Canberra – Wines and Vines
A vinous overview of Australia's national capital
By Mark Smith
The Canberra District and its near neighbours Gundagai, Hilltops and Tumbarumba are located near the south-eastern corner of New South Wales, roughly four hours’ drive from Sydney via the M5, Hume and Federal Highways.
The regions are highly regarded for their pristine and diverse natural beauty. Here, picturesque mountain ranges, sub-alpine forest, and less elevated land with close links to Australia’s colonial past all vie for visitor attention. More than half the Australian Capital Territory’s land area is devoted to national parks.
The wine-growing regions here all enjoy relatively close proximity to the nation’s capital. That makes them especially attractive tourist destinations off the beaten track if Canberra is likely to be the prime focus for the visitor.
The Canberra District is one of three premium quality wine regions that collectively form the Southern New South Wales zone. The remaining regions are Gundagai, Hilltops and Tumbarumba.
The Southern New South Wales GI was finalised on May 1st, 1996, when the name was entered in the Registrar of Protected Names. The term defines the region’s physical boundaries and proscribes its use under Commonwealth of Australia law (Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation Act 1980).
Like many other winegrowing areas of south-eastern Australia, viticulture in Southern New South Wales dates back to the 1840s. For the most part, vineyards here were a natural adjunct to the land use then being explored by its pioneering farmers and graziers.
Croatian immigrants established the first vines in the Hilltops region in the 1860s. These were planted especially to provide liquid refreshment for the thousands of diggers seeking their fortunes on the gold fields nearby. Wines from these vineyards won medals in the Sydney Wine Shows of the 1890s.
Winegrowing in the semi-mountainous Tumbarumba region is a relatively recent pursuit. The first vines were planted here in 1982. Up until then, few vignerons were equipped with the skills and knowledge required to deal with the challenges imposed by the region’s very cool climate growing conditions.
The Canberra District’s first vineyards of the modern era were planted in 1971 by Dr John Kirk (Clonakilla) and Dr Edgar Riek (Lake George Vineyard). Today, there are more than 140 vineyards located within the Australian Capital Territory. Roughly the same number of sites can be found nearby in the Gundagai, Hilltops and Tumbarumba regions.
Canberra District winegrowers refer to their distinctive regional wines as ‘liquid geography.’ Vineyard geography and topography do provide the key to unlocking the mysteries of making wine in Southern New South Wales.
The diversity of wine styles here is largely underpinned by the variations in temperature and aspect that can be found here, especially through the altitude ranges between 500m and 800m above sea level.
Gundagai is the least elevated wine region in the area. Perched on the edge of the Great Dividing Range, it nevertheless shows some variation in climate - from cool and mild around Tumut to warm/hot near Wagga Wagga. Junee’s mean January temperature of 24ºC falls within half a degree of that recorded in the Barossa Valley, for example.
Tumbarumba’s altitude (300m – 800m) endows it with a climate that is the coolest of the Southern New South Wales zone. However, at its lower elevations, it is indeed no cooler than Victoria’s Yarra Valley. Higher up and critically frost-prone, Tumbarumba’s most elevated sites rival those of Macedon in Victoria when heat degree days are compared.
Soil types can play a role too in determining wine style and quality. These vary from shale and clayey loam (Canberra) to red podsols (Gundagai) and free draining sandy, granite-based soils (Hilltops and Tumbarumba).
From vine to glass
On Australia’s domestic markets, the Canberra Districts brand is associated with premium and ultra-premium quality Australian wine. However, the region’s tiny production base – less than 500ha – helps to ensure its wines remain largely unknown outside this country.
Back in 2007-2008, less than 24,000 litres of wine found its way onto international markets. Its top three destinations were China, the US, and New Zealand. This is growing, but most producers remain boutique in size.
Canberra Districts vineyards at a glance:
- Southern New South Wales Zone
- GI registered 1996
- Located 35°0'S, 149°20'E
- Altitude: 500m-800m
- Heat degree days: 1410
- Growing season rainfall: 360mm
- Mean January temperatures: 20.2°C
- Planted area (2007): 395ha
- Principal varieties (in order of planted area):
- Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Riesling,
- Typical harvest period: March-end April
- Canberra (ACT)
- Capital Country ACT (ACT)
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