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