It's a beautiful morning in Canberra. As I write, it's just after 7am, and I've had my first proper sleep for three days. The early morning sunlight has illuminated the huge gum tree outside my window in the warm tones of first light, and there's the uniquely Australian chorus of birdsong ringing out to encourage me to get up and get involved in the day that's already begun.
Yesterday afternoon was quite special. I visited Clonakilla, one of Australia's leading 'cult' wineries, but surprisingly relatively little talked about abroad. Tim Kirk generously swang round to pick me up at 1.30, with his five impeccably behaved children in the car. After dropping the kids off at Tim's home, we arrived at the winery and tasted the current releases, and then I got to see the 2006 Hilltops Shiraz which had just been picked a couple of days before (left). It was sitting in shallow two-ton fermenters (in Portugal these would be called lagares), and fermentation hadn't yet started. I had my first experience of pigeage, also known as cap plunging. This has to be done three times a day, and the idea is to prevent the cap of skins and partially crushed berries from drying out, as well as helping with the maceration - if these skins were left undisturbed they would form a dry, hard crust and there would be volatile acidity formed by the action of bacteria in the presence of air.
There are a number of ways you can keep the cap wet. You could pump over juice, or you could use a special device to keep the cap submerged, or you can do it with feet, or a specially designed pole. Tim has a new hydraulic device that can be moved along the line of fermenters, but I tried doing it manually with the stainless steel pole device. I now know why he got the hydraulic cap plunger. The juice already had an intense purple colour, and tasted of fresh, sweet blackberry jam. After the pigeage, it was time to have a look at the sugar levels (potential alcohols ranged from 14.2 to 14.4%), before some barrel sampling of the 05s.
The Clonakilla wines are stunning. There are three whites, a fresh Semillon/Sauvignon that's fuity and correct, an ageworthy, tight Riesling and a remarkable, expressive Viognier (Australia's best?). Then there are the three red wines. The Cabernet Franc/Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot blend (from 04 named 'Balinderry'; if the barrel samples are anything to go by, look out for the 05) is impressive and overlooked. The Hilltops Shiraz is from a warmer region an hour and a half's drive from the winery, and is remarkable value, offering intense, lush, pure fruit. The star of the show is the Shiraz Viognier: a breathtaking effort that has real elegance along with intensity and concentration. At Aus$65 (cellar door price) this isn't cheap, but it is fantastic value. 2004 is the current release, and the 2005 barrel samples were deeply impressive.