Canberra cabernet surprises

Shaw family and pooch

The Canberra region is famous for shiraz, but on a recent visit, I was surprised by the cabernets.

The shirazes and shiraz viogniers have drawn the spotlight to the area, but the cabernets can be excellent. Global warming is helping, as cabernet needs plenty of sun and warmth to achieve good ripeness.

I co-hosted a cabernet and lamb dinner at Flint restaurant at Murrumbateman’s Shaw Vineyard Estate, with cabernets from four wineries – Shaw, Helm, Yarrh and Dionysus. It didn’t hurt that the wines were cherry-picked from the best cabernet years (2004, 2005, 2008, 2010 and 2013), but even that selection indicates there were five great cabernet years in a decade, which in the scheme of things is not a bad strike-rate.

Helm Wines owner Ken Helm is a champion for cabernet (and riesling) who has an ongoing friendly argument with the shiraz pushers, such as Tim Kirk of Clonakilla (tastings). He points out that the region’s first gold medal was for a cabernet, and the climate has similarities to Bordeaux, except for Canberra’s advantages of a cool dry autumn, low humidity and lack of vintage rain.

The seven cabernets tasted at the dinner were outstanding. My favourites were the current-release Helm Premium Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 ($52 – tasting), the Shaw Estate Merriman 2008 (tasting), Helm Premium 2005 (tasting) and Shaw Estate 2004 (tasting). The Shaw wines were concentrated, ripe and quite pepperminty, the ’05 Helm a touch oaky, but not overdone – and I suspect oak has been reduced in more recent vintages. The Dionysus wines (tasting) were lushly fruited, concentrated and quite high in alcohol.

Oddly, Yarrh was represented only by rosés, two of them, pleasant enough but a little sweet (tasting). I’d earlier tasted a 2013 Yarrh cabernet ($25 – tasting), which was stylish, intense and elegant, showing ripe tannins and relatively modest 13.5% alcohol. It would have been a worthy inclusion in the cabernet dinner.

Flint is a very smart restaurant, with sophisticated food and high-level comfort far removed from the bare concrete floors, ear-splitting noise and unfriendly chairs of some winery cafes.

Shaw Vineyard Estate has evolved into a key asset for the region and, with cabernet, owner Graeme Shaw has put his money where his mouth is. Of his 32 hectares of vines – a large vineyard for the region – nearly one-third are cabernet. He sells 35 percent of his wine into China, where cabernet is very much in fashion.

Perched at 600 metres altitude, the vineyard benefits from a late afternoon sea breeze the locals nickname Bateman’s Breath as it comes from the vicinity of Bateman’s Bay. This can cool the vines after a hot day, or help dry the foliage after rain.

Shaw is candid that not every year is a top cabernet year:

“Both 2011 and 2012 were very wet years, especially ’12. But the good news is that 2015 cabernets (mostly still in barrel) will be the best the region has ever produced.”

I can’t wait.

The Canberra wine region is thriving today, despite having experienced some of its driest seasons on record. The wines are better than ever. There are 140 vineyards, 34 properties with cellar door sales, and more than 30 members of the local winemakers’ association. Despite the region’s name, most vineyards and wineries are in NSW, just outside the ACT, embracing Yass,

Murrumbateman, Hall, Gundaroo, the Lake George escarpment, Sutton and Bungendore. Altitudes range from 500 to 850 metres. It’s a great region to tour, as many wineries have good food and facilities.

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