A cruise through Canberra’s regional vineyards offers a refreshing complement to a stay in the nation’s capital. Though not as well-known as, say, the NSW’s Hunter Valley or WA’s Margaret River, the district boasts about 40 wineries within a half-hour drive of the city. Many of them have battled last summer’s stifling heat, bushfire smoke, hailstorms – and that’s even before a global pandemic. But the temperatures have dropped, the smoke has cleared, the skies are blue and the majority of cellar doors are wide open and welcoming.
Small towns including Bungendore, Murrumbateman, Yass and Collector are among the most well-known destinations for Canberra wine tourists, but there are also stopping off points located close to the central business district – such as Pialligo Estate, which is difficult to miss en route from the airport. Many vineyards offer history and heritage, some provide a place to rest your head, and others will feed you too. Tastings are charged at a nominal fee which is typically refundable upon any purchases.
I’m sipping on 2017 Tempranillo in the atmospheric downstairs basement when winemaker Anthony McDougall reveals some of the intriguing tales lingering amid the vines at Lake George Winery. The muted landscape on the bottle labels, for example, features the work of convicted forger Joseph Lycett, who was transported to Australia in 1814. Having never seen Lake George, Lycett rendered his impression, depicting a vast still body of water surrounded by lush green lawns, based on others’ notes. On the day I visit, drought has exacerbated the lake’s usual vagaries and so it’s empty. Sheep and cattle graze on its bed as cars on the Federal Highway rattle past, vast wind turbines turning in the distance.
But the geography and proximity of mysterious Lake George still benefits this vineyard’s harvest. “All of the water comes from the ground,” says McDougall. Dry-grown vines like these reach deep into the soil, tapping the water table and soaking up a richer source of minerals. And, when the temperature drops, the low-set lake bears the brunt of any frost, protecting the vines which stretch towards the crest of the Cullerin Range. Lake George Winery was bought by McDougall and his wife Sarah in 2018 and continues to produce award winning wines, including riesling, pinot gris, chardonnay, viognier, tempranillo, pinot noir and shiraz. A newly-installed tiny home complete with telescope for star-gazing is available for those who wish to extend their stay.
Where: Federal Hwy, Lake George, NSW 2581
Cellar Door: Thu to Sun 10am to 5pm
Eat: Westering restaurant
Stay: Lake George Winery’s tiny home.
One of the first things you notice at Mount Majura vineyard is the sheer number of kangaroos lounging or bounding about, joeys’ limbs dangling from their pouches. It gives me a momentary twinge of guilt about the kangaroo prosciutto from the charcuterie plate I’m nibbling, on as I sample a range of wines from the Mount Majura range.
The first hectare of Mount Majura was planted in 1988 in response to the site’s special geography. To a vigneron, I’m told, an east-facing slope with limestone speaks softly but urgently of a need to plant vines. Today, many more vines sprawl on well-defined blocks over the same hill which started it all.
Mount Majura’s tempranillo is the show-stopper – reflected in the fact that tempranillo is the most-planted variety here. Visitors can also test their tastebuds, and their olfactory glands, with optional add-on tastings of tempranillo from three different sites, all with their own unique properties. Want to bunk down for the night? Mount Majura Vineyard has two glamping tents onsite operated by Erin Wilson and Daniel DiScipio of Naked Cubby Collective. ‘Frank’ and ‘Edgar’, as the tents are known, come complete with luxury linen, gumboots, beanbags, boules and anything else you might need for a stripped-back overnight stay in the vineyards.
Where: 88 Lime Kiln Road, Majura ACT 2609
Cellar Door: Daily 10am to 5pm
Eat: There’s no restaurant or café, but choose a cheese or regional tasting plate.
Stay: Naked Cubby Collective
From its palest pink rosé to its deep plummy syrah, Poachers Pantry, a regional smokehouse and vineyard, offers wine (including whites) to suit all palates. Sadly, though, despite the extensive 20 hectares of vineyards established in 1988, there will be no 2020 vintage, due to a month of heavy bushfire smoke from early January. Laboratory tests have determined that the “smoke taint is way too high”, says Will Bruce, a second generation grower. “We weren’t physically impacted by fires … but our vineyard was completely written off,” he explains. “We’re not going to be harvesting a single grape this year.”
Fortunately, Poachers Pantry is well stocked with plenty of previous years’ vintages for visitors stopping by their cellar door. The Smokehouse Restaurant is worth the visit alone, with its menu showcasing meats which have been cured and smoked in-house. Highlights include the smoked duck breast with beetroot and blackberry jam and the smoked onion risotto with exotic mushrooms. “We love to use as local as we can,” says Bruce. It was Bruce’s mother who, in 1991, spotted a gap in the market for charcuterie and smoked produce. She still maintains an active role in Poachers Pantry.
The Poachers Pantry site also includes a commercial farm with 900 merino sheep, which are predominantly bred for wool.
Where: 431 Nanima Road, Springrange, NSW 2618
Cellar Door: Daily 9.30am to 5.00pm
Eat: The Smokehouse Restaurant (www.poacherspantry.com.au/restaurant/)
Stay: Springrange offers budget to upscale accommodation options.