Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier  
A vertical tasting of this remarkable wine from Australia's Canberra District, with Tim Kirk

Clonakilla is one of Australia’s star wineries, and has built its reputation for making brilliant Shiraz with a touch of Viognier from the relatively cool climate region of Canberra District. I visited a few years ago and came away hugely impressed. Here was a rare chance to taste a remarkable vertical of the Clonakilla Shiraz/Viognier in London, presented by Tim Kirk – a treat not to be missed.

The winery was established in the 1970s by CSIRO scientist Dr John Kirk, and his son Tim took over operations in 1996, after completing a degree in Theology and teaching religious education for a few years.

Tim Kirk

Tim cites Côte Rôtie, the northern Rhône appellation, as the inspiration for the Shiraz Viognier, which was first made in 1992. In late 1992/early 1992 Tim had toured the Rhône, Burgundy and Bordeaux to expand his winemaking horizons. He visited Marcel Guigal and the highlight for him was tasting Guigal’s Syrah/Viognier out of barrel. ‘Here were Côte Rôties that had an ethereal dimension,’ he recalls. ‘A soaring, heady perfume that was more red fruit than black.’ Australian wines had robust tannins, but these French Syrah/Viognier blends had finer, more succulent tannins. ‘I was smitten by these wines,’ says Tim, describing it as a ‘revelatory moment’.

 John Kirk had first planted Viognier in 1986 to give Clonakilla a point of difference. ‘It was very hard to establish,’ says Tim. ‘These were weedy sticks, and it took years.’ When Tim got back he suggested putting the Clonakilla Shiraz and Viognier together. ‘Dad said “go ahead”’, he recalls. So the 1992 Clonakilla Shiraz had ‘1% Viognier’ on the label. ‘I’ll wager that’s the first time these names ever appeared together on a wine label,’ reckons Tim. Now Shiraz Viognier is such a popular category that Australian wine shows have a class for it. [The rules are that you can only use the two names together when there is at least 5% Viognier in the blend, which is slightly problematic because 5% can be too much, resulting in some wines with a big apricot character on the nose.]  

Tim reckons that the addition of a little Viognier has a subtle, mesmerising effect on the palate. ‘It extends the thing in every direction. If it is done well you shouldn’t really notice it.’

Canberra District is at altitude (600 metres), with chiefly granitic soils. At most, it makes wines that are medium bodied; that are more about beauty, elegance and structure than sheer power. ‘I have always loved great Burgundy,’ says Tim. He has 2.5 rows of Pinot Noir and makes it every year. ‘It is quite good, but that isn’t good enough: I’d love to make great Pinot Noir.’ He describes his Shiraz Viognier as a ‘Shiraz for Pinot lovers.’

His winemaking is simple. Whole bunches are put into 2 ton fermenters, only part full. Some Viognier is typically crushed and destemmed and put on this, and then some Shiraz is destemmed and put on top. The fermenters are plunged three times a day and a jet of air is given each day. The whole bunches are really interesting, because some of the grapes stay attached and don’t burst (perhaps 20%), but instead begin fermentation from inside. If you take these whole berries out part way through fermentation, their pulp is coloured red, so they are extracting colour from the inside. They are also still a bit sweet; they have fermented about half the sugar from the inside by time of pressing. On pressing, these berries release sugar, which acts to prolong fermentation.


Clonakilla Shiraz/Viognier 1997 Canberra District
A steady, warm summer followed good winter rain. Moderate yields, picked 11/12 April, 5% Viognier, 30% new oak. Brooding, dark aromatic nose with notes of herbs, tar and cedar. Quite savoury, but also with sweet plum and blackberry fruit. The palate shows dark fruits with a spicy, tarry undercurrent. Quite tannic and drying on the finish. Wood spice and cedar notes. Showing a bit of evolution and slightly lacking in charm, but still very good. 91/100

Clonakilla Shiraz/Viognier 1998 Canberra District
A warm year, harvested early (13–17 March), with high sugars. 5% Viognier, 30% new oak. Slightly shy on the nose, but with a savoury elegance to the red and black fruits. Smooth, midweight, elegant palate with well proportioned plum and red berry fruits, backed up by smooth structure. There’s a lightness and elegance here. 91/100

Clonakilla Shiraz/Viognier 1999 Canberra District
Frost in late October, so this is from the second fruit growth. After starting again five weeks late, the fruit ripened during April rather than March. 5% Viognier, 36% new oak. Very bright white pepper edge to the nose with fresh red fruits. Elegant and bright. The palate is supple and elegant with fresh white pepper character to the fruit. A lovely fresh style. 93/100

Clonakilla Shiraz/Viognier 2000 Canberra District
The most difficult vintage in the line-up – cold, wet weather during March and April led to botrytis. 6% Viognier, 30% new wood. Fresh, bright and focused with cherry and red berry fruit. Quite light with a bright personality. Lovely focus and freshness on the palate with a hint of pepper and good acidity. An expressive, light style. 92/100

Clonakilla Shiraz/Viognier 2001 Canberra District
Ideal, warm growing season, harvested 31 March–10 April. 7% Viognie, one-third new oak. Wonderfully rich, aromatic nose. Sweet rich and spicy with red fruits and a lovely floral, violet edge. Complex and beguiling. The palate is rich and sweetly fruited with fresh red fruit, a lovely herbal edge and a touch of spice. Fresh and elegant. 95/100

Clonakilla Shiraz/Viognier 2002 Canberra District
A steady, warm year, harvested 22 March–6 April. First vintage to incorporate fruit from the new, adjoining T&L vineyard. 6% Viognier, one-third new oak. Fresh, aromatic nose with red fruits and a floral, herby edge to the sweet fruit. Super-elegant palate with some lovely sweetness, and also a delicious savoury, tannic, high-acid counter. Elegantly structured with lovely freshness. Almost Burgundian. 95/100

Clonakilla Shiraz/Viognier 2003 Canberra District
A drought year resulted in small crops with small berries, picked March 18–29. 6% Viognier, one-third new oak. Lovely pure, peppery nose showing elegant red fruits with smooth, sweet dark cherry notes. The palate is ripe and super-smooth with rich yet fresh red fruits and good acidity. Beautifully fresh and elegant with substantial structure. 93/100

Clonakilla Shiraz/Viognier 2004 Canberra District
A warm year, picked 3–15 April. 7% Viognier, 35% new wood. Sweet, almost exotic nose with some floral notes but also bright, well defined red and black fruits. Quite complex. The palate is smooth and almost lush with pure ripe fruit backed up by good acidity. Fantastic purity here. Lush and elegant. 95/100

Clonakilla Shiraz/Viognier 2005 Canberra District
Close to perfect season; harvest began 6 April. 6% Viognier, 38% new oak. Brooding dark, spicy nose with black fruits as well as red. Quite tight with hints of floral aromatics. The palate is dense, rich and quite elegant with sweet blackberry and raspberry fruit backed up by firm structure and good acidity. Expressive with real presence. 95/100

Clonakilla Shiraz/Viognier 2006 Canberra District
Good growing season with larger than average crop, harvested 27 March–April 15. 32% new wood. Such loverl aromatics: sweet, pure red fruits with violet and herb notes. The palate is smooth and beautifully textured with elegant red berry fruits and silky tannins. Very rich, pure fruit is the dominant theme here. Lovely focus. 94/100

Clonakilla Shiraz/Viognier 2007 Canberra District
Disaster. A frost on November 16 wiped out 92% of the crop. Just seven barrels were made, with 70% new oak. 1800 bottles were released, and Tim says that he turned from winemaker to grief counsellor, as he told people that there were going to be holes in their vertical collections. ‘I spent three weeks phoning people on the mailing list up to console them,’ he reports. The wine received amazing reviews, and has become a serious collector’s item. None made it to the UK apart from the bottles we were tasting here. Beguiling aromatics: floral, cherry and raspberry fruit nose with a fresh herby edge. The palate has wonderful freshness, with substantial structure and good acidity underpinning the focused plum and raspberry fruit. Wonderful purity. 96/100

Clonakilla Shiraz/Viognier 2008 Canberra District
Good crop of ripe fruit with a cool February followed by a warm March. 6% Viognier, 30% new oak. Tarry, aromatic, violetty, cpisy, warm nose. Really exotic with amazing aromatic richness. Youthful, lush palate is beautifully expressive with wonderfully focused pure, ripe fruit. Elegance and persistence here; quite beautiful. 96/100

See also:

Visiting Clonakilla
Landmark Australia Tutorial (serie

Wines tasted 09/09  
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