It’s 6.30am and the first rays of sun are peeking through farm equipment and glistening spiders’ webs.
A truckload of Tumbarumba Chardonnay grapes are already being unpacked by winemaker Nick Spencer, and his offsider Hamish Young.
Their duelling forklifts perform a skilful ballet of weighing then pouring grapes and free-run grape juice into the destemmer.
From there it’s into the press; inside it’s like a giant colander with a large balloon that adds pressure. Free-run is the juice that comes out before the balloon presses.
I’m at Eden Road Wines in Murrumbateman, and for the first time ever, I have successfully coincided my visit to a winery with vintage – that chaotic time period when grapes are harvested and wine is being made.
For me this is an opportunity to learn more about wine by getting right amongst the bins, barrels, tanks and laboratory; testing Nick’s patience with about a million questions.
He’s remarkably unflappable, despite being kept awake all night with a sick child, during what is arguably the most important time of the year in a winemaker’s calendar.
Whilst located in New South Wales, the small village of Murrumbateman is actually the heart of the Canberra Wine District. Dotted along the Barton Highway you’ll see signs to many well-known wineries – Eden Road, Helm Wines, Clonakilla – alongside a host of others. By making a slight detour through Yass as you drive down from Sydney, you can get fully mapped the old school way at the Yass Valley Visitor Information Centre (259 Comur Street, Yass).
As well as being experts on getting around the region, they stock a number of locally produced wines in case you have trouble getting around to everyone. While you’re in Yass, check out Thyme To Taste (60 Comur Street, Yass), which carries a great range of local products, including La Barre oils and infused vinegars from just up the road.
Back at Eden Road Wines, it’s time for some tasting – from sun-kissed Shiraz grapes eaten straight from the vine to partial ferments extracted from barrels, to all the component juices of the eagerly awaited sparkling wine. It’ll be made using the Chardonnay grapes I watched arriving earlier, as well as Pinot Meunier and Pinot noir. The component grape juices are all surprisingly sweet, though this is no reflection upon how the resulting Eden Road sparkling will taste, as the sugar will be converted to alcohol during fermentation.
Beyond the fun of getting my fingers in the must to reach below the cap and try the fermenting red wine, being in the winery is a great opportunity to see what winemakers are playing with. Perhaps the most interesting thing I tasted was the writhing whole bunch fermented sauvignon blanc grapes, they’re currently making into an ‘orange wine’. “It’s the type of wine sommeliers get excited about,” explains Nick.
While it’s fascinating to get a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes process, there’s also a lot to be said for visiting the cellar door. Mike Lloyd took me through the Eden Road range, explaining that they favour a clear expression of the fruit in their winemaking.
This allows you to really taste terroir. (That’s the flavour imparted by the complete natural environment of soil, topography and climate, for us common people.) Tumbarumba Chardonnay in particular, exhibits very distinctive terroir.
As I drive through softly undulating hills taking in epic skies and the constant landscape companion of the distant Snowy Mountains, it becomes even more obvious why you’d want your wine to be an expression of the place it comes from.
I ponder this over a selection of cool-climate wine tastings at neighbouring vineyards Helm Wines, Clonakilla and Jeir Creek, before breaking up my wine with a schooner of Murrumbateman pale ale and a simple wood-fired pizza lunch at Four Winds Vineyard (9 Patemans Lane, Murrumbateman).
When you hit your wine limit, there are also food producers to visit, from Robyn Rowe Chocolates (1153 Nanima Road, Murrumbateman) where you should try a coconut lime zing, to Poachers Pantry (431 Nanima Road, Hall) where you can pick up some locally smoked meats.
For a one-stop produce shop include an early Saturday morning visit to the Capital Region Farmers’ Market (Exhibition Park, Flemington Road, Watson) where you’ll be able to really load up the car boot.
Expect to find everything from South Coast seafood to Gilmore Braes rare-breed heritage beef.
While the quality is uniformly great, do expect prices to be similar to Sydney.
The thriving kitchen garden at Capital Wines (42 Cork Street, Gundaroo) might incline you to stay for dinner at their restaurant Grazing.
Located in a 150-year-old hotel, it’s a notch above rustic country fare...
...with their garden produce shining in a picked-for-service side salad.
At the fancier end, there’s Farmhouse (18 Kallaroo Road, Pialligo) at the home of Australia’s best artisan bacon, Pialligo Estate. Despite only being open a week on the night I dined, they produced a beautiful meal utilising produce from their olive grove, vineyard, orchard, market garden and smokehouse. You won’t find that in Sydney!
Running along the Federal Highway as you head into Canberra, you’ll find another sub-region of the Canberra Wine District. For the sake of comparison - or just to check out the winery that produced Australia’s first Gruner Veltliner - stop in at Lark Hill Winery (521 Bungendore Road, Bungendore).
Their lovely high-altitude wines are not the only drawcard; their restaurant offers a comfortable vantage point to survey the vineyards with a glass of their wine in your hand and a decadent pot of Jersey cream crème brûlée.
In Canberra proper, the QT Hotel provides the perfect base to explore art, architecture or foodie destinations. Charge up at Two Before Ten Coffee Roasters (69 Bandjalong Crescent, Aranda) before getting saturated in colour by the James Turrell retrospective at the National Gallery (Parkes Place, Parkes).
Squeeze in a stroll through the outdoor art in NewActon before lunch at Monster Kitchen and Bar (25 Edinburgh Avenue, Canberra). With dishes like eggplant with smoked goat’s curd, katsuobushi and sesame, the menu belies its hotel lobby location.
Even the humble brekky roll here teams grilled sobrassada, pickled green tomato, fried egg and manchego on ciabatta. Later, if your feet are tired, rest assured QT’s in-house restaurant, Capital Bar and Grill delivers a quality experience under the stewardship of Creative Food Director Robert Marchetti.
As I wrap up my three-day weekend with an old fashioned nightcap in the hotel bar, a visiting Norwegian choir bursts into song. Their rendition of Waltzing Matilda is the best I’ve heard. They’re here to sing for the King of Norway; thus explaining the Norwegian flags flying at Parliament House. There’s a definite sense of being in the nation's capital, where big things happen.
And QT have smartly ensured you can get your political selfie with Australia’s arch villain (sadly not in red Speedos) using a quirky, life-size photographic wall.
I leave, my car boot groaning with wine and produce, with the decided impression that Canberra is much better than most Sydneysiders think.
Read other Canberra restaurant/hotel reviews HERE, HERE and HERE.