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Regional Studies
The Story of Canberra Viticulture and Wine
Tuesday, 21st June, 2016  - David Farmer

The Federation debate continued the rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne with the location of the new capital being of great importance.

After reviewing many sites the Australia Capital Territory was selected in 1908 at a mid way point between the two cities and declared on 1st January, 1911. Canberra was named as the location in 1913 and Canberra Day is remembered on the 12th March.

Adelaide the great wine capital of Australian celebrated its proclamation, 77 years earlier, on the 28th December, 1836. The remarkable public servant and the first Surveyor General of South Australia, Colonel William Light, would surely smile over the opinions expressed on the sitting and design of the new capital.

Light remarked in his journal; ,The reasons that led me to fix Adelaide where it is I do not expect to be generally understood or calmly judged of at present. My enemies, however, by disputing their validity in every particular, have done me the good service of fixing the whole of the responsibility upon me. I am perfectly willing to bear it; and I leave it to posterity, and not to them, to decide whether I am entitled to praise or to blame,.

The design for the new capital was awarded to the American architects Walter Burley and Marion Mahony Griffin in 1912 and I,m sure they would agree with the thoughts of Colonel Light.

The much earlier settlements beginning with Sydney, then Perth, Melbourne, and Adelaide were quickly followed by the planting of vines as survival meant clearing land, planting crops and grazing livestock.

By the time of Federation, January 1st, 1901 this pioneering approach had passed and gone also was the early glimmer of a European style wine and food culture which was lost to harsher realities. Instead a drinking culture based on beer, brandy, fortified wines other spirits took hold.

Hence another 60 years was to pass before Canberra residents in a more favourable social climate began experiments with making their drink of choice by planting vineyards.



Wine Flavours and the Site of Canberra


Canberra at 580 metres above mean sea level was selected over other potential sites; Bombala (705 metres), Orange (800 metres), Cooma (800 metres) and Armidale (980 metres), with these six reflecting similar high inland locations; while two, Tumut (variable at 280 metres), and Albury (165 metres) are at lower elevations on the warm, western slopes of the Great Divide.

Many of those who have lived in Canberra and enjoyed the south coast of N.S.W. have the view that a coastal site between the two capitals would have been better. This expresses the recent fashion for coastal locations as places to live and I call this site the people,s choice.



Canberra and the locations of the other suggested sites for the new Capital; Bombala, Orange, Cooma, Armidale, Tumut, Albury, and the ,people,s choice, at the coast.

The location of Canberra was particularly interesting as the vineyard pioneers were to join others, such as Mudgee (450 metres) and Ballarat (450 metres) where viticulture pre-dates that of Canberra, in the exploration of high altitude wine flavours.

Of the potential sites closest to Canberra the higher elevation of Cooma and Bombala and the many cool vintages would have made ripening grapes difficult; while success at Tumut and Albury would have produced familiar flavours.

The ,people,s choice, on the coast would have produced wines of a far different character, and today this style can be discovered from the many small vineyards planted along the NSW coast south of Wollongong to Bega.

The vineyards of the Canberra district and the many other high altitude regions have expanded the range of wine flavours and have broadened our perception of wine from the historic, low altitude, coastal locations.

The potential for elevated vineyards along the Great Divide, from 350 to 900 metres, covers a vast area from Queensland to Central-Western Victoria and as these grow Canberra will be increasingly seen as the natural centre for all of these high altitude regions.

The number of potential vineyard regions along the Great Divide is large and extend from Queensland across to Western Victoria.



Early Beginnings


In the early 1970s scientists established the first Canberra vineyards, a welcome occupational change to the many doctors and lawyers who helped spark the post war wine revival in other historical and new regions.

As scientists they applied the same simple ideas used by the first settlers when establishing vineyards in Sydney at Redfern, the Hunter Valley, the Swan Valley, Melbourne and the Yarra Valley, Geelong, Adelaide and Reynella; if it grew it was a vineyard, if not move and try again.

As to be expected the early years were tough both in getting a crop and learning how to make wine though by the early 1980s enough progress had been made to review the merits of 10 to 15 wines.

`I had opened a liquor store in Canberra in 1975 and followed with great interest the triumphs and despair of these enthusiasts.

Over the mid 1980s to 1990s enough interesting, even exciting wines were being made to place Canberra on the wine map.

To define the Canberra region a line was drawn around the existing vineyards and the ,Canberra District, was added to the Register of Protected Names on the 9th February, 1998. Thus in about 30 years a new wine region had been created from the Molonglo plain which is a remarkable effort for a frost prone, cool climate region.



The Canberra wine district was proclaimed in 1998.


The Canberra Landscape


The topography of the Canberra wine district, like so many others in Australia has no obvious shape that readily outlines the vineyards, no specific range of hills, a valley, or any geographic feature which helps define the idea of a Canberra wine.

The vineyard country of Canberra is part of the rolling surface of the western Great Dividing Range, dissected by the western flowing drainage with the vineyards at various altitudes; with the hill slopes of vines facing all directions.

The first pioneers planted where their hunches led them. Dr Edgar Reik found a frost free site at the end of Lake George while others set off in the opposite direction, along the road between Canberra and Yass, to a district called Murrumbateman.

The first vineyards evolved from personal opinion about a site with the rudimentary analysis being little more than guess-work and on refection it is astonishing what has been accomplished in 50 years simply based on the early belief that the effort would be worthwhile.

For the first 15 years to make a drinkable wine that could be enjoyed with a circle of friends was satisfying and the thought that by the 2000s wines of world class would be created was surely as far-fetched an idea to those early vignerons as it was to this liquor retailer.



A Car Trip from Murrumbateman to Bungendore


The road trip from Murrumbateman to Bungendore.


The 55 kilometres journey from Murrumbateman to Bungendore crosses the northern end of the Canberra district and the twisting road crests rolling hills and fords streams of the Yass river drainage.

The trip from Murrumbateman (650 metres) begins with the Clonakilla vineyards and ends at Lark Hill (860 metres) where the vineyards are high on the Lake George escarpment with a daring exposure looking across to Bungendore.

The journey takes you past a number of vineyards and to the casual observer there are no particular reasons why a vineyard is sited in one spot and not another, or why one should have an advantage over another; though local knowledge has no doubt discovered the best sites with sunny exposure, reduced risk of frost and deeper soils for water retention.

To compare wine regions globally, variations on the heat summation during the growth period of the vine and grape are used. For Canberra the measure used by the local vignerons suggests the climate is similar to the famous French region of Bordeaux and is comparable to Coonawarra.



Red being warmer and blue cooler giving an idea of the ripening period for the Canberra district.


The variability of the weather is more predictable for some wine regions than others and it is thought that high altitude, continental regions are prone to wide swings. A estimate for the Canberra district by Helm and Cambourne suggests that 50% of harvests will be in a ripening zone comparable to Bordeaux with 50% being cooler or warmer.

Since I assume a grower in Canberra would prefer the wine flavours reflected the temperature range most likely to occur, this being cool climate, high altitude, continental with similarities to Bordeaux, they will have to adjust to the 50% of seasons when this is not possible, as indeed will consumers.

At this stage I doubt there is enough data to show the width of the weather variability in the Canberra climate and apart from the few years years when only poor wine can be made, I am not sure if an ideal should be seen as the goal.

After say 100 years of measurements it will be noted that some sites have a better chance of getting a ripe crop than other sites. Perhaps the data will also show that a smaller number of these favoured sites have an additional percentage advantage.



The Growth of Canberra and the Vineyards


Canberra in the 1960s and 1970s was a wealthy, vibrant, inland city with a population in 1967of 100,000 and being the Federal Capital was made to feel and was important.

With a University, research institutions like the CSRIO and a well educated population, interest in pastimes like wine and food was above the national interest with the Canberra Wine and Food Club dating to 1953 and the Fyshwick food markets opening in 1965. I also note; ,before University House ANU was opened in 1954, a House Wine Committee had been formed, leading to the 1st University House Wine Symposium, held in 1956,.

Canberra was different to other large inland towns, it was created for a single purpose and this has attracted an unusual mix of people, so looking back it seems obvious that hobbies like growing grapes and making wine would take on a momentum which was simply not possible elsewhere.

The early pioneers followed their hunches on site selection, for example Dr Edgar Reik moved from an initial trial at Sutton (1967-1968) to a patch of land at the northern end of Lake George (1971) which he identified as a frost free, warmer site.

Others planted elsewhere and having a collegiate approach from the start exchanged information and I have no doubt this pushed the achievements far more quickly than anyone could have expected.

The early pioneers wanted results and from the early years there was a judging of the local wines and the momentum was maintained with the creation of the Canberra Wine Show in 1975 which later morphed into the National Wine Show.

By 1995 the population of Canberra was 300,000, not large by state capital standards, but it was important and wealthy and with a keener interest than ever in wine and food this pushed the local vignerons to higher standards.

I suspect an observer at this time might have thought how lucky it was that the Federal Capital had been positioned so fortuitously in such a favourable location for vineyards perhaps even raising a glass to those who selected the site.

Of course the reality is different as the point being made is that there is nothing special about the Canberra district and its surrounds.

Indeed understanding the wines of Canberra or the wines of Australia for that matter is to see them as experiments in growing and making wine at that general location.




As noted the potential vineyard country in the upland regions of the Great Divide extends from Queensland across to Central-Western Victoria and any patch of land will make interesting wine.

In essence this means if we moved Canberra north or south, within the general climatic range, the same people would have created wines of similar taste and style since the wines of Canberra are nothing to do with the location, special soils, or distinguished sites.

All the Canberra district can be is an expression of inland, high altitude, winemaking and the result if all things were equal would be no better or worse than many other regions in similar locations.

Of course things are not equal as and it was the wine buyers of this wealthy population who made the Canberra wine district.

Through the heartbreak years of the 1970s and 1980s buyers paid the high asking prices for poorly made wine. This buying gave hope to the pioneers that wine could be sold at the prices needed for sustainability encouraging them to stick with it and develop their craft.

The hard working vineyard owners may believe they have captured from the vineyard a sense of place, the uniqueness of that spot, but what they are realising instead is their own sense of purpose.



Conclusion


Over the last 30 years many vineyards have been planted along the central-western side of the Great Divide and the ranges as they swing west across Victoria.

This important new pattern of viticulture is altering and broadening our perception of Australian wine and thus helping re-shape our thinking about the tastes of Australian wine.

Vineyards are located around the towns of Toowoomba, Stanthorpe, Armidale, Mudgee, Orange, Cowra, Canberra, Tumbarumba, Beechworth, King Valley, Heathcote, and the high points west to the Grampians.

Many of these regional towns can identify the first planting of vines from the mid nineteenth century but the recent revival has a more scientific approach which set out to explore the coolness of higher altitudes and make wines displaying this range of flavours.

Ventures into higher altitudes go with additional climate risk and it is this risk which takes many decades to learn to control or at least mitigate and this of course is the story of Canberra.

Perhaps the Mudgee district at 450 metres has the longest record of high altitude viticulture as it traces its origins back to 1858 though the new plantings have been much more adventurous being hundreds of metres higher.

While over a dozen vineyard clusters have developed only one was to develop around a fast growing town and it is this aspect that has made Canberra special and why it will become the natural centre for all of the high altitude vineyards of the central-western Great Divide.

The dramatic rise of the Canberra district to make world class wines in 30 years is less to do about the climate and location and all to do with the people of Canberra and is an example of what I call the Silicon Valley effect.

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