A new taste of Canberra: Collector Wines
A few hours south of Sydney lies the Canberra wine district. Once home to mostly hobby farms and weekend getaways for the well-to-do types of the nation's capital, the area now boasts an emerging small batch professional wine industry focussed on cooler climate wine, compared to the better known Australian winemaking regions.
The Collector Wines style is one of these boutique wineries, under their winemaker Alex McKay, who hails from the area and has an intimate knowledge of this unique district. His wines are focussed on longevity winemaking, whilst still being approachable in their youth, and are named after local artworks to celebrate this unique slice of the land down under. The region remains largely undiscovered, even within Australia, giving us a wine that isn’t pressured to be anything else but a great expression of location.
The region started gaining traction in the 1970’s as technology in farming allowed for pest management and drought to be less of an issue for farmers lacking year round manpower - a common element for winemaking in a huge country with a small population. Grapes don’t flourish with ease like in the bulk of New World areas - instead it’s a region of microclimates, where the overarching hot summer and bitterly cold and frosty winters are tempered by local conditions and highly observant grape growers, and winemakers are seeking out these border-line areas. With huge distances to cover winemakers like McKay use decades of knowledge to keep track of their future vintage. Whilst shiraz, roussanne, marsanne and viognier are closeby at Murrumbateman, only half an hour or so from the cellar door, the chardonnay for Tiger Tiger is from Tumbarumba in the south, a two hour drive away, not to mention the Folded Blue Shiraz has fruit from the Pyrenees in Victoria, after a less than idyllic 2012 vintage for the Canberra. But this focus on ideal grapes and soil is exactly what McKay is after - he wants well drained soils that emulate the great areas of Mosel and Burgundy to accentuate his wine’s charisma.
This peachy Chardonnay has some bite to it.
McKay’s Tiger Tiger Chardonnay is an example of cool climate viticulture at its best. Being more Southerly, the vines enjoy warm days and cool nights, which leads to ripe fruit with high acid - the genesis of a great bottle of wine. Tumbarumba is very much an under-appreciated area. Rich, deep soils that have an almost sandy composition but without the ambient heat to make yields too high, thanks to the southerly location near the ski fields. This Chardonnay has lovely white peach and lemon zest to it, whilst the oak is very restrained. McKay allows this wine to go through full malolactic conversion, which is then left to settle and soften so the diacetyl (the source of the buttery aromas) re-metabolises and subsides. In case you haven’t heard of malolactic conversion, it is a biological conversion of harsh malic acid within the wine to a softer, rounder lactic acid - think green apple acidity to creamy acidity. Tiger Tiger’s malolactic conversion adds roundness to the wine, stability and a soft butter on the nose (whilst not detracting from the fruit). It reminds me of a great Burgundian chardonnay, but without the price tag! Most definitely an age-able wine, but also one ready to drink now and will liberate those of the ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) mindset.
There is definitely a Rhône-like feel to the Shiraz and Marsanne wines from Collector. The Rhône Valley, which begins at the south of Burgundy in France and extends to the Mediterranean Sea, enjoys undulating terrain, multiple aspects and soils, and is the historical home of Shiraz, or Syrah as it is known in France. Aussie Shiraz is synonymous with big, bold wines, whilst Syrah has a softer, more middle-road feel to the style of wine. The grapes are less ripe and are more peppery in comparison (some producers globally even label with wines Shiraz or Syrah depending on which style the grapes has led them towards).
More Syrah than Shiraz
That’s what to expect from Collector wines - although still named shiraz because it’s Australian. The Folded Blue has 4% Viognier, a traditional blending option in the Rhône Valley, offering an aromatic lift to the pepper, dark fruits, with a savoury cocoa taste from around a year in oak barrels. It stops short of being full bodied and powerful, but instead invites you to lean in attentively rather than being confronted. The Rhone-style fleshiness is very pairable with food, particularly if spice is what you fancy - the alcohol and pepper profile is going to lift Asian dishes. The Marked Tree namesake for the Murrumbateman Shiraz describes the wines amid the Australian wine backdrop nicely - it is a lesser used road around the North West of Lake George, near the town of Collector. Local artist Rosalie Gascoigne frequented this route around the area finding inspiration for her work which highlights the nuances of nature and the surroundings. If the bold shiraz we all know from Australia is the Federal Highway, the softer more nuanced Collector style is very much Marked Tree Road.
A little bit about the classic Marsanne...
A lesser known grape varietal makes up the lion’s share of the Lamp Lit, which is a three grape blend of Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier. A fantastic seldom seen mix in Australia that falls into the description of ‘alternative grapes’ by many, but perhaps are better termed ‘appropriate grapes’ as they match the region so well. When Hardys invested widely in the region during the late 90’s Viognier was one of the great success stories, particularly in the Murrumbateman where the undulating terrain creates microclimates that defy the idea of Canberra being a place of oppressively hot days and freezing nights. Often grown together in France, Marsanne and Roussanne quickly followed - known for their full body and apricot flavours. The area is cooler than Yarra Valley, but McKay seeks out hillside aspects that offer further ripening by day whilst acid retention at night via the cool climate - perfect locations for these grapes to ripen with the desired flavour profile. A warm and dry vintage, combined with early harvest and high acidity, has led to an exotic spice on the palate, with tautness to promote crisp drinkability.
In wine the term “focussed” is thrown around a lot, in short meaning the wine is clearly identified, in balance and not overpowering or bombastic - and above else really enjoyable in a classical sense. Focussed wines are easily paired wines, and these wines from Collector are very much that. By selecting grapes from regions likened to Chablis for the Chardonnay and Rhone Valley for the Shiraz, Marssane, Roussanne and Viognier we can see a desire to let the grapes do the talking because these regions are known to be the best examples of each varietal - until now as Alex McKay has shown us. Each is a deliberate creation, with a tip of a cap to both the locale of grape and its history in the old world.
In short, whilst the typical Aussie Shiraz and Chardonnay do what they do, McKay follows the direction of the Marked Tree Road around Lake George - a more scenic, understated path. Perhaps not the road less followed, but definitely one following the land, it’s contours, nature and above all else enjoyment.