It doesn’t need anything else in the title, does it. I’ve said before that by personal favourite Australian wine estates have long been Jasper Hill, in Heathcote, and Clonakilla, at Murrumbateman in Canberra District. In the first of my string of articles from Australia I mentioned how I visited Jasper Hill, but due to her delay in getting back to the vineyard, I was unable to taste with Emily Laughton. This visit more than made up for that disappointment.
We drove up to Murrumbateman whilst staying on the coast near Milton, and it was a long old day, around six-to-seven hours driving and nine or more hours on the road with stops and the tasting. We were lucky to make it to Clonakilla because the wind was up and temperatures hit the low thirties, and there was a genuine fear of fires. In fact the coastal highway south to Bateman’s Bay was closed last week due to the proximity of bush fires, and I understand that Clonakilla are not shipping wine this week due to the temperatures.
From Batemans Bay the road climbs steeply through the Budawang Range, to historic Braidwood. Many people stop here, but we drove on for a brunch in Bungendore. Above the mountains there’s a wide plateau which, although way more rocky and larger, reminds me of the high pasture in the Jura, except that the mean terrain means you see many fewer cows (mostly beef) per hectare. From Bungendore you can cut directly northwest to Murrumbateman, avoiding the city of Canberra. The blocks up here get even more windswept and seem even more exposed, with big granite lumps sitting immovable in nearly every paddock.
Canberra District was first planted with vines in the 1970s. The pioneers were the Carpenter family at Lark Hill, Lake George Winery (the lake itself, often more or less empty despite its size, lies east of Murrumbateman), and John Kirk, who named his winery after the family dairy back in County Clare, in the mid-west of Ireland. John’s talented son Tim took over in the early 1990s, and undertook one small change at the estate, one which would reverberate around viticultural Australia, and indeed the world.
Tim had visited Guigal in the Northern Rhône, and had been smitten by his great Côte Rôties. On returning he decided to co-ferment some Viognier with his Syrah. In the words of Jancis Robinson, in a quote used on the Clonakilla brochure, “Clonakilla’s subtle Viognier-influenced Shiraz almost single-handedly turned round the Aussie Shiraz super tanker”.
Next we move on a decade to the mid-2000s for another important event in Canberra District wine history. In 2006 Hardy’s decided to close their big winery here, leaving a host of local growers, not so much Canberra people but those who had planted in the nearby Hilltops region near the town of Young, high and dry and risking bankruptcy. All that fruit up there is one reason why you see a lot of wineries all over NSW knocking out some excellent wines from Hilltops fruit.
However, when Tim Kirk lost almost his whole harvest to frost back in 2000 he was pretty much saved by an alternative source of grapes, planted largely for the big Southcorp organisation, fruit which was just itching to be turned into wine by a local star winemaker. By adding Tim’s skills to the mix, the Hilltops blend was born. I remember buying it from Adnams, and later from current UK importer Liberty Wines, and thinking what great value it was.
Cellar Door at Clonakilla
Clonakilla isn’t all about Syrah, although there are now several in the range. I always bought their delicious Viognier, which you could find at Fortnum & Mason back in the day (not currently listed but they do sell the Hilltops Shiraz). The white they have probably become best known for is their Riesling, a variety that has massive potential in the region. In fact there’s an “International Riesling Challenge” held in Canberra. The best Australian Riesling 2019 was West Cape Howe Porongurup Riesling (Great Southern Region), but I personally count Clonakilla’s as one of the very finest in the country. Sadly UK importer Liberty Wines doesn’t list it. AG Wines, trading from West Ealing in London, does.
Before we taste some wines we should step back again and say something about the terroir up here near Murrumbateman. The Canberra District vineyards are partly volcanic, but with more loam and shale, with significant granite outcrops. Perhaps it was the wind, but it does feel almost desolate out in the vines. Rainfall is generally low, and over time it is clear that Syrah, Viognier and Riesling thrive, but not exclusively. The Hilltops fruit is on more uniformly volcanic soil. Interestingly, Tim and his team discovered from geological analysis that there is a thin layer of sand through the vineyards which seems to date from the time dinosaurs became extinct. It was as if a great wind had blown across the land and left a layer of fine sediment.
Quite bleak, certainly parched
Clonakilla Riesling 2018 – If the Syrah wines display the subtlety often lost in some Aussie versions, this wine is perhaps not a white wine mirror image. Lime and mineral mouth texture wreath this wine, made from old vines and vinified as whole bunches. The bouquet is largely floral but something of the wine’s steeliness comes through. It’s a wine made to age, but in its youth it has real zip and zest. Why oh why Liberty Wines don’t bring this to the UK I really don’t know? In my view it rates alongside the best of Clare and Watervale.
Clonakilla Viognier “Nouveau” 2019 – Whole bunches into stainless steel, a fresh wine, simple but very tasty. Bottled early it shows 12.5% abv and 1.9g/l of residual sugar. It makes for a light wine, ideal for aperitif drinking. Peach and pear fruit.
Canberra District Viognier 2018 – Another whole bunch fermentation, but this then goes into oak, where it spends a year on lees. The wine is completely different from the Nouveau. The crop in 2018 had been thinned by hail but at harvest the fruit was healthy and super concentrated from a warm growing season and harvest. The oak rounds out its emerging complexity, so that you get stone fruit flavours underpinned by ginger, which really comes through as it warms a little. It is harvested off 500 million year old granite and the wine sort of has that stature. Always liked this, but the 2018 is superb.
Clonakilla Chardonnay 2018 – My first taste of the estate’s Chardonnay. This is from very high grown fruit: Steve Morrisson’s Revee Estate and Heather and Rob Johansen’s vines, both at over 700 metres at Tumbarumba (way southwest of Canberra, close to Granite Mountain). It begins with citrus scents on the nose, followed by a gentle floral note, but the palate has punch, partly through its very clean acidity (apple crunch) which at first hides a savoury finish. It’s a wine to age, but right now it is bracing…thrilling in its own way. A little gras points to its future potential.
Ceoltóiri 2018 – Pronounced keel-toy-ree, this cuvée is named after the Irish word for “musicians”, and reflects the family’s love of making music together. The blend is 50% Grenache, with the rest made up of diminishing amounts of Mourvèdre, Syrah, Cinsault and Counoise, plus a tiny splash of Roussanne. The soft raspberry fruit seems light, and you would never guess (as with many modern Grenache blends done well) that it boasts 14.5% alcohol. The nose is gently perfumed, but the palate does give a hint of opulent fruit from a warm vintage as it warms in the mouth, and a little tannin begins to coat the tongue.
We purchased a bottle of this which we drank up in Sydney. It was gorgeous, a wine with far more elegance than the abv level on the label might suggest. We drank it before a Geoff Merrill “Jacko’s” Shiraz 2012 from McLaren Vale, and the contrast in size was instructive for when it comes to making generalisations that “high alcohol means a big wine”. The Ceoltóiri is no delicate flower, but it’s not remotely a bruiser either.
For those reading this on a large screen, I apologise for the food stain…got too close to the hob!
Ballinderry 2017 – The name means “place of the oak” in Irish, and relates to an oak tree John Kirk planted along with his first vines back in 1971. This unusual blend for the region is a classic “Bordeaux” medley, with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. It succeeded so well in 2017 because a very wet winter was followed by a dry but humid summer. It’s normally a little too cool for these varieties to excel every vintage around Murrumbateman. It has very concentrated cassis fruit and will see a long life after its two years in oak. The quality does shine through the ripe tannins.
We now come to three Clonakilla Syrahs, the signature of the estate. Given the proclivity of those producing a more elegant style of the variety to use “Syrah” over “Shiraz” on the label, the choice of the originator of that more nuanced style might surprise some.
Hilltops Shiraz 2018 is from that warmer region around Young. That richness comes through first on the bouquet. The 2018 vintage was of very high quality, as we shall see with the Shiraz-Viognier, below. The fruit is dark and rich, and this is one of the best of the cuvée I’ve tasted for a while. Although this isn’t Canberra District fruit, you do seem to get that more floral note on the bouquet which singled out Tim’s wines from the beginning of his tenure.
O’Riada Shiraz 2017 – The O’Riada is named after Sean O’Riada, a famous Irish musician and composer who died the same year as John Kirk planted his first vines, in 1971. This is the tenth anniversary bottling of this wine, which is made from fruit sourced around Murrumbateman and Hall (the latter on the north edge of Canberra itself). This is a wine with a wild side. The fruit is nice and brambly, but the main event is spice, as in pepper and cloves. A little classic violet on the nose, and a richness for sure, yet also a sense of restraint. Under starter’s orders, so to speak. Pure Syrah, no Viognier, but still a whole bunch ferment and a maceration lasting a month. Young as it was, I took a bottle for my birthday up in Sydney. Not too young, a glorious treat.
Canberra District Shiraz-Viognier 2018 – Tim describes the ripening season in 2018 as “brilliant”. I hate points, but Nick Stock, Aussie Wines contributor on James Suckling’s site, in giving this ninety-nine of them used the word “perfection”. Whole bunches in the fermentation are limited to around 28% this vintage and Viognier is up nearer 6% than the 2% more often seen in other local wines. Other than that we have a gentle oak regime but a wine built on a tannic structure, to last and last. I drank my older bottles, which came from Adnams in Southwold, where I first discovered Clonakilla, but going back I still have one last bottle of 2008. They never taste old.
A brief TN is perhaps in order. Violets, maybe rose petals and spice vie for control of the bouquet. The palate is strong on berry fruit, red and black, but with ripe plum as well. There’s a note of Bovril, yes, definitely not Vegemite, more beefy/savoury. Many people think this wine is often Australia’s finest Shiraz. Plenty are bigging up the 2018 as the best ever vintage, and more than one critic reckons this is Australia’s absolute finest Shiraz of 2018. But give it ten years, double that if you are young enough. A world classic in the making.
After our tasting we decided to take a different route home. The M31 Highway past Goulburn isn’t that interesting, but it got us to a coffee stop at Moss Vale, before we descended Kangaroo Valley towards Nowra, completing a circle. The Valley is rather boastfully described by the regional tourist organisation as “the most beautiful valley in Australia”. I can’t say I’m experienced enough to verify that claim, but as you descend quite fast through the Southern Highlands you swing left to right and back again, continuously, down a steep-sided route of lush rainforest.
You get used to the bush in Australia, gum trees and eucalyptus, pleasant on the eye as the trees habitually let through more light than European forest. The rainforest, not uncommon at all down here, is different. It’s like dense jungle, with local humidity giving the foliage a deep green hue you don’t see in the bush. The trees can shade enormous ferns. The route of the valley follows the Kangaroo River as it tumbles towards Shoalhaven, and a little less than half way down from Moss Vale you will find the famous Fitzroy Falls, a local tourist attraction sadly closed to visitors due to fire risk when we passed.
It was a long day. On my last visit up here we stopped overnight near Lake George, but with the chance to rise early on the farm (if not quite with the cows who head, remarkably quietly so as not disturb the guests, to the milking shed at 4.00am), the trip itself made a nice scenic day out. Visiting Clonakilla was, of course, the icing on the cake.
Clonakilla is at 3 Crisps Lane, Murrumbateman. Access (signposted) is directly off the Bungendore to Murrumbateman road, another good reason to take that route and avoid going around Canberra. There’s a map and full contact details on the Clonakilla web site here.
The cellar door is open to all individual visitors without an appointment, weekdays 11am-4pm, weekends 10am-5pm. A welcome awaits. I don’t believe they charge for tastings, unlike the majority of cellar doors, where a small fee is taken off purchases. Maybe that’s why the sign says “buses by appointment”. But to leave here without at least a bottle or two is inconceivable. If ever there was a need for one of those expensive wine suitcases.