Clonakilla in the Canberra district of Australia is the epitome of cool climate wines. Such is the estate’s reputation that the price of Clonakilla’s flagship shiraz viognier has doubled in recent years.
Andrew Caillard MW, who assembles the annual Langton’s classification of fine wine in Australia, described the shiraz viognier as “one of the most important advances in the development of Australian shiraz since the release of 1952 Penfolds Grange Hermitage”.
In 2005 the shiraz viognier made it to the “outstanding” ranking on the Langton’s classification of Australian wine. Two years ago it was put into the highest level in the Langton’s listing of 17 “exceptional” wines.
Praise has been long and loud for this vineyard. The Wall Street Journal wrote that some critics believe “this is Australia’s greatest red wine,” acknowledging “it is certainly one of the greatest shiraz”.
Veteran wine critic James Halliday described Clonakilla’s shiraz viognier as “an icon wine, one of the best in Australia”.
Irish research scientist John Kirk established the first vineyard in the Canberra district in 1971, in the village of Murrumbateman 40 kilometres north of Canberra. He named the property Clonakilla, which means “meadow of the church,” after his grandfather’s farm in County Clare. The first shiraz vintage was in 1972.
In traditional Australian style during the 1970s and 1980s shiraz was blended with cabernet sauvignon. In 1990 Kirk senior decided to keep the shiraz separate and that vintage won two gold and two trophies in three wine shows. He was onto something.
In 1991 his son Tim visited Cote Rotie in France’s northern Rhone on his honeymoon and tasted the 1988 Guigal single vineyard wines La Landonne, La Mouline and La Turque from barrel.
“This was a turning point,” Tim said. “There are rare moments in a wine lover’s life when you find yourself transfixed by the extraordinary beauty of what’s in the glass before you, and tasting those Cote Roties was just such a revelatory moment for me.
“They had striking aromas; an ethereal perfume with complex, savoury dimensions, while the palate structure was different to the robust texture that Australian shiraz wines are renowned for. These wines were finer in texture, the tannins leaving a silky impression, but with flavours that had persistence and great drive.”
Tim is the company’s current CEO and chief winemaker. He trained as a theologian before becoming a winemaker. “Great shiraz has a warm heart,” he said, “and cool climate shiraz can sometimes feel like burgundy.” Kirk described himself as an “intuitive” winemaker, learning from his father.
The vineyard has no marketing budget. Its reputation is based solely on word of mouth. While the shiraz viognier is the best-known wine, others are equally impressive and much cheaper.
The 2008 Clonakilla Hilltops shiraz is made from grapes from Young, a country town about 100 kilometers from Canberra about 500 metres above sea level. It is spicy in the mouth with flavours of blackcurrant and cracked black pepper, typical of cool-climate shiraz.
The 2010 Clonakilla O’Riada shiraz is named for Sean O’Riada, the composer who died in 1971, the year the vineyard was established. O’Riada was a cousin of John Kirk. Like other Clonakilla wines it owes its history and heritage to the northern Rhone.
The 2008 edition was from a hot year. Its hallmark is a range of perfumed fruit aromas that feel more like burgundy than shiraz.
But the real praise must be reserved for the 2010 shiraz viognier. As in the Cote Rotie, the shiraz and viognier are co-fermented. The wine has a rose petal and floral nose laced into super-fine tannins. This is an elegant wine.
Tim Kirk said the Clonakilla sites capture and manifest the goodness of the local terror. They are “endowed” with the spirit of the region.
As he says on the Clonakilla web site: “The task of the winemaker is to capture something that is present in the fruit; something good, unique, worthy of inspection, perhaps even beautiful.
“Carefully grown grapes from a noble site deserve the opportunity to express themselves in as pure a form as possible. It is important to resist the temptation to bury the fruit in too much winemaking artifice.”
* This article appeared in China Post, 27 September 2012, page 10, under the headline “It just doesn’t get much cooler than Clonakilla’s chillin’ shiraz viognier”