In my previous post, Langton’s Updates its Classification of Australian Wine 30 September 2010, I mentioned that five wines had been elevated to the ‘exceptional’ category. Langton’s describes ‘exceptional’ wines, of which there are now 17, as “the most highly sought after and prized first-growth type Australian wine on the market.” Langtons: Our Classification Explained.

One of the standouts of this newly elevated group is Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier. According to Langton’s Fine Wine principal Andrew Caillard MW, “Tim Kirk’s ethereal Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier is perhaps one of the most important advances in the development of Australian shiraz since the release of 1952 Penfolds Grange.” (Langton’s: View Classification V)

Clonakilla’s Shiraz Viognier is a product of a very fortuitous visit to the Côte Rôtie in Northern Rhone that winemaker Tim Kirk made in 1991.

Côte Rôtie produces fine wine from the Syrah (shiraz) grape, sometimes with a small percentage of the white wine grape viognier blended in to add an extra dimension to the wine.

Tim recalled his reaction to single vineyard barrel tastings of Marcel Guigal’s Côte Rôtie with the’s Neil Martin: “Up until then, I was familiar with Australian mainstream models of Syrah, with blackberry, with warmer fruit, sometimes with a cola character, even chocolate. But here the wines had an ethereal dimension, a lightness of touch, the flavour profile more in line with red fruits with a complex spice element spun through the aromas and palate. The palate structure was different: finer, silkier and more succulent. It captivated me, it was a revelatory moment and I was completely smitten. Here was a wine of purity, finesse and elegance.”

Tim borrowed other winemaking approaches from Rhone valley and Burgundian winemakers to highlight the inherent flavours of the fruit: inclusion of whole bunches in the ferments, pre-ferment maceration; warm natural ferments and maturation in high quality French oak barrels. In the vineyard vine leaf canopies were opened up and yields were limited to produce grapes with riper flavour profiles.

Tim’s father John, a former CSIRO plant research scientist, was the first winemaker to notice that the soils of cool southern table lands around Canberra were ideal for wine production. In 1971 he purchased a 44 acre farm near the village of Murumbateman, where the soil consists sandy clay loams over friable clay and a deeper layer of decomposed granite. In the late 1990s Tim planted shiraz and viognier on an adjoining 50 acre block of land, recognising that the decomposed granite soils in combination with the cool climate (similar in climate to the Rhone Valley) had the potential to put the Canberra district on the map as a top producer of a lighter, more elegant style of shiraz.

The Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier 2009 was named wine of the year by Melbourne critic Jeremy Oliver, who pronounced the vintage the best yet.  Accolades for Clonakilla keep pouring in by Kirsten Lawson, The Canberra Times, 25 September 2010

The Clonakilla Shiraz Viogner 2009 and vintages dating back to 2009 are available on the Cellarit Wine Market.

Photo: Clonakilla