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Australia’s Hidden Wine Gem: Canberra District

Australia’s Hidden Wine Gem: Canberra District

This lesser known wine region is located just outside Australia’s capital and produces great Riesling and Shiraz

Photo Credit: Canberra Wines / Facebook

Canberra is off the beaten path when it comes to wine regions, even for Australians. After a brief flirtation with winemaking in the 19th century, the region was dormant until 1971, when CSIRO scientists (basically the Australian equivalent of the US Geological Survey), inspired by what they discovered about terroir, vineyard location, and grape variety,  planted vines..  Over the past 50 years, Canberra has attracted vintners and winemakers interested in experimenting with cool climate varieties, with a particular focus on Riesling and Shiraz.. The district is home to more than 140 wineries within 35 minutes’ drive from the city center, as well as 35 cellar doors open to the public. You’d be hard-pressed to find any of these wines outside of New South Wales. 

As is true across Australia, tasting fees are nominal and many cellar doors welcome guests for free tastings. Book a private tour with Van Du Vin for the most customized experience. Owner Laura Jallier  is French, with a deep knowledge of the global wine industry and close relationships with regional winemakers. She’ll be able to guide you to the best wines to suit your tastes. “International visitors will love the personality in both the wine and the local winemakers here,” Jallier says. “Canberra Wine District is a hidden gem in Australia, creating beautifully aromatic, balanced wine. I love the fact that we are still a human scale wine region and guests are often able to chat with winemakers directly at tastings.”

May is a beautiful time of year to visit for fall colors but cellar doors welcome visitors year-round. Here are a few of our favorite wineries in the region, along with a couple of Canberra restaurant recommendations that have extensive regional wine lists.

Clonakilla

Photo Credit: Clonakilla

Clonakilla is the OG Canberra District winery, and celebrated as one of the best wineries in all of Australia. Biochemist Dr. John Kirk first planted Shiraz, Riesling, and Cabernet Sauvignon vines here in 1971, and today his son Tim is the head winemaker. The winery is named after his grandfather’s farm in County Clare, and Kirk’s Irish ancestry is also represented in the Celtic imagery on the label.

It was Tim who had the idea in 1992 of co-fermenting their Viognier with Shiraz, just like they do in Côte-Rôtie. Luckily, Canberra’s climate allows for Viognier and Shiraz to be harvested at the same time. The small percentage of Viognier (usually between 5-7% depending on the vintage) gives the Shiraz an aromatic lift, like seasoning your food with just a touch of salt to enhance the natural flavors.

Clonakilla’s flagship Shiraz Viognier is now one of the most collected wines in Australia, and available to taste for free when you visit. You may even be lucky enough to taste an older “museum release” vintage, for a chance to see how the wine’s red berry flavors develop with age. The current 2022 vintage offers a peppery nose and vibrant tangy raspberry notes thanks to a relatively cool growing season. The fine tannic structure will allow this wine to age beautifully for at least a decade. This is also one of the only Canberra wineries that exports to the United States.

Brindabella Hills

Photo Credit: Brindabella Hills / Facebook

One of the prettiest vineyard views you’ll find in Canberra, the vista at Brindabella Hills is reminiscent of the rolling hills of Tuscany. Brindabella looks over the Murrumbidgee River and the Brindabella mountain range, with estate Shiraz vines planted on property. It’s a popular venue for events and weddings and they’re open for lunch on weekends too. Owner Michael Anderson offers a wide array of wines, from traditional method sparkling wine and rosé to bright and refreshing Sauvignon Blanc, along with a number of variations on the region’s signature Shiraz. There’s sparkling Shiraz, estate grown Hilltops Shiraz, and a Cabernet Shiraz blend with a punchy, spicy finish. Cabernet Shiraz is a very popular blend in Australia and this one is a textbook example.

Nick O’Leary

Nick O’Leary | Photo Credit: Amber Gibson

Rieslings are the calling card at Nick O’Leary, and they make a number of zippy, citrusy Rieslings, including some from single vineyard blocks. When it comes to reds, they do Sangiovese and Tempranillo well, along with a more floral Shiraz. O’Leary Tempranillo is very different from Spanish Tempranillo thanks to the prevailing cool winds. The estate-grown ‘Heywood’ Tempranillo doesn’t see any new oak and is particularly delicious thanks to its herbaceous, savory finish. They also have a number of magnums and half-bottles for sale in their tasting room, which is unique for the region.

Heywood, the restaurant attached to the cellar door, sources cheese, bread, and produce locally, and makes a great stop for lunch. Pair a glass of Riesling with kingfish crudo and ras al hanout roasted Brussels sprouts, or try a Tempranillo or Shiraz with duck assiette and Cabernet-glazed figs with whipped goat cheese.

Ravensworth

Ravensworth | Photo Credit: Amber Gibson

While Ravensworth Wines is not open to the public, the wines are exceptional and widely found on restaurant wine lists in Canberra. Winemaker Bryan Martin worked alongside Clonakilla’s Tim Kirk for 16 years and started making his own Ravenwsworth label at Clonakilla in 2005. It was only in 2021 that he left Clonakilla to focus entirely on his own label, where he produces around 8,000 cases annually. Martin makes dozens of different small batch wines from more than 20 grape varieties, and he’s also a farmer, chef, and forager.

“I like the idea of experimenting and having many different tools at my disposal,” Martin says. This mindset extends to various vessels for aging his wine, from glass jars and terracotta amphora, to oak barrels and ceramic eggs. He prefers these vessels over stainless steel to add texture and depth, or in the case of glass, to act as a more neutral aging vessel than stainless steel. 

Of course, Martin’s Shiraz Viognier is a must-try. Like Clonakilla, he also co-ferments his Shiraz and Viognier, and the extended time in barrel allows for a seamless marriage between the two varieties. Sangiovese is by far his largest production wine, which he even exports to Japan. The easy drinking red is an ideal pairing for red sauce pasta or pizza. 

Gallagher Wines

Gallagher sparkling wine and housemade cheese tasting | Photo Credit: Amber Gibson

Gallagher Wines is the only winery in the Canberra region to specialize in sparkling wine. Patriarch Greg Gallagher worked three vintages in Champagne with Ruinart, Veuve Clicquot, and Moët & Chandon, and makes sparkling wine for many local wineries in addition to his own eponymous label. His daughter Lauren works alongside him, and Lauren’s wife is a cheesemaker. Guests can taste several varieties of homemade cow’s milk cheese to accompany a wine tasting, including truffle labneh, creamy blue cheese, and ashed pepper brie.

Sparkling Duet is their largest production non-vintage sparkling wine and could easily be mistaken for a true Champagne. They make a vintage blanc de blancs from their own estate-grown grapes and Lauren is waiting to disgorge her first blanc de noirs. The father-daughter duo makes a sparkling Shiraz too, which is a popular drink for Australian to drink on Christmas day. It also pairs well with chocolate desserts. Gallagher’s Riesling is delicious as well, with more floral characteristics than the region’s typical lemon and lime flavors.

Beltana Farm

Photo Credit: Beltana Farm

Beltana Farm is a new restaurant located on a truffle farm in the Pialligo neighborhood right near Canberra Airport. The food is excellent and matched by an extensive wine list championing local producers along with global greats. The friendly young team will guide you to the right glass or bottle based on your preferences and selected menu. Sommelier Tom Blakely r recommends the lightly oaked 2022 Collector Tiger Tiger Chardonnay to pair with wattleseed roasted cauliflower. “The flinty, seductive nose is excellent alongside the charring, and the palate holds weight and flavor that pair beautifully with the sulfury brassica and macadamia milk,” he says.

If you have too much to drink at dinner, you can stay overnight in one of the well-appointed yurts on property and, during truffle season, you can even participate in a truffle hunt.

Rizla

Photo Credit: Rizla

Rizla is an intimate wine bar in the lively Braddon neighborhood. It’s all about Riesling here, with an extensive selection of Canberra Rieslings in all styles alongside other Australian and international producers. There’s more than just Riesling on the wine list too;  they have a couple dozen wines available by the glass as well so you don’t need to commit to a bottle. Dishes like roasted fennel with stracciatella cheese, pepitas, and pickled currants, tuna tartare with housemade potato chips, and chicken panang bites served on crispy rice cakes are all meant to be shared and you can elect for a family-style tasting menu for $80 AUD per person if you don’t feel like making any decisions.