A few weeks ago I had lunch at my favourite local restaurant in Singapore, Jade Palace Seafood Restaurant with the Reverent Tim Kirk, proprietor and winemaker of Clonakilla vineyard in Canberra, Australia.
He was on his way to London on a sales campaign with his agent, the polished and adroit Liberty Wines, and had managed to fit in an action-packed overnight stop over in Singapore, miraculously squeezing in a lunch with the Wandering Palate.
Arriving at the restaurant ahead of Kirk, I sat at the table scrolling through Twitter, noticing his winery was in full swing Twittering that the he had been announced one of the finalists in the Gourmet Traveller Wine ‘Winemaker of the Year 2013 awards. They were also madly Twittering about the 2012 Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier being released at the cellar door that day.
When Tim Kirk arrived, I greeted him with congratulations on being a finalist in the Winemaker of the Year awards, to which he replied, "Yes, perhaps third time lucky", this being his third time nominated. I suddenly thought, that there was no one more deserving both wholly and holy to win the coveted award this year.
I suggested that maybe a little ‘Divine Intervention’ might be required, to which he raised his eyebrows skyward. As it turned out he did win, an outcome that was unanimously and wholeheartedly cheered by his winemaking brethren and consumers all over Australia.
To give you some colour, from a local perspective, amongst the plethora of accomplished shiraz producers in Australia and an abundance of great wines at every price point and style–from juicy, fleshy, fruit-succulent early drinking shiraz and blends at bargain prices, to massively endowed and expensive, profoundly complex and intense Herculean efforts built for the long haul that are difficult to drink young with one hand on the heart and one hand on your wallet–amongst all this brash and brawn, Tim Kirk’s Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier is the epitome of elegance and silken texture, oozing class and unparalleled in its beguiling spiciness and intenseness of berry fruit, freshness of acid and coiled tension.
Even amongst the pack of Australian winemakers using the overly-trendy addition of the white grape viognier to their wine–a la Côte Rôtie–and all too often not co-fermented resulting in a strange, confectionary-Turkish delight perfume, Clonakilla stands out and in a league of its own; not only the benchmark of cool-climate shiraz viognier, but the beacon of diversity and distinctiveness in Australia.
Andrew Caillard MW describes Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier as “One of the most important advances in the development of Australian Shiraz since the release of 1952 Penfolds Grange Hermitage”, however his message is perhaps lost on the international consumer, who’s exposure to the wines that are exported have served to instil a stereotyped view of what Australian shiraz is, or should be.
From an international perspective, it is the diversity of Australian shiraz (or many wine styles and regions for that matter) that is possibly lost on the global consumer and a lack of appreciation and how diverse the climate is from state to state, vis-a-vis wine region to wine region.
Australia is a BIG island, and it’s a long way between Murrumbateman, Canberra (where Clonakilla vineyards are located) and Frankland River, Western Australia (another budding cool-climate shiraz region) or 3685km to be exact. It’s a long drive, but you could stop off along the way in the Barossa Valley (world renown for full-bodied-blooded shiraz), 1121km from Canberra, and call in at Shaw & Smith in the Adelaide Hills who make seriously good, elegant shiraz. You can be assured you will experience all four seasons along the way, and yet most people perceive Australia as warm (hot) and sunny everywhere, all the time.
Equally, it is often overlooked that the Australian continent was forged at the beginning of Earth’s formation in the Archaean period and the Australian landscape has some of the oldest rocks in the world (3.7 billion years) and special rock “windows” that tell us about the geological age of the planet and the origins of life.
Much of Australia’s ancient metamorphic crust has eroded over the eons with tectonic plate movements creating mountains and ranges along with exceedingly old soils and extraordinary terroir; that all-encompassing word the French use to describe distinctive soils, climates and the influence of man.
So, here we are, Tim Kirk and I, in communion over our glass of 2012 Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier. After a long meditation, I declare, "You know, it smells very much like Northern Rhone syrah and it tastes like Northern Rhone syrah", which Kirk does not disagree with. Does this it make it un-Australian?
Some winemakers do not like references or comparisons to French wine regions however Kirk is very much enamoured with the Northern Rhone Valley having visited the region and the Cote Rotie and Hermitage vineyards and winemakers back in 1991. It was to have a profound effect on him, a turning point Tim remembers well:“There are rare moments in a wine lover’s life when you find yourself transfixed by the extraordinary beauty of what’s in the glass before you, and tasting those Côte Rôtie’s was just such a revelatory moment for me. They had striking aromas; an ethereal perfume with complex, savoury dimensions, while the palate structure was different to the robust texture that Australian Shiraz wines are renowned for. These wines were finer in texture, the tannins leaving a silky impression, but with flavours that had persistence and great drive."
Putting aside Kirk’s adoration and infatuation with the Northern Rhone Valley, if one takes a closer look at the terroir of Murrumbateman and the soils of Clonakilla in comparison to Côte Rôtie, there is more in common than just grape varieties (syrah and viognier); indeed the ancient vineyards of Côte Rôtie (roasted slopes) that were so lauded by the Romans, have soils consisting of iron mica schist or metamorphosed shale, and decomposed metamorphic banded granite amongst clay. There is an uncanny similarity here to the soils at Clonakilla consisting of sandy clay loams over a base of decomposed granite that metamorphosed in Middle to Late Ordovician with sedimentary and Silurian igneous and sedimentary rocks, ranging in age from about 408-468 million years.
Essentially we are dealing with extraordinarily analogous, ancient schist soils and a homogenous terroir where the cool-climate of both areas are influenced by the cooling effect of altitude yet warm, radiant sun during the ripening period, ideal for the syrah grape. It is fascinating example of how soils and climate can be expressed so vividly in a wine and what keeps we wine enthusiasts so intrigued.
As Kirk and I are in conversation, the wine is breathing out and warming up, revealing a dark cherry fragrance and beguiling, earthy, gamey, savoury complexity and infusion of deep-seated spice and steely, cold iron minerality; the palate is incredibly intense in raspberry fruits with an assertive coolness and tension of naturally high acidity, with the litheness of super-fine tannins, it feels supremely elegant in structure and silken, pinot noir like in texture yet incredibly powerful and poised.
And then came the Chinese Lacquered Roast Duck, with the smell of garlic, five spice, clove, duck fat, smoky roasted skin and gamey breast meat filling our nostrils and olfactory senses; a nose of the wine and all these aromas are in simpatico with the duck.
A mouthful of duck, then a sip of the wine; Tim and I look at each and there is simultaneous telepathy…that Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier is absolutely sublime with Chinese Roast Duck! I’m also thinking, thank the Lord that Tim Kirk has Catholic tastes.
And as much as Pliny the Elder liked his Cote Rotie, I am sure he would be mightily impressed with Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier 2012, but you might need more than a prayer to get your hands on some; it’s made in miniscule quantities, indeed hardly enough to keep his own Parish quenched, "If anyone is thirsty, let them come to Me and drink–Clonakilla Syrah Viognier."
But it’s not just syrah-viognier that Tim Kirk was awarded the coveted Gourmet Traveller Wine ‘Winemaker of the Year 2013; he also makes excellent riesling, semillon-sauvignon blanc, a viognier that is particularly impressive , pinot noir, and a consistently brilliant straight syrah called Hilltops that we tried at lunch; resplendent in juicy, crunchy red berry fruit and again, a lesson in restraint and elegance, moreover incredibly good value.
The Clonakilla story is equally intriguing; a narrative of a remarkable journey from County Clare, Ireland to Australia, and Tim Kirk’s father, John, pioneering the Canberra wine district…and all the adventure and successes along the way is brilliantly chronicled on the Clonakilla website along with endless praises and articles from wine writers.
Although I am highlighting the 2012 Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier, which I am putting a case in my own cellar, that is assuming my overtures (begging) to Liberty Wines is successful, you should be on the lookout for back vintages, with vintages like 2010 and 2009 quite likely to available in the international markets and particularly in Asia where releases tend to lag a year or two behind Australia.
Don’t be fooled by the sheer approachability and drinkabilty of Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier, you can be assured it will cellar for the long term, generally reaching optimum drinking around 10 years in bottle, perhaps earlier in the lighter years such as 2011. But really, you should be buying the Clonakilla Hilltop Shiraz for earlier consumption–by the multiple case load–and if you can cellar it for 3 or 4 years, it will reward you with delicious, affordable drinking.
Finally, congratulations to Tim Kirk on becoming Gourmet Traveller Wine – Winemaker of the Year 2013, but also doing Australia proud with such distinctive and profoundly complex wines – BRAVO!