Wines of the Canberra District – Coming of Age by Brian Johnston and Janet Johnson

Canberra wines? Capital idea!

By Robyn Lewis
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Wines of the Canberra District by Brian Johnston and Janet Johnson

Wines of the Canberra District by Brian Johnston and Janet Johnson [©McKellar Ridge Wines]


When asked about Canberra, most Australians think of politicians, closely followed by public servants, spin doctors, then perhaps the tax office. Stereotype thoughts that might drive you to drink, but not necessarily of fine wine.

Many have little idea that in the region of NSW around Australia’s national capital, vineyards have sprung up, and are now producing some of the nation’s best cool climate wines. For the rarefied air around Canberra is also good at growing grapes: riesling, shiraz and viognier amongst others now coming to the fore.

Indeed, the history stretches back a long way. Before Canberra was a political hotbed, it was of course farmland, cleared and settled around the 1840s.

The first grapes in ‘the District’ were planted around the same time as the pioneer vines of South Australia, near Gunning, a town some 60 km to the capital’s north east. But then there was a long hiatus.

Today, most of Canberra District’s vineyards lie between the two towns, with a cluster around Murrumbateman, almost due north of Canberra. Others are south of Collector; Lake George to the east is the boundary, and ‘the District’ is home to around 40 wine producers today. ranks it among the Top 12 wine regions of Australia.

Many are names that will be familiar to discerning wine lovers both in Australia and (increasingly) internationally: Brindabella Hills, Clonakilla, Helm Wines, Jeir Creek, Lerida Estate and Mount Majura to name but a few.

Wines of the Canberra District – Coming of Age is the second edition of a book first published in 2002, under the original subtitle Undiscovered Treasures. Ten years on things have changed, and the Canberra District is no longer hiding its light under a bushel. The book was published to coincide with the 40th anniversary of modern winemaking in the region.

The authors, Brian Johnston and Janet Johnson from McKellar Ridge Wines, have carefully documented the changes in this excellent and timely overview.

Riesling, one of the best varieties of ‘the District’, would have to be one of the most under-rated, underpriced wines in Australia, so it’s perhaps held back the development of the region’s reputation – as an athletic friend of mine once said, it’s like being a world champion at speed walking. Not a glamour sport. Few care.

However, shiraz is right up there in Australian wine drinkers’ sights, and with the 2009 Jimmy Watson trophy going to a cool climate shiraz blend from the Canberra District, then to another from Tasmania in 2011, expect even more attention on Canberra’s shiraz and shiraz viognier (and maybe other) blends to come. What once was South Australia’s mantle is now spreading to cooler climes, as consumer tastes change away from blockbuster styles.

It is less well known that Canberra District winemakers are also winning awards for other varieties, including chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and blends including merlot, merlot itself, tempranillo, sangiovese, plus viognier, pinot gris,  and grüner veltliner.

Then there’s their sauvignon blanc, pinot noir, rousanne and graciano. As the authors remind us, areas and volumes are still small. However this allows a focus on quality and local provenance, not unlike Tasmanian viticulture.

Nick Spencer, the President of the Canberra District Wine Industry Association wrote in 2010: “The past two years have seen unparalleled success for many wineries in the Canberra District…..(the reason being)… We produce a contemporary style of wine that is elegant, medium bodied, perfumed and food friendly…. more consistent with consumers’ lifestyles.”

Say no more – isn’t that what most wine drinkers are looking for? The issue for the Canberra District is now about communicating this message. Spencer continues: “the key to success will be to focus on communicating our unique terroir and also the unique individual sites within our region”.

Personally, I think that is putting the cart a little ahead of the horse. To me, the issue is to communicate that the Canberra District produces wine – as well as political hot air – and quality wine at that.

For although the word Canberra may have negative connotations for some, at least the name is widely known, unlike several other regions (Pemberton in Western Australia springs to mind). It’s a good start. A few tweaks of Brand Canberra are all that stands in their way. Explanations of local terroir and microclimate can follow as general awareness grows.

Wines of the Canberra District – Coming of Age will go some way to assist, although the book is quite academic in style and may not appeal to the general public, especially at first glance. University House and the Wine Symposium are obviously important to the authors (the publication of this edition was timed for their 7th Symposium) but perhaps are unlikely to drive the average reader beyond the introduction, where they are featured on pages 2 and 3.

However, things warm up with the history and the ‘rebirth of the Canberra District in the 1970s’ (and 80s) in Chapter 3, with tables and winemaker profiles that read like a who’s who of cool climate viticulture, including the venerable Dr Edgar Riek OAM, Ken Helm AM, Dr John Kirk and his son Tim, and more. By the end of Chapter 5 you will have no doubt that the making of quality wine is serious business in the Canberra District.

Chapter 6 on ‘Climate, Soils and Viticultural Practices in the Canberra District’ explains how and why, and for any keen wine drinker interested in these aspects and in comparisons to other wine-making regions around the world, it’s enlightening stuff. Wine makers will love it. Again, it reads like an academic paper (nothing wrong with that, it’s just not very consumer-friendly) but amongst it are gems like:

  • The Canberra Districts’ grape season can be classified as ‘mild’, and is comparable to Bordeaux and the north Rhone Valley in France, and Coonawarra in South Australia
  • Nearly half the vintages are comparable with the Medoc and Sauternes (Bordeaux) regions
  • A third of vintages are more like Hermitage (Rhône)
  • Just under a quarter are cooler, like Champagne, Chablis and Graves in France.
  • Key to success is the long, stable autumn weather, providing generally ideal conditions for ripening and harvesting

Much of the Canberra District’s improvements in the past four decades have been based on careful site selection (avoiding frost-prone sites, or grafting of later budding varieties onto vines already established in frosty pockets), and drip irrigation to enable the vines to survive and proper through the long, dry summers.

Despite being more than 200 km inland, ‘the District’ often benefits from late afternoon sea breezes in summer, which help keep temperatures to an optimum for grapes. Too hot and the sugar levels will increase too quickly, with flavours lagging behind.

Wine growers and makers will find the next section on clones, ground covers, pruning techniques, forecast impacts of climate change on vine growth, etc, very interesting, although again for the general reader, this content could have been better positioned towards the rear of the book.

Chapter 7 covers Award-Winning Wines and an analysis of wine quality. There are summary tables of medals won, and key highlights by variety of trophies and medals. There must be quite a few groaning trophy cabinets in the Canberra District, including that of Clonakilla for their shiraz-viognier blend, deservedly described by the authors as an iconic Australian wine (Langton’s classification rates it as Exceptional).

Eden Valley won the Jimmy Watson Trophy in 2009 for its Hilltops 2008 Shiraz – the awards lists cover several pages, and few producers lack a mention. What have other Australians been missing? A lot, apparently. Perhaps in the bottleshops of NSW, wines of the Canberra District are more widely available, but sadly they seem under-represented in other states’ retail outlets. Online and direct seem the way to buy.

There is a brief chapter on exploring the Canberra District Wine Region, with a recommendation to use the Canberra Districts Wineries Guide, either in hardcopy or online. The region is marketed to wine travellers under the brand ‘Liquid Geography™’.

Canberra District’s wineries are clustered in several groups – two are within the ACT’s boundaries, a number west of Hall near the Murrumbidgee River, some to the east, and the most significant cluster near the village of Murrumbateman. There’s a map on page 44, which perhaps would have been better located at the front of the book (even inside the front cover), so that the reader can quickly get a visual grasp of the region. 

There are also mentions of festivals, moving feasts, a wine and tapas trail and other delights that await discovery (see links to festivals below).

The next ninety pages are devoted to details of forty winery/vineyards, provided by the grapegrowers and winemakers themselves. I assume that all are included, but sometimes in publications of this nature, local politics sees one or two choose to remain silent, although there is no note of any omissions in the foreword.

These follow a fairly consistent layout, for ease of reading: background,  location (for some), wine production, awards (where relevant), wine tourism (ditto), full contact details, lists of labels, cellar door opening hours, explanation of logos (for some) and more, all beautifully illustrated with quality photographs. It’s not a coffee table book, but leafing through Wines of the Canberra District – Coming of Age will certainly give readers a good indication of what’s on offer, and a feel for their individual stories.

The authors’ own vineyard, McKellar Ridge Wines at Murrumbateman, modestly receives standard coverage. Brian Johnston is an agricultural scientist and economist by training, now turned winemaker; Janet Johnson (with no t) a former teacher, now business partner (as well as wife) and watercolour artist. Their talents have combined well to produce this book.

There are mentions of several young, up-and-coming winemakers producing very high quality wines, including Frank van der Loo for tempranillo and blends, Alex McKay, Bryan Martin, Nick Spencer and Nick O’Leary for shiraz and other varieties.

Helpfully at the rear there is a small selection of ‘tourism-related business profiles’: where to stay and dine amongst the vines.

The authors are clearly very proud of their region, and Wines of the Canberra District – Coming of Age is ideal for any serious student of wine, particularly one interested in the future direction of Australian cool climate viticulture. It will go a long way to putting the region firmly on the international wine map.

When you reach the end of Wines of the Canberra District – Coming of Age, you will be wondering how ‘the District’ has managed to remain relatively undiscovered in our own country for so long.

It’s definitely time to banish your stereotypic views of Canberra, hop on a plane and head to our national capital’s wine country for some tasting and touring this secret certainly won’t last. Be sure to take a copy with you.


Wines of the Canberra District – Coming of Age by Brian Johnston and Janet Johnson is published by 3R Operations (McKellar, ACT; sc, 138 pp) and retails in Australia for RRP A$33.


It is available direct from the author’s website ($30, postage extra) or direct from their cellar door, and others in the region.



  • Canberra (ACT)
  • Capital Country ACT (ACT)

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April 12th, 2012
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