Wednesday, 29 April 2009

The Canberra District Diaries

The following notes were collected from a whirlwind 7 hour tour of the Canberra district, during the Canberra Harvest Festival. The notes are thus very whirlwind and attenuated... As usual, if you are a Canberra winery whom I missed, or you think i got it very wrong, send samples to this address.

I've detailed some observations below, but it might be best to start here.

Generally, in my opinion, the right formula for what 'works' in Canberra district vineyards is still up for debate. It hardly helps that the Canberra district is a very varied wine region (it is genuinely huge too, I know, I circumnavigated the place) with a wide range of altitudes, aspects, soil types and relative microclimates. Yet it is this variation that makes the Canberra District both an emerging hotbed of wine experimentation & also an embryonic region in flux.

To witness this, simply look at the breadth of grape varieties planted in Canberra district vineyards, and often in the same vineyard. The climate around Hall & Murrumbateman (where the majority of the wineries are) is apparently similar to that of central Spain ('between Rioja and Valladolid' according to Surveyors Hill) yet the varieties here originate from Alsace to Portugal & everywhere in between.

Diverse yes, however it is also reflective of a very formative, splatter-gun, new world approach to grape growing - plant everything and then use clever winemaking and attentive viticulture to produce commercially viable wines from the lot. Eventually, Darwinism highlights the right varieties for each site and the focus switches to refining the 'right' varieties, with the long term aim to arrive at a set of (highly desirable) 'regional heroes'.

What this does in the interim for Canberra however, is that it makes the whole region feel more 'emerging' than 'established' - arguably cheapening what sits up there with the Hunter Valley as NSW's finest wine region (Orange coming in 3rd).

Perhaps I am (typically) examining and deconstructing this wine-region-on-the-rise a little too closely. As you can see by the notes below, alot of the wines I found interesting sit outside the traditional (for Australia) varietal range, and some of the highest pointed wines were indeed 'traditional'. Notably, however, the most consistent wines, with a real 'Canberra' style to them, were Shiraz (with & without the Viognier) & Riesling. Thats hardly news, but the sooner the region vaults these two varieties forward, both publicly & privately, as its 'regional heroes', the better. And graft over (with very few exceptions) all the Pinot.

Anyway, enough boring verbiage. The wines:

Jeir Creek
Rustic, older style cellar door. Friendly staff, yet a range of wines that, aside from the Riesling, were uninspiring.

Jeir Creek Riesling 2008Clean, lovely florals in the almost Passionfruit and citrus style found in the other Murrumbateman & Hall wineries (Helm, Clonakilla, Shaw etc). Crisp & perfumed, with a real drive of sweet fruit & crisp acidity. Lively. Very good. 17.9

Jeir Creek Sauvignon Blanc 2008
Clean, herbaceous nose. A slightly muted, grassy style with a slightly dilute, albeit refreshing palate. 16.2

Jeir Creek Unwooded Chardonnay 2008
Lovely freshness in these Jeir Creek whites. This again is a very pure style, with really quite un-Chardonnay like florals & a light, faintly milky palate. It's quite tasty, all things considered. 17.0

Jeir Creek Chardonnay 2006
Very clean, but blunted by vanilla & whipped butter oak. Could reappear in time. 16.2

Jeir Creek Pinot Noir 2005
One of many disappointing Canberra Pinots. Slightly metallic, maturing, earthen, dried out nose, the palate lacks fruit or charm, No. 14.8

Jeir Creek Cabernet Merlot 2004Looks to be a hard sell at cellar door. Graft it over to Shiraz I say. Another maturing, dried out nose, leading to mulchy, eucalypt and metallic palate that is recognisably Cabernet, but a little lean & simple. Ok 15.5

Jeir Creek Shiraz Viognier 2005
Interestingly, Jeir Creek will be moving back to a straight Shiraz, as they think that Shirognier is faddish and ordinary. This Shirognier skeptic nodded. Very dark colour on this, with a raspberry jam & pepper nose, leading to a powerful palate that is bristling with ripe, jammy fruit & prickly acidity. A little unwielding at present, but definite potential. 16.7+

Jeir Creek Sparkling Shiraz Viognier 2005Apparently the first of its type in Australia (?). A very popular wine at cellar door and I can understand why. Sweet & funky, cherry & raspberry nose thats a bit Bellevue Kriek-ish. The palate is surprisingly secondary, slightly leathery, peppery & delightfully rich. It was quite appealing actually. 17.1

Jeir Creek Botrytis Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2005
Very dry, woody nose, quite lightly, fragrant & honeyed style that only just sweet & quite feminine, with noticeable savvy characters in there too. Good stuff! 17.1

Jeir Creek Muscat NVA rarity indeed. Chunky, sticky & black with a treacle like consistency thats very sweet & cloying. Simple & enjoyable enough. 16.8

Surveyors HillEssentially just a shed on the side of a typically large, bare, volcanic Canberra hill. The chili jam was worth the trip alone, let along the eclectic wines. Should have bought the apricot jam....

Surveyors Hill Riesling 2008
More lovely florals, leading on to a quite big, powerful wine that is just a teensy bit forward. Still, this had real character and texture. One to watch. 18

Surveyors Hill Semillon 2001Amazing freshness for its age. Really clean & crisp, it reminds me somewhat of a slightly honeyed Mudgee Semillon with some age on it. Simple, good drinking at under $15 at the cellar door/shed. 16.7

Surveyors Hill Chardonnay 2008Another crisp, lean, Chablis-without-the-limestone style, but this is simply too lean and simple for real joy. 16.1

Surveyors Hill Rose 2008All Cab Franc and quite a success. Dry acid backbone, candied cherry fruit on the palate, all making for a rather simple, food friendly Rose. Quite nice. 16.5

Surveyors Hill Touriga 2004A straight Touriga! Leather, truffle & musk on a nose that smells like a youthful new world Nebbiolo. Savoury, dry, slightly leathery palate is interesting if not totally convincing. Promise here. 16.8

Surveyors Hill Cabernet Franc 2004Very fragrant & fresh nose - its Cab Franc being all pretty and quite light on its feet. Actually quite convincing. 17.1

Surveyors Hill Touriga Shiraz 2005Don't imagine there is to many of these blends out there (I think St Hallett's GST might be the exception?). Anyhow, if I could sum this is up in one word it would be Leathery. The Touriga gives it a real earthy, meaty, Tempranillo like character to it that not all would like (Portuguese Port lovers might). Unusual tang on the back palate. Sweet, caramelised fruit works against the savouriness, but no doubting the interest. 16.9

Surveyors Hill Autumn Gold 2004
I wasn't convinced by any late harvest styles tasted on the day, this is no exception. Green nose, dry & slightly clumpy style that is a bit bland & off kilter. 16.0

Surveyors Hill Sweet Touriga
Unsurprisingly sweet, tangy (there it is again - its a Touriga character alright. Touriga tang), malted sweet fruit. No noticeable spirit (which is good). Let down by over sweetness. 15.9

Brindabella Hills
Now here is a winery well worth the short trip off the map. Very well priced, bright wines of substance and style. Was very close to buying several bottles here (but have promised myself to not buy anything on this trip. Research only). For anyone keen to experience some distinctive Canberra wines, pick up a few of these inexpensive wines.

Brindabella Hills Riesling 2008Simply delicious. Big, bold, lime juice nose, the palate is dominated by brisk acidity & an extra dimension of floral depth. A near perfect Canberra Riesling at an excellent price ($20). 18.5

Brindabella Hills Sauvignon Blanc 2008Fresh Passionfruit is all through the nose, with the palate showing paw paw and more passionfruit. Bright, crisp, aromatic, tropical styled Savvy. Appealing. 17.1

Brindabella Hills Aureus Chardonnay Viognier 2007This is essentially the flagship wine for Brindabella Hills and its a very stylish & somewhat unusual wine. I actually enjoyed a glass of this over lunch, which was a very rare indulgence indeed when I'm on a dedicated wine mission such as this. Really enjoyed my glass though.
Quite a shy nose, this shows only a smidgen of the typical Viognier apricots on a tight and highly textural, mealy palate. It is actually closest to a Rhone style Viognier than anything else, though with the Viognier's inherent apricot downplayed by delicate Chardonnay.
Anyway, its desperately in need of time and an unequivocally interesting drink, though I may be being a points miser with the score. $25. 17.4++

Brindabella Hills Shiraz 2006Beautiful wine, simply stunning value ($22 by the dozen). Lovely lifted & very pure berry fragrance that reminds me of a cooler version of the gloriously pure & seamless Meerea Park 07 reds. Very bright, polished & finely spiced wine of spicy texture and lightness. Could imagine drinking heaps of this. Winner. 18.5

Brindabella Hills Sangiovese Shiraz 2005This was under $20 (maybe even under $15?) at the cellar door and it would make for a near ideal quaffer. Again that lovely bright red fruit purity of the Shiraz component, but with some more gamey Sangiovese woven through the wine. Tannins are fine grained, the whole palate really polished and, well, palatable. Good stuff and great value. 17.2

ClonakillaI was lucky to catch it at a lull - apparently the place was heaving during the weekend, up to four deep at the tasting bar. As I left, two mini buses pulled up and I immediately understood....
If you are ever in Canberra, don't miss out on a trip to Clonakilla. Its conveniently located just off the road between Yass & Canberra (though closer to Yass) in the middle of the rather tiny, one-petrol-station-and-a-pub town of Murrumbateman. Even the Shiraz Viognier, when its available, can even be sampled for free at the cellar door... No pretensions here, just consistently brilliant wines.

Clonakilla Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2008
On occasion this has really done it for me, but only Very Good today (only!). Quite a tropical and ripe nose, the palate is citrussy and rounded, with natural acidity keeping things from getting fatty. The length though is the winner here - it tastes much more convincing than its price tag. 17.6

Clonakilla Riesling 2008A repeat performance after sampling this last year, this seemed even bigger, riper and more tropical than last time, with a quite large and overt style. Again very drinkable. 18+

Clonakilla Viognier 2008
Only released a week before tasting. Lightly apricotty nose, very tight, coconut oak edged apricot & peachy palate. Very tight & oaky palate. A veritable baby, with joy to give, it just needs time. 17.0+++

Clonakilla O'Riada Shiraz 2007
2% Viognier. Brilliant. If this is any indication of the Estate Shiraz Viognier, it almost deserves its secondary market price tag. Musk & red berry, black pepper & polished black fruit. Long, lovely & polished, if a little bit raw. Big and brawny, love the layers of flavour here. Excellent tannins. Winner. 18.3

Clonakilla Hilltops Shiraz 2007I may be the only person who doesn't quite get this. Its just too ripe, too bold to be brilliant. Tight, big & firm, with a very tannic & meaty palate. Love the really ripe fruit, but its still too bulky for love. Yet..17++

HelmIt's always a joy tasting with Ken Helm. Endless stories, local anecdotes and a genuine showmanship to his whole persona. Really like his wines too.

Helm Classic Riesling 2008For my palate the Helm Rieslings seem just a little too forward compared to when first tasted some months ago. An awkward development stage I think. This is nosefilling & generous, broad & lovely, limey & still quite floral. Quite a classic, if not quite brilliant. The palate is a big mouthful of lemon & grapefruit, with a greenish, slightly jarring edge. Still a very good wine, if just a little transitional at present. 17.3+

Helm Premium Riesling 2008
Very similar to the Classic with its broad limey nose. The palate however is shutting down, the greenish acidity taking hold of the palate in a bear hold of structure. If you've got some, leave it be for some time - it will come back. 18++

Helm Cabernet Merlot 2004
Now here is a surprise - a very good Canberra Cabernet! Nicely fragrant, herbaceous nose of blackberry & cassis. The palate is medium bodied and well structured, with no greenness and no over ripeness in site. It's sort of like a cross between a Tuscan Cabernet in ripeness, with a 'lunchtime Claret' palate weight to it. Really very tasty. 17.5

Helm Premium Cabernet 2006
Quite chocolatey, yet also reasonably shy on the nose, the palate is ripe & deeply, intensely flavoured, with a cocoa powder edge. Ultra small red berries, in a Canberra Cabernet? It's actually very Eden Valleyish in style and flavour, like a baby Cyril or the like, mixed with some of the intensity of an old vine Clare Cab. Whatever it is, its, well, delicious. 18.3+

Lerida EstateGreat spot, excellent cellar door, lots of potential. The wines are good enough, though particularly overpriced, especially when placed in the context of the wineries above.

Lerida Estate Chardonnay 2007
Creamy, light & figgy Chardonnay. Simple & approachable. 16.5

Lerida Canberra District Shiraz 2008
Simple, juicy, gamey Shiraz. Light, flavoursome & quite delicious, but it tastes more like a $17 wine, not $28. 16.5

Lerida Shiraz Viognier 2006Big, sweet, choc berry nose, big, ripe & gamey palate. Its unquestionably polished but actually quite simple. Lots of bling. Ridiculous price @$65. 17

Lerida Botrytis Pinot Gris 2007
Surprisingly, my favourite wine in the range. Lovely, quite tropical palate, with nicely honeyed & rich palate. Nice, simple, tasty, good. 17.1

Mt Majura
In time, this will be one of the finest producers in Canberra. The site here is near perfect: Aspect, elevation, slope, soil, the lot (and an excellent mountain bike track at the foot of the hill). The winemaker (Frank Van de Loo) is also one of Canberra's finest. It just needs time. At the moment the range, whilst all high quality & no doubt appealing at cellar door, is simply too vast for my tastes.

Mt Majura Riesling 2008
Always one of the better wines from Mt Majura, this is a lemony & very approachable, simple wine. Simple, pure, tasty. 16.8

Mt Majura Pinot Gris 2008A simple, pure, fruity white, nice, ripe and juicy pear fruit. One dimensional, but delicious. 16.8

Mt Majura Chardonnay 2007It may surprise, but to my taste, this is the finest white this winery makes. Excellent balance between very fine, very well handled vanilla bean oak (very little oak makes this wonderfully bright and light). Great acidity thanks also to limited malo. Great stuff! 17.8

Mt Majura Rose 2008Merlot based. Sweetly caramelised Rose, with candied sweetness and simple flavours. Simple, fun, eminently drinkable. 16.1

Mt Majura Woolshed Creek No.4 TempranilloFurther proof that Tempranillo, along with Shiraz, is the most promising variety here. Sweetly meaty leathery, varietally correct nose. Varietal & clever. The score doesn't give credit for the drinkability. (and relative value). 16.5

Mt Majura Pinot Noir 2008Should be one of the first to be grafted over in the whole district (IMHO). Bright, fruity nose, really bright and open. The palate however is harsh, ripe and disjointed. Not for me. 15.5

Mt Majura Graciano 2007Really interesting. Funky, sappy fruit, sticky, slightly ill defined young vine palate but I really like the intensity here. Great for the interest factor alone. 16.8

Mt Majura Merlot 2007Variety number two for the graft. Sweet mulberry nose, very sweet, admirably approachable and drinkable, but ultimately mono dimensional. 16.1

Mt Majura Shiraz 2007
Distinctive, pure and just plain delicious. It's such a baby, but already greatness is written here. Its a peppery, mid weight, cool climate Shiraz with distinctive ham & spice aromatics and a lovely pure palate. This is much more light, pure and peppery than the rich Murrumbateman wines, but the elemental style is great. Buy some, then wait a year or so before drinking. 18


  1. thanks Andrew, your comments and tasting notes make for interesting reading. I wonder why Pinots are not doing well? The clones? Climate should suit- cold winters, cool summer evenings, plenty of sunshine without excess heat. Maybe it is the soil? Or it could be that the vines are just too young?

  2. I think Canberra is simply too dry and hot for Pinot. The benefits of a big diurnal range are nullified when the maximums are consistently so high during the (Summer) growing season.

    Jeir Creek, for example, will not even pick their Pinot this year due to the impacts of drought and excess heat. The challenge for Canberra producers like Jeir Creek is that Pinot is a natural early ripener, with the critical veraison period falling smack bang in the middle of one of the hottest times of the year in Canberra.

    As Surveyors Hill mentioned, the climate in Canberra is much closer to that of Northern Spain - an area which is typically unsuited to Pinot.

    There are, of course, exceptions to the 'No Pinot in Canberra' rule and it largely comes down to site. Lark Hill for example, with its cooler, higher site, produces a rather impressive Pinot. However on the whole, they are the exception.

    Ultimately Pinot is a capricious variety that really prefers truly 'cool' climates - something that is far from mind during a Canberra summer.

  3. Andrew, first, great blog. I have been following for quite a while and really enjoy your writings.

    I know what you mean about the size of the Canberra District: I live here and have yet to get around to all the vineyards, although I have been trying!

    Also agree with the pinot noir. I have tried many from quite a few vintages and yet to find one that wasn't eminently forgetable.

    IRT the many varieties planted, I think it's in our English blood. When we came to Australia, we have to adopt many anglo traditional fruit to the Australian environment as most of the surrounding Asian countries acutally grew fruit suited to the their environment (shock horror). We've never got out of that mentality and still try to plant all kinds of things and adapt them to their environment, with varying amounts of success.

    Regional heroes are definitely required and some of the vineyard owners certainly seem to be talking along these lines. I think Canberra's best grapes are definitely riesling and shiraz, but also maybe Tempranillo and Cab Franc (great examples recently from Clonakilla, Tallagandra Estate and McKellar Ridge). Funny - I didn't like the Surveyors Hill 2004 Cab Franc - my bottle was very vegetal with strong tomato and capsicum flavours.

    I was out at Lambert Vineyards a few weeks ago for an outstanding lunch and their range of wines (16 from memory from multiple vintages) was unbelieveable with, once again, the shiraz being best.

    Great wrap up.


  4. Cheers Aaron!

    Spot on comments about our very English approach to farming - look only to the dying Murray Darling to see the effects of unsustainable anglo farming practices..


Love to see your comments! Don't forget to tick the 'notify me' box to get followups to your comment!

Don't miss out on a regular (most days!) email wrap of my latest posts: Subscribe Here