Tag Archives: Canberra

Visiting Canberra

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.

Parliament in Canberra

Parliament in Canberra – note the lack of people

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.

IMG_3340.JPG

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.

IMG_3325

Ken Helm

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.

Clonakilla Syrah

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.

Emma

Advertisements

The importance of being inspired

Sitting in an office day after day it is easy to get caught up in a seemingly endless cycle of emails and spreadsheets and to forget about the bigger picture. Certainly no one enters the wine trade for the day to day minutiae of working life – but rather for a joy of wine itself. And every now and then we all need to be reminded of that.

I have just spent ten days travelling around some of Australia’s wine regions with a bunch of UK and Irish independent wine merchants. It’s been a fantastic trip and I will report on it in due course, but for now I just want to express my thanks to everyone we met along the way who shared their time, experience and passion for wine with us. It has certainly filled me with a renewed energy and enthusiasm.

And it’s not just those of us that sit in an office that benefit from a change of scene. Steve Flamsteed, winemaker at Giant Steps in the Yarra Valley, told me about going over to Central Otago to make wine which imbues him with an extra energy – and that he comes back home afterwards buzzing and with a renewed excitement for what he does. And that is exactly how I feel now.

We met so many wonderful people on our travels and to spend some time chatting to them and hearing their stories has been truly inspiring.

Standing in Bernard Smart’s Grenache vineyard in Clarendon in McLaren Vale and hearing about how the oldest vines were planted by his father in 1921, another block was planted by Bernard and his brother in the 1950s and the youngest block was planted by Bernard’s son in 1999 was quite extraordinary. The fact that Bernard at 84 years old is still managing the vineyard himself is just a testament to his family ties to that patch of dirt.

Bernard Smart in his family's vineyard dating back to 1921

Bernard Smart in his family’s vineyard dating back to 1921

Then there was Ken Helm at Helm winery in Canberra, a true raconteur who had us all in stiches within minutes of arriving – and who taught us the meaning of the word ‘trivia’ alongside tasting his delicious Rieslings. An anecdote that will stay with all of us for a long time to come.

In the King Valley the Dal Zotto family’s hospitality was fabulous. Inviting us along to join in their local salami festival, where father of the family Otto Dal Zotto cooked spit roasted porchetta for the 200 or so guests whilst their wine flowed freely was a special experience and made this bunch of poms feel right at home. The fact that we got thrashed by a bunch of aussie kids in a post-lunch cricket match should perhaps be glossed over though.

Otto Dal Zotto's porchetta

Otto Dal Zotto’s porchetta

And then up in the Adelaide Hills we had another long lunch with the Basket Range producers and their various low intervention/natural/organic wines. Of course that’s just one side of the incredibly diverse story of the Hills, but again it was the generosity and back to basics nature of the crowd that struck a cord.

As Steve so eloquently expressed to me, having time out in the vineyards and talking to so may different characters I now feel a renewed energy and excitement – and suspect the rest of the group would say the same. So, I have to say a huge thanks to all of the wonderful winemakers, viticulturists and winery owners we met along the way for reminding us of what a wonderful business we all work in.

Emma