Canberra District Wine Industry Association: www.canberrawines.com.au
Wine is Canberra's third largest industry after administration and pornography. Canberra is the hub of the Southern NSW highlands wine industry that also includes the Hilltops, Gundagai and Tumbarumba regions. Canberra's thirsty public servants and parliamentary staffers are creating a similar boutique winery phenomenon to that which has occurred in surrounds of Melbourne, Perth Hobart and Adelaide.
The first vineyard in the region was planted by Dr. Benjamin Clayton in the 1830s near Yass. He and his wife were cultivating many varieties in the 1840s. Their efforts were abandoned after two attacks by a notorious local bushranger.
Then in 1853, Cambridge educated magistrate, John Hardy, planted vines at Hardwick, near Yass. He died before the vines matured but his wife persevered. But over the next fifty years the family's winery battled competition from the southern states. In the 1870s there were 12 vineyards in the Yass region. Prolonged periods of drought, the 1893 Depression and then, the lifting of State trade barriers after Federation finally defeated the Hardy family and other Yass wine-makers. The last remaining winery, Ainsbury, closed in 1908.
It was not until the post World War II expansion of Canberra's population that a significant potential local wine market opened up. The first known wine to be made in the ACT itself was by Clem Fomer, an Italian immigrant who arrived on the same boat as the founder of De Bortoli wine empire. The wine was made for famliy and friends until the 1950s when the ACT Government began shortening land leases.
Serious wine-making only began here in the early 1970s with Clonakilla and Helm at Murrumbateman on the NSW side of the border. The opportunity to purchase freehold land relatively close to Canberra and improved viticulture techniques put the local industry on a more viable basis.
It is now one of Australia's rapidly expanding wine districts. Only three wineries (Kamberra, Mount Majura and Pialligo Estate) were actually located in the ACT due to the difficulties in obtaining long term land leases. Hardys made a big commitment to the region through the establishment in 2000 of Kamberra, a 2000 tonne winery with 250 ha of vineyard in the northern Canberra suburb of Lyneham (which it has recently sold). Eden Road is now based in the Kamberra complex. Pialligo Estate will shut down from Sept 2010 while the site is re-developed by new owners but future plans do include wine-making.
There are about 35 wineries/vineyards spread over three main areas in adjoining parts of NSW: Murrumbateman/Yass, Bungendore/Lake George and Hall.
All vineyards lie between 500-900 metres above sea level. They are planted mainly with the noble grape varieties including Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Riesling. Cabernet-Merlot blends are becoming an increasingly popular style.
Clonakilla puts out one of Australia's most sought after Viogniers. There is a small amount of Sangiovese with Pialligo Estateput out the first commercial release of the variety grown in the district. Mount Majura is also using Tempranillo and Graciano. New outfit Eden Road have a tight, barrel fermented Viognier.
There is still probably a lot of room for trying to experiment with finding the right terroir, as the region (while located at a high altitude) has diverse micro-climates arising from the local impact of the high mountains. Site selection is vital but all sites will have elements of both warm climate and cool climate regions.
The sub-zero overnight temperatures and spring frosts can create serious challenges in areas where there is little airflow. The hot summers and limited irrigation water will limit large scale wine production. As many of the locals will attest the quality of the local wine in the past has been frankly inconsistent. This in part reflects the complex terroir but also a shortage of experienced qualified winemakers. There also have been some finishing problems from some of the smaller producers with oxidation.
The quality is becoming higher and more consistent with more winemakers having completed winemaking (rather than medical) degrees.
The better wineries are now finding a niche in the Sydney and Melbourne markets - Clonakilla's superb Rhone-style Shiraz Viognier is now one of Australia's most sought-after reds, unfortunately with a corresponding high price due to the small scale production.
Shiraz is the most consistent red wine performer, typically showing cool climate spice and pepper but sometimes can be quite opulent in the warmer spots. The recent spate of hot, dry autumns has pushed up the opulence level. Cabernets tend to be a bit leafy and so are often blended with Merlot or are framed with lots of sweet chocolate oaking. Pinot Noir, can succeed here, and develop forest floor complexity, but usually only in the cooler vintages (2002 was the last classic Pinot year from here).
While there is plenty of Chardonnay the best of the dry whites are the crisp Rieslings and Sauvignon Blancs from the cooler vintages. Mount Majura produce a lovely elegant stonefruit and fig flavoured Chardonnay with matchstick flintiness. There also are a few decent botrytis sweeties such as the Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon sticky from Jeir Creek.
The Canberra District has its own cork forest, Glenoch Cork Oak Plantation. The trees Quercus subus, were planted during World War I, a move instigated by the American architect and town planner Walter Burley Griffin. Ken Helm of Helm Wines, one of the district's pioneers, revitalised the plantation in the 1970s and has been supplying cork for a number of wines produced in the district although the twist top Stelvin closure is becoming more popular. I'm not sure how the cork forest fared in the huge 2005 bushfires.