Kamberra wine – Tom turns detective

Meeting Place.

Geographical Indications are Australia’s new appellations. Introduced just last year, GIs are already causing grief in areas such as Coonawarra, where squabbling over the boundary seems set to roll on for years. Our upside-down cousins might have avoided the obvious pitfalls of trying to tell growers which grapes to grow and what styles of wine to make, but they are no less vulnerable to bitching over demarcation lines than the rest of us.

xOne of the quirkiest demarcations must be that of the Canberra District GI, since most of the appellation is not even located within the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), but in New South Wales. In fact, prior to the arrival of Kamberra there were no wineries in ACT, and only six hectares of vines. The reason for this has nothing to do with any lack of viticultural potential within ACT.No, the absence of viticulture here was due solely to the fact that freehold does not exist within ACT. It is not possible to buy land in this federal domain, only leasehold, and all such leases are prone to termination at short notice by the government of the day.

Hardly an attractive option for anyone in the longterm business of establishing a vineyard, especially with water shortage problems. Hence, no vineyards and smart boutique wineries within a stone’s throw of the nation’s capital.

Call me a cynic (and many have), but this did make me question why on earth BRL Hardy would want to invest A$8 million under such volatile conditions. The answer had to be sufficient official sweeteners and assurances to render any economic uncertainties academic, but the more I dug, the deeper it was buried. Understandably, BRL Hardy was reluctant to elaborate, but trying to get anyone else in the area to talk about it was like talking to the “Hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil” shrine in Nikko National Park!

In the end I decided to wade through ACT’s Parliamentary Hansard and on 25th September 2000, in response to a question by Jon Stanhope (then Leader of the Opposition, now Chief Minister), Gary Humphries (then Chief Minister, now Leader of the Opposition) stated that ‘BRL Hardy was offered an assistance package totalling A$2m (including) land valued at A$980,000’. A generous package indeed, but what was not mentioned at that question time – and was probably instrumental in sealing the deal – was access to heavily discounted water. Viticulture in Canberra District is highly dependent on irrigation, but bores have been drying up forcing the authorities to implement water restrictions. BRL Hardy would have found it impossible to establish, let alone sustain, a large vineyard without access to a guaranteed supply of water.

It later transpired that BRL Hardy had been given access to so-called “grey water”, and Jon Stanhope pressed the Chief Minister on why this information was classified as confidential. Humphries confessed that BRL Hardy was one of very few customers allowed access to this water resource. Furthermore, they enjoyed a special price of 7.5 cents per kilolitre, compared to the 72 cents charged to almost all other users – including the Department of Defence. The Kamberra deal was a bargain that BRL Hardy could not ignore. The government could also claim it was in ACT’s interest to give the company A$2 million, because their venture would add A$4.8 million to the wider economy. If as has been suggested, BRL Hardy eventually invests as much as A$22 million in Kamberra, the economic benefits would be greater still at around A$13.2 million.

But how secure is the lease? I doubt that any guarantee exists that could ensure BRL Hardy’s lease would never be terminated. Even if it did, its legality would at best be dubious. However, the mere fact that the ACT government has paid one quarter of the project’s capital costs and continues to provide irrigation water at one-tenth the going rate, makes it highly unlikely that BRL Hardy will be evicted.

Why Kamberra?
The decision to name this new winery Kamberra might make a few wine-pages readers groan, but Canberra is in fact a derivation of the aboriginal word kamberra. Australia’s capital occupies an area of land that Europeans discovered as recently as 1821, and which was granted to Lieutenant John Moore in 1824. Moore named his property Canberry after hearing local Ngunnawal aborigines use the word kamberra for “meeting place”. For more than 21,000 years the Ngunnawal have congregated at the kamberra in late-spring to feast on bogong, a species of moth otherwise known as Agrotis infusa. The moths fly south to escape the coming summer heat, which is ironic for the thousands that end up cooked in sand and hot ashes to remove wings and legs, or mashed and roasted into aboriginal moth cakes. (eat your heart out Delia!)

Canberra Climate
Altitude is 600 to 820 metres, but most vineyards face north or north-east, so the sunshine hours are very high at 7.2 hours per day, enabling grapes to ripen on nearly all aspects. Although the climate is cool in Australian terms, it is not as cool as some local growers might like to think. Summers are warm and dry, with three out of four years yielding degree-day equivalents between the Médoc and Hermitage. Vineyards are dependent on irrigation, and water is a declining resource. Spring frost remains a problem, especially for vineyards with poorer sites.

It was too early in the year for any bogong to be around when Greg Morris, Kamberra’s general manager, and Luke Wormald, its vineyard manager, showed me over Kamberra’s 83 hectare vineyard at Holt, on the outskirts of Canberra. Not unpredictably, the most important variety is Shiraz, with 21 hectares planted, but the second largest holding is something of a surprise, with 15 hectares of Viognier. This variety is little planted elsewhere in the region, but it has helped propel Clonakilla to a fame that far exceeds that of Canberra District itself. Luke Wormald believes that Viognier will help distinguish Canberra. After Shiraz and Viognier, he singles out Merlot, Riesling and Chardonnay as the varieties he has the highest hopes for. This is an informed opinion based on seven years experience of buying grapes from all over Canberra, but it is still very early days for Kamberra’s specific location. Only half the vineyard is bearing fruit and it will crop for the first time in 2002.

In addition to the vineyard at Holt, which is the largest in the region by a very wide margin, BRL Hardy has contracted 160 hectares of vines from 19 growers spread over the NSW part of Canberra District. Although some of these vineyards are almost 20 years old, most have been established specifically for Kamberra’s needs, with 85 per cent cropping in 2002 for the first, second or third time. Further expansion is likely.

xTo put this venture into perspective, its vineyards effectively double the area under vine prior to its arrival and even with one-quarter of the capacity of its 4,000 tonne state-of-the-art winery reserved for grapes trucked in from outside the area, Kamberra still has the ability to process six times the volume of wine produced by the all the other wineries in Canberra District.

With such an optimistic strategy in a relatively unknown wine area and bearing in mind how much it cost the ACT government to solve the leasehold conundrum, the question I was burning to ask was whether BRL Hardy had really targeted Canberra District because of its quality potential or a bag of official goodies that was just too tempting to ignore? And I wanted to know how much of the company’s stated belief in Canberra District is based on fact rather than the Memorandum of Understanding it signed, promising the ACT government to promote the district as one of Australia’s premium wine growing areas? But above all, I wanted all such cynical thoughts banished from my mind because I still clung to the initial enthusiasm felt in 1992. I was thus relieved to hear Greg Morris qualify his company’s position with as near to bullet-proof evidence as you are likely to get in this business.

‘BRL Hardy has been purchasing fruit from the Canberra District and surrounds since 1995. This was initially blended into the company’s other labels, but we were impressed with the quality from a very early stage. In fact, the Chardonnay we purchased from Canberra in 1996 made up 30 per cent of the Eileen Hardy label for that vintage. That’s an outstanding achievement for a relatively emerging region. In 1997 the Shiraz from Canberra was classified for inclusion under the Eileen Hardy label, but by 1998 the Kamberra project was given the go ahead and since the Eileen Hardy components had not been blended at that stage, the Canberra wine was bottled individually to produce our first vintage under the Kamberra label’.

Eileen Hardy is, of course, Hardy’s flagship label and the 1996 Eileen Hardy Chardonnay honoured its name by winning the Adelaide Trophy for Best Table Wine of Show and a number of other trophies, including the inaugural Max Schubert Trophy. Almost one-third of such a wine is a testament to Canberra District’s potential and reassures me that the belief I had in this area on my first visit in 1992 was not misplaced. The second label is called Meeting Place, which not only emphasises Kamberra’s origins, but rather cleverly reflects the fact that the wine is a blend, not pure Canberra District. Wines sold under the Kamberra label are 100 per cent Canberra District except for the fizz, which is a Tumbarumba-based blend under both labels.

xKamberra is coming together remarkably fast for a winery that has only just been completed and whose vines have cropped for the first time this year. Greg and Luke have a lot of evaluating of fruit to do and will need much hands-on experience before they know what the style should be.It is in the interest of all Canberra District wineries that BRL Hardy should succeed, but it is also in Kamberra’s interest that at least one other large wine group should establish itself in the region. Canberra District is not yet recognised as a premium wine region, despite its potential, its early competition successes and the flag-waving name.If in five years time no other major player has followed its lead and Canberra District remains unrecognised, people might start wondering whether BRL Hardy made a mistake coming here.