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The wines of Clonakilla, Canberra, Australia

Tim Kirk, Clonakilla winemaker, measuring sugar levels in the must

Clonakilla is one of Australia’s ‘cult’ wineries. The strange thing is, though, that it’s not in a terribly well established wine region. You don’t automatically associate Canberra with wine, but 30 years ago CSIRO scientist Dr John Kirk reckoned that what is now known as Canberra District would be a smart place to grow grapes, and decided to plant a vineyard here.

The first vineyards planted were Cabernet and Riesling in 1971, followed by Riesling in 1972. The first wine released was the 1976 Riesling, which is now in its 30th vintage. John Kirk is still involved, but his son Tim now oversees the day-to-day running of Clonakilla and makes the wines. Tim is an almost impossibly nice guy. He trained in theology, and almost became a priest. But if his wines are anything to go by, he made the right career choice in taking over the family winery.

The Canberrra District wine region hasn’t exactly exploded, but it has grown steadily and there are now scores of wineries in the area. The climate here is good for wine growing, with warm summers and cold winters: it’s been likened to a cross between Bordeaux and the Northern Rhône. But it’s not a terribly convenient stop for wine journalists, and Canberra – while being a very pleasant country town – isn’t a big tourist draw, so the wines from this region don’t get a huge amount of coverage. Despite this Clonakilla’s wines have a huge reputation and are highly sought after. The star turn is the Shiraz Viognier, which is an undeniably world class wine.

Netted vineyards

I visited on a Sunday afternoon in March, just as the first grapes for the 2006 harvest were beginning to arrive at the winery. There were a couple of fermenters full of Hilltops Shiraz which had come in, and I even got to do some punching down. As an aside, you’ll notice if you look carefully that the Hilltops is machine harvested: the tell-tale sign is the presence of quite a few petioles (the bit that joins the leaves to the stem) in the fermenter (these can be fished out – the risk is that they can add some green tannins to the wine).

Pneumatic cap plunger in action

As well as tasting some finished wines, we sampled some 2005 barrels.

Clonakilla Riesling 2005 Canberra District
Mostly from their own vineyards, but with a couple of tons of grapes bought in. Lovely limey nose is quite perfumed with nice delicacy. Dry palate is quite fresh with good weight. A really nice Riesling. Very good/excellent 90/100 (A$22)

Clonakilla Riesling 2004 Canberra District
Good yellow colour. Intense nose is limey with honied depth. Quite rich, showing a bit of evolution. The palate is concentrated and bright with intense savoury, tight-wound limey fruit and good acidity. Real precision here. Very good/excellent 91/100

Clonakilla Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2005 Canberra District
This has a little bit of Chardonnay, too. It’s crisp and fresh with really nice fruit. Very good+ 87/100 (A$18)

Clonakilla Viognier 2005 Cabnerra District
Really fat, full, perfumed grapey nose with a distinct peach and apricot character. The palate is fat and broad with a lovely richness. A really expressive wine, which is a tiny bit flabby at room temperature, but which would be lovely chilled a bit. Very good/excellent 92/100 (A$45)

Clonakilla Hilltops Shiraz 2005 Canberra District
From four vineyards near the town of Young, at 400–500 m (Clonakilla is at about 600 m) where it is warmer. These vineyards are about 10 years old and are naturally low yielding (2–3 tons acre). One of the reasons Tim wanted this wine is because not that many people can afford (or obtain) their top wine, the Shiraz Viognier. It has a ripe, sweet, intense nose with a lush blackberry jam character. Very pure. The palate is ripe and sweet with great intensity and lush fruit. Delicious. Very good/excellent 92/100

Clonakilla Ballinderry 2004 Canberra District
This is the renamed Cabernet/Merlot. Lovely nose with some mint, a bit of chalky mineraliness and sweet black fruits tightly reined in by a subtle herby edge. The palate is well defined with nice structure to the fruit and the herbaceousness associated with these varieties well in check. Very good+ 89/100

Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier 2004 Canberra District
Magical perfume: sweet, pure vivid ripe blackberry aroma leads to a palate that is soft, lush and concentrated with pure fruit. Served slightly too warm, initially, which makes it seem a but soft and sweet. But this resolves as it cools to reveal beautifully focused elegant fruit with more floral aromas and raspberryish fruit. The palate shows nice complexity with complex spices, a bit of pepperiness and some chocolatey richness. Very rich and smooth: a great expression of Shiraz. Excellent 95/100

Barrel samples (all 2005):

1. Cabernet Franc/Cabernet Sauvignon. Lovely grainy tannic structure with concentrated, generous fruit.

2. Merlot. Rich, chocolatey and spicy. Woody and fresh on the palate .

3. Shiraz Viognier – the four different components.

The first is quite perfumed, fresh and floral, with lovely meaty gamey notes. Expressive and savoury. No Viognier in this.

The second has 8% Viognier in it. Cinnamon spice and roasted character from the oak. The palate shows lovely structure and fresh bright fruit.

Next we try the same wine from an older barrel. Pure red fruit with some interesting spice on the nose. Lovely structure and good acidity. Medium bodied.

The third is a selection from the eastern side of Clonakilla, with wonderful perfume and good structure.

The fourth is a selection from the western side. It’s quite rich, spicy and chocolatey. Bold, firm and tannic on the palate.  

UK agent: Liberty Wines

Wines tasted 03/06
Find these wines with wine-searcher.com

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