder about the acidity, ‘Which is so even in these wines’.
Sue said the wines now require less acid adjustment than in the past thanks to improved canopy management, earlier ripening and earlier picking. After previous winemaker Peter Douglas left, she felt compelled to continue making big wines. But inspired by the wines of the 1960s, she moved to a medium-bodied style. ‘It was a long journey in vineyard and winery’, she said.
Winemaker Sarah Pidgeon commented on even greater control of fruit. In the 2015 vintage, she said, Wynns commissioned a berry-sorting machine of a style used in Europe and Western Australia for some time.
Berry sorting further improved the evenness and quality of fruit going into the wines.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2000 Medium to deep colour, still red at the rim; fresh, bright, youthful aroma of red berries, overlaid with age; the palate reflects the aroma, with a structure based on comparatively high acid and fine, firm tannins.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2001 Medium to deep colour, youthfully red at the rim; ripe, plummy aroma with a touch of leaf, black olive and age; vibrant palate, with intense, ripe fruit flavour meshed with firm tannins, all in harmony, with finesse.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2002| Medium to deep colour with, signs of age at the rim; warm, plummy, maturing aroma, with an earthy, autumn-leaf character; luscious palate – mature and earthy but with life and fruit, then fine tannins sweeping through on the finish.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 Medium to deep colour, signs of age at the rim; sweet, aged aroma with a lick of oak still apparent; full palate, but the fruit struggles to push through the substantial tannins.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 Deep colour, with vibrant red, still youthful rim; fresh, ripe-berry, varietal aroma – very even and balanced with the first signs of aged character adding complexity; vibrant palate reflects the aroma – pure, cabernet flavour, supple and sweet is cocooned in fine but assertive tannins. One of the best.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 Deep brick red with first signs of age at the rim; leafy, aged aroma; on the palate vibrant fruit wrestles with strong tannin, the latter winning at this stage, but by no means overwhelming the fruit.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 Medium deep, still youthfully red at the rim; ripe, fresh aroma, combining plum- and black olive-like varietal character with maturation character; supple, full, fruity palate of considerable depth with a nicely balanced load of cabernet tannins. Neither young nor aged, but has long cellaring potential.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 Deep colour with vibrant, youthful rim; deep, sweet, plummy aroma, with fruit to the fore, although there’s much more to it; the vibrant palate is saturated with varietal flavour, meshed harmoniously with firm, fine tannins. One of the best, and barely into its long evolution.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 Deep colour with crimson rim; big, rich, sweet-fruited aroma; fleshy, plush fruit floods the opulent, firm, tannic palate. From a hot year, this is at the bigger end of the Coonawarra cabernet style, but it’s harmonious and built to last.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 Deep colour with crimson rim; deep, dark fruits in the aroma, with a touch of sweet oak; big, opulent, warm palate with alcoholic heat taking the edge off the fruit – a comparative block buster, finishing with very strong tannins.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 Deep colour with vibrant crimson rim; gorgeous aroma, combing floral high-notes with ripe, red fruits and savoury oak; supple, deep, fruity palate reflects the inviting aroma; firm tannins combine with the fruit in a wine of complexity and elegance. One of the best.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 Medium to deep colour, with youthful rim; sweet, fruity aroma reminiscent of summer berries, with a splash of leaf and spicy oak; lighter bodied than the preceding three vintages; elegant, refined palate with fresh fruit reflecting the aroma and firm fine tannins in the finish. A triumph in such a wet, cold season.
Sue Hodder said very little suitable fruit was produced in the vintage. She said of the scores of vineyards usually contributing to Black Label, only two produced good quality fruit. Allen Jenkins said, “I learned a lot from the 2011 vintage, leading to major changes to manage the extremes of climate change”.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 Medium to deep colour, still crimson at the rim; delicate, sweet, floral, fruity aroma – alluring, seductive and classy; vibrant palate reflects the gorgeous aroma; fine tannins embrace the fruit, creating a unity of flavour; great harmony and elegance in a very fine, medium-bodied, elegant and potentially very long-lived cabernet sauvignon. A magnificent wine, in a class of its own.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 Medium to deep colour with crimson rim; deep aroma of black fruits and black olive; these intense varietal characters flow onto a deep, sweet and round palate, layered with firm tannins; a big wine after the 2012, but harmonious and with good future potential.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 Medium to deep with crimson rim; vibrant aroma of ripe, red fruits; the palate continues the fruity theme promised by the aroma; tight cabernet tannins grip the fruit and give an elegant structure to a very youthful wine.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 The current release – $28.45 to $45 Deep colour with intense crimson rim; opulent aroma combines vibrant, ripe varietal character with deeper underlying savouriness; brilliant fruit saturates a round, juicy palate that pulses with life; ripe, assertive tannins harmonise with fruit in a complete and superior cabernet sauvignon. One of the best.
A look to the future
We also tasted representative samples from the 2016 and 2017 vintages, drawn from oak barrels. They are yet to be blended and bottled.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 (barrel sample) Deep colour with purple rim; strong aroma of ripe, dark fruits – mulberry, black cherry; an adolescent on the palate – rampant, untamed fruit with powerful tannins and obvious oak; great potential.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 (barrel sample_ Limpid purple colour: all florals and fruit on nose and palate, strongly varietal in flavour with fine tannins at this stage and oak not asserting its influence yet.
Four Winds Vineyard Canberra District Riesling 2016 $25 Four Winds Vineyard’s Sarah Collingwood, a finalist in the 2016 Women in Wine Awards, was in May selected for Wine Australia’s Future Leaders Program. News of Collingwood’s latest achievement coincided with a glass of Four Winds Riesling 2016 at the Tradies Canberra Wine House. I’d tasted and reviewed the wine last November. But like other Canberra rieslings, six months in bottle lifted it to another level. This is a classy riesling indeed, offering intense but delicate, lemon-like varietal flavours, amplified by fresh, drying acidity.
Collector Canberra District Rose Red City Sangiovese 2013 $32 Another local wine enjoyed at Tradies Canberra Wine House (see wine of the week) was Alex McKay’s sangiovese, grown, he says, “on a range of vineyards across both granite and shaley soil near Murrumbateman”. The wine also contains small amounts of four other Italian varieties, canaiolo nero, mammolo and colorino. McKay’s medium-bodied red separates itself from traditional Australian reds by putting sangiovese’s savoury, tannic character ahead of bright fruit flavour. The delicious fruit flavour remains, seeping its way through the savour and tannin with mouth-watering results.
Sassafras Canberra District Savagnin Ancestral 2016 $25 Sassafras Savagnin Ancestral offers a perky, tart, tasty take on sparkling wine. It’s made in a continuous but pernickety process: fermentation, refrigeration to arrest fermentation, maturation on yeast lees, light filtering into bottle (complete with residual grape sugar and surviving yeast), where fermentation resumes, consuming the sugar and creating the bubbles. The result is a light, fresh, pleasing sparkler with apple-like flavour and tartness – and a fine sediment resulting from the bottle fermentation. Fruit comes from the Quarry Hill Vineyard, Murrumbatemen. Available at sassafraswines.com.au.
Ravensworth Sangiovese 2016 $25 Bryan Martin’s sangiovese provides a tasty contrast to Alex McKay’s Collector reviewed today. McKay’s 2013 emphasises the savoury, tannic face of the variety, while Martin’s 2016, at this stage of its development, shows sangiovese’s gentler, fruitier side. Grape for Ravensworth came from five vineyards spread around Canberra, Hilltops and Gundagai. Gentle processing, including whole-berry ferments, extended skin contact and ageing in older barrels, produced a silk-smooth, medium bodied red with intense sour-cherry-like varietal flavour.
Mada Wines Canberra District Shiraz 2016 $35 Hamish Young’s new shiraz combines fruit from two vineyards: Yarrh, at the northern end of Murrumbateman, near the Yass River, and Wily Trout, in the Nanima Valley, Springrange, near the southern end of Murrumbateman. The wine captures the perfume, ripe-berry and spicy characters of Canberra Shiraz. The rich, supple, soft palate is, at present, all about ripe, concentrated fruit flavour – though there’s savour and tannin there to add interest.
McKellar Ridge Canberra District Shiraz Viognier 2016 $34 Winemaker Brian Johnston writes, “I changed the winemaking strategy in 2015 to accentuate the fruit flavour, holding the wine in newer French oak for a shorter period, and bottling in January rather than June. I used the same strategy in 2016”. The strategy worked sensationally in 2015, an exceptional vintage. Again in the 2016 the technique emphasises Canberra’s red-berry-and-spice flavours on a soft, very fresh palate that finishes with a pleasantly tart bite of spicy oak.
Sholto Canberra District Sangiovese 2015 $20 Like Mada’s Hamish Young, Sholto’s Jacob Carter buys grapes from local growers then makes wine for his own label. Carter says, “I only use local fruit from around the Canberra region and have decided to stick only with alternative varieties and wine styles”. His sangiovese, from Jirra Vineyard, provides light to medium bodied current drinking, with bright fresh fruit, smooth texture and savoury tannins typical of sangiovese.
Ravensworth Canberra District The Tinderry 2016 $36 What do you get when you cross the red variety cabernet franc with white sauvignon blanc? Well, if it’s among the vines in 17th century Bordeaux, you get a torrid romance and an entirely new red variety, one of the greatest of all – cabernet sauvignon. But if its just grapes, and in Bryan Martin’s hands, you get a whacky red–white blend that works: fragrant, pungent, fruity, bity, savoury and strangely delicious. You’ll find it under the “weird stuff” tab at ravensworthwines.com.au. “We call it Flanc”, says Martin.
Canberra’s one and only blue-chip wine, Clonakilla Shiraz–Viognier, has a rival. And it’s from the same winery. This is its story.
In 2010, Canberra’s Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier joined the blue chips of Australian wine – alongside Penfolds Grange and Henschke Hill of Grace. Clonakilla’s ranking in the “Exceptional” category of Langton’s Classification of Australian Wine – based on long-term auction demand and prices – confirmed its unique status among Australian cool-grown shiraz styles.
Four years earlier, however, winemaker Tim Kirk had created a rival to his own remarkable flagship. Clonakilla Syrah 2006, a comparatively robust style of Murrumbateman shiraz, immediately attracted quality comparisons with the revered shiraz–viognier blend.
Although sourced from a vineyard planted in 1999, the new wine originated in Tim Kirk’s mind decades earlier – with a fascination in wines from the Rhone Valley’s Cote-Rotie and Hermitage regions.
The Cote-Rotie connection, based on Kirk’s 1991 visit to leading winemaker Marcel Guigal, inspired Clonakilla’s first shiraz–viognier blend in 1992.
But Kirk’s mind had also drifted further south down the Rhone to the hill of Hermitage and, in particular, to Paul Jaboulet’s La Chapelle vineyard, located on terraced slopes below the tiny chapel of Saint-Christophe. He still regards Jaboulet’s La Chapelle 1990 as one of the greatest wines ever tasted.
Kirk drew inspiration, he recalls, from Jancis Robinson’s writing on Hermitage’s leading producers. She once described good Hermitage as “Always majestic. Slow to mature, deep in colour, magnificently and hauntingly savoury rather than sweet and flirtatious, the quintessential syrah”.
Robust, savoury shiraz from Hermitage contrasts strongly with the fragrant, fruity shiraz-viognier blends of Cote-Rotie. But the style differences derive largely from the comparative warmth of the two regions.
Even with Hermitage in mind, Kirk remained limited in the wine styles he could produce by the nature of the fruit coming from the vineyard. However, new plantings on a warmer site expanded the possibilities.
In 1999 Tim Kirk and wife Lara planted shiraz on land they’d bought adjoining Clonakilla’s existing Murrumbateman vineyards. Within a few years the highest, warmest point of the new T and L 1 vineyard produced intriguing shiraz, notably more powerful than wine from other parts of the estate.
For a time, Kirk made wine from the block separately for observation, but ultimately blended it into the flagship Shiraz–Viognier. However, from the 2006 vintage, wine from T and L 1 earned its separate identity, and instant acclaim, as Clonakilla Syrah.
Comparatively powerful, tannic fruit from the site – the warmest of Clonakilla’s vineyards – underpins the style of the Syrah. But Kirk also uses fruit handling, fermentation and maturation techniques that add to the differences between the two flagship wines.
Clonakilla Shiraz–viognier, modelled on the wines of Cote-Rotie, comprises shiraz fermented with the white variety, viognier (5–6 per cent of the blend); Clonakilla Syrah is 100 per-cent shiraz (“syrah” is simply the French spelling).
Kirk says the viognier component, “influences the wine in a subtle way, where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. It elevates, expands and amplifies the aroma and palate and gives a viscous character that rounds the palate”.
Fruit for the shiraz–viognier comes from Clonakilla’s original, Euroka Park and T and L vineyards; Syrah’s fruit comes only from the warmest part of T and L 1 block. The different fruit sourcing creates a vital difference between the two wines.
From 1993 the shiraz-viognier ferments include whole bunches (currently 20–30 per-cent of total fruit, depending on vintage). The stems and stalks add noticeably to the aroma, flavour and texture of the wine; Syrah ferments contain no whole bunches.
The non-whole-bunch component of the shiraz–viognier is de-stemmed then pumped to open fermenting vats. The pump breaks the skin of many of the berries but also leaves many intact; the aim with Syrah, on the other hand, is to keep whole berries intact, so the bunches are de-stemmed into bins, then the berries are fork lifted, not pumped, into open fermenting vats.
Once in vat, both the Shiraz-Viognier and Syrah follow a similar trajectory for a week or two: the mix of berries, or berries and bunches, as the case may be, cold soak for several days until a spontaneous fermentation begins. In the case of whole berries, fermentation begins inside the berry.
As the ferments heat up, plunging machines break up the cap of skins and grapes three times a day; as the ferment slows down, the vats are plunged daily.
After fermentation, Shiraz-Viognier and Syrah, head down two different paths: both remain on skins for a time after fermentation. But the Shiraz–viognier spends a total of about 18 days on skins (three weeks in 2017); while the more robust Syrah remains on skins for 31 days (with a few one-ton batches of six weeks in 2016 and 2017).
Kirk says the extended maceration of the Syrah, “mollifies the potent tannins, but they’re still powerful”. The gentler tannins of the Shiraz–Viognier don’t require such long skin contact.
The many Shiraz-Viognier components are now pressed off skins into 225-litre French oak barriques, about one third of them new, for a 12-month maturation period; the Syrah components are pressed to 500-litre French oak puncheons, one-third new, for 20–22 months.
The size of the barrels and duration of maturation affects the aroma, flavour and tannin structure of each wine. Oak is not obvious in either, rather the two maturation methods complement the character of each wine: the floral, lusciously fruity, silky Shiraz–Viognier and the deeper, darker, more potent Syrah, with its latent, coiled depth.
Does Tim Kirk love one child more than the other? “That’s like asking whether you prefer your son or your daughter”, he laughs. “I love both. I celebrate them equally. They’re distinct personalities. I thrill in their complexity and I thinks it’s almost miraculous we can make these on this little landscape we farm”.
The almost miraculous, definitely remarkable Clonakilla Syrah 2015 costs $96 at cellar door – same price as the equally remarkable Clonakilla Shiraz-Viognier 2015.
Quarry Hill Two Places Tumbarumba-Canberra Pinot Gris 2016 $24 Like other Canberra wineries, Quarry Hill uses grapes from higher, cooler Tumbarumba for some wine styles. In this instance Tumbarumba pinot gris (94 per-cent of the blend) joins grenache from Quarry Hill’s Murrumbateman vineyard in a fresh, zesty, light pink dry wine. The savoury palate offers a subtle pear-like flavour, with a dry, gentle grip and a warm alcoholic aftertaste.
Helm Canberra District Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 $42 As I gathered stories for the Canberra vintage report, several winemakers reported grafting cabernet vines over to other varieties they considered more suited to the climate. Ken Helm, however, remains committed to the variety and in the outstanding 2015 vintage produced a pleasing result. The switch from mainly American oak to mainly French oak, adds to the wine’s appeal. The oak lifts the floral varietal aroma and better complements the slightly leafy varietal flavour of the firm, tannic palate.
Ravensworth Outlandish Claims Bitter Tonic $45 Winemaker Bryan Martin writes, “vermouths and aromatised wines emerged when a wine had issues – ploughing various bitters and botanicals covered up the problem and a bit of sweetness pulled it all together”. Martin makes white and red versions of his tonic, both infused, via fortifying spirit, with the herbal aromas and flavours and intense bitterness of exotic and indigenous herbs, spices, roots and leaves. Among its many outlandish claims, the tonic reputedly “prevents double chins” (if not double vision). Delicious.
Clonakilla Murrumbateman Ceoltoiri 2016 $36 It’s light coloured, medium bodied, fruity, juicy, silk textured and completely irresistible. A blend of the Rhone varieties mourvedre, grenache, shiraz, cinsault, counoise and roussanne from an 0.4-hectare Clonakilla vineyard, Ceoltoiri (Irish for musician) occupies yet another spot on the Rhone-style red spectrum produced by Tim Kirk. This is the lightest coloured and bodied of the styles, offering a delicious depth of pure berry flavours combined with silky tannin. To be released. 27 April.
Canberra’s grape vines slept in last spring, ending a run of early starts to the growing season. Cool spring weather, rain (and resulting cold soils) retarded budburst, flowering and fruit set, setting the scene for the latest harvest in years, though not late by historical standards.
At Murrumbateman on 22 March Ken Helm observed, “Picking times are back to the long-term average here after the earliest vintage on record in 2016”. He anticipated picking the last of his valley’s crop – late-ripening shiraz and cabernet sauvignon – at the end of the first week of April.
The first fruit he processed, gewürztraminer, came from his daughter and son-in-law’s nearby vineyard, The Vintner’s Daughter. It was the only non-riesling bubbling away in his big, new riesling cellar, completed just in time for vintage.
A week and several rain storms after that visit, Helm harvested healthy, ripe shiraz but thought cabernet sauvignon required another two weeks to ripen. Despite a prediction of more rain, “It’s bullet proof”, he believes.
By month’s end Helm rieslings from Canberra, Orange and Tumbarumba were through fermentation and “looking fantastic”, he says.
At Lerida Estate, Lake George, 10mm rain on 5 March couldn’t dampen owner Jim Lumbers’ outlook. As a welcome breeze dried out the grapes, Lumbers described the 2017 vintage as “Wonderful, with the biggest yield ever and quality almost perfect”.
He said, “We picked pinot noir for rosé last week and we’ll harvest an even bigger crop [for red wine] in three weeks. We’re picking pinot gris today and chardonnay next Friday”. He anticipated a shiraz harvest in three weeks, but with more rain predicted picking might be delayed.
By 27 March as the rain cleared after an extremely nervous wait, Lumbers believed he’d “Dodged a bullet, with rain damage and losses near zero. The worst we suffered was botrytis [botrytis cinerea, a fungus] affecting about 10 per cent of the remaining pinot noir. We picked it yesterday but left the affected fruit. It was a miracle we lost so little in such a big crop”.
But botrytis has its noble side, too, concentrating flavour, sugar and acid in luscious white dessert wines. Given the humid conditions, Lumbers says, “We decided to leave nearly half the pinot gris to botrytis”.
He anticipated picking shiraz on 4 April – or earlier if it rained.
The cool, wet start to the season ameliorated January’s savage heat wave. At The Vintner’s Daughter, Murrumbateman, Stephanie Helm said spring rain meant good soil moisture and lush canopies. The healthy canopies protected fruit from sunburn and her vines skated through the heatwave without signs of stress.
With husband Ben Osborne, she harvested a good crop of healthy riesling on 14 March, gewürztraminer two weeks earlier, and anticipated picking merlot a week later and shiraz and viognier at the end of March.
On 6 March, before harvest started, Lark Hill’s Chris Carpenter held high hopes for the 2017 vintage. He said the family’s two biodynamic vineyards – Lark Hill and Dead Horse – held good quantities of disease-free, healthy fruit.
Two days later, the Carpenters harvested pinot noir and chardonnay for sparkling wine from Lark Hill vineyard. A particularly cool site at 860 metres, Lark Hill specialises in riesling, gruner veltliner, chardonnay and pinot noir.
By 25 March the sparkling ferments were complete, and Lark Hill vineyard chardonnay, picked 20 March, fermented vigorously in barrel. Rain had delayed ripening in the pinot noir, Carpenter said, and he expected to harvest it around 8 April. He anticipated ripening of riesling and gruner veltliner around 14 April.
Lark Hill’s lower, warmer Dark Horse vineyard at Murrumbateman grows the Rhone Valley varieties, shiraz, viognier, marsanne and roussanne plus Italy’s sangiovese. Carpenter expected to pick the Rhone whites on 3 April, the shiraz in two passes on 3 and 14 April, and the sangiovese on 18 April.
At Yarrh Wines, Murrumbateman, Neil McGregor and Fiona Wholohan harvested most of their crop before the rain arrived on 22 March. By 29 March only the late-ripening sangiovese remained on the vine. Wholohan expected to pick it on Sunday 2 April. The fruit remains disease-free, she said.
McGregor said the wet spring set Yarrh’s vines off to a late but vigorous start, “but they didn’t go nuts”, he said. Anticipating hot weather, he began irrigating before Christmas and “paid attention to fruit shading” through canopy management, especially on the western side.
A tiny amount of fruit “got zapped” by the sun, he said, but most came through the season in great condition. While shiraz ripened a week earlier than the long-term average (after being three weeks early in 2016), other varieties ripened at normal times.
Wholohan and McGregor expect to offer their first wine of the 2017 vintage – Yarrh Pet Nat Sangiovese Rosé – during Canberra Harvest Festival, 8–9 April.
Richard Parker, winemaker at Long Rail Gully, Murrumbateman, expected to process around 500 tons of grapes, the winery’s largest vintage to date. He said, “Quality is amazingly good”. In a “compressed vintage, riesling, pinot gris, shiraz, pinot noir and merlot all ripened within one week”.
A busy Clonakilla winery, Murrumbateman, expected to process around 350 tons of grapes from its own vineyard, other Canberra growers, and neighbouring Tumbarumba and Hilltops regions.
On 22 March, Winemaker Bryan Martin noted the slow, wet start to the season, followed by perfect flowering across all varieties simultaneously, as warm, dry conditions set in. The resulting big crop began to arrive, “In a fairly orderly fashion –pinot noir two weeks ago, then sauvignon blanc, then we picked the last block of riesling today”, he said.
Hilltops shiraz was already fermenting, though the majority of Clonakilla’s shiraz remained on the vine, along with cabernet varieties and other Rhone Valley red varieties.
Heavy rain later that afternoon switched on owner Tim Kirk’s anxiety meter. But interviewed in the vineyard on 27 March, he said, “It’s looking good. There are odd bits of botrytis on some bunches, but we can pick around them. We’ll pick it all before Thursday. They’re fully ripe, with gorgeous spice flavours but at lower Baume [a measure of sugar content] than last year”.
Shiraz was on Greg Gallagher’s mind too after the rain on 22 March. But grapes in his Murrumbateman vineyard were ripe and scheduled for picking the following day. “I decided to pick them this week”, he said, “as they have lovely plum flavours”. He’d already processed riesling and sauvignon blanc as well as pinot noir and chardonnay for sparkling wine.
At Capital Wines, Murrumbateman, owner Andrew McEwin says volumes are above normal, but not by much. He says, “It’s a successful vintage by the look of it. My shiraz is spectacular, the best rieslings are very fine and fragrant, but quality depends on vineyard management and varies from grower to grower”. He expects sangiovese to be the last variety harvested, in mid to late April.
On 23 March, climbing down from his tractor in Wily Trout’s pinot noir vineyard at Springrange, Will Bruce described harvest timing as normal after a run of early-ripening years. He said, “It can’t get any better than this. The pinot’s a larger crop than usual, around nine tonnes a hectare, and the whites are excellent”.
He’d already harvested chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, pinot for rosé and was part way through picking pinot noir for red wine. He expected to pick shiraz the following week and saw no threat to quality or quantity. From this vintage Bruce will make his Wily Trout Wines at Nick O’Leary’s new Hall winery.
O’Leary’s winery, completed just before vintage on the former Lawson vineyard, sits on the eastern rim of the Murrumbidgee Valley, near Pankhurst, Wallaroo Vineyard, Surveyor’s Hill and Brindabella Hills Winery.
O’Leary rates vintage quality as very high, especially for whites. Rieslings have lower sugar levels with lots of flavour and good acidity. He says harvest is around two to three weeks behind last year, which is back to normal, and “Everything’s coming in together. There was no break after riesling – in fact, tempranillo and riesling came in together”.
Riesling is the district’s hot variety this year according to O’Leary. Everyone’s after it, he says, including out-of-district makers, and if you can find it, expect to pay $2000 a ton – the second highest price for the variety in Australia after Tasmania’s $2300 a ton.
Down the road from O’Leary, Brindabella Hills vineyard remains out of production as owners Roger and Faye Harris negotiate a sale. But winemaker Brian Sinclair uses the Brindabella Hills winery for his new Ironcutter label and also makes wine for neighbouring Surveyor’s Hill and Wallaroo vineyards, and Bermagui’s Rusty Fig vineyard.
At 24 March neighbouring Pankhurst Winery had harvested tempranillo and pinot noir, while cabernet sauvignon, sangiovese, arneis, marsanne, roussanne and chardonnay remained on the vine. Allan Pankhurst described quality as “Superb to date, but we’re not half way yet”. He added the vines remained disease free after the first of the rain and anticipated a clean harvest, including his first substantial crop of Piedmontese white variety, arneis.
“Last year we blended it with marsanne and roussanne in our Box Tree White. This year we’ll have only a ton, but it’ll be enough to make a separate white”, said Pankhurst.
In the last of our vintage vignettes, Canberra’s inner city Mount Majura Vineyards reported on 24 March quantities generally slightly above estimates. Winemaker Fran van de Loo says, “We’re happy with quality so far”. However, much of the healthy-looking crop remained on the vine. Van de loo expects vintage to end with the harvest of graciano towards the end of April.
Provided all goes well in the last week or two of harvest, Canberra can expect another high quality vintage, with ample volumes and a greater diversity of varietals and wine styles than ever.
A season that was successively cool, wet, warm, dry, hot, cool, wet, then dry, ultimately produced excellent wine grapes. Wine made from those grapes will bear the season’s stamp. We can expect spicy reds, delicate whites and slightly lower alcohol in many of the wines – all subtle variations on a regional style. It’s really all about the weather and how our vignerons respond to it in vineyard and winery.