There’s a familiar story you might hear when you travel through the Canberra District wine region and talk to the local grape growers who have done the hard yards here. In 1998, BRL Hardy Limited (now Accolade) received $2 million in government assistance with a view to set up a winery in the Canberra District. They did and called it Kamberra.
It was a boon for those local growers who didn’t have cellar doors at the time and who sold more grapes than they used to make their own wine with. Then in 2006, Hardy pulled out of the region – the old Kamberra winery is now a functions centre – and that left many growers out of a contract, and with a lot of grapes. It was time for them to start making more of their own wine and to build cellar doors from which to sell it.
That’s not to say that region didn’t have its winemaking and cellar door pioneers before this event, in fact one of Australia’s most iconic producers, Clonakilla, has been around since the region’s infancy. The Canberra District is young compared to Australia’s other premier wine regions. Vineyards existed there at the end of the nineteenth century, but they were of no importance.
In 1971, the late Dr Edgar Riek planted vines next to Lake George (the lake that is only sometimes a lake), where Lake George Winery now resides, and this was the catalyst for more grape growers, mainly scientists from the local public service, to start planting elsewhere in the region. John Kirk followed, also in 1971, establishing Clonakilla, then Ken and Judith Helm in 1973 and then in 1978 Lark Hill Winery had its first vines laid down by Sue and Dave Carpenter. The floodgates had opened.
So what were they planting and what were they making? There’s considerable grape diversity in the region due to vastly differing altitudes, ranging from 264 metres to 1,419 metres, and so everything from shiraz, cabernet and chardonnay to pinot noir, riesling and viognier has been grown in the region. Cool climate in style is the name of the game when it comes to riesling and shiraz (there’s a distinct spice that is inherent in the wines of the region), with some producers going so far as to call their wines syrah. More recently, alternative varieties like sangiovese, tempranillo, grüner veltliner and gamay are being grown and the wines being produced are grabbing everyone’s attention.
In 1976 John Kirk of Clonakilla produced the first commercial vintage in the region, but it wasn’t until 1986 that he encouraged his son Jeremy to plant viognier. Five years later, and John’s other son Tim was in the Côte-Rôtie appellation of the northern Rhône of France where the area’s famed shiraz viognier blends captivated his senses. The rest, as they say, is history. Clonakilla’s Shiraz Viognier is now Langton’s Classified Exceptional, the highest tier, an icon of Australian wine, and many producers in the region have followed suit and made a similar blend.
Nowadays, there are close to 40 wineries in the Canberra District wine region, with about 30 or so having cellar doors, and the rest being by appointment. Most are only open between Thursday and Sunday, with probably only a handful open every day of the week, so it’s best to plan your trip for the weekend.
Oddly enough, despite being called the Canberra District, only a few wineries actually sit within the Australian Capital Territory. You can’t buy your own property outright in the ACT, rather you lease it from the government for 99 years, and this was a bit off-putting to a lot of growers, as they wanted to own their vineyards. Of the areas in which they did buy vineyards, the township of Murrumbateman has the highest number, with a smattering around the towns of Yass, Hall, Collector and Bugendore, which makes for an interesting and varied wine drive.
The Canberra District wine region is only a three-hour drive from Sydney, making it the perfect weekend getaway. If you’re choosing to fly in, Canberra has regular flights between most of the state capital cities thanks to it being the nation’s capital, and the Canberra airport has had a rather classy looking upgrade in the last decade. Car hire is an easy option, or there are plenty of winery tour companies, check out visitcanberra.com.au for some ideas.
The other option is to arrive in style in a helicopter. Canberra Helicopters (canberraheli.com.au) now flies to a number of cellar doors in the region, including Shaw Wines, Brindabella Hills, Four Winds Vineyard and Lake George Winery. Not only is it an exhilarating way to travel, but you also get to see all of the gorgeous natural beauty the region has to offer.
Because of the diverse nature of the region, and the multiple towns that it encompasses, there are a number of different areas that you can base yourself in and drive out from. Or if you’re the type who likes variety, why not jump around, experiencing each town and the wineries it has to offer each day.
For this trip I based myself in Yass on the first night and then Murrumbatemen on the second night. In Yass, the place you must try and stay at is The Globe Inn (theglobeinn.com.au), currently under the custodianship of David Small and Greg Miller. It’s a beautiful Georgian building built around the 1840s with five rooms, four of which are on the second floor with ensuite ($175 per night). The fifth is the Mediterranean-inspired Garden Room ($185 per night) with a wood fire and a bath – it’s worth the extra $10 a night! David and Greg’s hospitality was incredibly warm, and they made me feel right at home, and I have to write this in the past tense because they’ve just announced that after seven years they’re selling the Inn. They’ll be leaving big shoes to fill.
In Murrumbateman, the premier accommodation is the new Abode Hotel (abodehotels.com.au) which is ticking all the boxes. Not only is it in the heart of the Canberra District wine region, but it’s stylish and comfortable living and everything is spread out across one single floor, so no stairs or elevators to contend with.
There’s also the hills of Hall, where we’ll actually start our trip on day one, and where there are two great accommodation options. The first is at Surveyors Hill Vineyard (surveyorshill.com.au), which has two spacious self-contained apartments, one with one large bedroom, the other with two queen bedrooms. The second, at Wallaroo Wines (wallaroowines.com.au), is perfect if you’re travelling with a large group of mates – a massive Georgian-style homestead with five bedrooms that all have views of the surrounding vineyards. Wallaroo also makes wine, but there’s no cellar door on the estate, so try and track down their Sparkling Riesling locally; it’s worth a try as there probably aren’t very many producers in Australia that make one.
You can also stay in Canberra at a number of stylish hotels including Ovolo Nishi (ovolohotels.com.au) and Hotel Realm (hotelrealm.com.au), but with only a few wineries in the city’s boundaries, you’re better off staying somewhere a bit more rural.
You could start your trip with day three if you’re driving into the Canberra District wine region from Sydney, the last cellar doors on this itinerary are some of the first you’ll see, but I’ve decided to start further in and make my way back out before driving home.
The first stop is in the hills of Hall at Brindabella Hills (brindabellahills.com.au), which has stunning views over the Murrumbidgee River and the Brindabella Range. The vineyards here were originally planted as an experiment for the CSIRO by Dr Roger Harris and his wife Faye in the ’80s. They retired in 2017 and new owner and ex-builder Michael Anderson came on board with his partner Renae Kilmister, both of whom have taken up the mantle of vineyard and winery owners with gusto. Within six months they had decked out a sleek new cellar door, which is currently under the management of the very attentive and very knowledgeable Cellar Door Manager Aaron.
A two-minute drive down the road and you’ll arrive at the next cellar door, Pankhurst Wines (pankhurstwines.com.au), whose vineyards were also planted in 1986. Allan and Christine Pankhurst have created a lovely little place to relax and unwind, with the chance to try some pretty interesting varieties and styles including an arneis and a sparkling merlot.
If you set yourself up at Surveyors Hill, only a few minutes down the road from Pankhurst, then you probably started here. The wine you have to try is the 2015 Cabernets, a blend of cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc with a little bit of merlot. It’s a surprise because the expectation is that cabernet shouldn’t ripen in an area like this, and that it might taste a bit green, but that is far from the reality. The on-site bistro is open for lunch on weekends and public holidays and has some fantastic views over the rolling hills and vineyards.
Leave Hall now and head on up to Murrumbateman, where your first stop will be Murrumbateman Winery (murrumbatemanwinery.com.au). In 2010, winemaker Bobbie Makin bought this place, which has some of the first shiraz plantings in the region, and he has really made it his own. Settle in for a $5 tasting (redeemable on purchase), no doubt with company from winery dog Mollie, a kelpie/husky mix who even has a wine named after her with proceeds going to the ACT RSPCA.
Eden Road Wines (edenroadwines.com.au) will be your last stop for the day, but being in Murrumbateman, the next cellar door is always only a five-minute drive away should you wish to see more. Winner of Gourmet Traveller WINE’s Best Large Cellar Door in the 2019 Awards, Eden Road is picturesque and pretty – driving up the tree-lined road is a nice way to either start or finish a day of tastings. Cool-climate wine is the vibe here, with some standout syrah, pinot noir and chardonnay made by Gourmet Traveller WINE’s Young Winemaker of the Year in 2002, Celine Rousseau.
Drive on to the town of Yass to check into The Globe Inn. For dinner, the much-lauded Clementine Restaurant (clementinerestaurant.com.au) is just a five-minute walk around the corner. Chef Adam Bantock serves up hearty food by a roaring fireplace in an old weatherboard cottage. After dinner, stop in to Yazzbar (yazzbar.com.au), a very cool, very cosy, welcoming wine bar with live music and loads of different whisky labels. Bar Manager Dan Meehan is pouring a tonne of Canberra wine, so if you can’t make it to a particular cellar door, you’re bound to be able to taste it here.
Leaving the town of Yass now – perhaps you’re even checking out of The Globe Inn like I did with the intention of staying the night in Murrumbateman – head south-east down Yass Valley Way and turn right onto Dog Trap Rd. It’s here that you’ll find the first cellar door for the day, Dog Trap Vineyard (dogtrapvineyard.com.au). Owner and winemaker Dr Dennis Hart, an ex-CSIRO scientist, is one of those grape growers I was talking about before. He supplied Hardy’s Canberra project and then when they left decided to make more of his own wines and open a cellar door. It’s only a small wooden bar, but this visit is really all about the wines. Dennis, I believe, has the largest line-up of red wines in the region, six shirazes going back to 2009, four cabernets back to 2010, a blended red and a wine intended to be mulled (it comes with the most delectable spice ‘tea bag’). This is a chance to see how Canberra District reds can age, and at incredible value – most of the wines are around $20 a bottle.
With your teeth suitably stained, head on over to Long Rail Gully (longrailgully.com.au). The entrance is via an unsealed road, but most cars should be able to manage it, and the bumpy ride is worth it in the end. I think owner and winemaker Richard Parker is making some stellar wines, and has a solid line-up on taste. A super pretty riesling, a delicious pinot gris, a gorgeously dry and moreish rosé, a slurpable gamay (one of only a few in the region), and a solid, cellar-worthy shiraz. Oh, and you’ll be greeted by recent addition Stoli, a Russian blue cat who might try and climb up your legs.
The brand new cellar door over at Shaw Wines (shawwines.com.au) is next on your list, and this is the perfect time to have some lunch at the attached Olleyville (olleyville.com.au) where the wood fire is being skillfully worked by Head Chef Anthony Davis. The new cellar door, which opened in 2018, is a stunning piece of architecture with an awe-inspiring underground cellar. You can book out a private tasting room for groups, hold intimate events in the cellar or just chill in the uber chic and comfortable tasting space.
This is a good time to check in to Abode Murrumbateman as it’s between (somewhat) Shaw Wines and your next destinations.
These next two wineries are right next door to each other, so with a little time left in the day you should be able to make it to both. Clonakilla (clonakilla.com.au) is the most iconic winery in the region, the producer that put Canberra District on the map with its Shiraz Viognier, and our Star Cellar Door for 2019. The wines are a joy to taste through and the bar that you taste them at, made of repurposed wine barrels, is a thing of beauty and a real sight to behold.
Across the way is The Vintner’s Daughter (thevintnersdaughter.com.au), so named because the co-owner and winemaker Stephanie Helm is the daughter of the region’s most-famous riesling producer Ken Helm (who you might meet on your third day). Stephanie’s husband Ben Osborne is the other co-owner and the vigneron. I’ve saved this cellar door for last in the day because just before close at 4pm this is the best place to sit on the deck and just… watch. Watch the sky, watch the vines rustle in the wind, watch life go past with a delicious glass of riesling in hand.
Dinner tonight should be had at Grazing (grazing.com.au) in the old Royal Hotel in Gundaroo. Head Chef and owner Kurt Neumann and his wife Tanya have created a truly exceptional menu for all keen locavores, with the Canberra District and its produce on display. You’ll probably have to loosen your belt, and then it’s back to Abode Murrumbateman.
It’s time to meet (provided he’s at his cellar door) the legendary, the charismatic, the storyteller, Ken Helm at Helm Wines (helmwines.com.au). There’s no rosé here (“Rosé is a cellarhand’s mistake,” Ken tells me), just a stunning line-up of rieslings (“Rieslings are made in the vineyard.”), and a cabernet for good measure (“To be a great cabernet maker you must always remember it’s illegal to sell babies.”), available to taste in a 100-year-old school hall. You won’t want to leave this place, our Best Small Cellar Door for 2019. Ken, who has just finished his 42nd vintage, has a story for everything and is as captivating a speaker as he is a winemaker.
But, leave you must, and Yarrh Wines (yarrhwines.com.au) is next on your list, and not too far from Helm. Yes, Yarrh, like what a pirate might say, but I’m sure they’ve heard it many times at the cellar door, so maybe save that joke for yourself – yarrh is the local Ngunnawal word for ‘running water’. Owners and partners Fiona Wholohan (winemaker) and Neil McGregor (vineyard manager) left their jobs in IT to create their winery and cellar door, a building that seamlessly blends into its environment. The experimental label Mr Natural was a must-buy for me, and worth tasting with a delicious food-and-wine-matching platter.
From here, you’re going to start heading back to Sydney, making your way to the Federal Highway. Two cellar doors, only a minute’s drive between them, are nestled amongst the mountains overlooking Lake George, and either one would be a great stop for lunch. Lerida Estate (leridaestate.com.au) is one of the most refined cellar doors in the region, right down to the stylish Gabriel Glas glassware that they serve the wine in. There’s a great selection of food, a beautiful terrace overlooking the vineyard and even a place to play bocce (boules/pétanque).
Next door, Lake George Winery (lakegeorgewinery.com.au) is serving up pizzas and winter warmers courtesy of Chef Monica Hunt, and is well deserving of our Best Cellar Door with Food for 2019. This is where Dr Edgar Riek laid down his history-changing vineyards. As of 2018, it’s now owned by Sarah and Anthony McDougall, who had been cultivating their Summerhill Road label out of nearby Bywong for six years. Sarah’s enthusiasm for the history and provenance of the wines and vines is infectious, and the pair have really excelled in making this a must-visit destination in the region.
Your final stop on the way home is in the beautiful little town of Collector, just off the highway. Collector Wines (collectorwines.com.au) shares its charming building (built around 1829) with Some Cafe (facebook.com/somecafecollector). Owner and Winemaker Alex McKay was a finalist for our Young Winemaker of the Year in 2010 and is producing fantastic shiraz and chardonnay.
Grab a coffee for the road at the cafe, it’s a three-hour drive back to Sydney, and if you’ve missed any cellar doors that you really wanted to visit, don’t worry, you’ll be back.
The Makers of Murrumbateman is a collection of 25 producers, and one hotel, and includes quite a few of Canberra District wineries, but also a number of other quirky and must-see outfits. This includes Win’s Creek Meadery (bindaree.com.au), a mead producer (alcohol made from honey) that also deals in a number of other bee-related products, from pots of local honey, to artworks made of beeswax, eco-friendly beeswax wraps or delicious baklava. The mead, however, is eye-opening – incredibly complex and delicious elixirs that are worth seeking out. Owners Michael (another ex-CSIRO scientist) and Maryanne Devey have created something very special in the old Travellers Rest Inn (built around 1879). The other producer of note is One Tree Hill Alpaca Farm (onetreehillalpacas.com.au), run by the affable Angela Smith and her husband Matthew. With the chance to feed and pet alpacas, it’s particularly good if you’ve got children that are bored with your cellar door escapades.
2018 Brindabella Hills Riesling, A$26
Lemon and lime aromas jump out of the glass, with green apple on the palate and a lemon zest acidity that cleanses and refreshes.
2018 Clonakilla Ceoltoiri, A$36
On a journalist’s wage, I’m not going to be coming home with a case of Shiraz Viognier (A$120 a bottle). Instead, I kept coming back to this as it’s seriously good value. Pronounced keel-toy-ree, it’s a blend of grenache, mourvèdre, shiraz, cinsaut, counoise and roussanne. Vibrant and bright spiced red fruit aromas, with lovely caramel and vanilla on the palate.
2012 Dog Trap Vineyard Shiraz, A$20
This has a fatty meatiness to the nose with some leather notes. It’s got great spice and a vibrant acidity that overlay soft, smooth and well-developed tannins. It’s very easy drinking.
2018 Helm Premium Riesling, A$58
This is only made when the vineyards produce outstanding commercial quantities of fruit. The 2018 has gorgeous floral notes on the nose and a zingy and zesty palate that goes on and on and on.
2017 Lake George Winery Tempranillo, A$35
Bitter black cherry and plum notes on the nose. The flavours redolent of vanilla and plum, with a whack of juicy spiced red fruits backed up by integrated oak on the finish.
2018 Lerida Estate Red Field Blend, A$20
A blend of 60% merlot, 30% cabernet franc and 10% shiraz. It displays dark red fruits, a bit of smoky, meaty charcuterie and violets on the nose. It’s smashable with spiced red and black fruit flavours, with the plushness of the merlot bringing balance. Nice grippy tannins.
2018 Long Rail Gully Pinot Gris, A$22
Delicate aromas of shortbread cream biscuits lead in to a palate of apricot and citrus flavours. A great textural food wine.
2018 Murrumbateman Winery Shiraz Rosé, A$30
Spent 24 hours on skins and five months in old oak. Strawberry and Ribena aromas and flavours that aren’t too sweet or cloying as they’re held in check by a distinct Canberra spice from the shiraz. More of a light red than a rosé, but delicious nonetheless.
2018 Summerhill Road Sauvignon Blanc, A$22
Made by the region’s superstar contract winemaker Nick O’Leary, this has aromas of green apple, passionfruit and lemon peel. The palate is delicate and pretty showing green apple, lemon and lime flavours.
2015 Surveyors Hill Vineyard Cabernets, A$30
A surprising cabernet, not showing any of the characteristic cool-climate underripeness, but rather Ribena and blackcurrant aromas with intense ripe black fruits on the palate and chewy tannins.
2017 The Vintner’s Daughter Shiraz Viognier, A$55
A judicious whack of distinct Canberra pepper on the nose along with heady spiced aromas, and black plum and pepper flavours.
2018 Yarrh Wines Mr Natural Sauvignon Blanc, A$25
Made with minimal intervention. Fermented and macerated on skins for up to 10 weeks. It smells like a fino Sherry, with a bit of stalkiness. Its clean and juicy palate has tiny flecks of honey and almond skin.