Cold fear: Eden Road's Nick Spencer inspects vines for frost damage. Photo: Jay Cronan
As the Australian wine industry moved into another round of takeovers and rationalisation in 2014, Canberra's vignerons remained many, small and independent. They released probably more outstanding wines in the year than they ever had before, attracting a remarkable flow of wine show gongs.
Heat fear: Four Wines Winery's Bill Crowe checks riesling vines during hot weather in February. Photo: Elesa Kurtz
Treasury Wine Estates was the largest takeover target. After months of due diligence, the publicly listed offshoot of Fosters rejected takeover bids from two American private-equity suitors. However, Treasury remains vulnerable to takeover during its restructure under new chief executive, Michael Clarke.
On a smaller scale, Accolade Wines announced in November it was in takeover negotiations with independent Barossa operator, Grant Burge Wines. The outcome of the talks remains uncertain. Accolade, owned by private equity firm CHAMP, owns the former BRL Hardy empire.
The industry's long history of capital destruction continued, albeit not on the multibillion-dollar scale seen in the first decade of the century. In November, the Board of Barossa-based Peter Lehmann Wines said majority shareholder Hess Group (86 per cent) and substantial shareholder, Margaret Lehmann, had agreed to sell interests to Casella Family Brands at $1.50 a share, valuing the company at $57 million. Hess had paid more than $100 million for its stake in Lehmann about a decade earlier.
Medal winner: Nick O'Leary's Bolaro Shiraz 2013 reaped rewards. Photo: Jamila Toderas
Canberra boasted no takeovers on this scale. But on September 11, high-profile Murrumbateman winemaker Ken Helm emailed, "Today our daughter Stephanie and our son in law [vineyard manager] Ben Osborne have purchased Yass Valley Wines".
But as 2014 dawned, Canberra vignerons focused not on grinding wheels of the industry at large, but on the coming vintage. It seemed a song of ice and fire for much of the Canberra region: frost nipped vine buds in October and intense heat waves followed in January and February.
The frost affected many, though not all, vineyards. While no one escaped the heat, growers with adequate water fared better than those without. Those with inadequate supplies struggled to keep vines, let alone crops, healthy; while others saw promising, if reduced, crops ripening under protective leaf canopies.
Champion variety: Local winemakers won awards at this year's Canberra International Riesling Challenge. Photo: Graham Tidy
In the end, the area produced many good white wines led by our district specialty, riesling. These unoaked wines come to market just months after vintage. They can be a little austere at first release, thanks to their high natural acidity. But in 2014, full, ripe fruit flavours made the new releases more approachable than usual.
Perhaps because of this, the accolades flowed quickly and in open competition against Australia's best. At Canberra's International Riesling Challenge, Mount Majura Riesling 2014 won trophies as best dry riesling of the show and best Canberra riesling. About the same time, Four Winds Vineyard Riesling 2014 won gold at the Royal Melbourne Wine Show. In our local show, judges awarded gold to Jeir Creek Riesling 2014.
The depth and breadth of Canberra rieslings mean we could easily have stuck to riesling alone for this year's top-10 whites. The pickings are rich and prices comparatively modest for these potentially long-lived wines.
We also make decent chardonnay in the region – for example, those of Lerida Estate at Lake George Lark Hill, high on the escarpment. But, as results in our local show reveals, higher, cooler Tumbarumba generally upstages us. Little wonder then that several Canberra makers, including Eden Road, Ravensworth and Clonakilla, source chardonnay from Tumbarumba.
Other white varieties beginning to do well in Canberra include Austria's gruner veltliner (at Lark Hill, our highest, coolest site) and the Rhone Valley varieties, marsanne, roussanne and viognier. This seems natural enough given the success of that other great Rhone variety, shiraz.
It's impossible to say enough good things about Canberra shiraz – a distinctive, medium-bodied, fruity-spicy style of many shades – especially those from the great 2013 vintage.
These are now flowing into the market and present some of the best buying opportunities to date. A masked tasting of more than 50 Canberra shirazes in September left no doubts about the superior quality of the 2013s and of the keeping ability of Canberra's best vintages, notably the 2009s and 2005s.
Based on that tasting, and several others, Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier holds its place at the very top of the Canberra pile. This is superb, supple, complex to savour. However, a couple of others are moving towards it, while many more, just a rung or two down the ladder, offer world-class drinking.
Nick O'Leary Bolaro Shiraz 2013 gets a special mention for its exceptional quality and show success, including being named as NSW wine of the year and winning gold at the 2014 National Wine Show of Australia. Two other notable Canberra shirazes won gold in the same class: Collector Reserve 2013 and Lerida Estate Shiraz Viognier 2013 (top scoring gold and a trophy winner).
And the wines are far from uniform, ranging from bright, fresh, fruity and drinkable now, to more savoury, tannic wines needing time to evolve – all within the district medium bodied, spicy style.
If shiraz remains our highest achievement, other red varieties make good wines now and offer promise for the future. A November tasting of around 40 sangioveses revealed a range of styles and very good quality from a number of Canberra wineries, most notably from Ravensworth, Capital Wines and Four Winds.
The Spanish red variety tempranillo makes good wines, too. Mount Majura, Capital Wines and Quarry Hill all do it well. And Mount Majura throws touriga and graciano into the mix, blended and straight.
Canberra's wine industry is, of course, best appreciated through its wines, with its shiraz and riesling, at least, acknowledged among the best in Australia.