Canberra at the heart of wine industry

By MELANIE BALL

Given how often politicians drive us to drink, it's not surprising that a wine industry is flourishing on the outskirts of Canberra. Tasting cool climate reds and whites, often poured by the winemakers, is a delicious addition to any visit to Australia's capital.

The city's neat concentric circles and radiating lines suggest it was born in the middle of nowhere just before (old) Parliament House opened in 1927. But settlement occurred a century before and Canberra's wine industry predates anyone even proposing that a city be built there.

The Yass Valley supported a small but flourishing wine industry in the 1860s but climatic variations, phylloxera and a mood of temperance ended the industry at the turn of the century. Now the region boasts 21 wineries, all less than an hour's drive away, and visitors can tour 17 of them on designated days or by appointment.

The wineries take their names from their surroundings, their winemakers and local Aboriginal languages. Clonakilla was the district's first commercial winery in the 20th century. It was established in 1971 by owner and winemaker John Kirk and lists winter-warming muscat among its offerings.

Lark Hill vineyard sits on the escarpment overlooking Lake George and Bungendore, while Brindabella Hills winery has views of its namesake and the Murrumbidgee River.

At Ruker Wines, scrumptious lunches prepared in "the shed" complement delicious vintages of riesling and traminer, while visitors wanting to spend more time at Surveyor's Hill Winery can stay overnight in the historic homestead B&B.

Jeir Creek hosts gourmet food and music afternoons on the first Sunday of each month.

Other than the fruits of its vines, the main attractions at Helm's Wines are a century-old building and its winemaker, the 15-year-old daughter of the owner.

In March 1998 the Helm name made wine-making history when Ken Helm's 11-year-old daughter Stephanie won a silver medal at the southern NSW zone wine show at Yass with her 1996 Merlot.

Stephanie's prizewinner was the first vintage she had produced without her father's help and followed a chardonnay she made under his supervision in 1995. She's about to release her 1999 merlot and 2000 cabernet sauvignon.

Stephanie showed me round the winery, explaining the process in words I'm more used to hearing from people legally old enough to buy alcohol. She confessed that she is not sure if she wants a career in winemaking but she won't stop making wine.

* Contact the Canberra Visitors Centre, ph (00612) 6205 0044, fax (00612) 6205 0776 or visit Canberra Events and Tourism Corporation.

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