Canberra's Science of Cool
Australian Capital Territory region wineries now number in their 40's, producing more than 150 wines and drawing an increasing number of tourists.
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Canberra is known for being a planned capital – detailed, researched, debated and built to precise specifications. Similarly, its wine industry has followed a somewhat intellectually rigorous approach. It was kickstarted in the 1970s by a tiny group of scientists and academics who took a gamble on the region’s cool climate producing grapes of distinction.
And lo, their hypothesis proved correct. Canberra region wineries now number in their 40s, producing more than 150 wines and drawing an increasing number of tourists to picturesque cellar doors and restaurant tables each year. Even the Vice-Chancellor of the Australian National University is a noted vigneron. Professor Brian Schmidt may be a Nobel Prize-winning astrophysicist who helped discover that the universe was expanding (not contracting, as was previously believed), but he also receives accolades for his Pinot Noir, grown at his Maipenrai winery just across the ACT border in Sutton.
Sadly for wine lovers (or stargazers), it is a private operation with no cellar door. In any event, each year’s release usually sells out to a dedicated fan base within hours. But if you want to see the result of a scientific approach to wine, there are plenty of fine examples to taste across the Canberra region, particularly during the Canberra District Wine Harvest Festival which takes place in April each year.
While there are few vines growing in the city proper, there is a busy and increasingly noteworthy network of winemakers in the villages of Murrumbateman, Bungendore, Gundaroo and Collector, and dotted around the on-again off-again water basin that is Lake George. At most you are facing a half-hour drive from the capital, with a number of tour and shuttle services on offer. If you’re starting your tour with a few days in the capital, the QT Canberra offers quirky boutique accommodation. And to kick off your stay with some local wines, the list in the QT’s Capitol Bar and Grill is testament to the region’s quality.
Despite its compact proximity, a tour of Canberra wine covers a wide altitudinal range from 300 to 800 metres, and the variation in temperatures, elevations and soil types means you may discover almost every style – from Merlot to Shiraz, Pinot Noir to Chardonnay, Sangiovese to Riesling.
One of the region’s most notable local wines is from Clonakilla. Cambridge-educated biochemist Dr John Kirk moved his family to Canberra from Ireland in the late 1960s to take up a post at the CSIRO. His son Tim was in primary school when the family purchased land in Murrumbateman, but weekends helping his dad plant grapevines lodged deep within his psyche and he is now chief winemaker.
Clonakilla’s European/French style of Shiraz has delivered considerable success over the years, and the Shiraz Viognier is their flagship. In a particularly Canberra connection, a tiny dash of this variety helped Canberra coffee guru Sasa Sestic secure the World Barista Championship in 2015. But we digress.
From George to Glamping
While the Kirks were establishing Clonakilla, another CSIRO scientist Dr Edgar Riek was busy studying the new growth he had planted on land at Lake George. The Lake George Winery boasts a beautiful event space, Westering Restaurant, and glamping facilities – including a tiny house overlooking the vines, called Little George. It is also home to Australian Women in Wine Operator of the Year last year, Sarah McDougall. And if glamping is your thing, you can also combine wine-tasting at the Mount Majura Vineyard with a Naked Cubby Co tent. This elevates the entire camping experience with pristine decks, oversized chairs and cloud-like beds for intrepid outdoorsy types with an aversion to actually roughing it.
Close by is Lerida Estate, boasting an enormous and striking ‘shed’ designed by renowned architect Glenn Murcutt and a restaurant, Lerida Café, serving everything from a quick snack to a three-course lunch and well worth making the trip for. Ken Helm, like John and Edgar, is a fellow alumnus of the CSIRO, but can also boast a wine heritage – being the fourth generation descendent of German vignerons. He and his wife Judith planted out at Murrumbateman, which is now something of a wine production hub, and caters for ever-increasing wine tourists through its newly built Abode Hotel Murrumbateman.
The Helms are also local wine celebrities, earning a 5-star Halliday rating and an enthusiastic fan base for their Rieslings. The Helms have built up their winery facilities since the 1970s to become a must-visit for connoisseurs at all levels of sophistication. The tasting room is located in an historic old schoolhouse, and revered across the industry as he is, you are just as likely to get a personalised tasting from Ken.
The love of industry has passed down to his daughter Stephanie, who, despite being the youngest of three, never let age stand in the way of wine show medals. She was just nine when she made her first Chardonnay, and won her first trophy at the Murrumbateman Cool Climate Wine Show when she was 13. She and her horticulturalist husband Ben surprised no one when they purchased the former Yass Valley Wines set-up in Murrumbateman and renamed it The Vintner’s Daughter. They keep close connections with the larger operation at Helm, while amassing their own collection of wine trophies and running their cellar door – their first Riesling won the top prize at both the Winewise awards and the International Riesling Challenge.
Another woman making her mark on the wine industry from Murrumbateman is Sarah Collingwood, a driving force behind Four Winds. Named Australian Women in Wine Operator of the Year in 2017, Sarah and her family are creating wine with a social, as well as entrepreneurial, streak. Starting as a tiny supplier of grapes to BRL Hardy in the late 1990s, Four Winds not only produces its own varieties, but has recently expanded to produce the Kyeema Estate label. Meanwhile, the family won a grant to build a cellar door, installed a giant pizza oven to feed the hungry hordes, crowd-funded a winery extension and raised tens of thousands of dollars for asylum seekers through spare grapes. Amidst the turmoil of bushfires at the start of this year they even collaborated with award-winning The Canberra Distillery to turn their smoke-tainted grapes into gin. Waste not want not!
If you are out Murrumbateman way, pop by Shaw Wines, a family-owned winery located on a large and historic wool-growing property complete with a winery dog Indi, who is a hit with the kids. Olleyville restaurant caters for all sorts of occasions and settling in as a large group on a long table will allow you to sample some of their award-winning drops at your leisure – not least their Cabernet which took out the title of best Australian drop at the 2018 London International Wine Challenge.
A little closer to home are the wineries of Gundaroo, an idyllic tiny town that history seems determined to preserve. A visit to Gundog Estate must not be enjoyed without a meal at the award-winning Grazing Restaurant, in the Royal Hotel.
Across the other side of the ACT border there is a collection of wineries surrounding the historic village of Bungendore. Making a weekend wine tour itinerary is simple thanks to a collection of quaint restaurants and cafés that seem a world away from cosmopolitan Canberra, not to mention beautiful boutique B&Bs such as The Old Stone House, The Carrington Inn and the Lake George Hotel.
A Cheeky Character
En route to Bungendore, go via Wamboin, home to Contentious Character. With their signature tongue-in-cheek wine names and pastel labels, Contentious Character burst onto the scene in 2016, offering delicious drops like Sip Sip Hooray Chardonnay, Pinot Noir Blush and Crisp In Your Cakehole Riesling. With a restaurant and cellar door taking advantage of their scenic position, you can enjoy a locavore’s dream menu.
Further on you’ll reach Lark Hill Winery – perched on the hill before you descend into Bungendore village. Created in 1978 by statistician and physicist Sue and Dave Carpenter, the winery is now largely overseen by son Chris – whose degrees in biochemistry and wine science equipped him to move the vineyard to become certified organic and biodynamic. Lark Hill has a stone-walled cellar door and restaurant, D&K Kitchen, to make tasting a long and leisurely affair.
And any trip to experience food and wine in Canberra is not complete without a stop in Collector, a tiny town of nostalgia and gastronomy just off the Federal Highway. Award-winning winemaker Alex McKay crafts elegant wines which perfectly express the Canberra region under his Collector label.
It doesn’t take a science degree to understand how Canberra’s 2020 vintage was ruined by smoke taint, but with wine from past vintages ageing beautifully and a promising 2021 vintage to come, Canberra region wines are well worth studying.
Discover more emerging wine regions in Australia such as Orange, Granite Belt, Geographe and Riverland!