The cap­i­tal’s old and new guards are pro­duc­ing some truly ex­cit­ing wines, writes Bar­bara Sweeney. Pho­tog­ra­phy by Kara Rosen­lund.

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Tour­ing the na­tional cap­i­tal’s wine district

THE RISE and fall of an­i­mated con­ver­sa­tion draws me in­side Toual Public School­house. Only six adults are in there, yet the 1888 her­itage-listed former school­room, now cel­lar door to one of the Can­berra District wine leg­ends, feels crowded. Ries­ling fa­natic Ken Helm is be­hind the bar. “I’ve made 40 vin­tages of this,” he says, as he fills the wine­glasses lined up be­fore him with a splash of his Clas­sic Dry Ries­ling.

Helm and his neigh­bour, John Kirk of Clon­akilla, were among a hand­ful of wannabe wine­mak­ers who first planted grapevines around Mur­rum­bat­e­man, north­west of Can­berra, in the 1970s. These guys were science boffins by day – they worked at the CSIRO and were later dubbed the “PhD vi­gnerons” by wine writer James Hal­l­i­day – and novice wine­mak­ers on week­ends.

“My neigh­bours would say, ‘You can’t grow grapes here; it’s fine merino wool coun­try’,” says Helm. Adds one of those neigh­bours, sheep farmer Vir­ginia Rawl­ing: “Some of us thought it might be a flash in the pan.”

Forty years on, we know what good wine coun­try this is. “Some gra­ziers, in­clud­ing me, have gone on to plant grapes our­selves,” says Rawl­ing. “It’s turned out that sheep and grapes work very well to­gether.”

What’s more, these pi­o­neers have in­spired a new gen­er­a­tion of wine­mak­ers who are chal­leng­ing tra­di­tion. Here’s how to make the most of the old and the new when you hit the Can­berra District wine trail.

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