To me, acknowledgment of the Canberra wine District is akin to what Tasmania is to mainland Australia. We know it’s there, we just tend not to bring it up in conversations. Of course Tasmania has grown tremendously over the past decade in terms of its ability to produce high quality wines, some of which have garnered prizes in national and international competitions. Such has been the growth that it has even received recent kudos from Jancis Robinson. But enough about the Southern cousin. It is time to pay more attention to the forgotten boy in the corner of the map.
The Canberra wine region faces a terrible conundrum because the ACT isn’t exactly the pick of the crop for weekend getaways or grand tours of wine. Hence, the investment by Tourism Australia here is sorely lacking. Also, much of it lies in that grey region that is the border with NSW and it is much apparent that they would sooner be promoting the Hunter Valley than the foothills of their state. However, all this lack of proper attention has perhaps been a blessing in disguise. Winemaking in this region has developed quietly but not without that strong resolve to produce world-class wines without compromise. More importantly, there is an obvious absence of commercialism at the cellar doors here, and winemakers pursue their craft with much more exuberance and character compared to other regions. In my books, two individuals sit atop the pinnacle of winemaking, not just in this district, but within Australia and arguably the world. They are Tim Kirk (Clonakilla) and Ken Helm (Helm Wines) who have quietly gained superstar status in the world of cool climate wines.
This write-up will focus on the latter gentleman, a conferred AO in 2010 who got the nod in appreciation for his diligence with Riesling which has seen him taken annually to Germany for judging duties. It was my pleasure meeting with Ken at the old converted school house that serves as Helm’s cellar door. Chatting with the guy, one can appreciate his simplistic approach to winemaking and he doesn’t hide the fact that he basically enjoys making wine that he is proud of. There was no overt over-selling of his wines (despite some references to James Halliday’s ratings and proposed cellar-abilities although they weren’t directed at my tasting group) and why should there be, since at the end of the day, these are bloody good wines! The Premium Riesling and Cabernet Sauvignon are brilliant and cost less than equivalent labels from SA or WA. There are also a couple of interesting offerings such as a Sauvignon Blanc which, sad to say, will never be made again.
I highly recommend seeking out the wines of Helm, especially if you are unfamiliar with cooler climate wines. It is good to rest your palate from the over-oaked full-bodied typical wines that pervade the Australian market. These are wines that are produced in relatively limited quantities, possess very good potential for aging, and at a reasonable price tag when bought on release.
Helm Classic Dry Riesling 2011 ($30) Very pale colour, a trait I consistently noted for this vintage in this region. Lovely soft aromatics of white grapefruit and pamelo. This represents a classic example of balancing bright acidity without compromising feminine citrus flavours of lemon and grapefruit. Very nice, best enjoyed young. Drink now. 93/100.
Helm Premium Single Vineyard Riesling 2010 ($48) A shade more colour compared to the 2011 Classic. A very fine wine exuding aromas of crushed rock, talc, and lemon. This has finesse in its combination of steely, solid acidity with robust citrus flavours that persist on the finish. Potentially a 15-year wine but I tend to drink my Rieslings young. Drink now – 2030? 95/100.
Helm Sauvignon Blanc 2009 ($25) It’s quite a shame that this cellar door-only wine is also the last release. The fruit for this wine was sourced from neighbours who have sold-up and the vines have since been pulled out. An eye-opening experience tasting this, and I am able to draw many parallel lines with the wines of Sancerre. Aromas of lanolin, lemon rind and melon skins, ripe flavours perfuse the mouth mounted on a solid backbone of acidity. An expressive wine that embodies the coolness of Sauvignon Blanc and I’m very impressed that this quality of wine can be achieved in Australia. 92/100.
Helm Chardonnay Unwooded 2011 ($25) In comparison, I am less convinced of the potential for Chardonnay in this region. This is a nice, crisp Chardonnay with good fruity flavours but falls short on the finish for me. I really wanted to taste more, but it was as though my roller-coaster ride just ended and I had to rejoin the queue. 88/100
Helm Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 ($32) The 2007 release is a sexy chat noir with a sleek coat of pure blackberry fruit flavours rubbed down with some eucalypt. A full-bodied wine that easy to enjoy armed with robust fruit flavours and dry tannins. Drink now – 2022. 92/100. I don’t know the production for this but apparently there are about 50 cases remaining as of Feb 2012.
Helm Premium Single Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 ($52) A classic Cabernet Sauvignon with shades of its European cousins. This wine is of an intense, dark ruby colour with plenty of dark berry fruit powdered by a dash of chocolate dust. Attractive flavours are supported by an even slate of young solid tannins and the long finish is very sleek. Drink to 2035. 94/100. The 2009 vintage will be released in Nov 2012.
Helm Cabernet Shiraz 2008 ($35) Another cellar door-only offering that is pet project of Ken and his daughter. Forward notes of blackcurrants, pepper and blueberries, this is a well-knitted wine that represents that is good about Australia Cab Shiraz. It makes for easy drinking and can surely be enjoyed by all. Very attractive fruit flavours lying comfortably on a bed of plush tannins. Drink now – 2017. 92/100.