It is fair to say that Canberra probably isn’t high on many tourist’s ‘must-visit’ lists when travelling to Australia. The capital of this vast country sits rather inconveniently in the middle of nowhere and, despite being the seat of Parliament and being home to an array of national museums, understandably it usually gets overlooked in favour of the bright lights of Sydney or Melbourne. Similarly, as a wine region it is not exactly well known and visiting wine lovers are much more likely to tour around Hunter Valley, the Barossa or Yarra Valley rather than step foot in Canberra. But it is for that very reason that I was so excited to visit Canberra last month and learn about the wine scene in this relatively undiscovered region.
I have to say though, upon arrival Canberra itself wasn’t exactly inspiring. In retrospect that was more to do with the fact it was a public holiday and our hotel was smack in the middle of ‘Parliament district’ – so it felt like arriving into a ghost town with vast empty roads that I wouldn’t be surprised to see tumbleweed blowing down.
But of course we all know that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover and so the next day we hit the road with open minds ready to start tasting wine and learning about the region.
The first vines were planted in the Canberra district back in the 1840s and for a time a fair amount of wine was produced in the region. But by 1900 a combination of competition from South Australia, drought and the rise of the temperance alliance stalled the industry, gradually leading to the closure of all the wineries. It was not until the early 1970s that viticulture started again – predominantly led a number of scientists employed locally. Today Canberra accounts for approximately 0.1% of New South Wales’ total grape harvest, which itself is just 20% of Australia’s total. A mere drop in the ocean really.
The main defining characteristic of Canberra is the cool climate – it is the third coolest region in Australia. This is driven by a combination of altitude of up to around 900m and continental influence giving a large diurnal variation. So, whilst it might get pretty warm on summer days, it always drops cold at night – a key influence on retaining high levels of natural acid in grapes, something we would discover when tasting the wines.
We visited a number of wineries across Canberra and I think it is fair to say that at the minute it is a region that is still finding its feet. On the one hand we tasted some wines that were absolutely sublime and that really spoke of the huge quality potential in the region. On the other hand, some wines were simply dull and disappointing. I am sure over the next few years or so, and as more winemakers move to the region and overall knowledge levels increase, this will only improve – for there is no doubting the underlying quality potential. But for now I think it is a region where it pays to know the names to look out for.
My top three picks from the region were Helm, Clonakilla and Eden Road. Ken Helm was one of the original people who restarted viticulture in the region, planting his vineyard in 1973. Now at a little over 70 years old he still makes the wine – although in his words “the vineyard produces the best Riesling, I’m just the custodian of the grapes”. Ken is a true raconteur – one of the real characters of the Aussie wine industry, and a fount of knowledge on any number of subjects. He also just happens to make some truly delicious Riesling and the most Bordeaux-alike Cabernet I have ever come across in Australia. Both more than worth your while hunting out.
Of course we knew before we visited that Clonakilla was going to be pretty special, and so it proved. Another one of the original wineries, planted by Dr John Kirk in 1971 – it is now run by his son Tim. Tim can probably be credited for really putting Canberra on the world map back in the early 90s when he released his first Shiraz Viognier, an ode to Guigal’s ‘La La’ Cote Roties that he said “changed my life” on a visit to the Rhone in 1991. The Shiraz Viognier won instant acclaim both in Australia and internationally, and it is now a real cult wine. Tim treated us to a vertical of the Shiraz Viognier spanning 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2009 ,2008, 2005 and 2004 – a very special tasting that I doubt I’ll ever be lucky enough to do again. Certainly it showed how special the wine is and how well it ages – but also the subtle variation from vintage to vintage. But actually for me, it was a different Clonakilla wine that really stood out – the Syrah 2015. The Hermitage to Shiraz Viognier’s Cote Rotie, I just fell in love with the wine and to me it had everything you could want in a cool climate Syrah – purity of fruit, lifted florals, smoke, a mineral stony element and gorgeous silky tannins. All in all, a very special wine – one of the top wines I’ve tried all year.
We also tried some delicious Syrah at Eden Road, the Block 94 particularly standing out, along with an excellent Riesling and a host of elegant Chardonnays from Tumbarumba.
Although we tried wines from a number of different varieties, including a lovely Grüner Veltliner from Lark Hill, it is clear that Riesling and Shiraz are the two stars of the region. What really impressed me is the clear regional character that I found in both of the varieties. The Rieslings all had a floral blossom note, citrus fruit character and defining almost saline minerality along with really bright, fresh acidity – but never piercing. Quite a different style to the more classic Rieslings from Eden and Clare Valleys. And the Shiraz (or Syrah) all had a real elegance to them, based more around red fruit than black and often with a lifted violet note – and again that bright acidity giving length.
So whilst not all of the wines are at the same level at the minute, I have no doubt that is more down to the youth of the region than anything else. The quality potential is surely there and I am sure in time we will hear more and more about this exciting cool climate region.