Thursday, March 29, 2012

Sparkling Weather, Sparkling Wine - Canberra District Wine Challenge Day 3

Gallagher vines


After the torrential rain of the Day Two of the Canberra District Wine Challenge, it was with some trepidation that the Merry Four ventured out for Day Three of the Challenge.  We needn't have worried, as the weather featured spectacular crisp blue skies and bright sun which matched perfectly the star of the day's tastings - Canberra District sparklings.


Now I must start off by stating that the sparkling white I purchased on Day Two of the Challenge from my favourite winery to date - Lark Hill - was pretty spectacular but, at $60 a bottle, more of a special occasion tipple with its taste of fresh pears and fine, crisp bubbles.  But on Day Three of the Challenge we switched to the other side of the Canberra District, heading to two vineyards in the Hall area (Surveyor's Hill and Pankhurst), stopping for lunch at Poacher's Pantry (and a cheeky Wily Trout sparkling) and then on to another three vineyards on the fringe of the Murrumbateman area (Gallagher, Granitevale and Jeir Creek).

At each of the cellar doors (other than Granitevale) the sparklings were the stand-out wines, whether of a white or red variety.  Interestingly, the Surveyor's Hill, Pankhurst and Gallagher sparklings were all made by Greg Gallagher of Gallagher Wines and the love and passion of this self-confessed "sparkling fanatic" shines through every drop.  Incidentally, his wife's cheese is also pretty spectacular.

But I have skipped ahead a little too far!  We started with a left turn off the highway towards the cluster of vineyards around the village of Hall, in sight of the Murrumbidgee River valley and fringing the NSW-ACT state border.  Surveyor's Hill, the first stop, had a fabulous view, a well-designed tasting area and cafe, and an owner who happily explained all her wines.  The consensus amongst the Merry Four was that the white sparkling was well worth the buying.  The interestingly savoury port (although I think we're not allowed to call it that now...) tasted like the port equivalent of dark and bitter chocolate.   We didn't stop to try the food at their restaurant but the menu looked good enough to justify a return trip and they had a nice combustion fire which would ensure a toasty warm lunch when the weather gets a little wilder.

Surveyors Hill

I must admit a soft spot for the next cellar door on our trip, just a bit further down the dirt road - Pankhurst Wines with its slightly less "polished" labels but some terrific wines.  Visit for their punchy sparkling white (I bought the very last bottle from the 2006 vintage) and their wonderful reds - the best we've tried to date.  Thankfully, their new vintage is being released shortly.



Like Surveyor's Hill, Pankhurst also has a spectacular view of the Murrumbidgee and a wonderful wine-barrel seating area overlooking the river, in case you feel like stopping and polishing off a bottle before you move on.  While their cellar door was a little less "architectural" than a lot of the places we've visited, the wines are the focus at Pankhurst, and what a focus they are.  The Christobel 2006 sparkling white was well worth the trip down the dirt lane all on it's own, but add to that some truly top notch reds - yes, even I, the white wine-lover, picked up a bottle of sangiovese - and I want to encourage you all to make the trip out to Pankhurst.  At $23 a bottle for the sparkling and $30 for the sangiovese, pick up a few bottles while you are there too.  And the sparkling red was also pretty fab.

At this point our stomachs started to grumble, so we headed back down the highway for Poacher's Pantry.  Now, I have always thought Poacher's was a little overrated.  The staff can be a little on the frosty side and they like to rush you out pretty quickly to make room for bigger groups.  But on this occasion, I was the one who had the excellent meal - a slow-roasted pork belly juicy and then crispy in all the right places.  The platter of smoked meats and dips was also delicious, but the pot pies were on the runny, flavourless side and my friend's salmon was raw in the centre when it arrived, and then nuked in the microwave when he complained.  But, when we raised things with the floor manager, the salmon was thankfully removed from the bill.

Poachers Pantry

Poachers Pantry

Poachers Pantry

While we were at Poacher's Pantry we also tasted some of the wines in their Wily Trout (the expensive line) and Fingerlings (the "budget" line) ranges.  Coming as the tasting did straight after our terrific experience at Pankhurst, the wines at Poacher's were a tad disappointing, especially considering they were priced about $5 more on average than the bottles at many of the better vineyards we stopped at.  Again, I enjoyed the Wily Trout white sparkling, which they refer to as "salmon" as it's got a lovely golden apricot colour... as it turned out this too was made by Greg Gallagher.

Cutting our losses, we headed off to the next cluster of vineyards down the road.  Gallagher Wines was the most entertaining of the day's cellar doors.  As well as making a great sparkling, Greg is also a bit of showman.  For example, when tasting the sparkling shiraz, Greg gets you to nibble at a piece of bitter dark chocolate to show off the potential for matching the wine with dessert.  I walked away with his more expensive Blanc de Blanc 2007 sparkling, having tasted the sparkling chardonnay/pinot noir "Duet".  At $30 and $25 respectively, I would have loved to buy a case - but budgets being what they are, took home a respectable single bottle of Blanc de Blanc.  What restraint!

Gallagher cellar door

Gallagher wines

Next it was on to Granitevale, down an endless dirt road to a rather respectable graded driveway of epic proportions.  As a white lover it was disappointing to turn up to a cellar door to discover that not a single white was available to taste or buy.  The general impression of the red drinkers was disappointment.  Not bad, not great.  Personally, I fell in love with their dogs and occupied myself with dishing out pats and tummy scratches.  Apparently they're famous for their ice wine, but again there was only a pink ice wine to taste and, while it was a perfectly reasonable dessert wine, at $25 a bottle, I didn't feel the need to splash out.

Granitevale dog


We finished the day off at one of my favourite Canberra wineries - Jeir Creek.  This one is well worth the visit for all its wines.  Yes, I mean all of them.  The whites, particularly the 2011 sauvignon blanc which smells to me of passionfruit, and the new voignier with its fruity pear flavours, were the reason I walked out with a box under my arm.  And for my free seventh bottle?  Well, the sparkling white, "Les Trois Filles" of course.  At $20 a bottle it is both the cheapest and the best of the day, fruity and full-bodied while still being dry enough for my taste, and it's only the third vintage they have yet produced.  To me it smells of saffron and the foods of Morocco... but maybe that's just me?

At any rate, Jeir Creek is the one cellar door where I routinely buy a half dozen on every trip. Mr & Mrs Ducky, red sparkling fans, were also pleased by the quality of the sparkling wine across the board and I will shortly be reporting on a sparkling tasting night featuring bottles of both varieties from all the vineyards we visited on Day Three.  Ten cellar doors down, twenty-five to go!

Canberra sparklings

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Slow Roasted Spiced Leg of Lamb


For a long time I have wanted to try out a recipe for a leg of lamb which has been marinated for 24 hours in a spicy yoghurt sauce, which I spotted in a very unassuming Indian cookbook given to me by the Cookbook Fairy Godmother (my Mum).  The book is called "A Heritage of Indian Cooking" by Joseph Cotta and the reason it had lingered so long, unopened on my bookshelf is - I am ashamed to say - the fact that it has no photos.

I admit it, when looking for foodie inspiration, I usually go straight to the pretty, glossy books with photography so good that you start salivating just looking at the pages.  This book is small, bright orange and has not a picture to be seen.  And I cannot believe I have overlooked it for so long!  I discovered the recipe for "Raan", which the book describes as "a wonderful Sunday treat", while cooking the recipe for black lentil dhal (it's a winner too, and I'll be sure to include it at some stage along the way).  


In my usual fashion, I took the original recipe and twisted it somewhat, while keeping what I hope is the essence of the original flavours.  For instance, when I made the marinade I didn't have any blanched almonds in the cupboard or fresh ginger in the fridge, so substituted shredded coconut and ground ginger instead.  I also decided that if I was going to go the whole hog (or lamb, so to speak) and marinate the sucker for 24 hours, why stint on the cooking time?  So rather than cook the leg of lamb on the stove top for the 3 hours or so described in the cookbook, I decided to still use a cast-iron casserole pot but instead to pop it in a 170 degree Celcius oven for five hours.  It was well worth the extra time out of my day, as the result was so tender and flavourful that it literally fell from the bone in shreds when I attempted to remove the leg whole from the pot!


The dish, which I served with small roasted onions I popped in the oven for the last couple of hours, and  yoghurt flavoured with garlic and coriander, was a real crowd pleaser.  There were seconds and then thirds served and I polished off the last of the lamb today for lunch.  It was pretty good reheated, let me tell you!  A shout out goes to Ms K for the delicious potato gratin which so complimented the lamb.

Although the sound of marinating something for a day may seem a little high maintenance for most, I assure you the marinade was pretty straightforward and, once it was poured over the lamb, you got quite a lot of bang in flavour for your small amount of effort.


Slow Roasted Spiced Leg of Lamb


- Leg of lamb weighing approximately 2.8-3 kilograms (will feed 7-8 people)
- 6 garlic cloves, sliced into quarters or halves length ways
- 1 cup plain yoghurt (unsweetened)
- 1/2 teaspoon of saffron strands
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon ground tumeric
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
- 2 tablespoons shredded coconut (unsweetened)
- juice of 2 lemons
- 3 tablespoons ghee
- 4 tablespoons brown sugar
- 8 small onions, peeled

On the day before you intend to eat your leg of lamb, it's time to marinate, baby!  First, soak your saffron strands in three tablespoons of hot water.  Then, in a blender or food processor, blend the yoghurt, all the spices, the coconut, the saffron and the water it's infused in, and the lemon juice.




On the stove in a small saucepan, melt the ghee and tip the brown sugar on top.  When it's starting to melt and bubble, add 1 1/2 cups of water.  Bring this to a boil and then turn down the heat to a brisk simmer, stirring constantly until the liquid has reduced to one-third it's former volume and looks dark and treacly.   Reserve half the liquid for later and pour the other half into the yoghurt marinade, whisking to combine.


Meanwhile, place your leg of lamb in a deep glass baking dish.  Stab the meat with a knife and push the garlic cloves into the slices.  Pour the yoghurt marinade over the top, ensuring it covers every surface.  Cover with cling wrap and place in the refridgerator for the next 24 hours.





The next day, you should remove the leg of lamb from the fridge about two hours before you plan to put it in the oven.  You want it to return to room temperature so the slow-cooking times aren't thrown out of whack.

Next, preheat your oven to 170 degrees Celcius.   Remove the leg of lamb from the marinade and save the marinade for later.

Heat a heavy cast-iron casserole dish on the stove top and melt two tablespoons of ghee.  Brown all the sides of the leg of lamb - you just want to brown it, not cook it, so it shouldn't take too long - and then add two cups of water over the top of the lamb.  Cover the pot with aluminium foil and then place the lid on top.  Put the casserole dish in the oven and leave it well alone for two hours.



At the two-hour mark, remove the dish from the oven and turn the leg of lamb over to ensure the whole leg stays moist.  Return the casserole dish to the oven.

Now, mix the last of the dark sugar syrup with the remaining marinade, again whisking them together to combine.

At the three-hour mark, remove dish from the oven again, pour the marinade over the top and add the onions.  Reduce the heat to 140 degrees Celcius and return the dish to the oven.  At this point the lamb will likely be too tender and ready to fall off the bone to allow you to flip it again, so you may need to baste it at the four-hour mark to make sure the top part of the leg doesn't dry out.


At the five-hour mark, turn off the oven.  If your guests are late, just leave the dish in the oven until you are ready to eat.  Otherwise, remove the lamb from the oven onto a carving board.  The flesh should simply fall away from the bone, but I helped it along by using two forks to break it up a bit into shreds.  I placed the lamb and onions on a large platter which had a little lip and then poured a few spoonfuls of the sauce from the pot over the meat.



While the spices don't overpower the lamb, they do help elevate this dish well above the average Sunday roast and the tenderness of the meat was all down to the 24 hours of marinating and the long cooking time.

Most of my guests enjoyed the dish with a nice cabernet sauvignon, but as a white drinker, I sipped a glass of Lark Hill riesling with mine, purchased last week on the Canberra District Wine Challenge.  The Challenge went on hold this long-weekend, with Jess, Matt and Tanya all out of action, but hopefully we'll be back at the cellar doors of the district next weekend!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Three Vineyards and a Lunch

After kicking off the Canberra Wine District Challenge at Mount Majura Vineyard, Jess and I roped two more wine fanciers into the second stage of the Challenge.  Together, the four of us took in a day of excellent wine, a magical fairytale forest of red deathcap mushrooms (left well enough alone by us) and an incredible lunch that we stretched out as long as possible as the light mist turned to heavy rain outside.



There were three very different wineries on the list for the day, all near the pretty village of Bungendore, just over the New South Wales border from Canberra. The wineries around Bungendore sit at a much higher altitude than those around Murrumbateman, which we will visit during future stages of the Wine Challenge. This is reputed to make the wines from this are a little different to the majority of the wineries in the region. The standouts for me were the whites (riesling and gruner veltliner, particularly) from Lark Hill, but we will go into that a little later.

 After the four of us crammed into my tiny hatchback (which had just enough room left for a couple of cases of wine in the teeny-weeny boot), we headed straight for Lambert Vineyards.  Arriving as we did as the mist turned to spitting rain, the warm and inviting tasting room and cafe with it's fire and sunny staff was a welcome sight indeed.


Although all agreed the Lambert labels were a little average, we learned a little lesson about not judging a wine by its label.  Lambert has a broad range of whites and reds, including a sparkling of each colour, and staff that were knowledgable about the range, but also very generous with time and pours.  The general consensus was that the Lambert reds were the standouts and Matt described their excellent shiraz (especially their Reserve Shiraz) as "a punch in the face, rather than a polite slap" - just the way he likes it, apparently!

As a white lover, I enjoyed their 2008 pinot gris and 2008 riesling, which was dry and citrusy (just the way I like it).  Jess and I have hatched a plan to buy their 2008 riesling - already very drinkable - and taste it against their 2004 and 2005 vintages, which are also available and can be delivered to our door. At $25-30 a bottle, this is a well-priced range for a tasty, dry riesling to enjoy with friends.  I was less enamoured with their 2006 riesling, which was sweet and spritzy - not at all to my taste, but we were assured it went down a treat with a nice curry.

As we tasted our way through their range, I carefully watched the food coming out of their kitchen and woodfired pizza oven.  Let's just say that a second visit to sit and eat some of Lambert's food in front of the fire will definitely be on the cards, especially if this atrocious weather continues.

Next stop was Lark Hill Winery where, in addition to tasting their excellent biodynamic wines, we also had a lingering three-course lunch in their airy restaurant.  While we didn't try it, given the weather, they had a lovely deck overlooking the vines which looked like it would be a great place to spend a summer afternoon. The owners try to source as much of their produce as close as possible to the restaurant (including from the nearby farm owned by their 90-year old dad).  Despite the presence of two big group tables around us, the terrific staff provided us with excellent service and the presentation and taste of the dishes was well worth the journey out from Canberra.

Lark Hill

Lark Hill

Lark Hill

We kicked off our lunch with a rabbit terrine and a glass of their sparkling rose, which is on the house if you check-in to their restaurant on Facebook while you are there. I then switched to their incredible 2011 gruner veltliner, which was the standout wine of the day for me.  Rush out there and buy this $40 a bottle drop while there are still a couple of cases left.  I have bought a few and intend on cellaring one of the bottles for the five years recommended at the cellar door.  Bring on 2017!

The others went the steak and red wine route for mains, buying a bottle of Lark Hill's sangiovese which was described across the dinner table as "eminently drinkable".  We finished the gluttony off with pears poached in the house's Auslese riesling and drizzled with caramel sauce and creme anglaise.  The only disappointing part of the meal was when we realised that the rain hadn't stopped while we ate, so we had to venture into the wet to get to the cellar door!

The final stop of the day was Affleck Vineyard and the magical fairytale driveway, arched with pine tree boughs and studded with red deathcap mushrooms.  A small wallaby even greeted us as we turned into the drive and the friendly owners made it well worth the detour off the main road.

Affleck Vineyards

Affleck Vineyards

Affleck has a neat range of whites and reds at about the $20-25 range, but I really enjoyed their white port, described very accurately by the owner as "christmas cake in a bottle".  Matt and Tanya walked away with a bottle and I have regretted not purchasing one of my own since.


As we drove back down the drive and headed out to the highway for the quick trip home, we all agreed that we could think of no better way to spend a rainy Saturday. The three cellar doors we chose all had distinct atmospheres and generous, friendly hosts.   And what more can you ask for, really? Four Canberra District wineries down, 31 more to go.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Canberra District Wine Region Challenge

I got to know Jess on a very (very) long road trip from Canberra to Echuca.  We were heading to a mutual friend's wedding and the hours flew by as we talked-non-stop the entire journey.  We established a number of key facts.  One - Jess was from Adelaide and had grown up with three incredible wine growing areas at her doorstop.  Two - we both enjoy wine (although Jess knows a great deal more about it than I do).  Three - Jess was a bit concerned about her first winter in Canberra.

Mount Majura

Mount Majura

As a Canberra local, the answer seemed clear.   What better way to spend the next six months than by introducing Jess to the Canberra Wine District.  When I got home I unearthed my copy of the Canberra District Wine Region Map (you can download it here) - there were 35 wineries on the map.

The Canberra District Wine Region Challenge was born.  35 wineries, six months, two women.  What's not to love?

Mount Majura

Mount Majura

We embarked on the challenge last weekend and headed out on Majura Road to kick off at the Mount Majura Vineyard.  It's quite a beautiful spot, set in a valley with the vines arcing out up the undulations of the hills behind its cafe/tasting room.  It also looks out on Canberra's truffle farm, which I visited last year.

Unlike the vast majority of Canberra's owner-operated cellar doors, Mount Majura takes a slightly different approach to its wine tastings.  You arrive to a pre-set table with a clipboard providing you tasting notes on their range of wines and a table mat with circles telling you where to pop your glass to indicate which of the whites (and then the reds) that you you wish to taste.  The friendly staff are quite happy to let you taste the full range if you wish - and we did.


The structure of the tasting makes it a relatively formal affair and left us wishing the owner might wander over, pull out a seat and tell us just a little bit more about the place and the wines.  But the upside was that we were left to our own devices to take our time and talk openly about the wines we were tasting.

They also offer some lovely tasting plates.  The one we ordered offered samples of local produce and worked terrifically with the wines we were sipping along the way.  They also have a cheese platter available - and all very reasonable at $15 a platter.

Mount Majura

Jess and I found that, despite showing us a very interesting range of whites and reds, we both bought the very reasonable priced white blend at $16 a bottle.  It was easy to drink and at that price, perfect for a wind-down glass of vino when you struggle home and settle on the couch.  I enjoyed the sparkling white but I like my sparkling very dry with fine bubbles.  Jess was less enamoured and, to be honest, when I cracked it open for Sunday night dinner with Mum, it was less spectacular than I remembered.  Still eminently drinkable and it held it's bubbles very well over the next couple of days as I enjoyed the leftovers.

All in all, a lovely way to spend an afternoon with your friends.  Especially when it's raining and miserable outside!