“The job of a winemaker, through the means of great vines in a landscape, is to capture whatever it is that is true and noble, and pure in that landscape,” says Tim Kirk chief winemaker and CEO of Clonakilla.
Situated approximately 25 minutes drive outside of Australia’s capital in the cool climate Canberra district of Murrumbateman, the legend of Clonakilla began when Tim’s father, Dr John Kirk, an eminent UK scientist in biochemistry, who was headhunted and brought to Australia by the CSIRO, “took up a spade, dug a hole, and said ‘Look’s pretty good’.”
Truth be told, however, Dr Kirk was able recognise many parallels between the climate, and continentality of the cool Canberra district, with those of some of the great vineyards in Europe. On a trip to Europe in 1991, Tim Kirk unknowingly began forging the legend of Clonakilla by tasting barrel samples from Marcel Guigal at La Mouline, and La Turque, an experience which Tim describes as “a revelation.”
These wines, Tim says, “had a profoundly savory, ethereal aroma, so haunting, and beautiful, and a world away from the big blockbuster shiraz’s that I was more used to in Australia… I thought, if ever we could produce a wine with such elegance, subtlety, and allure (back in Australia)… that’s what I wanted to try and do.”
So, when Tim took over the reins of the family business at the end of 1996, leaving behind a fulfilling life as a Jesuit teacher at Xavier College, in Melbourne, the Clonakilla legend was now well and truly on it’s way to being forged.
“I have an amazing job, working with the beautiful things that are God’s creation”, explains Tim, “trying to capture the personality of this site, and express it within the vehicle of wine, through our viticulture and winemaking methods, without trying to impose on the landscape our view of what it’s supposed to taste like.”
As Tim explains, Clonakilla’s vineyards are, “closer to conventionally managed,” than they are organically or biodynamically.
However, as Tim says, “I am, personally, drawn to a more organic approach to viticulture.”
In 2010, Tim began pursuing a more organic approach by experimenting on one of Clonakilla’s vineyard sites, spreading compost created from grape marc back onto the vineyard to encourage a more sustainable system of agriculture.
“It’s such a wonderful and miraculous process to take natural organic matter,” says Tim, “and collect it into a bundle, heap it up and watch it transform into a beautiful humus, which can then be put back onto the vineyard to give life and energy to the soil.”
In 2011, the vineyards at Clonakilla were severely tested with constant and consistent rain. The risk of mould and mildew were prevalent.
“We were tested quite strongly by the seasons, and were under quite a lot of pressure to keep control of botrytis,” says Tim, “so we did revert back to the safety of conventional viticulture techniques.”
Through use of various systemic sprays, Tim and his team were able to salvage quite a tough vintage, to produce some great wines of exceptional quality… and Tim still has an interest in pursuing organics, ” I would say that we are very interested in anything that is going to give us that more authentic voice in our wines.”
Enter stage right: Biodynamics.
Given that many of the famous vineyard sites in Europe are managed using biodynamic methods, and given that biodynamics encourages life and energy to thrive within the soil, while offering a more natural, sustainable approach to agricultural management, I wondered whether Tim had ever considered utilising the biodynamic methods on the Clonakilla vineyard sites.
“There are many things about biodynamics that are good and encouraging for all of us that want to make good wines. The respect that biodynamisists have for the earth, and in the way they seek to capture what is really good and vibrant in the natural environment, rather than imposing on it via artificial means, or some kind of control, is an important correction to a manipulative, human centered approach to agriculture.”
“I do struggle, however, with some aspects of biodynamic philosophy,” says Tim. “For example, the idea of having particular days on which it is good or bad to do certain things within the vineyard.”
Biodynamics follows the lunar calendar which postulates particular days, such as root or fruit days that are best for planting or picking produce. This is a centuries old, ancient method of agriculture, that is in sync with the particular rhythms and movements of the moon, including its physical presence and influence upon the earth.
“I struggle with the veracity of some of the claims made for biodynamic preparations,” Tim explains, “and, theologically speaking, there are some elements within biodynamics that do lead to a paganistic view of the universe, where there is almost a fear of some elemental forces at work, and that we have to be wary not to offend them.”
“For me, that’s a problem,” continues Tim, “because I see the universe as a gift from a loving God, which is a joyful, and noble thing, and the idea that there could be forces that we wouldn’t want to offend, lest things go badly for us, doesn’t quite align with my theological world view.”
Irrespective of biodynamics, theology, or convention, Tim Kirk has helped form, shape, and ultimately forge the wines of Clonakilla into legendary status amongst the Australian wine industry.
Just released, the 2012 Clonakilla Viognier is a supple, elegant white wine, with gentle jasmine florals drifting on top of honeyed pears and apricot acids. The 2012 Semillon Sauvignon Blanc is all cut grass and crisp green apples. Light, if not agile, passionfruit and lime with soft tangy acids lingering long after it’s swallowed.
The 2011 O’Riada Shiraz is a spice lovers paradise. Black peppered depth undertows a mulberry and black fruit grip of tannin and parched dryness.
Lasstly, the 2008 Shiraz Viognier (not tasted on this particular visit) is more debonair than delicate. Still haunting and beguiling, like it’s Rhône reflectors, but with that quintessential Australian confidence (often misplaced as arrogance) bursting beyond its new world boundaries to reach the heights of Arthurian lore. Suffice to say, it tastes wonderful!
The wines of Clonakilla have given the Canberra landscape a voice.
Reflected in the clouds that streak above, the land at Clonakilla has been the bearer of some incredibly delicate and ephemeral wines of distinction. I can only imagine the potential and possibilities waiting to be discovered if Tim was to commit himself to the idea of organics or biodynamics.
D// – The Wine Idealist
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