Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier – a cuckoo in the nest.
Tuesday, October 4, 2016 in Report
If you listen to the critics, you might well think Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier is routinely outdoing itself vintage after vintage.
The ‘superfine’ 2012 was one thing, but then came the ‘magical’ 2013, followed by the ‘unbelievable’ 2014 – and now they’ve all been topped by the ‘incredible’ 2015.
According to James Halliday, the newly-released 2015 Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier (98 points) is ‘a thinker’s wine, it stops you, draws you in and captivates.’
As for Mike Bennie (97 points), he’s ‘…taken… It’s next level. It’s a new classic... Glory be.’
And then there’s Nick Stock (99 points): ‘…every bit as important to the story of great Australian wine as Henschke Hill of Grace and Penfolds Grange… a rare beauty…’
Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier does get a lot of attention. As Stock says, it’s a kind of antidote to our dominant, traditional Shiraz style, which is unashamedly big and rich – and South Australian.
The Clonakilla wine is richly-flavoured, too, but it’s also lighter-bodied and more elegant, coming as it does from the cooler climes of the Canberra Region.
Tim Kirk, its creator and maker since the first (1992) vintage, says his aim is to make a spicy, savoury Shiraz of medium body that reflects the landscape and climate from which it springs.
So for Kirk the wines from 2012 to 2015 are simply the reflections of four different seasons – though he’s happy to acknowledge that he’s ‘never had a better vintage’ than the ‘glorious’ 2015, with its early rain followed by day after day of perfect weather – neither too hot nor too cold.
2014 saw more extremes – a heatwave at the end of January followed by cooler weather and some rain – and ‘wonderful’ 2013 was warmer and more consistent. 2012 was a cool vintage with lower yields – and a demonstration of the risks of growing grapes in a marginal climate.
‘We always get ripe fruit, but sometimes only just’, says Kirk. ‘You work hard to get fruit ripe. You hang out for warm weather. You can’t be complacent.’
After 25 years, Kirk has developed a feeling for the ‘personalities’ of the Shiraz blocks that produce the grapes for his flagship wine.
He has vines of several clones, sourced from a number of different places, some grafted and some on their own rootstocks.
He now knows the blocks that consistently produce the ‘truly beautiful’ fruit required for the Shiraz Viognier, and the blocks that make it some years but are relegated in others.
Each vintage sees between 14 and 20 separate Shiraz ferments, all including about 5% Viognier, the white variety that gives Shiraz such an attractive, spicy-sweet lift in aroma and flavour.
In 2015 Kirk also included 30% whole bunches in each ferment, up from the 20-25% of previous years. This contributes savoury complexities to the wine.
The Clonakilla estate today comprises three adjoining farms totalling about 150 acres, with 36 acres under vine, at Murrumbateman, 40km north of Canberra.
When Tim’s father, Dr John Kirk, selected the original property in 1971 and planted a vineyard, he became a pioneer of Canberra’s wine industry. He had cause, perhaps, to envy the grape-growers of France’s Burgundy and Rhône Valley, with their centuries of experience working out what grew best, and where.
John Kirk was then a plant physiologist and biochemist working at the CSIRO, but Tim Kirk believes it was ‘the Irish peasant with a feel for the ground’ (rather than the scientist) who chose the land.
So it’s down to luck or good fortune that less than 50 years later – a blink in wine-time – we can be certain of the extremely strong affinity between the Murrumbateman terroir and Shiraz.
It was entirely serendipitous that John Kirk had also planted Viognier in 1986.
Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier entered Langton’s Classification of Australian Wine in 2005 and was promoted to the highest category – ‘Exceptional’ – in 2010.
It is (with Brokenwood’s Graveyard Shiraz) a cuckoo in the nest. Of the 21 wines in the ‘Exceptional’ category, 11 are Shiraz, nine of them from South Australia.
The ethereal and evocative Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier captures the essence of Australian ingenuity and sense of country. It is one of the most important advances in Australian Shiraz since the release of 1952 Penfolds Grange Hermitage and epitomises the kind of intellectual and imaginative winemaking championed by legendary pioneer Max Schubert… Andrew Caillard, MW, Langton’s Classification of Australian Wine VI (2014).