Touring Canberra’s Wine District

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Dec 09, 2016

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

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.

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Helm and his neighbour, John Kirk of Clonakilla, were among a handful of wannabe winemakers who first planted grapevines around Murrumbateman, north-west 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.

Cellar doors

Although the Canberra District wine region takes the name of the capital, most of the wineries in this cool-climate area are located in NSW. There are two areas to explore: Murrumbateman, near Yass, and around Bungendore and Lake George on the Federal Highway. The wineries are small and mostly family run so don’t be surprised if the person who made the wine is pouring it into your glass. While shiraz is king and riesling is queen, the next (“disruptive”) generation of winemakers is growing and experimenting with many other varieties.

Clonakilla  

Tim Kirk and Bryan Martin are all class. This winery, established in 1971 by Tim’s dad, John Kirk, is home to the most awarded and most recognised wine of the Canberra region: the Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier. The 2015 release has just arrived and cellar door manager Jessica leads the tasting to the Holy Grail by way of riesling and viognier, the Hilltops Shiraz and the cabernet sauvignon, in a practised and professional tone. When we arrive at the wine, a frisson of excitement passes between us. “It’s one of the top three wines in Australia,” announces Jessica. The build-up is justified: a medium-bodied red, aromatic, well structured and very gentle in the mouth, it slips down.

Collector Wines

Opened in 2015, the Collector Wines cellar door was a long time coming and this lovely whitewashed room with an open fireplace, in an 1829 former inn, exhibits all the spare aesthetics of the label and its wines. Alex McKay flew out of the gates with his first solo wine – the 2005 Marked Tree Red, made with hand-worked shiraz from small parcels of land around Murrumbateman – when it was announced as NSW Wine of the Year in 2007. His is a bespoke approach: buying grapes direct from growers and crafting wines to reflect the fruit. Yep, he’s one of the disruptors.

Helm Wines

It can be hard to discern the greater attraction – the hugely entertaining Ken Helm or his wines. A win at the Forbes Wine Show in 1977 confirmed Ken’s calling: riesling. As well as the 40 vintages of Classic Dry Riesling, he’s made 10 of the Premium “from perfect fruit from a single vineyard”, he says. “You can put it away for 20 years or drink it now.” He did put away the 1986 – “a great vintage” – which he served at daughter Stephanie’s wedding last year to Helm vineyard manager Ben Osborne. The cycle of life is at work here; now it’s Stephanie and Ben who work weekends on their own wine project, The Vintner’s Daughter.

Lark Hill Winery

Chris Carpenter says change at Lark Hill was inevitable given that there are now three palates and personalities in the mix. His parents, Sue and Dave Carpenter, who established the biodynamic vineyard in 1978, found that the varieties best suited to their elevated site near Bungendore in those early days were riesling, chardonnay, pinot noir and grüner veltliner. Now, with the 2013 Mr V, Chris is striking out in a new direction with fruit from a vineyard in the warmer climes of Murrumbateman. Marsanne, roussanne and viognier were wild fermented to create this natural-style, funky-on-the-nose wine.

Eden Road Wines  

Canberra shiraz is one of the standouts at Eden Road Wines but the creative force that is winemaker Nick Spencer casts further afield for top-quality grapes. His list includes wines made using Tumbarumba chardonnay and pinot noir, Hilltops nebbiolo and Gundagai shiraz and cabernet sauvignon. He’s considered a new kid on the block, having made his first vintage in 2008. Although there’s a real buzz around his pinots and the Gundagai Cabernet Sauvignon, the 2016 The Long Road Pinot Gris is so popular, says cellar door frontman Hugh, that it just walks out the cellar door.

Where to eat 

Breakfast

The top pick at Some Cafe in Collector is the Dingo breakfast roll with free-range Boxgum bacon, an egg from the chooks in the backyard, housemade sauce and mayo.

Lunch

A wood-fired pizza under the sails of Four Winds Vineyard in Murrumbateman will hit the spot. Toppings are always changing: wild mushroom, baby spinach and goat’s cheese, anyone? If you want something a little more formal, book a table at the Lark Hill Winery restaurant, where the accent is on fresh food from the garden.

Dinner

It’s in a quaint historic pub so it’s little wonder that Grazing knows how to turn on the country charm. But it also serves food that rivals that of the city. Order the quail with black pudding, roast pear and celeriac. And you might want extra spoons when the white chocolate and wattleseed soufflé with macadamia brittle ice-cream hits the table. 

Chef Adam Bantock opened Clementine Restaurant in Yass almost a year ago. His roast chook served with roasted parsnips, kale and charred onions has it all: it’s generous and really good modern food.

Where to stay

The Old Stone House  

A time capsule with modern-day conveniences, this boutique hotel in Bungendore was built in 1861. John and Debbie Putt, the owners of The Old Stone House, have struck just the right balance, furnishing the four bedrooms in period style but without the fussiness. Guests love to congregate in the bar at the end of the day to tell of their escapades.

Redbrow Garden  

Ditch the phone and drink in the solitude and the scents of the bush and garden at this B&B retreat. Redbrow Garden features four ensuite rooms and a lakeside barbecue area.

The Nest at Gundaroo

There are five self-contained villa suites – each named after a bird – and a historic cottage that sleeps five, right in the village. At The Nest at Gundaroo, the wood fires are a feature – and necessary for much of the year.

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