Canberra Pops Its Cork On Best Wines

Published in The Canberra Times Food & Wine section, February 18, 2009.

Tim Kirk’s Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier has achieved legendary status in Australian winemaking so when he says the Canberra District is producing some of the world’s best wine, you’ve got to believe him.

Kirk likes to think of wine as liquid geography – an expression of a region’s altitude, climate, soils, grapes and people combining to produce a unique geography. Canberra winemakers are running with the slogan to highlight the diversity of their region.

Ken Helm, who next to Kirk is probably Canberra’s highest-profile advocate, says it’s the great variation in altitude and micro-climates that makes the region so unique. With vineyards from 550m to 850m, it successfully produces Riesling, Chardonnay, Shiraz and Pinot Noir. Even Cabernet has been reeling in a string of awards.

Every classic variety performs magnificently somewhere in the Canberra District, says Helm. Particularly passionate about Riesling, he founded the International Riesling Challenge, held annually in Canberra, further helping to put the region on the map.

Winemaker Brian Croser is mightily impressed too. The chair of judges at the 2008 Canberra Regional Wine Show – where Helm’s 2008 Classic Dry Riesling won the trophy for Best Riesling – he said the Shiraz was world class and the Rieslings were in a “wonderful class (of wines),   demonstrating why Canberra is one of Australia’s great Riesling terroirs”.

Helm says Canberra’s rating with wine judges and critics has “jumped a couple of hundred per cent in the last two years.” Plantings have increased more than ten-fold over the past decade. “We’ve got over 500 ha in vines now, so the district is a serious winemaking district in size. Before that we were too small to be taken seriously.”

If any proof was needed that the Canberra wine industry had come of age, it surely came with the 2007 NSW Wine Awards, when Alex McKay’s 2005 Collector Wines Marked Tree Red was named NSW Wine of the Year, triumphing against 750 entries.

Shaw Vineyard Estate, had great success in the same awards, taking out two of the 10 trophies with its Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Merlot. The same Shaw reds, different vintages, featured in the 2008 NSW Top 40, along with four other Canberra wines.

At the 2007 awards, chairman of judges Jim Brayne said the Canberra region was one to watch for reds. The district’s success was great news for people looking for wine’s “next big thing”, he said. “These Canberra reds are priced between $22 and $26, and they are all worth far more than that.”

Alex McKay says the district’s fruit is a lot more in balance now that the vines have some age – many vineyards are now 10 to 30 years old. McKay makes wine not only for his own label but also for Lake George Winery, whose wines feature on the lists of top Sydney restaurants such as Tetsuya’s and Quay.

McKay believes Shiraz is the district’s flagship variety but says the 2008 Rieslings were “right up there with Australia’s best”. 2008 was a great vintage for Canberra, with mild weather leading up to vintage and good rain in December and January.

“The Canberra District is blessed with having both granite and shale soils, and you’ve got a cool enough climate to give the wines some elegance and spice,” says McKay.

“Canberra Shiraz is medium-bodied but not lacking in intensity, and the market is coming to drink more of those styles of wines. Tim (Kirk) is making a wine that’s almost a Burgundy for Shiraz lovers. Part of the success of Canberra wine is not only that the wines have gotten better but the market is moving to that sort of style.”

© Christine Salins

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