Spin the Bottle
The Canberra District wine region is the capital of cool
In the Canberra District wine region, only a handful of vineyards are actually in the ACT (on Mount Majura and at Hall), while the vast majority are north of the capital in NSW. The region’s epicentre is Murrumbateman, just 40 kilometres from Canberra on the way to Yass. And there’s another cluster of wineries on the western flank of mysterious Lake George. Geographically confused? Possibly. Exciting nonetheless? Definitely.
This is a young wine region. In 1971, the first vines were planted by John Kirk at Clonakilla in Murrumbateman and at Lake George by the late Edgar Riek. They were among a cohort of wine-loving, scientific visionaries – many from CSIRO – who shaped the area. The vineyards are at elevations of 300 metres to more than 800 metres (at Lark Hill Winery, near Bungendore), which means warm summer days are moderated by cool nights and cold winters. This continental climate has proved to be perfect for riesling and shiraz.
Recognition of the Canberra District was initially slow, despite the enthusiasm of Ken Helm, who founded his eponymous winery in 1973. He zeroed in on riesling and it became the region’s white flag-bearer. The Canberra International Riesling Challenge is now in its 18th year.
Although the region is justly renowned for riesling, it is most famous for one wine: the Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier. In 1986, through his CSIRO connections, John Kirk obtained cuttings of viognier – then an unheard-of grape in Australia – from the Northern Rhône. Five years later, his son, Tim, visited the Rhône Valley and, in his words, experienced an epiphany upon tasting E. Guigal’s single-vineyard 1988 Côte-Rôtie at the winemaker’s cellars. Tim set out to emulate this idiosyncratic blend of syrah (shiraz) and viognier and the result took out Wine of the Year NSW in 1999. Some consider it the best shiraz in Australia.
But there’s more to the Canberra District than shiraz and riesling. New-wave varieties include a much-lauded grüner veltliner from Lark Hill and a tempranillo from Mount Majura Vineyard. Plus, the region is well served with quality cellar doors, good food and the capital city’s many attractions.