If everything in the city of Canberra is indeed just “10 minutes away” (or so), then it stands to reason that a day spent winding (and eating and drinking) among the rolling hills, verdant vineyards and pastoral pleasures of the country, is also just a short drive away.
On a sunny morning, the few wispy clouds in a pale-blue sky chased by a bracing breeze, that short drive proves to be just 30 short minutes; it’s almost indiscernible, the moment that scrub-rimmed highway gives way to tree-dense bushland and sheep-trimmed pastures.
Our plan is simple: a leisurely brunch at Poachers Pantry. It’s one of the best food producers in the region, boasting its own smokehouse and vineyards – and in addition to stocking gourmet shelves across the country, it channels its hand-crafted products inward, to the lovely restaurant at its heart.
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And right after that, a mini-tasting at a couple of the Canberra District Wine Region’s over 30 cellar doors, dropping in on some of the most iconic winemakers in the area.
It will prove an afternoon of amazing food and wine – but even more so, one full of history, character and stories of families and loved ones.
A treasure chest of produce
In 1991, Susan and Robert Bruce decided to turn part of their family property in Murrumbateman into a smokehouse, turning out hand-crafted bresaola and prosciutto (along with a distinctly Australian kangaroo prosciutto!), smoked lamb rack, chicken and quail, among others.
Not a carnivore? Smoked tomatoes and garlic are truly things of beauty, and deep, intense flavour. Using produce sourced from local farms and fisheries, Poachers Pantry captures and preserves a gastronomic snapshot of some of Australia’s best.
Today, 26 years later, that boutique smokehouse has been joined by the Smokehouse Cafe, a fine restaurant, ringed by the couple’s own Wily Trout vineyard in the surrounding hills. The property is a popular spot for both destination dining and picturesque country weddings.
“My husband’s family bought this property in the 1970s, and then 20 years later we opened the smokehouse with a small butchery area,” said Susan, a genial and welcoming host who seems to know half her visitors by name.
Inside the Smokehouse Cafe, a haze of gentle conversation hovers in the air; outside, most families sit at the umbrella-shaded wooden tables, but a few are perched directly on the tree-ringed, brilliant-green lawn, soaking up the sunshine.
“There’s nothing more pleasurable for me than to come into the cafe and see three generations sitting around a table and enjoying each other’s company,” said Susan.
Tables are laden with charcuterie boards and platters of smoked fish and seafood, fig carpaccio with capsicum sorbet, basil sponge and crumbs of goat cheese, or just-seared scallops on macadamia puree with cherry gel and rose dukkah.
The menu is built around the smokehouse’ bounty, combined with lots of seasonal produce and the vegetables and herbs from the wicking beds in the kitchen garden out front.
“The trick to good smoked products is to brine the produce first, or to dry-cure it with salt,” said Susan. While hot smoking only takes about five days, cold smoking – for the herbed prosciutto, for example – is a slower, trickier process, involving a starter culture and can take up to three months.
Also spotted on most tables: bottles of Wily Trout wine, made from the Bruce’s own vineyards – from Chardonnay to a Pinot Syrah blend. The vineyards are divided into two blocks – the Ah Chow Block is named after the Chinese school master who taught in the 1890s and whose hut was on that parcel of land, while the Nanima Road Block overlooks the Nanima Valley.
“The growing magic of Canberra lies in the long, hot summer days and cool nights,” said Susan. “An easterly sea breeze at night helps to drop the temperatures further.”
And that’s our cue – to set out in search of more wine pastures after a leisurely lunch.
Knocking on the cellar doors of Canberra
The Australian Capital Territory (ACT) – within which lies Canberra – is enclaved by New South Wales (NSW). Technically, some of the wineries that consider themselves part of the Canberra District Wine Region (CDWR) actually lie over the state borders, in NSW – but proximity and regional pride mean that they identify as part of the CDWR.
The cool-climate region has a pretty high continentality, and seems particularly suited for varieties like Shiraz/Syrah and Riesling. In addition to the established cellar doors, it’s also seeing exciting wines from gypsy winemakers.
“We are seeing more young winemakers pressing their own wines at other people’s facilities, and making very good wines,” said French-born Cyril Thevenet, sommelier at Canberra’s two-hatted Aubergine.
“There’s no such thing as big competition among the winemakers here, it’s more about cooperation. It creates a different atmosphere, of sharing ideas and exchange, working together.”
Look out for names like Nick Spencer Wines and Mada Wines from Hamish Young. And just a few minutes from Poachers Pantry, Clonakilla is one of Australia’s most iconic wineries – where winery manager Bryan Martin also makes his own Ravenworth wines, in a very different style from Clonakilla’s own.
Clonakilla founder John Kirk planted his first vines in 1971. Before he came over from Ireland, John had worked in his family-owned hotel in County Clare, where he looked after the bar and wine cellars – before earning his doctorate at Cambridge and Oxford. Today, his son Tim, named Gourmet Traveller’s Wine Maker of the Year in 2013, helms the winery.
“Because of his family, my father had a lifelong interest in wine, and pioneered the wine revival in the area, along with Ken Helm and the late Edgar Riek,” said Tim.
At the cellar door, you’ll be lucky to get a taste of Clonakilla’s renowned Shiraz Viognier. It’s an elegant, refined wine with gentle berries overlaid by white pepper and floral tones, and was inspired by Tim’s 1991 trip to the Rhone Valley, where he tried wines with “ethereal perfumes” and “complex, savoury dimensions”.
He combined the cool-climate Shiraz from his own vineyards with Viognier that his father had planted in the 1980s – and came up with a wine that James Halliday has called “an icon wine, one of the best in Australia”, with Langton’s Andrew Caillard calling it “one of the most important advances in the development of Australian Shiraz since the release of 1952 Penfolds Grange Hermitage”.
Just outside Murrumbateman, Helm Wines is another family concern, and traces its story back to 1973. It’s one of the oldest wineries in the district, and still leading the charge. Its roots lie in Ken’s German Rhineland ancestry, which is why he is known as the face of Riesling in the area.
“If I had to pick, it would be my Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon that are the hallmarks of the winery,” said Ken. Standing behind the counter of the 1888 Toual Public School House that now serves as a very memorable cellar door, he’s a friendly fount of information about the wines of the area, its history and thriving growth today.
(Apart from its wonderful aura of preserving a time long past, the schoolhouse tasting room experience is made all the more delicious by the fact that it was once the meeting place for the local chapter of the alcohol-spurning Temperance League.)
Each bottle of Helm is made in a sparse, pure style – with exceptional depth and complexity – to best reflect the purity of the fruit and the distinctive character of the terroir. In 2012, James Halliday’s Australian Wine Companion gave it a five-star rating – just one of its many accolades.
And Helm’s legacy is already flourishing forward as well, with founders Ken and Judith’s daughter Stephanie setting up her own label (aptly called The Vintner’s Daughter).
“Steph started making wine when she was nine,” said Ken. “She won her first medal when she was 11. And while she studied Law and went into public service, she then decided to make wine. Also, she’s married to my vineyard manager, Ben (Osborne).”
That’s the region in a nutshell then – the fruits of good soil and great weather, nurtured by a great love for the place, and a focus on the bonds of family, friends and deep-rooted history.