Rewards for a 'killa instinct

Going the extra yard ... Clonakilla shiraz is consistently outstanding.
Going the extra yard ... Clonakilla shiraz is consistently outstanding.

Tim Kirk, the chief winemaker at his family's Clonakilla winery at Murrumbateman, is well known as a religious man, but now it seems he is working his own miracles.

The various 2011 Clonakilla shiraz wines, born in the wettest and arguably worst season in living memory, are outstanding, all the more remarkable when you consider the season's difficulties.

The rainfall for the six-month growing season was 586 millimetres (average is 346 millimetres), and the outbreaks of fungal disease were barely containable. Kirk writes in his vintage notes: ''2011 was the most challenging year we have had to deal with, a number of blocks were left unpicked as they were not going to achieve the standard required. Managing mildew and botrytis in the vineyard was a major undertaking. Sprays were carefully timed and, mercifully, the tractors didn't get bogged.''

More than 1000-dozen of the vineyard's $100 flagship shiraz viognier were bottled, less than half the average quantity.

Yet the wine is spectacular, and so is its running mate, the $45 O'Riada Shiraz. Clonakilla's $30 Hilltops Shiraz is also very good.

And no, it's not the result of a miracle. It's because Clonakilla goes the extra yard. If Kirk did not believe in the wine, he wouldn't have released it at the going rate of $100 retail, no matter what the quantity.

Kirk is not only an intelligent, thoughtful winemaker with great vineyards at his disposal, he's also honest. And he knows when the quality isn't up to par.

There are no compromises at Clonakilla, a model that can be compared to other iconic, family-owned small wineries such as Grosset, Bindi, Paringa Estate, Oakridge and Craiglee.

These were all represented among the guests at a recent 20-year retrospective tasting of Clonakilla shiraz viognier.

The crowd at the tasting dinner was a testament to the esteem and respect in which Kirk and Clonakilla are held by winemakers and the media. And the wines did not disappoint.

High points were the 2001 and 2009, with 2008, 2006, 2004 and 1998 also outstanding, closely followed by 2005, 2010, 2011, 2002, 1997 and 1995. These are all of trophy, gold medal or very high silver medal quality on my scorecard, earning 93 or more points out of 100.

Then came several vintages of silver-medal quality, excellent wines but marginally less harmonious or complex. Those were the '92, '93, '94, '99, 2000 and 2007. The '94 and '07 have a great deal going for them and could score higher on another day, as they have in the past. That only leaves two lesser wines: 1996 (a particularly cold season and late harvest) and 2003 (drought affected), but even these are quite acceptable.

One can never divine precisely how a given vintage will mature, and the 2011 may well be downgraded in future vertical tastings such as this. But today the wine is utterly lovely, a shiraz for pinot noir lovers, if you like. In weight and richness it may suffer by comparison with its peers, but as a bottle on a table in a restaurant it will be lapped up greedily and loved.

The wine is clean and fresh, bright and balanced and delicious, and has the marvellously lifted, spicy fragrance that typifies this label.

The conclusion must be that, while the season was a nightmare, hard work in the vineyard and strict selection in the winery resulted in beautiful wine - it is simply a matter of the winemaker's commitment.

Charles Rousseau of Burgundy's celebrated Domaine Armand Rousseau once said, when discussing a superb wine he'd made from the ordinary 1972 vintage, that great wine can be made every year in Burgundy; it is down to hard work in the vineyard and selection in the winery. Selection means firstly fermenting only the healthy, sound berries, and later, rejecting any barrels of wine that don't meet the standard.

If only more wine producers espoused these standards.

Kirk says: ''We want to capture the terroir, to hear what the vineyard has to say. It's a special piece of land in a special district, and we want to let it speak as clearly as possible. And we're tinkering all the time.''

Not much tinkering was needed: the wines were never over-oaked and never suffered from excessively interventionist winemaking - such as tannin addition. If anything, the proportion of whole bunches (nowadays about 20 per cent) and the addition of viognier (never more than 10 per cent and in recent years no more than 6 per cent) have been moderated and finessed.

Clonakilla also makes a straight shiraz from its best old vines, labelled syrah, but only in the best years, so no 2011 was made. We tasted four vintages and again 2009 held its head high. These are excellent wines that differ only slightly from the shiraz viognier: if anything there's less fragrance and more stuffing, more like a conventional Australian cool-climate shiraz.

The 2011 O'Riada Shiraz ($45), sourced from other Canberra vineyards, in Murrumbateman and Hall, is also a cracker and, at half the price, outstanding value.

So, after 20 years, what is the lasting impact of Clonakilla shiraz viognier? Bailey Carrodus at Yarra Yering had been adding viognier and fermenting whole bunches with stems for many years before Clonakilla. But Clonakilla created a distinctive wine of beauty, of year-to-year consistency and sold it for an affordable price. It grabbed the public imagination in ways Yarra Yering never did, partly because Kirk promoted the wine, showed it around, ensured wine writers tasted it, and - importantly - he entered it in competitions, where it excelled.

It spawned a horde of imitators, down to sub-$15 bottles such as Yalumba Y Series. But the fashion seems to be fading. Stalk-fermented shiraz is now a significant trend and it's likely to endure.

In the end, though, it's not viognier or stalks that make the wine better or worse, it's great vineyards and great winemakers.


This story Rewards for a 'killa instinct first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.