Thursday, March 29, 2012
Sparkling Weather, Sparkling Wine - Canberra District Wine Challenge Day 3
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!