Nick Smith grew up in Canberra, but it wasn’t until he moved away and came back for a visit that he had his mind blown by the city’s wine scene. His parents took him to Monster, where he had a glass of Ravensworth nebbiolo.
“The umbrella opened and I discovered some amazing wines that I didn’t see on wine lists in Melbourne,” says Smith, who would later move back and open Canberra’s wine- and cocktail-driven restaurant Bar Rochford.
Smith’s fondness for the region has only grown, right alongside his venue’s diverse collection of wine. With around 200 bottles on its list – replenished weekly from a cellar in nearby Fyshwick – Rochford usually has at least a dozen local bottles on offer, not to mention two or three Canberra wines by the glass.
“Canberra is definitely improving as a region,” Smith says. “There are more and more better-quality wines being made every year.” The Canberra Wine District has more than 140 vineyards and 40 wineries within 35 minutes’ drive of the city. Local wine subregions include Murrumbateman, Yass, Bungendore, Gundaroo and Collector – the combination of dry days and cold nights in this part of Australia makes the climate similar to Bordeaux and parts of Burgundy in France.
The Canberra Wine District is most famous for its riesling and cool-climate shiraz, but there is plenty more happening beyond that, thanks to an influx of younger winemakers who studied with some of the local veterans. Broadsheet asked Smith to pick five must-try drops that showcase the past, present and future of Canberra wine.
Ravensworth “7 Months” Pinot Gris-Gewurztraminer-Riesling (Murrumbateman)
An unfiltered blend of three white varietals, this Ravensworth standout gets its name from fermenting with the skins on for seven months in Italian concrete. A bit like an orange wine, it’s ideal for pairing with rich dishes such as roasted pork shoulder or pork belly.
It’s the handiwork of Bryan Martin, who came up in the industry working with Tim Kirk at Clonakilla. Smith reckons he’s the most creative winemaker in Canberra. “His style is massively popular at Bar Rochford,” he says. “This is a complicated wine to make, but it’s unique and interesting. It’s something everyone talks about when they drink it.”
Lark Hill Grüner Veltliner (Bungendore)
Established in 1978, family-owned Lark Hill uses biodynamic methods and was one of the first wineries around Canberra to be certified organic. Located on the way to the popular tourist town Braidwood, the vineyard grows riesling, chardonnay, pinot noir and grüner veltliner.
“Grüner veltliner is a grape that’s generally grown in Austria,” says Smith. “It’s got a drier style and it’s medium-bodied, with a little bit of gooseberry and star fruit. It goes really well with seafood and Thai dishes. It’s a good example of a not-so-well-known varietal that’s grown really well in Canberra.”
Helm Riesling (Murrumbateman)
Helm is one of Canberra’s oldest wineries. Founders Ken and Judith Helm still run the operation, and their daughter Stephanie has started her own winery called, appropriately, The Vintner’s Daughter. Helm’s much-awarded riesling is a crisp, versatile anchor of Canberra’s burgeoning wine scene. You can enjoy it now or cellar it for 25 years and beyond.
“We get these wines every time they’re in season,” Smith says. “They’re very classic. It’s a really elegant style of riesling: high in acid, really clean and mineral-driven. It’s up there with some of the best rieslings I’ve had in Australia.”
Clonakilla “SV” Shiraz-Viognier (Murrumbateman)
The first vineyard to put Canberra on the map as a serious wine region, Clonakilla was founded by John Kirk and is now run by his son Tim. The aromatic “SV” is a shiraz that features six per cent viognier.
“It thins the wine out a bit and makes it not as robust as what you get in the Barossa Valley,” says Smith. “Plus you’ve got the cool climate sitting on the back there. It makes for a very special wine that has silky tannins, red pepperberry and dark fruit. You can drink it straightaway, but you’ll get great reward from cellaring it.”
Mallaluka Cab Franc (Yass)
Sam and Josh Leyshon used to play together in the punk band Hoodlum Shouts, but now they bring that same energy to making wines in nearby Yass. Mallaluka’s output is small compared to Clonakilla or Helm, yielding a mix of classic and modern varietals. This character-driven cab franc makes for a great introduction.
It gets carbonic maceration for 21 days, which means it’s a fruitier and lower-tannin wine. “It’s punchy on the nose but juicy,” Smith says. “It’s a beautiful wine to have with roast lamb at the end of winter and the start of spring. It’s made in a more contemporary way, using a not-so-common varietal.”
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Visit Canberra.