Bucolic sights, like Dalrymple Vineyards, await wine tourists.

I chose the coldest day in the year to taste my way through the Canberra District. Luckily first up, I picked one of the warmest hosts, Bryan Martin at his Murrumbateman Ravensworth Wines (ravensworthwines.com.au), who offered me one of his overcoats. The tastings here are by appointment in the expansive barrel room. Apart from the chill, there is much on offer. 

Martin makes wines that get noticed – textural, funky and brimming with personality; cue Martin’s Esoteric range, which, according to him is, “Anything that tickles my fancy.” On this occasion, we try the Tumbarumba gamay: full of savoury ripeness from its carbonic maceration (being fermented under a layer of carbon dioxide). Next is The Tinto, a juicy, heady blend of, “the three big boys from Spain”, garnacha, tempranillo and graciano, says Martin. Picasso, Dalí and Miró in a glass. 

Then there’s The Tinderry, a beguiling blend of cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc. But it works, it charms. These varieties have grown together for eons in Bordeaux, both revered ancestors of the noble cab sauvignon. The result is a revelation, a herbaceous, fragrant light red that shouts summer. And today, I’m longing for that warmth. Located in the heart of Murrumbateman about 40km north of Canberra, Martin’s 3ha grape farm, first planted in 1998, is run sustainably: no chemicals, no heavy equipment, ploughing and layering the soil with biochar made on-site from grape marc and the like. The goal? “Basically to get the land back to what it was before we came and stuffed it up.” 

As we walk and talk among the oak foudres, ceramic eggs, Italian clay amphorae and hulking concrete menhirs, Martin thieves some of The Grainery from barrel. This tri-field blend reveals the viognier and roussanne’s purity and texture, coupled with the marsanne’s ribald notes. Martin concludes by sneaking a peek at the Seven Months. Skin-fermented in Italian concrete, it’s an hedonistic savoury-spice pinot gris-gewürztraminer-riesling blend. Complex and layered, it demands an umami-laden dish. 

Rotherwood Farm.

Returning to reality – and the overcoat to Martin – I tell him I’m headed to Clonakilla (clonakilla.com.au), his former stomping ground, where he honed his craft as Tim Kirk’s winemaker-in-crime. It’s only a few kilometres down the road, Martin is gesturing in the distance. The grape doesn’t fall too far in Murrumbateman. Although the Canberra District had vineyards planted by pastoral pioneers in the 1820s in the Yass-Gunning region, commercial vineyards only really got going in the 1970s, thanks to a few CSIRO alumni with a passion for wines and viticulture. 

One of those was Ken Helm who planted his first vines in 1973 at his Nanima Creek Vineyard, now Helm Wines (helmwines.com.au). Even after nearly 40 years, Helm’s wines are at the top of their game. He sneaked me a taste of his 2002 Classic Cabernet Sauvignon. Age does not tire this poised expression of a cooler vintaged cabernet. Helm recalls wise words from palate-master Len Evans who regarded Helm in his early days as a “brash, young smart alec”. Evans commended: “Always look for the best and don’t be afraid to experiment.” Notwithstanding his CSIRO background, Helm sees his winemaking as art, rather than science. One of his favourite “experiments” involved taking some of Dr Riek’s pinot fruit from the Mount Majura Vineyard’s 2005 vintage as they were transitioning over to tempranillo. The result was a one-off but a special drop that Helm remembers to this day. And even now he is experimenting, planning for a very special release in 2023 to celebrate Helm Wines’ 50th anniversary. 

Last year, Clonakilla celebrated 50 years since Dr John Kirk and his family planted their first vines in 1971 on the lower lying areas at present-day Clonakilla. Dr Kirk was the first Canberra vigneron to sell wines commercially, in 1976, with his blends of riesling-sauvignon blanc and cabernet-shiraz. In the following year, Helm was the first to win a wine show award, first prize for his 1977 Helm Riesling. The Canberra District was on the wine map – and on its way. 

Ravensworth’s Bryan Martin makes wines that get noticed.

And now I’m on my way to a Clonakilla tasting. All the usual suspects are here, not least the flagship Shiraz-Viognier. This dynamic duo started in the mid-1980s when, at the urging of his son Jeremy, Dr Kirk planted some cuttings of viognier. Soon enough this piqued the interest of his other son Tim, who acquired a passion for the classic Côte-Rôtie blend. Tim decided to add some viognier to their shiraz and a star was born. To this day, he still remembers the 1990 Jaboulet La Chapelle Hermitage as one of the great wines of his life. Of course the fact that 1990 was his wedding year is surely a mere coincidence – but an undoubted bonus.

On this day, we settle in among a string of the latest releases, all impeccably crafted with lots of local character. We conclude with a barrel tasting of the various immaculate 2021 shiraz-viognier and syrah parcels laying in wait. But the unexpected highlight is the last stop, the 2021 Abel Clone Pinot Noir. Originally propagated in New Zealand, the clone was rumoured to have come from cuttings taken in the 1970s from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Apart from the Abel clone, Clonakilla’s pinot vines on this T&L block comprise clones 115, 667, 777, Pommard and an unidentified clone planted by Dr Kirk back in 1978.

Tim is quietly excited about his forthcoming 2021 pinot release. 

“It’s really something; watch this space,” he says. He’s conquered shiraz, but he is on mission. “Like almost every other winemaker on the planet, I would love to produce a truly great pinot noir one day.” If the 2021 barrel sample is any indication, he is on his way. 

Stephanie Helm from The Vintner’s Daughter.

Tim Kirk’s neighbour Stephanie Helm is another who is passionate about making great pinot. Helm and husband Ben Osborne have gone out on their own with The Vintner’s Daughter (thevintnersdaughter.com.au). After purchasing their site in 2014, the couple have painstakingly reinvigorated some of the original vines (mostly riesling) and grafted over others, mainly to pinot noir. Although early days, the results sit comfortably between promising and outstanding. As Helm notes, “We don’t make wines for the critics or shows; we make wine for people.”

In a cosy tasting room looking back across the vineyard, we sample a pleasurable array of whites – the Estate Riesling notably – while the reds are on-song and classically Canberra. But it’s their pinots that are intriguing. Less in the delicate, perfumed Volnay style, more in the rounder, powerful Pommard style. 

Up the hill overlooking The Vintner’s Daughter is a boutique family enterprise, Wimbaliri (wimbaliri.com.au). Wife-husband team Sarah and Scott Gledhill take a simple, minimalist approach, with handpicked fruit from sustainable, single, closely planted plots. Tastings are conducted by appointment only in a modestly appointed shed, but a charming setting, with latest releases on show: shiraz, shiraz-viognier, cabernet-merlot. 

Mary McAvoy and Dave Faulks of Tallagandra Hill.

Another duet on a mission is Dave Faulks and Mary McAvoy at Tallagandra Hill (tallagandrahill.com.au). Their mission is to “match wine with mood”. The personal touch is king here: handmade wines that are shared in small groups by appointment only at their welcoming cellar door and accompanied by a story. The couple prefer that the story starts, with a poured glass in hand, in the vineyard itself, to better appreciate the soils – and toils - behind the spoils. The tasting flows through a flavour-packed range, such as the vibrant cumquat-citrus 2021 The Prodigal Daughter Vermentino, the floral, delicate 2021 The Sassy Redhead Cabernet Franc or the powerful, brooding 2019 The Great Ron Shiraz (named in memory of Faulks’ beloved father). If you are looking to pull up stumps here at Tallagandra Hill, there are three charming cottages to rest your head. 

Lark Hill.

Otherwise, Bungendore awaits, about 40km further to the south-east. This historic town was first touted as a potential place for Australia’s capital city, given its proximity to Lake George. What might have been.

One of the early vineyards in the Bungendore region was Lark Hill (larkhill.wine), planted in 1978, by Sue and Dave Carpenter. It is the highest vineyard in the Canberra District at around 860m atop the Bungendore escarpment. Most vintages receive a cover of snow each winter. 

Given the altitude and exacting climate, it is pinot noir that next-generation winemaker, Chris Carpenter believes shines above all other reds. “It’s been the hero mid-weight red variety since 1984 … a more interesting and higher quality variety,” he says.

Lark Hill.

The next adventure is exploring some Italian varieties – garganega, falanghina and teroldego – alongside his modern Brunello sangiovese clone.

Bungendore is also home to two other wineries worth a visit, both by appointment only. Next door to Lark Hill is Enotria Wines (enotria.com.au), run by Helga and Frank Piscioneri. Enjoy a patio tasting with Dr Frank – likely to include a blanc de noir sparkling, a pinot noir and a cabernet franc – as you take in sweeping spectacular views down to the valley basin below. 

In the Bungendore township, Carla Rodeghiero, owner and co-winemaker with Malcolm Burdett, hosts Sapling Yard’s eclectic range of wines (saplingyard.com.au). The highlights are two taut, fresh citrus rieslings, one sourced from Rodeghiero’s Braidwood vineyard and the other from the Lake George region .

It’s this historic Lake George region that is home to two vineyards – Eden Road Wines’ Cullarin Vineyard (edenroadwines.com.au) and the Lake George Winery (lakegeorgewinery.com.au) – that have both had a renaissance.

Eden Road’s acclaimed Paris-born Bordeaux-trained winemaker Celine Rousseau has revived the Cullarin plot that was first planted in 1971 by the Canberra legend, the late Dr Edgar Riek, with the first half-acre on the shores of Lake George. Eden Road’s Murrumbateman vineyards, which are just up the hill from Clonakilla, produce quality sauvignon blanc, riesling, syrah and malbec under Rousseau’s self-assured watch. 

But it’s her pinot with panache and her syrah with style under the Cullarin Block 71 label that are worth seeking out: wondrous fruit-driven, savoury complexity. A great homage to Dr Riek and his pioneering vision. 

In a similar vein next door, Lake George Winery owners Sarah and Anthony McDougall are creating a fine range: the fresh lemon-limed 2021 Riesling, the delicate, cherried 2019 Pinot Noir and the spiced forest-fruit 2019 Shiraz. Notwithstanding a series of ownership and name changes over the years, the one constant was its connection to its neighbour, Dr Riek. Sarah has just released a special shiraz-muscat fortified in his honour – Edgar’s Press – which includes a good dollop of aged muscat sourced from the late doctor’s private barrels. 

Tallagandra Hill.

And the good doctor had a hand in another Canberra icon winery, Mount Majura (mountmajura.com.au). Along with then owner Dinny Killen, he planted the first hectare on the east-facing limestone-volcanic slopes back in 1988. If you are only in transit or without time to go exploring the Canberra wine District, do not pass up visiting Mount Majura, the only winery within the actual ACT limits. Less than 15 minutes from the airport, even on a slow day, it is a great tasting experience and the wines are impeccable. 

Chief winemaker Frank van de Loo is producing a quality collection, led by the flagship tempranillo range, including three distinctive single site expressions Rock Block, Little Dam and the crowd favourite, Dry Spur. Do not pass up van de Loo’s amuse-bouche, a sparkling pinot chardonnay, The Silurian, with its crisp, zesty citrus notes dressed in layers of intensity. The 2021 vintage releases see a string of recently planted varieties that van de Loo is excited about, with good reason. The complex and flavoursome trio of graciano, touriga and mondeuse further showcase the depth and character of the Mount Majura wines – and his artistry. 

Lake George Winery's Sarah and Anthony McDougall.

When you think of the Canberra District wine region, you may have thought of Clonakilla and shiraz-viognier or Helm and riesling. Think again. While these are among the undoubted stars of the region, the diverse variations in terroir lends itself to an amazing dreamcoat of varieties and styles that are producing some stunning results, but still with plenty of upside and surprises in store. 

As Bryan Martin muses: “Canberra is a pretty neat place to grow grapes, hang out and freeze ya butts off.”

So when you visit here, bring an open mind. And maybe a coat. 

Ben Osborne from The Vintner’s Daughter.

Wines to spill & chill 

2019 Ravensworth Estate Shiraz Viognier, A$45
Concentrated, luscious berry fruit with the Canberra-syrah soft spice.

2019 Clonakilla Murrumbateman Syrah, A$110
Alluring spiced cherry-berry flavours layered with soft, silky tannins.

2021 Helm Wines Classic Dry Riesling, A$38
Delicate, taut, intense, flinty. Cellar with confidence - and pleasure.

2019 The Vintner’s Daughter Pinot Noir, A$35
Perfumed but power-packed dark cherry, with an earthy-toned finale.

2018 Wimbaliri Close Planted Pinot Noir, A$40
Kirsch-berry with savoury, rustic notes and a soft amaro finish.

2018 Tallagandra Hill The Favourite Son Tempranillo, A$30
Velvet, savoury rose-cassis with underground Baci-cacao notes.

2021 Lark Hill Dark Horse Vineyard Sangiovese, A$30 
Red-blue hue with vibrant red currant-raspberry flavours that linger longer. 

2021 Sapling Yard Lake George Riesling, A$27 
Crisp citrus-lime, intense with a zestful twist.

2019 Eden Road Cullarin Block 71 Syrah, A$55
Savoury, earthy spiced plum-berry fruit – flavour-packed.

Lake George Winery Edgar’s Press Fortified, A$40 (375ml)
Dark ruby-robed, treacle-like sweet-savoury bomb.

2019 Mount Majura Dry Spur Tempranillo, A$73 
Sumptuous, intense fruit with savoury, slight gravelly notes.