Can Canberra’s vineyards give the Barossa a run for its money? The young talents putting down roots in the capital certainly think so.
Stephanie Helm scored her first winemaking prize at the age of 13, nabbing the gong for her 1998 cabernet sauvignon at the Murrumbateman Cool Climate Wine Show (now the Australian Cool Climate Wine Show). Although other awards followed, Stephanie walked away from winemaking before she even reached legal drinking age. “I was a teenager, I didn’t want the attention,” she says. “I just wanted to fade into the background.”
That’s how it goes when you’re born into a winemaking family. As the daughter of Ken and Judith Helm – the founders of Helm Wines, one of Canberra’s most renowned labels – Stephanie literally grew up in the vineyards. She was given her first barrel at age nine but when she left school she decided against a career as a winemaker, instead studying arts and law before joining the public service.
Now 32, Stephanie is back in the barrel room. In 2014, she and her husband, vigneron Ben Osborne, bought a three-hectare parcel of vines next door to the prestigious Clonakilla winery, about 40 kilometres north of Canberra, and launched The Vintner’s Daughter (thevintners daughter.com.au). On weekends, the cellar door is open to visitors keen to sample her impressive wines: riesling, gewürztraminer, merlot, pinot noir and shiraz viognier.
“It was small so it was perfect for us,” says Stephanie, who still works in a government job four days a week. “We knew we could manage it ourselves – the first year, we even did the pruning.”
She’s just one of the innovative talents putting Canberra’s wines in the spotlight. In the 40 years since vines were planted in significant numbers, the likes of Clonakilla (clonakilla.com.au) and biodynamic pioneer Lark Hill Winery (larkhill.wine) have built global reputations. The former’s shiraz viognier is one of 21 Australian fine wines classified Exceptional by Langton’s wine brokers. And both wineries have received the top award – five stars – in the industry bible, Halliday Wine Companion (Lark Hill is currently rated 4.5 stars).
Among the rolling vineyards, a new generation of winemakers is taking the lead. Some, such as Stephanie, Tim Kirk at Clonakilla and Chris Carpenter at Lark Hill, were born into the business. Others, such as Jeremy Wilson at Contentious Character, are newcomers. All of them, however, are keen to see Canberra become a wine region that’s as celebrated as Margaret River and the Barossa Valley.
Many visitors are surprised by just how many wineries there are around the nation’s capital. The Canberra district has 30-odd cellar doors; although many of the vineyards are actually located in NSW, most are within half an hour’s drive of the city centre.
For a wine-drenched long weekend, make your way to Murrumbateman, north-west of Canberra, where the largest number of wineries is grouped; other clusters are located around Lake George (to the north-east of the city) and near the village of Hall (at the northern tip of the ACT). There are a number of tour operators, including Canberra Winery Tours (canberrawinerytours.com), so you don’t have to do the driving yourself.
You’ll soon discover that many of the vineyards are hidden in plain sight. Unlike other wine regions, where the roads are lined with rows of grapevines, the vines here tend to be concealed by the area’s classic bushscape. Given that most wineries are on small parcels of land, you may not catch a glimpse of the grapes until you reach the driveway.
Thanks to its cool climate, Canberra is known for its excellent shiraz and riesling. But each area has its own conditions: the higher-altitude Lake George wineries have cooler air and different soils, for instance, to those at Murrumbateman. Winemakers are beginning to experiment with varietals suited to their specific terroir, with Spanish tempranillo being grown at Mount Majura Vineyard (mountmajura.com.au) and Austrian grüner veltliner being produced at Lark Hill.
“The new generation is much more creative and more interested in experimenting,” says Andrew McFadzean, operations manager at Lerida Estate (leridaestate.com.au). He’s part of the team that took over the winery in March last year. With his boss, Michael McRoberts – both have a background in financial services rather than winemaking – he’s been working with the estate’s long-time winemaker, Malcolm Burdett, to launch a handful of new wines. Their premium Cullerin series features a chardonnay, syrah, pinot noir and a rather unusual rosé.
“Our Lerida Estate rosé sold out in mid-January last year so obviously we made more of it,” says Andrew, as he pours a light rosé designed for easy summer drinking. “However, we wanted to do something a bit more interesting, too,” he adds, reaching for another bottle. This drop, from the Cullerin series, is a darker ruby colour and turns out to be a bone-dry, savoury wine. “It’s a barrel- aged saignée rosé,” he explains, “for those who like something a bit meaner.”
The wine isn’t the only thing worth savouring. Sit outside at the cellar door, a low-slung building designed by Glenn Murcutt, for one of the region’s best views, a panorama that stretches right across Lake George. If Andrew has his way, it will become one of the area’s most popular coffee stops. To that end, the opening hours have been extended. While most of Canberra’s cellar doors only open on weekends (although some extend that to Thursdays and Fridays), Lerida Estate operates from 10am to 5pm, seven days a week, for coffee and light meals, as well as wine-tasting.
“We have plenty of room so we’re not interested in turning over tables,” says Andrew. “Have a coffee, let the kids run around – we’re happy with that.”
The cellar door at Lerida Estate is one of the most stylish in the area. In contrast to high-profile wine regions, most of Canberra’s wineries don’t cater for large numbers of visitors and you’ll often find the counters manned by the winemaker or a family member. Even at Gallagher Wines (gallagherwines.com.au), which recently beat 500 drops from around the world to win the International Riesling Challenge, tastings are held in a simple shed. And don’t be surprised if winemaker Greg Gallagher’s daughter, Lauren, hops off the tractor to pour your wines.
The best option for a light, seasonal lunch is the elegant hilltop dining room at Lark Hill – try the watermelon, haloumi and mint salad. There’s also the restaurant at the Contentious Character winery (contentiouscharacter.com.au), where the aroma of wood-roasted chicken will get your mouth watering. Chef Tom Stoneham works the estate’s wines into his dishes, from lamb braised in shiraz to rosé sorbet. “Most restaurants buy wine to match their food; here, we can design food to match our wine,” says co-owner Tony Mansfield.
Before you leave...
Enjoy a boozy brunch
Whether you like your breakfast with a side of kale or housecured and smoked bacon, you’ll be satisfied with the brunch menu at Contentious Character (contentiouscharacter.com.au). It also serves coffee and a choice of bubbles – sparkling blush or sparkling merlot.
Get stuck into it
At harvest time (usually in March or April), you can live out your winemaker fantasies with Jeir Creek’s Our Little Piece of Burgundy program (jeircreek wines.com.au). Not only will you help pick the fruit, you’ll also press it the old-fashioned way – with your feet.
When it comes to pairing food and drinks, the people at Capital Wines (capitalwines.com.au), know what they’re doing. Book one of the epicurean tastings – four wines matched with four small plates – and you’ll see what we mean.
Spot the difference
Settle in for Lark Hill Winery’s Vintage Vertical lunch (larkhill.wine). You’ll taste two vintages of riesling, pinot noir or shiraz viognier to see how the wines change over time.
Put your boots on
Experience the art of grape growing with Mount Majura Vineyard’s self-guided Gumboot Tour (mountmajura.com.au). As you follow the trail, you’ll learn which grapes are planted where and why.
Encounter a legend
Industry experts will tell you the shiraz viognier at Clonakilla (clonakilla.com.au) is one of Australia’s best drops. You can taste it at the winery’s welcoming cellar door.
At Gallagher Wines (gallagher wines.com.au), they have it sorted: Greg Gallagher makes the award-winning vino while his wife, Libby, makes the cheese. Naturally, you’ll want to opt for the wine-and-cheese tasting.
Pull up a seat
For the best selection of local drops, head to Yass’s cosy wine bar, Yazzbar (yazzbar.com.au). Hosts Penny Carlisle and Harvey Walsh have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the area’s wines and will help you find one to match your mood.
Don’t head home without trying the unusual PinkIce dessert wine at Granitevale Estate (granitevaleestate. com.au). It’s made in the ice- wine style, using sangiovese and sauvignon blanc fruit.
Dig for black gold
It doesn’t get more decadent than this: a truffle hunt followed by a truffle dégustation lunch with local wines at The Truffle Farm (thetrufflefarm.com.au). Sadly, you can only enjoy this treat in truffle season (June to August) but that makes it all the more special.