Back around the turn of millennium, Alex McKay drove countless miles sourcing fruit for a big wine company. And, like many before him, that experience proved invaluable when he launched his own label, Collector Wines. Armed with a mental map of soils, macroclimates, varieties and clones, McKay has taken Collector into the elite ranks in one of Australia’s most exciting wine regions. Today, he sources from the Canberra district and surrounds, painstakingly matching variety to site to find compelling expressions, which he makes in a classic non-prescriptive way. McKay was a Young Gun finalist in 2010.
For those that drive the Federal Highway that joins Canberra to Sydney, Collector is not a likely spot to stop. Too close to Canberra, and, well, not a lot going on (no offence intended). To most, it’s a sign on the road in a fairly flat area about seven kilometres outside of the mostly dry Lake George. In fact, Collector is perhaps most famous for the wines of Alex McKay.
While McKay’s label wears the Collector name as a badge of location (his cellar door is in the town), the meaning runs much deeper than that. All his wines bear names that refer to works by Canberra artist Rosalie Gascoigne, who gathered found objects to construct art that reflected her local environment. Beyond an appreciation for the beauty of the works, this idea of collecting resonated with McKay.
Growing up in the region, McKay had his first brush with winemaking courtesy of the pioneering Edgar Riek of Lake George Winery, but it was BRL Hardys’ push into the Canberra District that saw him evolve his future plans. McKay was appointed as winemaker at Hardys’ Kamberra winery in 2000, which saw him traversing the land to find distinguished fruit sources that spoke of place – a neat metaphor and a spiritual, indeed artistic, connection with the work of the late great Gascoigne, who had died a year prior.
When Hardys abruptly shut up shop a few years later, McKay’s knowledge of the district and surrounds was unapparelled. He released his first wine from the 2005 vintage, a shiraz named after Marked Tree Road, a favourite driving route for Gascoigne to appreciate her beloved “towering sky”. It’s important to stress that this connection to the artist is not a frivolous one, not like slapping an artwork on a label to associate one with the other; rather McKay sees a kinship with her thinking, her way of seeing the world.
“She was conscious of the limitations of the materials, but also the suggestive powers of, for example, protruding nails, subtle variations in colour, or the reflective qualities of highway signs. I find many parallels with winemaking – where the genetic qualities of the grape, and the peculiar nature of each vineyard site and vintage provide the framework, and various elements are blended to achieve a seamless and compelling whole.”
McKay’s own collecting continues today, sourcing fruit from across the Canberra District, as well as from the Hilltops, Gundagai and Tumbarumba. And while he plucks familiar regional strings, with shiraz a prominent feature, his riesling is sourced further afield, from an 850-metre vineyard in Tumbarumba, as is his chardonnay. Closer to home in the Canberra District, marsanne, roussanne and viognier combine in a blend, grenache flies solo – an unusual variety for the region ¬– and he makes one of the leading examples of sangiovese, which is touted as a potential game-changing variety for the district. He also works with fiano, touriga, tempranillo and grüner veltliner.