Feature image is Ken Helm. Photograph courtesy of Irene Dowdy

Canberra District vineyards cover a diverse altitudinal range of between 300 to 800 metres and have a similar diverse assortment of soil types. Located north and east of the Australian Capital Territory, the wine district is subdivided into three areas, ACT & Hall, Bungendore/Lake George, and Murrumbateman/Yass. So, it may come as no surprise that there is a rich diversity of wine styles on offer to the visitor taking time out in the Nation’s Capital. Historically the region had an active industry last century, which was re-established in the 1970s by Dr John Kirk at Clonakilla and Dr Edgar Riek at Lake George. Some 330 hectares and 30 cellar doors now make up the district. The climate is cool to warm with an MJT hovering around 21.3°C (GDD 1553). The region enjoys an extended autumn ripening period similar to Bordeaux in France. However, some areas are frost prone. The district has sedimentary soils towards the east and volcanic with clay material in the Hall and Murrumbateman areas. The on-going drought keeps yields low.
It is a region blessed with characters and intelligent winemakers, being an area established by a band of highly educated researchers and academics that initially worked in the nation’s capital and then went on to buy country properties and plant grapes. Two of the early pioneers was Ken and Judith Helm in the Murrumbateman sub-region and Sue and David Carpenter at Lark Hill.
Ken Helm has notched up an impressive 47 vintages and specialises in riesling, having been inspired by the wines of Germany. Putting your nose into a glass of his wine transports you to Europe immediately, they are floral, perfumed driven and have a softer green apple acid profile as opposed to the lemony, lime, citric acid of say Clare Valley. Try his 2023 Helm Classic Dry Riesling ($45) to see the difference. He also does a superb 2023 Premium Riesling ($60) that is more intense and has a longer palate length and lovely minerality, with a touch more acidity and built to age. Ken sources fruit from Juliet Cullen to produce a Tumbarumba Riesling 2023 ($40) which is more granny smith driven and zesty as well as a Half-Dry Riesling and a pleasant Riesling Rose 2024 ($40) that is made with a splash of cabernet sauvignon. It has strong candid fruits, bubble-gum and cherry aromas, which leads to a nice dry palate with a touch of residual sugar on the finish. Overall a wine with plenty of flavour and well balanced.

Why does riesling do so well for Helms, when the sub-region can be hot? Ken puts it down partially to the ’Bateman Breath’ a wind that stirs in the late afternoon and evening that cools the temperature down.

But recently they have had has some cooler vintages. Ken says the 2021 vintage was the coolest in all his time on the land. His 2021 Classic Cabernet Sauvignon ($60) is an herbal, leaf and earth driven wine, a truly traditional offering that reminds me of the way reds were tasting when I first came to Australia some 35 years ago……. But thankfully without the ‘brett’… On the palate the wine the wines is medium bodied, soft, supple, savoury with hints of mocha. The 2019 Classic Cabernet Sauvignon ($60) is more of a typical vintage but still driven by earth and leaf notes, cedar oak, minty and menthol driven on the richer nose. The 2021 Premium Cabernet Sauvignon ($110) had sweet fruits of cherry laced with mocha. Elegant, medium bodied with touches of chocolate and mocha on the palate. Winemaking runs in the family with Ken’s daughter Stephanie having her own wine business called the Vintner’s Daughter in nearby Yass.

Lark Hill (see photo of vineyards below) have vines dating back to 1978. It was one of the first vineyards in the region and established by Sue and David Carpenter. The cellar door is warm and inviting and they serve a small selection of dishes in their stylish restaurant at the weekend.

Lark Hill Cellar Door

Their vineyard is perched at Bungendore, overlooking the full Lake George. It’ s the highest vineyard in the area sitting at 860m. In their white portfolio they produced an excellent Grüner Veltliner (GV). It all started in 2002, when they were looking for some other grape variety to plant. It was at that time that their winemaking son Chris joined them. Fortunately, wine writer Jancis Robinson just so happened to be visiting them from the UK. She had just been to a tasting which pitched GV against a some top-flight Chardonnays from Burgundy and the GV had come out on top. So with this in mind, whilst strolling through the Carpenters vineyard, she suggested planting Grüner. They practically had to look up what it was, as there was no commercial plantings of GV in Australia at the time. They finally found a few vines being grown by Tasmanian pioneer winemaker Graham Wiltshire and took cuttings. Lark Hill 2022 Grüner Veltliner ($45) is a beautiful intense wine with touches of tropical fruits, struck match, white pepper and minerality. I has a nutty, textured and fleshy palate with slight creamy notes.

Lark Hill Pinot Noir 2022 ($55) demonstrates it was from a cool year with a light colour and delicate flavours with struck match, earth and cedar supporting light red fruits. Made from MV6, as well as Pommard and Dijon-115 clones, it is a lovely scented wine. The Carpenters also have a vineyard in the Murrumbateman region where they grow shiraz and sangiovese. Their 2022 Scuro is a 50/50 blend of the two grapes and is a lovely cherry and sweet oak driven textured, velvety, medium-bodied wine. The 2019 Shiraz Viognier ($45) was a full of black brambly fruits with hints of struck match complexity. The palate was dry, medium bodied and textured with a long, lovely tannin structure with licorice and red cherry flavours. Highly Recommended and well priced for the quality on show.

Close to Canberra airport, Mount Majura vineyard sits on old volcanic soils with additional iron rich clay and limestone thrown in for good measure. Winemaker Frank Van de Loo has recently retired but is still a part owner. Mount Majura makes quality-driven Pinot Gris, Riesling and Shiraz, but it is their Spanish varieties that have stood out. Frank, a trained viticulturist, as well as a winemaker, specialised in Tempranillo as well as Graciano and they produce an excellent TSG Blend – Tempranillo, Shiraz and Graciano. Their 2023 TSG ($38) was elegant, floral with hints of pepper and cherries. The palate was juicy, earthy with licorice notes. Medium bodied in style. They do three vineyard expressions of Tempranillo. Their 2022 Tempranillo ($58) was a blend of all 3 and is textured, with chalky tannins. Their Dry Spur Tempranillo 2022 ($78) is a more herbal driven firmer full bodied wine with black cherries. A rich and textured wine that was outstanding . Whilst the Little Dam Tempranillo 2022 ($78) sat in-between the two wines showing more nutmeg spice, red cherries and savoury flavours, but still with a nice dry tannic finish.

Chris Carpenter at Lark Hill

Clive Hartley is an award-winning wine writer, educator and consultant. Check out his fortnightly radio show on Hepburn Community Radio called “put a cork in it”. Now out on Spotify. Want to learn more about wine? Try his book the Australian Wine Guide (7th ed) – available for purchase through his website – www.australianwineguide.com.au