Canberra: Capital Gains

People & Places Articles
  • Friday 9 July 2010

Whenever Canberra is mentioned on the world stage it usually involves politics. Australia’s capital city is the epicentre for government and its ministries.

But it’s not all stiff bureaucrats. Canberra has a thriving food and wine scene and is home to the head office of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), one of the world’s leading scientific institutions.

And while that may not sound overly exciting, many ex-scientists have turned their intellectual genius towards the Canberra wine industry, playing a pivotal role in its development.

Viticulture has been practised in the Canberra District since the 1840s. Most grapes were grown in suburban gardens by enthusiastic amateurs, but in the 1970s things really began to happen when two vineyards were established by ex-CSIRO scientists: Dr Edgar Riek established Lake George and Dr John Kirk planted Clonakilla at Murrumbateman.

Other vineyards followed, then in 2000 BRL Hardy decided to invest in the area and established the Kamberra wine company. ‘When Hardys came it was recognition that we were a developing region,’ says Riek. Hardys’ impact was substantial. It doubled the district’s vineyard area, boosting the local economy and drawing attention to Canberra. Unfortunately, Hardys pulled out in 2007 stating that after restructuring, the winery was ‘not a strategic fit’.

The Canberra District covers the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) and bordering areas of New South Wales (NSW). This cool, inland region is a panoramic landscape of beautiful rolling hills and valleys, with vineyards at altitudes ranging from 500m to 880m, so there is typical Aussie diversity. The most successful grapes are Riesling and Shiraz, but decent Chardonnay, Viognier and Pinot Noir are also being made, with Sangiovese and Tempranillo showing promise. In all, there are 140 vineyards within 35 minutes of Canberra city, most in Murrumbateman, Bungendore and Lake George in NSW.

The climate is continental, with hot summer days and cold nights – an important contributor to the naturally high acidity seen in the district’s wines. It snows here too, capping the picturesque Brindabella mountain range 20km west of the city. The growing season normally sees about 360mm of rain, and vines are constantly under threat from spring frosts. In 2007 frosts hit hard, cutting yields by up to 80% in most vineyards.

After that traumatic experience, and Hardy’s departure, 2008 was the vintage the Canberra District needed. Growing conditions were ideal, surpassing everyone’s wildest dreams; it will go down as a benchmark year. Riek, a pioneer here, felt it was the best vintage since the 1960s (though the region wasn’t making wines commercially then).

Graceful reds

Since then, this region of boutique winemakers has gained momentum. And the two wineries leading the charge are Clonakilla, still going strong after almost 40 years, and Lark Hill. Clonakilla is the region’s most famous winery, best known for its Shiraz, Viognier and Riesling. The 1992 vintage was the first of its most renowned wine, a Shiraz-Viognier blend made from its own vineyards. Tim Kirk, son of the founder, has been winemaker since 1996 and the family business has never looked back.

Kirk believes the Canberra District has a Shiraz expression that stands alone. ‘There is a signature Canberra Shiraz style – medium bodied with complex spice, layered aromatics of red fruits and floral notes with savoury dimensions. I feel we have an echo of Côte-Rôtie in our wines.’ These are not your average, blockbuster Aussie reds, but graceful, alluring wines with fine tannins and no evident oak. ‘Our style of Shiraz leans towards Pinot Noir.

I like to say that Clonakilla makes Shiraz for Burgundy lovers.’

This style of Shiraz bodes well for the region on the world stage, especially with the 2008 vintage. ‘It was another stepping stone and a coming of age of the district,’ says Kirk. David Gleave MW, managing director of Liberty Wines, Clonakilla’s UK importer, agrees. ‘The cool-climate wine styles coming out of the Canberra District have been, and will continue to be, popular within the premium category in the UK.

The wines have elegance and balance – major reasons for the success of Clonakilla here. It would be great if other wineries could expand on this niche created by the Kirks and gain more of a following for Canberra.’ A rising young winemaker who is gaining a following is Chris Carpenter of Lark Hill. The district’s only certified biodynamic winery, the property is an environmental protection zone, where native birds and animals thrive, including the Song Lark that adorns the label. It also has the highest vineyards in the region, at 880m, and this year produced Australia’s first Grüner Veltliner.

Established in 1978 by Carpenter’s parents, David and Sue, Lark Hill started using biodynamic practices in 2003. The 2008 vintage is the first to be certified biodynamic. ‘The value of biodynamics is that it makes us think about the vineyards as a holistic ecosystem,’ says Carpenter. Lark Hill is known for its Chardonnay, Pinot and Riesling.

Carpenter believes Riesling works across the whole Canberra District and that the wines have a unique style. ‘They are steely with lime, mineral and slatey characters. It’s hard to compare them to any other Riesling area,’ he says. The wines have body and texture with a distinct lime edge that some feel reflects Watervale in South Australia’s Clare Valley. Others feel they lean towards Austria.

Huge potential

Canberra seems set for greater prominence and John Kirk, Clonakilla’s founder, is optimistic. ‘The quality of the fruit is so good we have no excuse for not making excellent wines. It’s all go from here.’ Riek agrees and feels 2008 will prove to be a definitive year. ‘It was a superb growing season; the climate was as perfect as you’d want. People are going to look back at 2008 and say this is our benchmark.’

James Halliday, Australia’s foremost authority on wine, agrees. ‘The Canberra District has come of age, with its top winemakers now making excellent wines across a range of varieties. Greater vine age, favourable growing seasons, and the confidence born of consistent success are some of the contributing factors.’

The Canberra District is still embryonic and not every wine is a winner, but it has enormous potential and passionate winemakers working towards improving their wines and defining the area. And in 2008, the stars aligned beautifully to produce a vintage that has put the Canberra District firmly on the map.

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