When one thinks of Canberra, it’s possible that what first comes to mind is Australia’s Parliament House, or possibly even Lake Burley Griffin. Yet the region has become just as well known for its wines as its politics – even if the majority of the wineries aren’t actually located within the Australian Capital Territory. Clonakilla, established in 1971 by winemaker John Kirk, is perhaps Canberra’s most famous winery, located 30 minutes from the city centre. John and family emigrated from the UK in the late 1960s, and he began working at the CSIRO Division of Plant Industry, due to his background in biochemistry and physics. Their first vintage didn’t occur until 1976, due to difficulties with drought and irrigation. The wines produced were a riesling/sauvignon blanc, as well as a cabernet shiraz, a style synonymous with Australia. In 1991, John’s son Tim visited the northern Rhȏne Valley, where the blending of the red grape shiraz/syrah with the white grape viognier is common, producing wines with intoxicating aromas.
The Clonakilla shiraz viognier quickly gained immense popularity, receiving plaudits from scores of wine critics and judges, helping to show just what was possible in the Canberra wine region- to this day it is still classed as Australia’s best example of this blend. Despite having no formal winemaking education (only what his father taught him), in 2013 Tim was named Gourmet Traveller Wines’ Winemaker of the Year. Tim is now the chief winemaker and CEO at Clonakilla, though John can still be seen pottering around the vineyard with a pair of secateurs. Clonakilla produce a range of wines at different price points, from the cheaper sauvignon blanc semillon to magnums (yes, 1.5L!) of shiraz viognier. Many of the wines’ names hark back to the Kirks’ origins in Ireland, such as o’Riada, Ballinderry and Ceoltóiri (pronounced ‘keel-toy-ree’, meaning ‘musicians’).