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Wednesday 27 September 2017

Capital idea: How wine took off in and around Canberra.

Younger wine drinkers perusing reference books or guides from the 1960s or early 1970s will be struck by an obvious anomaly.

They will find no reference whatsoever to wines of the Canberra District, now the most established wine region in southern New South Wales.

Tim Kirk of Clonakilla
No mention of the iconic reds from Clonakilla, the stellar rieslings from Helm or the organic and biodynamic gems from Lark Hill.

The reason is simple. While Canberra wines are now a mainstay, the first vines were not planted until 1971, when a CSIRO scientist named Edgar Riek planted vines near Lake George.

Riek was followed by 20 or more small producers enticed by the massive variation between summer and winter temperatures; a major plus for grape growers.

Cool-climate regions tend to produce wines which have tart fruit flavours and more acidity, which fits with current wine fashions. Visionary Riek died last year at the age of 95.

One of those following in Riek's footsteps was Irish-born John Kirk, a scientist working for the CSIRO. He purchased a farm at Murrumbateman, around 40km north of Canberra, and planted riesling and cabernet sauvignon. He named the property Clonakilla (‘meadow of the church’) after his grandfather’s farm in County Clare.

In the late 1990s, Kirk was joined in the vines by his son Tim, a former traineee priest and Jesuit teacher, who bought a neighbouring plot of land and planted it with northern Rhone varieties including shiraz and viognier.

He blended those two grapes together, red and white, to create what became Clonakilla's flagship wine and one of the greatest reds in Australia.

Around the same time as Riek and Kirk were planting vines, another CSIRO scientist was also caught by the wine bug. Ken Helm, like Kirk, was captivated by riesling and cabernet and for over 40 years has played a key role in convincing Australians that dry riesling is an outstanding style.

Ken Helm of Helm Wines
Helm is still active in the wine industry and has been joined at Helm Wines by his wine-making daughter Stephanie, who also has her own label.

Throw in the likes of the Carpenter family from Lark Hill, former academics who started with chardonnay and pinot noir at Bungendore in 1978 and who now specialise in organic and biodynamic wines, and the Canberra District industry was built on firm foundations.

More recent arrivals including Eden Road Wines, Collector, Four Winds, Lerida Estate, Mount Majura, Nick O'Leary Wines, Capital Wines, Gundog Estate, Ravensworth and Shaw Vineyard Estate have added to the region's vinous reputation.

What was just four decades ago a region with small wine farms owned by hobbyists, is an important slice of the Australian wine industry and a leader in the production of cool-climate wines.

Clonakilla leads the way, not surprising as John Kirk came from a family of hoteliers and as a teenager in Lisdoonvarna, Ireland's matchmaking capital, he used to work behind his parents' bar.

Kirk produced the Canberra District’s first commercial vintage in 1976 – a riesling/ sauvignon blanc and a cabernet shiraz blend.

Soon after, inspired by a visit to the great producers of the Rhone Valley in France, his son Tim caught the wine virus.

Teaching at a Jesuit school I had the opportunity every year to attend a prayer retreat,” he recalls. “Every time I tried to reflect on the scriptures I found myself thinking about the best ways to manage shiraz ferments.”

In the style of Cote Rotie, the Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier was born, a red wine with just a couple of percent of white grapes to add lightness. The great and good of the wine business attended a remarkable dinner to mark the 20th anniversary of the wine a couple of years ago.

Some argue this is Australia’s greatest red wine; it is certainly one of the greatest shirazes,” the Wall Street Journal reported. 

The over-riding principle that governs the work at Clonakilla is that the winemaking has to respect the fruit. In Tim’s view: “The task of the winemaker is to capture something that is present in the fruit; something good, unique, worthy of inspection, perhaps even beautiful. Carefully grown grapes from a noble site deserve the opportunity to express themselves in as pure a form as possible.

“It is important to resist the temptation to bury the fruit in too much winemaking artifice. The winemaking inputs we bring should serve the purpose of capturing the personality of the fruit, rather than imposing the winemaker’s vision for what the thing is supposed to taste like.”

Today, visitors to Clonakilla taste in an impressive new cellar door. It is a contrast to the tasting facility at Helm, where tastings are conducted in a former school hall once used for Temperance Union meetings.

The winery uses a combination of modern and traditional equipment and adopts a minimalist approach to winemaking, so that what you get in the bottle is as close as possible to what came out of the vine,” says Ken Helm, a long-time evangelist for the region.

Lunching at Lark Hill
Lark Hill, another of the pioneers, is now overseen by 2017 Young Gun of the Year finalist Chris Carpenter and is home to one of the best winery restaurants in regional Australia.

If you time your visit to coincide with the October long weekend (September 30-October 1), you can enjoy all the colour and diversion of the Murrumbateman Moving Feast, a low-key but very enjoyable food and wine festival, and sample wines from the Murrumbateman Cool Climate Wine Show.

On the Lake George side of town, Lerida Estate's Café Lerida is a popular lunchtime spot and the winery makes excellent pinot noir and pinot gris. Also try to find time to pop into Mount Majura (very close to the city) and Shaw Family Vineyard, which boasts a new restaurant.

# This is an edited version of a story that appeared in Nourish Magazine

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