Australia’s dullest wine region or the cool capital?
When most people think of great Australian wine regions, Canberra District doesn’t often top the list. To some Australia’s capital city carries a reputation of being a bland, conservative centre without much happening except the comings and goings of politicians and academics. But scratch the surface of this inland territory and you’ll discover that the Canberra District offers a thriving cool climate wine and food culture that is one of Australian wine’s best-kept secrets.
Canberra - the cool capital
Canberra district wines have already made an impact on winelovers and critics, producing some of Australia’s most loved cool climate Shiraz, Viognier, Pinot Noir, Riesling and Chardonnay. Now a new wave of excitement is sweeping through the region as established winemakers are joined by a new generation of winemakers, ones who are setting the scene for a future of new varietals and revolutionary winemaking that will carry the region’s fame through the decades ahead. Canberra’s continental climate is one of extremes: cold, crisp winters and hot, dry summers. This high diurnal temperature range is what excites winemakers – long, warm days for grape ripening with a sudden drop in night temperature to give the vines some rest. Irrigation is often required to ensure adequate growth, especially during drought seasons. The geographic and climatic conditions allow grapes to reach physiological ripeness while retaining high levels of natural acidity – optimal precursors for fine wines. Drought, frost and limited water throw up many challenges to both Canberra district viticulturists and winemakers. Extended warm periods in the lead-up to the vintage can cause grapes to quickly gain sugar and lose acidity. This can affect the outcome of later-ripening varietals like Shiraz, making harvest times critical – just one day can make a noticeable difference in the fruit profile and balance of the finished wine. In great vintages with benign conditions, the wines are seriously impressive. Principal grape varieties in the Canberra district are – in order of plantings – Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Merlot, Chardonnay, Viognier, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon. There are also some extremely interesting wines hailing from vines such as Sangiovese, Pinot Gris, Tempranillo, Vermentino, Frontignac, Petit Verdot, Arneis and even rot-prone Savagnin. It’s these varietals that are causing a real stir and causing excited speculation as to the future of Canberra district wines.
Canberra District: unconventional by decree
The Canberra district encompasses not only the vineyards of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) but also part of New South Wales (NSW). The majority of Canberra district vineyards and wineries are found within the borders of NSW, in the areas of Murrumbateman, Bungendore, Yass, Gundaroo, Collector, Sutton, Wamboin and Lake George. Perversely, the ACT is home to very few wineries and vineyards, in the districts of Hall (Brindabella Hills, Wily Trout/Poachers Pantry, Surveyors Hill), Majura (Mount Majura Vineyard) and Lyneham (Kamberra). The reason for this disparity is the legacy of pre-Federation policies which limit all land in the ACT to 99-year Crown leases rather than freehold ownership. The impact of this system is that few wine businesses are willing to take on the uncertainty of leasehold land, opting to own vineyards outright in NSW. However, the borders are largely irrelevant in a geological and climatic sense when it comes to the quality of the wines produced.
Canberra District: the young upstarts
Canberra’s wine industry is relatively young by Australian standards. While South Australia and Victoria were already established as wine regions by the end of the 1800s, Canberra only had a few small, fairly unremarkable vineyards planted near Yass. Canberra’s fortunes changed when Dr Edgar Riek, a pioneer of the region, planted vineyards in 1971. Riek, who had a distinguished academic background – something many of the early winery founders had in common - saw the potential in the region as a premium wine growing area. Riek started the Canberra District Vignerons Association and instigated the National Wine Show of Australia, arguably the country’s most important wine show.
The inspiration behind a new industry
Following Riek’s initial plantings at Lake George in the early 1970s others soon followed. Scientist John Kirk established Clonakilla in 1971; Ken and Judith Helm started their eponymous vineyard and winery in 1973, and in 1978, Sue and Dave Carpenter planted vines at Lark Hill Winery in Bungendore. A decade later, Mount Majura’s first vines were planted, and in 1997, inspired by Riek, Jim Lumbers established Lerida Estate in Lake George adjacent to Riek’s original vineyard.
Canberra District: elegance comes as standard
Given its cool climate it will come as no surprise to hear that Canberra’s stars are Shiraz, Pinot Noir and Riesling with Canberra district Chardonnay reflecting the influence of the climate with soft stone fruit, fig and citrus notes. Sauvignon, often blended with Semillon, shows herbaceous characters with a firm acid edge, sometimes with a touch of fruit salad and citrus character in warmer years. Shiraz is the red wine that has brought the Canberra district the greatest fame. A combination of geology, climate and winemaking expertise creates spicy, peppery, lean yet impeccably balanced, flavoursome Shiraz. Sometimes blended with Viognier (see below), the wines reflect the elegance, power and balance of Rhône-style classics. Shiraz-Viognier is one of the region’s most successful combinations and give wines such as the sought-after Clonakilla Shiraz-Viognier which has encouraged winemakers around Australia to emulate the style. In other cool regions like Eden Valley or the Yarra Valley for instance, the results are often spectacular, with a touch of Viognier amplifying the colour, aroma, flavour and texture of the Shiraz. In warmer regions (and at lower price points) the results can be less impressive or distinctive, adding a simple apricot-nectar hint and a plumper, rounded texture with little of the finesse and elegance that sets cool climate examples apart. Thanks to Clonakilla, the Canberra district represents the Shiraz-Viognier benchmark in Australia. Riesling is the district’s most significant and successful white wine, with the finest examples made in a crisp, crunchy style with clear varietal definition and soft, toasty characters. Riesling will clearly show the effects of vintage variation – warmer years’ will carry more tropical fruit, cooler years’ citrus and mineral characters.
Tradition turns contemporary: the winemaking landscape
Along with the stalwart winemakers who have been part of the Canberra district’s fabric for more than 40 years, a new generation of winemakers are pushing the boundaries to bring a sense of excitement and anticipation to the Canberra district wine story. At Ravensworth in Mawson, Bryan Martin combines his experience as assistant winemaker at Clonakilla Estate with the expertise of double science and viticulture degrees to create wines that stand out from the crowd: wild, funky and with plenty of character. Martin aims for a level of depth, aroma and texture in his wines using techniques such as fermentation on solids or in 700-litre ceramic eggs, picking early to retain higher acidity, whole-bunch pressing, carbonic maceration, and fermenting with natural yeasts. Martin’s enthusiasm for the Canberra region is palpable and he’s excited about the potential to create exciting new wine styles – a category he calls ‘weird stuff’ – using a boutique, hands-off approach. Micro winery Eden Road shot to fame in 2009 winning the Jimmy Watson Trophy for its 2008 Hilltops Shiraz and the Best New Winery at the inaugural Sydney Morning Herald Good Wine awards in 2010. Guiding Eden Wines on its award-winning trajectory, winemaker Nick Spencer applies years of winemaking experience in Bordeaux and consultancy experience in Eastern Europe to create wines of energy and vitality that are on the cutting-edge of new and old world creativity. The range including off-dry Riesling, spicy Shiraz, a triple-blend Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Gris, and complex white peach and spice-laden Chardonnay. Noble laureate astrophysicist and winemaker Brian Schmidt established Maipenrai vineyard in Sutton at 760m above sea level to create Pinot Noir that has wowed the critics and won fans. Jancis Robinson has called it ‘…very respectable indeed’. Another example of science meeting the art of winemaking with impressive results. Since the first vintage at Mount Majura in 1991, winemaker Frank van de Loo has been coaxing the best out of the ancient red soils near the top of the Majura Valley to create wines with clean, fruit-driven characters and great personality. Made to showcase the vineyard rather than winemaker’s influence, Mount Majura wines reflect the refinement of a cool climate influence – Mount Majura Chardonnay is a standout, along with a velvety blue-fruited Touriga Nacional, a rare varietal for the region.
Canberra District: taking new direction to an exciting future
With an established reputation firmly based on quality, the Canberra district has won accolades and awards for classic wines of Shiraz, Riesling and Pinot Noir, along with Cabernet blends, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Now it’s the new-wave winemakers who are pushing the limits and setting the scene for region’s future, taking it to a new contemporary audience by branching out with alternative varietals including Grüner Veltliner, Tempranillo, Gamay, Rousanne, Graciano, Touriga Nacional and Sangiovese. For a new generation of winelovers, the Canberra district offers a landscape of so much more than just politics, academia and museums.
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