One can only imagine what after-work drinks must have been like at the CSIRO back in the 1970s. Many of the founders of the Canberra wine district were busy working in their laboratories, researching such diverse fields as the taxonomy of freshwater crayfish, long distance insect migration and the physics of solar radiation in the ocean. By day, they were leaders in their field but at knock off time they would gather in someone's lab, often with a bottle of wine someone had brought in, and talk about their shared passion: wine.
The district celebrates 50 years of wine-making in 2021. From the earliest of days where the late Edgar Riek planted vines at what is now Lake George Winery in 1971 and John Kirk settled his young family on the outskirts of Murrumbateman at Clonakilla, the Canberra district is now considered a genuine contender.
Over a bottle of riesling Ken Helm has brought along to the interview, Kirk, now 85, and Helm a sprightly 75, reminisce about the early days.
They're still scientists. They talk about how their research led them to comparisons of climates between here and Europe, how Bordeaux in France was almost a identical match, how they were plotting temperature through the growing season and noticing similarities.
"And quite independently, we all thought maybe we could grow grapes here and make wines," says Kirk.
"What we didn't know was how good they could be, because while the temperatures were the same, there were many, many differences."
It was their background in science, Kirk says, that enabled them to take that risk.
"It gave us the reasoning, we knew how to question and how to think, if we recognised the problems, then maybe they could be solved, that's what you do in science all the time, address problems and work out ways of solving them."
Helm planted his first vines in 1973. He wasn't a complete novice, his great great grandparents planted the first vines in Rutherglen and as a kid he used to work pruning grapes.
"People told us we were mad, that it would never work, that it was too cold ... but I knew it could be done."
Helm hands over the minutes from the inaugural meeting of the Canberra District Winegrowers Association, dated Tuesday, November 19, 1974. Present were Ian Black, Max Blake, Geoff Hood, Harvey Smith, and Riek, Kirk and Helm. There's a table at the back listing the varieties being grown, cabernet sauvignon and shiraz were the most popular grapes, followed by riesling and chardonnay. Edgar Riek had planted one plant of nebbiolo bourgu, nebbiolo fino and merlot.
"We always worked with a great sense of cooperation in the early days, we still do," Helm says.
"It was about sharing knowledge and what expertise we managed to pull together."
When Kirk bottled the first wine in 1976, a riesling, sauvignon blanc blend, he brought it into the CSIRO and went to Helm so they could share a glass.
"In the end the first person to buy a bottle of Canberra wine was Ken," says Kirk.
"I think he paid me $2, he said it was only right that he paid for it."
They talk about how they used to enter wines in wine shows around NSW in the early days, how no one would take them seriously or believe they were making wine in Canberra.
"Some of the top winemakers were spilling more wine than we were making," says Helm, "but then we started to pick up awards at some wine shows and people started taking notice."
They never expected the district to shine, nationally, and internationally, as much as it does now. They are buoyed by the passionate young people picking up the reins, Helm's daughter Stephanie is a winemaker; John passed the reins to his son Tim. And they see young families taking the same leap they did with their wives and children 50 years ago, and that makes them happy.
So does a glass of wine at the end of a long day. Kirk is still helping out a few days a week, Helm is in his winery daily.
"If you asked me what the secret of the Canberra wine district is," says Kirk, "it's the same as every great wine district - the French have a name for it 'terroir'.
"It's a whole set of environmental parameters that apply to your vineyard ..." and he starts talking about altitude, humidity, soil chemistry, rainfall, diurnal range.
I ask them both whether you can measure the passion of a man brave enough to pioneer the unknown, to take a chance, perhaps for no other reason than he enjoys a glass of good wine in the company of good friends.
"You had to have the passion to persevere," says Kirk. "In a way it proceeded poetically, if the land were to speak to us through wine, what would it say, this block of land, what would it say ... the only answer is to take a glass of Ken's riesling or a Clonakilla shiraz, and the answer is there in the glass."
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