The Canberra District wine region

We sit down with Alex McKay and talk wine. Here, Alex answers some reader questions about the Canberra District wine region and the inspiration for Collector Wines.

Why is the Canberra District a winemaking region?
Put simply, it’s location, soil, and climate. The Canberra District wine region covers the sub regions of Lake George/Bungendore, Murrumbateman, and Hall/Wallaroo, all of which are producing some beautiful fruit. We’re so close to the slightly warmer Hilltops region (centred around Young), and just a few hours’ drive down the freeway from cool climate Tumbarumba. To have access to such a great range of fruit from these different areas is a winemaker’s dream, and it means winemakers in this region can really push the boundaries. And of course, being close to our bush capital means that it’s really easy for visitors and locals to come and explore the countryside and our food and wine experiences.

What’s the backstory to Canberra and wine?
There are reports of winegrapes being planted in the region as far back as the 1840s. John Kirk at Clonakilla and Edgar Riek at Lake George planted the first vineyards in the modern era of winegrape growing in 1971. They were followed soon by Ken Helm and others who have really pioneered the region and particular varietals, and probably copped a fair bit of backlash for being the first to try to make fine wine from what used to be sheep paddocks.

Back in the day I was the winemaker for Hardy’s Kamberra winery, the first medium-sized winery established in the region. We encouraged a lot of farmers to plant vineyards and this really meant a rapid expansion of grapes grown in the region. Unfortunately after some years the Hardy’s winery closed down, but this was a blessing in disguise because it opened up opportunities to a new generation of smaller winemakers. From there the region has just grown in leaps and bounds and our reputation continues to climb. The vineyards that were established in the Hardy’s days are now over 20 years old and they’re at peak production for flavour and complexity. I started Collector Wines at a time when the first really complete expressions of the Canberra District and its surrounding terroir had begun to emerge. There was a lot of raw but unrealised potential in the soils and the vineyards, and I was drawn to it.

Red wine during ferment

Where to next for the Canberra wine region?
I see the Canberra wine scene just improving exponentially over the next twenty years. We’ll see more nuanced expressions of particular sub regions and more depth of expression of our proven varieties such as shiraz and riesling. I think we’ll also see new exciting combinations of new varieties and blends. Our food scene is blossoming and its emphasis on local, fresh produce is only a good thing.

I don’t see the shine coming off the Canberra region, we’ll continue to build our profile domestically and internationally. All the fundamentals are here – great soils, a good climate, dedicated producers who often have a scientific, but always thoughtful approach to winemaking. Our community is patient, investing in the long lead times required to introduce new varieties, improving our vineyards, and we’re making real gains in viticulture and winemaking. There are so many beautiful wines being produced by mature practitioners and young talent and these drinks fit hand-in-glove with the great food that’s being grown and made in the region.

What is the story behind the names for your wine?
Rosalie Gascoigne's 'Lamp Lit'All of the Collector wines are named for artwork by Canberra artist Rosalie Gascoigne, whom I really admire. She began exhibiting in 1974 at the age of 57, creating sculptural assemblies of mixed media and found objects to evoke the poetic Australian landscape. She was a local person, she used to go and collect stuff from towns around Canberra like Collector, Bungendore, Michelago and Yass. She knew the region very well and her landscapes communicate this. I found a real resonance in her work, as I was driving around the region in search of the best grapes and in my own way trying to turn the beauty of the landscape into something people could appreciate. Her works are so evocative but never overblown. She once described the Australian environment as ‘all air, all light, all space and all understatement’, and this just speaks to me of the Canberra region and the Collector countryside. Her work made use of old road signs, the old Schweppes boxes that used to be yellow and black, and she used those colours a lot which really reflect the summer landscape – bleached off paddocks in yellows. You can see these especially in the artworks the Collector Marsanne and Chardonnay are named for, ‘Lamp Lit’ (pictured right) and ‘Tiger Tiger’.
If you have a question for Alex – the Collector Wines vintages, food and wine pairing, or just how to enjoy a fine wine – send us an email or get in touch through social media.