Discover the Canberra District wine region

A vineyard in Canberra District
The Canberra District has the perfect natural conditions to grow elegant grapes. It’s also home to a passionate group of small-batch producers who bring experimentation and rigour to winemaking.

We recently spoke to Fergus McGhie, the sales and marketing manager of Mount Majura Vineyard and previous wine reviewer for Canberra Times about his life in the Canberra District. The region might be home to some of the smallest small-batch producers in the country, but he believes that their scientific approach is raising the bar for winemaking.

the ripe conditions

People often talk about the Canberra District as having a cool climate. However, the area experiences a huge variation in temperature. In summertime, you can experience dry and hot days, but the temperature will drop off at night.

I remember being in Sydney on a warm day in February for a wine event. That day was 26°C during the day and 20°C overnight. Back in Canberra, it was 35°C during the day and 15°C overnight. We had a 20°C change and that temperature range is highly influential in how grapes grow. Our vines have plenty of energy to photosynthesize and ripen, but they also get a break from the heat overnight. When the temperature drops off in the evening, they hold onto their natural acidity and aromatics, before ripening more in the day.

That’s what makes our wines unique. If you were to typify Canberra District wines, you would describe them as bright, fresh, pretty, and perfumed with really good natural acidity. We’re also inland and high, so we have a continental climate which makes our wines elegant and distinct.

The Canberra District is also marked by dry rolling hills and different soil types from Murrrumbateman in the west to Bungendore in the east. Most of the wineries are only about a 30-minute drive out of Canberra and the region is full of variety.

Space to experiment

We have a willingness to test and learn. There is nothing traditional about what we do, but we know the science and use reasoning to back our creations.

Shiraz and Riesling are the champions of Canberra District. However, there are a number of people growing alternative varieties such as Fiano, Vermentino, Tempranillo, Graciano, Mondeuse, Sangiovese, and Roussanne.

The region has very low average rainfall spread out across all seasons, which means less disease pressure and a need for sprays. I remember adding 25kg bags of tartaric acid to balance pH in my first vintage in The Hunter. However, we don’t need to do that here. It’s a really natural, good grape-growing environment. Our annual grape crush is also significantly lower than in other regions and there are only about 30-40 wineries combined. That’s a bit of a blessing because our region hasn’t been typecast, we’ve got a lot of space to experiment.

A scenic image of the Canberra District

A scientific approach

Vines were planted in the Canberra District back in the 1850s, but winemaking disappeared. It wasn’t until 1971 that some ex-CSIRO scientists, Dr John Kirk and Edgar Riek started exploring the region and setting up their own winemaking ventures. From there, more people joined the pursuit.  If the Yarra Valley is full of doctors and the Mornington Peninsula is full of wealthy people with horse farms, Canberra is all about these small people making experimental wine in a region they believed was going to be good.

In the mid-90s, the Hardy Wine Company saw how good the environment was and started buying and crushing grapes in the Canberra District. They also planted big vineyards and introduced a lot of commercial expertise to the region before turning to other ventures.

Some exceptional winemakers, such as Alex McKay and Nick O’Leary came along with the Hardy’s team and brought generational change. Now, eleven wineries from our small region are rated five stars in The Halliday Wine Companion.

Certain types of people are drawn to different professions, but I don’t think that there is one way to define a winemaker. You find people who have come from generations of winemakers and love the tradition. There are other people who love to dine, drink, and entertain. There are also people who want to turn their artistic flair into something unique. Then, there are people who do it with rigour. In the Canberra District, we can make something better every year because we go about it in an experimental way.

We have a willingness to test and learn. There is nothing traditional about what we do, but we know the science and use reasoning to back our creations.

An entrepreneurial spirit

The Stomp Festival recognises local winemakers and producers, encouraging people to taste wines throughout the vineyards and the city. The Fireside Festival also celebrates everything about being cold and cozy in Canberra. Think truffle hunts, food, and great wine. The ski fields are just up the road too. Then, Floriade is our big Spring festival in September.

The restaurant, coffee, and microbrewery scene here is also just as dynamic and distinctive as the wine. Canberra has a big public service population, which brings stable incomes and wealth. So, if you’re an entrepreneur with an idea, there is someone here who will be willing to try your product.

Two winemakers in the Canberra district

Continuing to push boundaries

The search is still on to find other varieties that are well suited for the area. Tempranillo has been exciting for us, and there are a lot of cool younger winemakers like Sam Leyshon doing interesting things. Shiraz Viognier and Reisling will still continue to come out of Canberra, but then left-field thinkers like Brian Martin are utilising organic and experimental techniques to produce exceptional esoteric wines.

We’re going to see more winemakers becoming well-recognised, and potentially putting new grape varieties into the mainstream. Our small and experimental attitude is still young and strong. We’ll be continuing to push boundaries in the future.

Discover some of the Canberra District's best winemakers

Want to meet exciting winemakers in Canberra District? Get started by reading our interview with Jeir Creek Wines.