Pushing Boundaries in the Canberra District
– 2020 Top 50 Winemaker Feature

Wines Of Now
22 May 2020. Words by YGOW.

Like so many cool climate Australian wine regions, the area now known as the Canberra District saw grapes planted in the 19th century, but the modern industry wasn’t established until the latter half of the 20th century. Today, it is firmly established as a source of elegant and spicy shiraz, racy riesling and is expanding promisingly into Italian varieties, mainly sangiovese. It is also home to pioneering plantings of grüner veltliner. Makers like Mallaluka’s Samuel Leyshon – from this year’s Top 50 – are also pushing the boundaries of experimentation, and with exciting results.

The Canberra District is in reality mostly in New South Wales, with much of the land within the ACT dedicated to things other than vines, principally the nation’s capital itself. The Mount Majura Vineyard is the only winery inside the borders of the ACT, while there are over 30 wineries across the border and some 140 vineyards.

“I think most viticulturists and winemakers would experiment in some form. Some just might push it a little harder/further than others,” he says. “I’m definitely the latter, which is a little bit reckless at times!”

The region is classed as cool climate, with Canberra’s notoriously cold nights – a feature of the inland, continental climate – doing a good job of slowing down ripening, while preserving fresh flavours and acidity in the grapes. Another climate driver is elevation, which one may not consider when visiting the area. The Adelaide Hills or Macedon Ranges, for example, wear their altitude on their sleeves, but many Canberra vineyards are at around 600 metres, while appearing decidedly flat, and the coldest sites are up closer to 900 metres.

Lay of the land

Murrumbateman, a 35-minute drive north from the capital, is home to the Canberra District’s most celebrated exponent, Clonakilla, which was founded by John Kirk in 1971. His son, Tim Kirk, has driven the estate to one of the country’s greatest, with their shiraz viognier a benchmark of the style. That wine was also a pointed argument for the merits of cool climate shiraz in the 90s, when warm climate shiraz was staunchly ruling the roost.

Clonakilla has also been a fertile cradle for other makers. Bryan Martin simultaneously manages the Clonakilla production while steering his own Ravensworth label, which has become one of the region’s most dynamic and progressive. Sam Leyshon, of Mallaluka, worked parallel vintages at both Clonakilla and on his family’s vineyard for four years, before tipping all in at the family property.

A misty autumn morning envelopes shiraz vines at Clonakilla’s T&L vineyard in Murrumbateman. Photo by David Reist.

Mallaluka is in the Yass subregion of the Canberra District, adjoining Murrumbateman to the north-west. Leyshon works from the home vineyard, but also sources widely. “40 per cent of the grapes made into wine are grown here. The rest we purchase from Gundagai, Hilltops and Canberra District producers, to make wines from particular varieties we don’t grow here,” he says.

Grape experiments

That sourcing allows Leyshon to work outside of the more classic grapes that dominate the region, which is a trend that suggests a more diverse future. “There are certainly some growers planting and experimenting with quite different varieties,” he says. “Alex McKay from Collector Wines [2010 YGOW finalist] uses some very obscure (for Australia) varieties to blend with his sangiovese, like canaiolo nero, mammolo, colorino and malvasia nera. And as far as I’m concerned, he allows them to express beautifully. Sangiovese seems to make beautiful wine around here. I would always love to see more of it. There’s Clonakilla with counoise. And look at what Lark Hill have done with grüner veltliner. They’ve certainly led the way and excelled with such an awesome variety.”

The Carpenter family of Lark Hill planted grüner veltliner after a 2002 visit from Jancis Robinson. She had recently been involved in a landmark tasting of aged Austrian grüner versus aged white Burgundy, with the former triumphing, making her somewhat of a convert to its potential. Robinson thought the grape would excel in their cool site, and the first vines were planted in 2004.

The Lark Hill vineyard, in Bungendore, was established in 1978 by Sue and Dave Carpenter, and is one of the district’s highest and coldest, with snow in winter not uncommon. That coolness plays to grüner’s strengths, and they produced the first Australian bottling of the variety from the 2009 vintage. The original plantings, though, were of riesling, pinot noir and chardonnay, which may seem a classic mix for a cool region, but Chris Carpenter – Sue and Dave’s son, and the current winemaker and director – notes that it’s not quite that simple.

Snow at Lark Hill vineyard.

Regional differences

“In Bungendore, riesling does well, but it’s very different to Murrumbateman,” Carpenter says. “Chardonnay and pinot noir do very well, and I’d argue that very few vineyards do well with pinot in Canberra. If you go by the numbers on the colder sites, pinot should do well, but I don’t think it particularly has. I don’t think we’ve been blessed with a good clonal selection, and I think it’s the dry. The mean January temperature for the district puts us in line with Coonawarra; we’re just 650 metres higher,” he laughs. “Pinot mostly works in the higher sites. Even for us, the cold years are the ones that work better.”

“Some of the higher altitude parts of the region with rocky soils seem to express pinot nicely,” agrees Leyshon. “Areas around Lake George are quite unique and better suited. It is an incredibly finicky variety that just doesn’t do well everywhere. Tim Kirk is experimenting with some different clones and they’re making really smart wines. Brian Schmidt up at Maipenrai, as far as I’m concerned, has been nailing it for years… he just doesn’t make enough for everyone!”

Varietal icons

There’s little argument that Canberra’s two strongest suits are shiraz and riesling. Clonakilla have been advocates of both varieties, but the riesling evangelist has undoubtedly been Ken Helm, whose eponymous label was founded in 1973. Helm is in Murrumbateman, but he sources more broadly now, making riesling from both Tumbarumba and Orange, as well as turning out three Canberra District iterations, including an off-dry style. Younger makers like Nick O’Leary and Mallaluka also champion the variety, with O’Leary turning out classic styles to Leyshon’s skinsy and textural expressions.

Putting nets on riesling vines during summer at Clonakilla’s Euroka Park 2 vineyard, in Murrumbateman. Photo by David Reist.

The regional imprint on both riesling and shiraz is distinctive, with shiraz perhaps in particular having a hallmark expression. “If we’re talking about shiraz, the most prolific variety planted here,” Leyshon says. “I’d say there are definite characteristics expressed across the region. Lower alcohols, spicy, floral and delicate wines are more commonly produced. If you’re into big fat old man reds, this district is really not for you.”

Carpenter notes, however, that there are distinct subregional characteristics that determine which varieties succeed where. “The majority of storied vineyards in Canberra are in the Murrumbateman subregion,” he says. “Vineyards around Bungendore sit on the uplift that formed the lake George escarpment. Where we are, there are 350-million-year-old depleted shale and heavy clays soils at 860-880 metres. But when you look at Murrumbateman, there was a much younger volcanic eruption about 35 million years ago that filled the surrounding valley. So, there’s this pond full of deep, rich granite soils at about 580-620 metres. When you overlay where the good shiraz vineyards are, they’re on that granite, and those that haven’t had success with shiraz are on the older, poorer soils.”

Don’t trust the weather reports

Generalisations about any region are inevitably problematic, but sometimes the available data can also be somewhat misleading. “The problem is that the weather data is from the airport, which is the lowest and warmest spot,” says Carpenter. “The closest vineyard to the airport is Mount Majura, and they have great success with graciano and tempranillo, and they’ve pulled out most of their chardonnay, most of their pinot and all of their merlot, because they just don’t suit the climate. If you used that climate data to educate you about what varieties would go well in the district, then I think you’d probably be planting all the wrong things.

“Where we are, pinot works very well, grüner veltliner works very well, and then if you go down to Murrumbateman, shiraz is great, sangiovese is arguably even better than shiraz, though less widely planted and less known. Cabernet is reasonable in the hot years, but certainly there are Italian varieties that are doing way, way better, that have an interesting future,” concludes Carpenter.

Experimentation is another factor shaping the district today, with Leyshon feeling unencumbered by what is a well-established regional reputation. “I think most viticulturists and winemakers would experiment in some form. Some just might push it a little harder/further than others,” he says. “I’m definitely the latter, which is a little bit reckless at times! We are a very small region, but I do feel we have quite a lot of winemakers pushing boundaries in some very positive directions. Ravensworth is leading the way by far.”

Mallaluka’s Sam and John Leyshon.

Leyshon sees a freedom in this, and also an acceptance. “Being such a young industry, it hasn’t yet become too stuffy, a reflection of the ACT in itself really. I feel the wine community is very encouraging down this way. I think there is more of a ‘Yeah, that’s weird, mate, but good luck!’ kind of attitude.”

The Wines

Photo by James Morgan.

2019 Mallaluka Sangiovese ‘Naturally Sparkling’

Bloody hue with light haze. There’s a cool lift of red and sour cherries, wild raspberries and brush of wild herbs, spice and cacao nib; a clean sense of fruit purity on the palate, with a drying lick of tannin running across the ultra-dry palate. At this low ripeness/alcohol (10.4%) this is far from mean, though, with a cushioning of texture and leesy volume giving this a pleasing level of generosity. The lightness rather gives it freshness, buoying classic red fruits and woodsy wild herbs on the gentle froth of fizz, with bright acidity and a burr of tannin cleaning up the finish.

2019 Mallaluka Riesling

(Hilltops, NSW.) Lightly gold hue. This is quite aromatic, almost exotic, with citrus blossom, old-fashioned lemonade, apple blossom, lemongrass/lemon icy pole, wild grasses, cider apple skin, a touch of quince even, though coolly expressed, rather than opulent. This is as much about flavour as texture, with a light skinsy, chewy grip cinching in the richer fleshier touches, cleaning up dry and bright, but with a complex play of flavours hanging in through a long finish.

See the full list of Top 50 winemakers in the 2020 Young Gun of Wine Awards here. Join in our virtual events here, and also vote on who wins the People’s Choice until June 1.

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