There’s something remarkably special in the hills outside of Canberra. With a truly unique heritage, this ‘thinking person’s wine region’ has taken just four decades to emerge as one of Australia’s premium wine areas.
What do you get when two etymologists meet with a biochemist to talk about wine? It almost sounds like the opening line to a joke, but it is in fact a crucial moment in the birth of the Canberra District wine region.
In 1970 CSIRO etymologists Dr Edgar Riek and Ken Helm found they had a mutual interest in wine and started up a wine club. Biochemist Dr John Kirk came along to the first meeting. Within a couple of years the three of them had started their own vineyards, and in so doing, began what is recognised today as one of Australia’s most exciting wine regions.
In 1971 John planted in Murrumbateman, founding Clonakilla, while Edgar planted on the shore of Lake George for Lake George Winery. Ken set vines not far from John in a tranquil setting now referred to as Helm’s Valley in 1973. Other wine interested folk followed suit, setting up vineyards, including more scientists, helping the Canberra wine region to blossom. These include Lark Hill Winery’s Sue and John Carpenter who have doctorates in statistics and applied mathematics respectively, Dr Roger Harris, who founded Brindabella Hills Winery, and Lerida Estate’s Jim Lumbers, both CSIRO alumni.
With so much collective brain power, the Canberra District really is the thinking person’s wine region. It is a unique history and something that truly sets Canberra apart from any other wine region in Australia, perhaps the world.
But as Ken, who still mans the cellar door located in a former 19th century schoolhouse at Helm Wines, says, it has been a both a blessing and a hindrance. “Many other wine regions are started by medicos and barristers with high disposal incomes. Canberra was started by academics, who didn’t have much money, so it was really a bootstrap operation,” he says.
“It was one of the difficulties because the district had very good research minds, but not a lot of commercial knowledge. It wasn’t until 1980 that the first qualified winemaker came to the district. We were fascinated – having that academic background we learned to question and think and be innovative. If there was a seminar or short course we went to it, slowly developing techniques of how to get the best out of the area.”
Initially, the district had to fight against critics who said it was too cold, or suffered from too many frosts, that the wines were green and that it would never be a premium wine region. The scientist put themselves through wine courses, where most probably knew more than their teachers. The winemaking improved and the wines started to confirm the enormous potential of the region.
Ken started turning heads with numerous awards for his Riesling, Edgar earned rave reviews for his Pinot Noir, while John won awards for his Clonakilla Shiraz. His son, Tim, who took over as chief winemaker in 1996, made the wine world stand to attention when his Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier won Wine of the Year Award at the New South Wales Wine Awards.Canberra’s Eden Road Winery did likewise when they won the 2009 Jimmy Watson Memorial Trophy for best red in the country with their Shiraz.
Nowadays, the Canberra District is regarded as one of the best in the country, confirmed by the fact that 75 per cent of the region’s 40 or so wineries have a four star or more rating by esteemed wine critic James Halliday.
The lay of the land
It is a curious feature of the Canberra wine region that only one winery, Mount Majura, is actually located within the Australian Capital Territory, the others are located north of the city in NSW.
Frank van der Loo, winemaker at Mount Majura, champions Spanish varietals Tempranillo and Graciano alongside the region’s flagships of Riesling and Shiraz. He says their vineyard site was actually chosen by Edgar Riek.
“Edgar chose the site from a geology map and was attracted to a patch of limestone on an east-facing slope. It is quite a unique little patch of dirt, and a great site for vines,” says Frank.
The rest of the Canberra wine district falls into three sub-regions. The first is just 15 minutes out of Canberra along the Barton Highway at Hall. This area is situated at around 550 metres high and is blessed with gorgeous rolling hills that fall away to a twisting Murrumbidgee River. It is here that Roger and Faye Harris set up Brindabella Hills in 1986.
“The main concern in this district is frost, so we looked for a spot with good cold air drainage,” Roger tells me over a glass of Riesling. “The vineyard is actually on a ridge that juts out over the Murrumbidgee Valley and there is a 100-metre drop to the valley floor, so that absorbs the cold area for most frost events.”
As well as Shiraz, Cabernet and Riesling (ask Roger for some glorious aged Riesling he is hiding), Brindabella Hills is experimenting with the Italian Sangiovese varietal, which is ideal to sip at their picturesque Tuscan-inspired cellar door that has breath-taking views over the Murrumbidgee.
THE HEART OF THE REGION
Just 15 kilometres further up the Barton Highway you’ll find Murrumbateman. The town is little more than a café and a petrol station, but on the eastern side of the road you’ll find a bunch of wineries including Eden Road, Clonakilla, Helm and Jeir Creek.
The roads here are gorgeous winding paths lined with wattle and gum trees. At the end of one such stretch are Rob and Kay Howell, who left their academic lives to start Jeir Creek in 1984.
“I thought I would circumvent the mid-life crisis of the sports cars and motorbikes and start up a winery,” laughs Rob, who admits a love of Bordeaux varieties and has been producing award-winning Cabernet, Merlot and Cab Franc for many years.
“Jeir Creek sits bang in the middle of everything, and at a height of 600 metres, it means we can ripen all kinds of varieties.
“Riesling and Viognier we love, and we also do well with Sauvignon Blanc more in the style of the Loire Valley.”
On the western side of Murrumbateman, Long Rail Gully’s Richard Parker is also quite excited about his Cabernet. “People said you can’t ripen Cabernet in Canberra. But we are lucky enough to have this Rynell clone that ripens a fair bit earlier – it is a low yield but it has so much character and it is just exceptional,” he says, pointing out that his Pinot Gris is also going ‘crazy’. Richard’s father started Long Rail Gully’s winery in 1988 as a side to their cattle business. They still like to have diverse offerings with olive oil, baby doll sheep running between the vines, and plans to make cheese in the future.
Up the road, Shaw Estate Vineyards is the biggest under vines in the region. Graeme Shaw’s background was construction, but he was attracted to the area as a place to stud racehorses. By chance he was contracted to build the winery when Hardy’s moved into the area (before Constellation took it over and bad dealings forced it from the region). Graeme recognised the wine region’s potential and did a deal to grow for Hardy’s.
Almost 15 years later, Shaw is exporting wine to Europe and Asia, his son Michael is the viticulturist and daughter Tanya is the cellar door manager. Their flagship is also Cabernet alongside Riesling and Shiraz.
With luscious grounds, an expansive cellar door, a working shearing shed that doubles as an art space and Flint in the Vines Restaurant, Shaw Vineyards is also trying to take the Canberra region winery experience to the next level.
AN ELEVATED VIEW
Similarly, food offerings have enhanced the experience in the third sub-region of the Canberra District wine region, Bungendore/ Lake George. Situated just off the Federal Highway, Lark Hill’s Restaurant attracts foodies from both Sydney and Canberra. At 860 metres, Lark Hill has the highest elevation in the district and this serene height combined with the Carpenters’ certified biodynamic vineyard allows for this piece of paradise on the escarpment above Bungendore to produce a range of wines including Pinot Noir.
“Pinot works here,” says co-owner and winemaker Dave Carpenter. “It needs a cool regime, at this height you can push ripening out into autumn. Riesling also does well here, it has an acidity and balance more akin to it Germanic roots.” Dave and Sue also champion the alternative varietal Grüner Veltliner, a spicy, phenolic Austrian variety. “It is a nice link to Ruldoph Steiner,” says Dave as he watches the chooks roam through the vineyard. “We grow it alongside Riesling and it is going like a rocket.”
Further along the Federal Highway towards Sydney, as sheep graze in the Lake George basin, a clutch of wineries is perched on the steep hillside of the Lake George Range. Edgar’s Lake George Winery sits alongside young gun Alex McKay’s Collector Wines and Lerida Estate. Pinot Noir is the driving force in this area.
Jim Lumbers and Anne Caine established Lerida Estate in 1997. “Jim has always been passionate about Pinot Noir and he spent a good deal of time talking with Edgar and agreed this site had all the attributes for growing Pinot – mainly the elevation and the soil,” Anne tells me over lunch at Lerida Café. “We have about 10 feet of topsoil, and the roots go very deep. Being on the steep slope and because we face east, we usually avoid most frost.”
While Jim engrossed himself in winemaking, Anne threw herself into the business side of the winery. She ran Lerida Estate’s Café for seven years before recently handing the reins over to two dynamic local chefs, and served for many years as the President of Canberra Wine Industry Association. She believes the region has a great story to tell. “The wineries all work together well, we complement each other and we make great wine,” Anne says. “With great restaurants and cafes the Canberra wine region is also starting to develop as a genuine tourist destination.
“And with the next generation of winemakers coming through like Nick Spencer (Eden Road), Nick O’Leary (Nick O’Leary Wines), Brian Martin (Ravensworth) and Alex McKay (Collector), the future for the region looks extremely exciting.