“Some argue this is Australia’s greatest red wine, it is certainly one of the greatest Shirazs” The Wall Street Journal
“an icon wine, one of the best in Australia” James Halliday
It has been a remarkable journey for Clonakilla. When John Kirk planted the first vines in 1971 he had no idea that his vineyard would one day be celebrated as one of the best in the country. Along the way there have been trials and tribulations as well as moments of unprecendented success.
Over time something important has become clear: Murrumbateman and Shiraz are one of those rare combinations in the world of wine that can produce something truly exciting.
James Halliday describes Clonakilla’s Shiraz Viognier as “an icon wine, one of the best in Australia”. Jeremy Oliver lists it among his “Perfect 1s”. Langton’s Andrew Caillard described it as “one of the most important advances in the development of Australian Shiraz since the release of 1952 Penfolds Grange Hermitage”. The story of this iconic wine has spanned generations.
The Kirk family arrive in Australia. John takes up his research position with the CSIRO Division of Plant Industry in Canberra.
John Kirk establishes Clonakilla Vineyard on a forty-four acre farm near the village of Murrumbateman forty kilometres north of Canberra.
The first winery building is built by hand, with John Kirk and sons laying the blocks. This original building currently functions as the cellar door.
John Kirk produces the Canberra District’s first commercial vintage. A Riesling Sauvignon Blanc and a Cabernet Shiraz.
Realising the need for a reliable water source after suffering through a drought, a bore is sunk and the plantings are increased to two and a half acres.
Encouraged by his son Jeremy to try something new and rare, John Kirk plants the white grape Viognier in the Clonakilla vineyard.
Clonakilla winery is a family business, established by John Kirk in 1971. Developing a vineyard and winery business was originally a weekend distraction for John. He had first developed an interest in wine when he was fourteen. His parents owned the Hydro Hotel in Lisdoonvarna, County Clare, Ireland. When he came home from boarding school one summer he was given the job of looking after the bar and stocking the hotel cellars.
To get a handle on his new responsibilities he began to read about the great wine regions of Europe. He soon became smitten with the idea of wine. His personal knowledge of the subject was greatly expanded through his years of study at Cambridge University, his post doctoral work at Oxford and his time as a lecturer in biochemistry at the university town of Aberystwyth in Wales. In 1968 John took up an offer to come to Australia to take a research position with the CSIRO Division of Plant Industry in Canberra.
John establishes the site
To John’s surprise, while the climatic parallels with the great European regions were strong, there was no wine industry in the cool Southern Tablelands of NSW around Canberra.
In 1971 he bought a 44 acre farm near the village of Murrumbateman, 40 kilometres north of Canberra. The soil consisted of sandy clay loams over a base of decomposed granite. He planted a vineyard and named the property Clonakilla (‘meadow of the church’) after his grandfather’s farm in County Clare.
John produced the Canberra District’s first commercial vintage in 1976 – a Riesling Sauvignon Blanc and a Cabernet Shiraz. With the help of his sons John completed the first winery building in 1977, a simple besser block construction. A bore was sunk in 1978 and larger plantings became feasible.
From 1978 to the present the vineyard has gradually expanded with Shiraz, Riesling and Viognier making up the bulk of the vineyard which now covers 33 acres (13.5 hectares).
"one of the most important advances in the development of Australian Shiraz since the release of 1952 Penfolds Grange Hermitage"Andrew Caillard, Langton's
John first planted Shiraz at Clonakilla in 1972. Through the seventies and eighties the Shiraz was blended with Cabernet Sauvignon in traditional Australian style. In 1990 it was decided to keep the Shiraz component separate. The Clonakilla 1990 Shiraz went on to win one silver, two gold and two trophies in three showings. James Halliday described it as “a tour de force in spicy/peppery varietal character”. Needless to say, the Kirks began to see Murrumbateman Shiraz in a new light.
The first straight Clonakilla Shiraz is produced going on to win two gold and two trophies.
Tim Kirk visits Cote Rotie in the Rhone Valley, France, and catches a vision for a Shiraz Viognier blend.
The first Clonakilla Shiraz with a small amount of co-fermented Viognier is made. “…without doubt one of the finest Canberrra District reds…I have ever seen…an absolute stunner”, wrote Gerald Atkinson.
For the first time the words Shiraz and Viognier along with Pinot Noir appear together on the front label.
“Teaching at a Jesuit school I had the opportunity every year to attend a prayer retreat. Every time I tried to reflect on the scriptures I found myself thinking about the best ways to manage Shiraz ferments.
I asked my retreat director, “What am I supposed to do about this constant distraction?” He replied, “Why do you assume it’s a distraction?” Within six months I was back at Murrumbateman as Clonakilla winemaker and General Manager.”
In 1991 Tim Kirk travelled to the Rhone Valley where he tasted the great Shiraz-based wines of Cote Rotie and Hermitage. The highlight of the trip was at the Guigal family winery, where Tim tasted the 1988 single vineyard Cote Roties La Landonne, La Mouline and La Turque from barrel.
This was a turning point. Tim remembers it well: "There are rare moments in a wine lover’s life when you find yourself transfixed by the extraordinary beauty of what’s in the glass before you, and tasting those Cote Roties was just such a revelatory moment for me. They had striking aromas; an ethereal perfume with complex, savoury dimensions, while the palate structure was different to the robust texture that Australian Shiraz wines are renowned for. These wines were finer in texture, the tannins leaving a silky impression, but with flavours that had persistence and great drive.
I thought at the time that if I was ever able to produce wine from our humble vineyard at Murrumbateman that got close to that level of complexity, refinement and beauty, I would be a very happy man. I wondered if Shiraz wines approaching the best Cote Roties in style and substance could be produced in Australia. I was very fortunate that my father John had planted some Viognier at Clonakilla in the mid-eighties. I had also been impressed with what Bailey Carrodus had achieved at Yarra Yering in the Yarra Valley with his Dry Red No. 2. So from the 1992 vintage onwards we set about making a Shiraz Viognier blend from our Murrumbateman vineyard.”
A Window Opens
What happened next took the family by surprise
Reviews started to appear heralding the fact that something new and surprising had been discovered.
Gerald Atkinson wrote in The Canberra Times “The 1992 Clonakilla Shiraz is without doubt one of the finest Canberra District reds – nay, one of the finest young small-maker Shirazes – I have ever seen; it’s an absolute stunner.” James Halliday again went to print in The Australian to acclaim Clonakilla’s “extremely stylish dark cherry and spice-laden Shiraz.”
"…shiraz viogniers, and pure shirazs, that are at the very top of the Australian tree.” James Halliday
The 1994 vintage received a five star review in the Age/Sydney Morning Herald Uncorked magazine and a 96 point review from James Halliday. Jeremy Oliver in an article entitled “A Patch of Cote Rotie Near Canberra?” described the Shiraz Viognier as “unquestionably Australia’s most Cote Rotie like shiraz: a fleshy, peppery, long and silky-smooth wine which goes on and on…”
In 1999,in a shock result for the Hunter Valley dominated NSW wine industry, the 1998 Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier was named New South Wales Wine of the Year.
“…consistently one of Australia’s best red wines, maybe the best” Ralph Kyte-Powell
In an article in The Sydney Morning Herald,chairman of judges Huon Hooke related his thoughts at the point in the judging when he came across the wine:
“Number 21, a shiraz blend: fabulous wine, very spicy, gamy, complex, probably cool-climate. I’d give that a gold medal, straight up.” I can almost feel the glow on the back of my neck from four beaming faces.
“Yep, That’s our unanimous top” says Purbrick. “Isn’t it a rip-snorter?”
“…some of the country’s most breathtakingly beautiful wines.” Max Allen
I have another taste, more to enjoy it than to double check. I let it slip down the throat. Thoroughly seductive. I put the glass down, and four keen hands reach for it, eager for a final sip before we move on. As if they can’t quite believe their luck, finding this diamond casually lying buried among the rubble."
- 1999 Wine of the Year NSW
- 2002 Penguin Good Wine Guide Best Shiraz Best Red and Wine of the Year
- 2003 Named one of Australia’s top ten Shiraz Gourmet Traveller Wine
- 2005 Top 10 Australian wines produced in the last 10 years Australian Financial Review Magazine
- 2005 Rated Outstanding Langton’s Classification of Australian Wine IV
- 2006 Wine of the Year Max Allen, Weekend Australian Magazine
- 2009 Top Shiraz Penguin Good Wine Guide
- 2009 Shiraz of the Year Huon Hooke, Sydney Morning Herald
- 2010 Winner Best First Class Red Cellars in the Sky International Airline Awards
- 2010 Rated Exceptional Langton’s Classification of Australian Wine V
- 2011 Wine of the Year Jeremy Oliver’s Australian Wine Annual
- 2011 Winner Best First Class Red Cellars in the Sky International Airline Awards
Tim and Lara purchase the 50 acre block next to Clonakilla and plant Shiraz, Viognier and an olive grove on the warm North East facing site.
The 1998 Shiraz Viognier is named New South Wales Wine of the Year.
...fabulous wine, very spicy, gamy, complex, probably cool-climate. I’d give that a gold medal, straight up.
The first Clonakilla Hilltops Shiraz is made from grapes grown around the Town of Young in New South Wales.
The 2001 Shiraz Viognier wins Penguin Wine Guide Wine of the Year. It also picks up Best Red and Best Shiraz scooping “…the pool as our favourite red this year…it’s simply superb.”
The Shiraz Viognier achieves an Outstanding ranking on the Langtons Classification of Australian Wine.
“Easily the most beautiful young Australian wine I drank this year…” The 2005 Shiraz Viognier is named Wine of the Year by Max Allen.
One of the great things about Shiraz in Australia is the range of flavours it produces in the different geographical areas in which it is grown. No other country produces such a diverse range of wines from the one variety, each style clearly recognizable as Shiraz.
From intense ripe plum, blackberry and chocolate in the warmer South Australian areas to the raspberry, aromatic spice and cracked pepper characters from the cooler regions of Victoria, Shiraz presents so many options.
The Canberra District is on the cooler side of the spectrum. There is always a degree of spiciness to be found in Shiraz in this district. In the best years this is a multifaceted character, a complex layering of spices intertwined with ripe berry notes. Black and white pepper are also generally present, particularly in the cooler years, along with clove, nutmeg, five spice and a haunting note of roasted game.
Tim Kirk says, “When it comes time for harvest I’m looking for riper spice notes and berry flavours in the grapes. This is a cool climate and spice is always a key element in the flavour profile. Classic cool climate spice character at its best is more than a mono-dimensional dominant white pepper character, so the grapes are given time to hang for the riper flavours to appear. Red berries are sought after along with the more elusive floral notes such as violets and rose petals. In the warmer years darker fruits emerge: blackberry, blackcurrant, even a suggestion of aniseed.”
The over-riding principle that governs the work at Clonakilla is that the winemaking has to respect the fruit. In Tim’s view, “The task of the winemaker is to capture something that is present in the fruit; something good, unique, worthy of inspection, perhaps even beautiful. Carefully grown grapes from a noble site deserve the opportunity to express themselves in as pure a form as possible.
It is important to resist the temptation to bury the fruit in too much winemaking artiface. The winemaking inputs we bring should serve the purpose of capturing the personality of the fruit, rather than imposing the winemaker’s vision for what the thing is supposed to taste like.”
The Kirk family buys Euroka Park, a 55 acre property adjacent to both Clonakilla and Tim and Lara’s block. A four acre Shiraz vineyard is planted along with an acre of Chateauneuf-du-Pape varieties: Grenache, Mourvedre and Cinsault.
The first Clonakilla O’Riada Shiraz is made in response to the loss of 90% of the estate fruit to frost. A Shiraz made from fruit purchased from other well-sited Canberra vineyards. In subsequent years it includes the estate fruit that just misses the cut for selection in the Shiraz Viognier.
The first Viognier Nouveau is released.
Tim Kirk named Winemaker of the Year by Nick Stock in the Penguin Good Wine Guide. The 2007 Shiraz Viognier wins the Penguin Award for Top Shiraz.
The 2009 Shiraz Viognier is named Wine of the Year by Jeremy Oliver in The Australian Wine Annual. The Shiraz Viognier achieves an Exceptional ranking on the Langtons Classification of Australian Wine.
A New Chapter
The Clonakilla Syrah
The Shiraz Viognier is now widely celebrated as one of Australia’s great reds. Encouraged by its success Tim decided to release a new wine from the 2006 vintage; a straight Shiraz from the same estate vines that produce the Shiraz Viognier. It was named ‘Syrah’, the French name for Shiraz.
“Simply a classic wine from a classic estate.” Campbell Mattinson
The winemaking is kept as simple as possible. A single fermenter is filled with pure Shiraz from the North-East facing T and L vineyard. Whole berries are fermented warm by their own native yeasts. They spend up to a month macerating on skins and the wine then spends around eighteen months maturing in French oak, a third new.
The Syrah presents as a darker, more brooding wine than the Shiraz Viognier with a distinct wild berry, potent spice character.
“A very great wine” James Halliday
This is the Hermitage to the Shiraz Viognier’s Cote Rotie. It’s also rare. No more than 300 dozen are made each year.
The vines are growing older and their roots are delving deeper into the decomposed granite that lies beneath our vineyard. Year by year our viticulture and winemaking are more finely tuned. The progress at Clonakilla has been significant to this point, we have no doubt the best is still to come.
It’s the perfect place to encounter the Clonakilla story, to come and taste what this landscape has to say through the medium of wine.