Is this Australia’s most under-rated wine region?
These award-winning wineries are a highlight of any visit to Canberra.
Words by Ute Junker
Slip on your walking shoes before you visit Mount Majura Vineyard. At this bush-fringed winery, they want you to do more than taste the wines: they want you to understand how they are grown. Not only are visitors encouraged to take a walk among the grapevines; the winery has even put together a map that explains what you are seeing and how it affects the wine you will be drinking.
“We are a single site vineyard, using only grapes grown on this site, so what you taste in the glass reflects what you see on the ground. The limestone rock beneath the soil, the fact that the slopes face northeast, these influence what ends up in the glass,” says Mount Majura’s Fergus McGhie. “Taking the walk helps you understand our wines better.”
Little things matter a lot in wine making. Small differences in location, for instance, can lead to big differences in flavour, as a tasting of Mount Majura’s three single-site tempranillo wines proves.
“Each wine is made from grapes grown on a particular site,” McGhie explains. “The sites are only separated by a couple of hundred metres, but you can really taste the difference.”
In the list of Canberra’s top attractions, taste-testing tempranillos may still fall a way behind a visit to Parliament House or the National Gallery. Increasingly, however, wine lovers are cottoning on to the fact that the nation’s capital is one of our most under-rated wine regions.
Fifty years after the first vines were planted, Canberra has built a reputation for wines that can compete with the best in the country. With more than 30 wineries located within half an hour’s drive of the city centre, the biggest challenge is decided where to start.
If you are already in town, you might like to start at Mount Majura Vineyard, one of only two wineries actually located in the ACT; the others lie across the border in NSW. Mount Majura is a favourite destination for those who like trying something new: their range includes unusual Mediterranean varietals such as Graciano and mondeuse, a wine so rare that many wine buffs have never come across it. “It is a very obscure grape from the Savoie region of the French alps,” McGhie says.
If you are driving down to Canberra from the north, you can start your Canberra wine adventure before you even reach town, by stopping in at one of the clutch of wineries that has sprung up around Lake George, north-east of the city.
Stand-outs here include the acclaimed Lark Hill Winery, known for its biodynamic wines and its impressive restaurant, D&K Kitchen, where you dine on ocean trout tartare with gribiche and prawn crackers, or a slow-roasted duck leg with lentils and orange sauce. Ask about their Vintage Verticals, where you can try two different vintages of the same wine to see how the wine changes over time.
Then there is Lerida Estate, a winery that, like Mount Majura, is not afraid to experiment with something different. Head to their distinctive cellar door, designed by Glenn Murcutt, and you will find that their range includes everything from cabernet Franc to pinot grigio to viognier.
“There are lot of savvy wine drinkers interested in trying different things,” says Lerida’s Andrew McFadzean. “Instead of just trying another cabernet sauvignon, for instance, they are excited to try a cabernet franc instead.”
It is clear that the Lerida team also enjoys a challenge. While the winery has won international acclaim – and a clutch of medals – for its pinot noir, McFadzean says that they are increasingly turning their attention to shiraz. Shiraz is one of the Canberra region’s signature wines, so Lerida will be facing plenty of competition – but that’s clearly what they find exciting.
“Making the best pinot noir in Canberra is like representing Australian in the Olympics in table tennis,” McFadzean laughs. “It’s good, but it not the same as being the captain of the Wallabies or the cricket team.”
Canberra’s biggest cluster of wineries is concentrated further west near the town of Murrambateman. This is where you will find perhaps the area’s best-known winery. Clonakilla was one of the area’s first wineries and its much-awarded Shiraz Viognier is considered to be one of Australia’s most collectable wines, along with the likes of Penfold’s Grange Hermitage.
It is no surprise, then, that Clonakilla has one of the area’s most sophisticated cellar doors, housed inside a sleek contemporary building and with a parking lot big enough to fit coaches. The staff, however, are as laidback and friendly as you will find anywhere else.
Part of the charm of the Canberra region is that the wineries are still largely family-owned. While that means that opening hours can be limited – most wineries are only open between Thursday and Monday – the upside is the personal contact you get to experience. Canberra is one of those wine regions where the person pouring your tastings is often either the winemaker themselves or one of their family members.
That’s what happens when I land at Gallagher Wines, a winery that has scored several fistfuls of medals right around the globe. The drive there takes me down a bumpy dirt road; when I find myself in front of a classic country shack, I wonder for a moment whether I’ve taken a wrong turn.
Just as I’m about to throw the car into reverse, however, a tractor comes around the corner. The woman driving it cuts the motor and asks, “Have you come to taste some wine?”
Turns out I am in precisely the right place. The woman on the tractor is Lauren Gallagher, daughter of winemaker Greg Gallagher and a burgeoning winemaker herself, her father later reveals. “She made our sangiovese rose last year,” the elder Gallagher tells me proudly.
Gallagher had already enjoyed a long career as a winemaker before establishing his own vineyard in 1995. He tells me that he searched right across Australia for the right place to make shiraz.
“I did a lot of research to find the right climate, and Canberra just pipped Clare Valley as the best place to make burgundy-style shiraz,” he says. “The climate is just right for that richer, rounder, softer style of shiraz, where you get notes of licorice, olives and cloves alongside the cherries and the plums.”
It’s not just the shiraz that has become an award-winner. Gallagher’s Rieslings and sparkling wines have been just as successful. He makes no fewer than three excellent sparklings, including a creamy blanc de blanc and a sumptuous sparkling shiraz.
While you are here, try one of the cheese-and-wine matchings: the cheeses are made by Greg’s wife, Libby, and include a creamy blue which matches beautifully with the merlot, and a camembert that is perfect paired with a sparkling.
The Gallaghers aren’t the only family making their mark in the region. The Helm family is just as accomplished. Ken Helm was one of the area’s pioneering winemakers, and the first Canberra winemaker to win an award. That 1983 award for Helm Wines’ cabernet sauvignon was the first of many, with Helm building an international reputation for his Rieslings.
Riesling is one of the area’s signature wines. If you’re still stuck on the idea of Riesling as a sweet wine, you will be taken by the crisp, mineral flavours that characterise the local drop. Helm’s Rieslings are a great way to start: try them at his charming cellar door, a 130-year-old schoolhouse now listed by the National Trust that was once, ironically, used for meetings of the Temperance League, a society that campaigned against alcohol.
Helm’s daughter, Stephanie, is also a winemaker. Her father got her interested in winemaking as a child; incredibly, she won her first trophy at the age of 13, nabbing the gong for Best Cabernet Sauvignon at the 1998 Murrambateman Cool Climate Wine Show.
Her winery, Vintner’s Daughter, ha just three hectares of vines, but together with her husband, vigneron Ben Osborne, she produces an impressive range of wines. Along with the Riesling, there is gewürztraminer, merlot, pinot noir and shiraz viognier.
Helm, who still works part-time in government, says that she didn’t want to tackle anything too large. “It was small, so it was perfect for us. I didn’t envisage it becoming bigger than my day job!”
Before you head for home, you might want to swing by the picturesque heritage village of Hall, where Capital Wines has its cellar door. Their Ministry Series of wines has the most entertaining labels in the district. Each wine, named after a political position (The Speaker, The Whip, The Senator and so on), features a quirky cartoon of the character for which they are named. Stop in at the adjoining Kyeema Gallery, which features a rotating selection of exhibitions featuring local artists.