How the obsession began…

The Barossa Valley is a magical place where wine obsessions are formed, nurtured and cherished. Mine was anyway.

I look back on this story fondly, as it was the destination for my first ever wine-centric holiday back in early 2012 and after countless tastings and unforgettable experiences, it will forever hold a special place in my heart.

I was an absolute nobody (still am) who did little more than reach out to a collection of wineries/winemakers (some big, some small) and express an interest in a little more than simply holding out a glass at the cellar door and guzzling free booze. I asked if it would be possible to hear the stories, meet the characters, understand the history and get a brief insight into plans for the future.

What followed was completely unexpected, totally blew my mind and is testament to the generosity of the people who make the Barossa such a beautiful place.

I learnt very quickly that the Barossa’s wine community is extraordinarily warm towards newcomers (and subsequently most other regions too). There is very little (if any) pomp or ceremony, just a friendly collective of glorified grape farmers battling away as the current custodians of their own piece of dirt, hoping to stay true to the history and traditions of the labels they represent. It’s welcoming and collaborative, a place to share ideas and to help a mate out. The landscape is absolutely beautiful too, but it’s the people who make the place in my humble opinion.

It would be hard to describe all of the wonderful gestures that were extended to me during my four days in South Australia. But the absolute highlights were being offered the Elderton private cottage to stay in which is normally reserved for travelling critics/journos, Todd Rowett (of Te Aro fame) and his lovely wife putting on a picnic on the porch of their family home. Having all the wine I’d purchased sent home in one bulk lot at the end of the trip by Vanessa Seppelt at Murray St Vineyards, cracking open cold beers at the end of a long day with tired winery staff at Kellermeister and being driven out into the vines to sample the wines from specific rows/blocks and seeing exactly where the fruit was grown and cared for with the boys from Chateau Tanunda.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the museum release, back vintage, award winning and hard to find wines that were opened specifically for me to try in their company.

It is the characters behind these experiences who shaped my love for the Barossa and the wine industry in general. I will remain forever grateful to them for taking time (in some instances many hours) out of their very busy days to show an interested punter around.

Not one of the wineries I visited put any pressure on me to buy their wines. At some I did and others I didn’t. I have, however, made purchases from every single one of them since I returned – both out of respect for the people and the generosity they extended to me, but also because the wines were so bloody good! And every time I open one the experiences come flooding back.

It is these memories which also cemented in my mind that no matter how much you decide to, or can afford to, spend on wine (the good, bad or indifferent stuff), it is the people you choose to share it with, the location or occasion, the laughs and good times and the memories that make wine special. It is after all a drink made from fruit. Nothing more, nothing less.

But there is, however, so much more to the Barossa than simply the wine. Any stretch of time spent in the valley must include a visit to the Farmers Market at Angaston on a Saturday morning to sample the world famous Bacon & Egg rolls, The Barossa Valley Cheese Co at Angaston, Maggie Beer’s Farm Shop in Nurioopta (Nuri to the locals) and one of the finest evening meals I’ve ever had at FermentAsian in Tanunda that was the equal of any of Melbourne’s ‘on trend’ restaurants.

I will never forget my first Barossa experience. Next time you are at a cellar door, anywhere in Australia, be sure to ask questions, take an interest in their wine and the story behind it. You might be surprised how willing the teams are to share their wisdom and you never know what you might find out…

“Canberra – the story behind the wines”

During a recent dinner party, the conversation moved as it normally does to the wines on the table. Who liked what, where each dinner guests’ favourites were from, the styles and varietals people preferred over others, which food matches which style and how much one tends to spend on a bottle. You know, regular dinner table wine banter. Most guests said they tried to spend less than $30 wherever possible, due to budgetary constraints and a lack of in-depth understanding of the wines available in the market.

These were the standard answers from a group of regular punters and wines from the Barossa, Hunter, Yarra and Coonawarra were flavour of the day. When the conversation moved to Canberra wines, most of the dinner guests that night drew a complete blank. It got me thinking, what is the history behind the wines of Canberra and its surrounds…

For a city better known for being the home of Australian Federal politics, the War Memorial and Lake Burley Griffin, it comes as a surprise to many that not only is Canberra an emerging foodie destination but it is now also widely regarded as a serious player and heavy hitter on the Australian wine scene and beyond, with a number of wines well represented on some of the best restaurant wine lists in the country.

The growing of grapes in and around the Canberra District originally dates back to the 1840’s. However, it wasn’t until the 1970’s that genuine interest in the region’s potential was realised. Wineries and vineyards can be found as far afield as Yass and Bungendore as well as the areas surrounding Murrumbateman and Lake George and the region plays home to 140+ vineyards with more than 30 wineries no more than 40 minutes’ drive from Canberra’s CBD. The region is divided into the 3 sub regions of ACT and Hall, Murrumbateman and Yass plus Bungendore, Wamboin and Lake George. Interestingly, although Canberra in name, the only winery situated inside the ACT border is Mount Majura, near Canberra’s airport.

The region is officially known to produce ‘Cool Climate’ wines and the industry as we know it today was born out of a group of scientists based in Canberra, some from the CSIRO, deciding to conduct somewhat of a ‘social experiment’ to see if a wine industry could flourish through the establishment of a series of small blocks, with Dr Edgar Reik AO planting his at Lake George and Dr John Kirk setting down his Clonakilla roots in the Murrumbateman sub region (among others).

Canberra’s climate is distinctly seasonal, with warm, dry summers and cooler winters, where frost is prevalent and snow is not uncommon in the outlying areas. These conditions lend themselves perfectly to producing restrained, complex and powerful wines – with spicy reds and floral, pretty whites being the order of the day. While there are many varietals that have proven to flourish it is the Shiraz, Riesling and Chardonnay more so than others that has cemented Canberra’s position as a place of great promise.

More than anything else, it is this writer’s opinion that the success of the Canberra ‘brand’ can be attributed to a single bottle. The Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier is today considered not only one of Australia’s finest bottles of wine, but truly world class and has helped to put the Canberra region on the map, so to speak.

Dr John Kirk is widely regarded as the pioneer of the varietal blend in this country and more recently his son, Tim, has continued to craft a blend on a par with some of the world’s great red wines, culminating in Tim Kirk being awarded the 2013 Gourmet Traveller Wine ‘Winemaker of the Year’ award. As a further fillip for the Canberra wine industry, Nick Spencer from Eden Road wines was named as a finalist in the same competition this year (Peter Gago was the eventual winner), following on from the winery winning the prestigious Jimmy Watson Memorial trophy in 2009 for their 2008 Long Road Shiraz, which was adjudged the best one or two year old dry, red wine in the land. While Ken Helm of Helm Wines fame is considered one of the pre-eminent experts when it comes to Riesling in Australia and his 2014 Classic Dry Riesling is the wineries 38th offering of the label since the winery was established in 1973.

It is this strong and well-developed history that leads me to think the future is bright for this emerging region. So what does the future hold for Canberra made wine? To look forward, I need to go back slightly. The 2011 and 2012 vintages were challenging with some of the wettest weather on record. The 2013 vintage has much more learned wine communicators than I thinking it could be one of the best on record and the early signs for the fruit harvested in 2014 is that it is also set to be a stellar year. This ultimately allows growers and winemakers through every good year (or poor year) to gather experience, learnings, knowledge and the understanding of nuance. The wines will continue to be better for this in the long run. For such a young region, there is still so much to learn about the soil, the climate and how to consistently produce award winning wines.

The moral of this story is no matter what level of wine knowledge you possess, there is always something new to try. There are outstanding wines being produced all over this country (Canberra included) and we should be exploring all the various pockets of our own backyard (big and small) to discover new and interesting producers before exploring somebody else’s.

*This article was originally written as a submission in the Gourmet Traveller Wine and Wine Communicators of Australia “New Wine Writer of the Year” competition.

TNWG #46

2012 Torbreck Woodcutters Shiraz

How good is a late night bottle to get you through the last bit of a long day!?

For a $25 wine this is dense & complex. From old, gnarly low cropping vines the wines is deep purple, inky & rich. The dark fruits are the go to here – stewed plums, blackberries & blackcurrants. There is a delicate vanillan, almost lolly like sweetness & a range of exotic spices that are quite pronounced, as is the hint of black licorice/aniseed at the back of the palate.

It doesn’t hang around long & fades a little too soon. But, it’s young & at an entry level price point for Torbreck. I really like this. It’s not Runrig, but it’s not pretending to be. It’s booze from a tier 1 winery that won’t break the bank. Quality.

Cost: $25

TNWG #45

2009 Yalumba FDR1A Cabernet Shiraz

This found its way onto my table as my wine match for lasagne. I liken this little find to the feeling you get when you find $20 in an old pair of jeans – yes!!!!

Still so lively & fresh, with really bright bold fruit. This is just dripping in blackberries, black currants & cherries. It’s rich & dense with layer after layer peeling away to offer something new. It’s sweet, has plenty of oak hugging it from all angles, woody & leafy. The tannins are grainy & chewy and the length is incredible!

This might sound like a paid endorsement, but this stuff is off the chart – I have this silly grin on my face & this warm feeling like you get when a text arrives from the girl you like. Anyway. Find it. This wine makes everything right in the world. $38-45 depending on where you shop & you’d be mad not to fill the boot. I only have 1 that I got at the CD in the Eden Valley & I’ll be calling in a few favours to get some more. Current vintage is 2011. I think (don’t quote me).

Cost: $45

TNWG #44

2008 Granite Hills ‘Nardoo’ Pinot Noir

I decided to throw the conventional rulebook out the window last week! It felt like it was about 30 degrees outside so I popped this Pinot Noir from the Macedon Ranges in the fridge for 10 minutes just to take the edge off & chill it down slightly. And what a winning result that was – who knew?!

The wine is at the lighter end of the spectrum with rhubarb, cherry & stewed plums being the dominant characteristics. It’s delicate and has an earthy undertone that drives into a dry lingering dusty tannin.

It’s not the best Pinot I’ve had recently & certainly didn’t rock my socks, but it also didn’t falter having been in the fridge. It’s another nondescript single bottle that I can’t place how I procured it, so don’t know the cost of how widely available it is. Nice, but not great.

Cost: Unknown

TNWG #43

2014 Mad Fish ‘Gold Turtle’ Chardonnay

Saturday arvo’s in the sun call for easy drinking, food friendly wines that everyone at the table can share. This ripper fits the bill.

There’s a lot going on for a $15 wine – white peach & nectarine, grapefruit, with a hint of florals as the wine transitions through the palate. There’s crushed cashews with a slightly creamy texture. It’s light, crisp and nicely balanced acid levels.

This is entry level booze from the team at Burch Family Wines, who also make Howard Park. Surprisingly good for the price point & wouldn’t look out of place at any summer BBQ.

Cost: $15

TNWG #42

2014 Mount Majura Wines Canberra Riesling

Tight, linear, clean & acidic. Grapefruit, lime, lemon & pith. And a first for me in Riesling a faint hint of aniseed/licorice washes through the back of the palate. I’ve never had this before & paid $11 for the glass at Canberra airport. I’m going to hunt this out, as I like. A lot!!

Cost: $27