It’s easy to overlook Canberra as a region producing premium wine with politics and national monuments taking the lion’s share of the tourism dollar. But on the city’s outskirts lies two very distinct regions capable of some of the country’s most sought after wines.
‘Canberra bashing’, as the locals call it, is a kind of national sport in Australia. The city itself was a planned city and for much of its history has been cast as a stale playground for politicians and public servants alike. However the recent transformation of the region as, firstly a premium wine producing region and more recently as a foodies paradise has been a few decades in the making. In short, the regions wine and food culture is rising rapidly and ignoring it is no longer an option.
Canberra District: The History
Wine grapes have been grown in the region since as early as the late 19th century, albeit initially with limited success and mostly confined to the Yass Valley and by the mid-20th Century the local industry had all but disappeared.
In the early 1970s, two CSIRO scientists (unbeknown to each other) planted the first new vineyards in what was to become the region’s key areas – Dr Edgar Riek at Lake George and Dr John Kirk near Murrumbateman. Shortly after vineyards started being planted throughout the region, by other CSIRO scientists, public servants and the like (most with a strong background in science) and by the year 2000 there 19 wineries, with growth exploding afterwards to 36 by 2006 and approximately 110 vineyards and 450 hectares under vine by 2020.
The quality of the wines has followed this same trend as understanding of the Canberra District’s unique terroir has grown and plantings of varieties better suited to particular sites has increased. To wit, it is possible to ripen almost any grape from early season varieties such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir to late season varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and everything in between with a high level of quality. It is this diversity of sites that makes the Canberra District so fascinating for oenophiles the world over.
By the mid-1990s the region was becoming recongised as a premium region – firstly through Clonakilla’s highly regarded Shiraz Viognier, but more recently with a wave of standout producers from Helm and Four Winds Vineyard in Murrumbateman to Lark Hill and Lake George Estate on the Bungendore and Lake George escarpment, and plenty more.
Canberra District: The Climate
Part of what makes the wines from the Canberra District compelling is the diversity of the climate and terroir of the entire region. All regions have their star varieties, but here things firmly depend on where you are located – Murrumbateman tends to favour Shiraz & Riesling whilst over towards Lake George you find Cabernet Franc, Merlot and warmer expressions of Pinot Noir, whilst high up at altitude on the Bungendore escarpment is the home of world-class Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and alternative varietals such as Grüner Vetliner.
Elevation and aspect varies across the district from 500m asl in lower lying areas of Murrumbateman to over 1,400m asl around Bungendore. Soils too are quite varied from volcanic soils, ancient granite as well as areas of limestone and sandstone deposits.
Overall, the climate is considered continental with warm summers (albeit with cool nights) and cold winters. Rainfall across the region is quite varied with 600mm – 800mm average annual rainfall decreasing the need for irrigation during the growing season outside of the hot summer where high levels of evaporation can lead to vine stress. The rainfall is strongest over winter, leading to excellent bud burst conditions in most vintages with relatively dry late summer and autumn providing very good harvest conditions. Some of the oldest vine sites in the region do not require any irrigation except in very dry, drought years.
Canberra District: The Grapes
Given the hsitory of wine production in Australia more broadly, it is of no surprise that the majority of plantings (and especially older vineyard sites) in the Canberra District are of the well known French varietals.
Shiraz has been a mainstay of the region and arguably produces the best wines that come from here. The cool climate and long ripening season produces elegant wines that can often share more in common with the cooler sites of the Northern Rhône than what most would ascribe as ‘Australian Shiraz’, and this is especially true when the wine is co-fermented with a touch of Viognier. Showing poise and restraint, the best wines match black fruit characters with black pepper spice, fine-grained tannins and a long finish.
Riesling has long made a claim as the star white wine from Murrumbateman. The wines show more fruit character than Rieslings from the likes of Eden Valley and Clare Valley in South Australia and often will have a distinctive light floral touch that has made serious Riesling lovers start to take notice.
Chardonnay, especially from cooler climate sites and with restrained use of new oak, again bucks the trend of what Australian Chardonnay had been known for before the late 1990s.
Pinot Noir can be found throughout the region, but perhaps the best sites are around Lake George and on the Bungendore escarpment where the cooler temperatures and terroir combine to produce wines of true elegance.
Over the last two decades, alternative varieties have begun to be planted with varying success, however Sangiovese, Tempranillo, and Grüner Vetliner have been slowly gaining in reputation
Canberra District: Key producers
It is impossible to discuss the key producers of the region without first touching on Clonakilla (see wines). The success of the Shiraz Viognier laid the groundwork for others to follow, but the winery is far from a one trick pony. The Clonakilla single varietal Viognier is a superb example of what the grape is capable of in the region, with it’s little sibling, the Viognier Nouveau taking things in a decidedly fresher route.
Ken Helm has been a pioneer of Riesling in the region since first planting vines in the mid-1970s near Murrumbateman and arguably produces the regions best examples of the variety. The Premium Dry is a thing of beauty. Ken also produces a very, very good Cabernet Sauvignon that’s well worth chasing down.
Four Winds Vineyard is another producer on the Murrumbateman side of the region that is producing outstanding wines. The recent acquisition of the Kyeema Vineyard, also located in Murrumbateman, has given them access to some of the region’s oldest plantings of Tempranillo, as well some old Penfolds clone Shiraz. Interestingly, big Hunter Valley producer Brokenwood regularly purchase Riesling from them, lending more credibility to the region’s ability to produce world-class Riesling.
Lake George Winery is the oldest vineyard in the region, planted by Dr Edgar Riek in 1971, and recently purchased by Sarah and Andrew McDougall (themselves running Summerhill Road before purchasing Lake George). The wines are made in conjunction with another Canberra star, Nick O’Leary, and include region mainstays Shiraz and Riesling but branching out to also include Pinot Gris, Tempranillo, and Pinot Noir
At the top of the Bungendore escarpment sits Lark Hill, the first vineyard in the region to be certified biodynamic. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from some of the region’s coldest sites are the stars alongside Riesling and Australia’s oldest plantings of Grüner Vetliner.
Smaller producers are starting to make themselves known as well. Sholto Wines (see wines) was this year named a finalist in the 2021 Young Gun of Wine awards; Malaluka have been growing in reputation for the last few years and, of course, no discussion of Canberra District wines can be complete without mentioning Bryan Martin’s Ravensworth (see wines).
Canberra District: The Future
Given that 50 years have now elapsed since the first commercial vineyards began being planted in the region, I think it’s a safe assumption to say that the region is really coming of age. The first wave of pioneers have led the way for what has followed, and we’re now starting to see the maturity of the region – it has its superstar producers, its star varieties, and a new wave of producers experimenting in the vineyard with alternative varieties and in the winery with new techniques and new styles; the region is producing the full cycle of wines, from the classic blends through to pet-nats and natural wines.
As the region progresses, as consumers we can look forward with confidence that Canberra District will continue to produce high quality wines we just enjoy drinking.