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[February 18, 2006]

From Clare to there

(The Irish Times Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge)Joe Breen meets Tim Kirk, an Australian winemaker with God on his side and Irish blood in his veins

"God's creation is very much in the vineyard, and it is a very beautiful place to be. Wine is such a wonderful, natural product. It's just fermented grape juice - that's all it is. So really you are working hand-in-hand with the Creator, and hopefully coming up with something of genuine beauty and dignity. That's all we are trying to achieve, and please God we are getting there."

Tim Kirk is outlining the beliefs and philosophy that underpin his work at Clonakilla, the outstanding Australian winery north of Canberra, founded by his father in 1971, that he now manages. John Kirk had left Lisdoonvarna in Co Clare - his parents ran the Hydro Hotel there - many years earlier to work as a research scientist with the Australian government. But he has never forgotten his roots - "My dad is an Irishman to his back teeth" - and the winery he founded bears the name of the family farm in Clare. The label of their 2004 Shiraz/Viognier blend sports an illustration from the Book of Durrow, as do all their wines. This intense and beautifully structured wine stood out at a dinner in Dublin hosted by wine distributors, Liberty.

"My great love," Tim Kirk says, "is the wines of the Northern Rhne such as Hermitage, Condrieu and Cte Rtie. And our vineyard in Clonakilla has quite a cool climate, 600 metres above sea level, so you get the warm days and the cool nights and a long ripening period. And there is a large diurnal range - the contrast between daytime and night-time temperatures can be 20-25 degrees. And with that regime for ripening, you get slow development of flavours, but very complex ones. The wines tend to be more medium-bodied than full - they are never aggressive wines - and have very fine tannins, good colour and lovely, complex, spicy perfumes, particularly the Shiraz. Our job as winemakers is to capture all that power and flavour in the fruit and not mess it up too much, deliver it safely into the glasses of the people who want to drink our wine."

Although Kirk now sounds every inch the winemaker, his strong Catholic faith and his love of scripture initially led him in a different direction. "My first love was theology. When I was in school, I started studying scripture, in particular the New Testament. I studied scripture in college for four years and learned ancient Greek. Then I went to teach religious education with the Jesuits in Melbourne. And one of the things about being a teacher was the good holidays. We always seemed to have two weeks' holidays around vintage time, so I used to scoot back up to Clonakilla to work with dad on the winemaking.

"And it became a dream for me to do it fulltime. At the end of 1996 I convinced my wife to make the move, so we packed up everything in Melbourne and headed back to the family farm. And it's gone from strength to strength in that time."

At almost 39, Tim Kirk may seem a serious man, with weighty matters on his mind. But there is a lighter side to him. When asked how many children he and his wife have, he replied five, adding with a laugh that "we're very good Catholics".

He is also a very talented winemaker. Clonakilla produces only 6,000-7,000 cases of wine each year, but it all sells, and at a premium price as well - the top wine retails for about 50 a bottle. "We have two Shirazes. We have our own estate Shiraz, which is the flagship, blended with a little bit of Viognier. We co-ferment the two - we think that is important. It is six to seven per cent Viognier and the rest Shiraz. The second Shiraz is from the neighbouring wine district and is called the Clonakilla Hilltop Shiraz. It's less expensive and it does really well for us, too. We also make straight whites, a Viognier, a Riesling and a Semillon Sauvignon Blanc blend."

But it is on the Clonakilla Shiraz that Kirk is building his reputation. That's the good news. The bad news is that it has very limited availability in Ireland at present. So limited that only diners in Chapter One in Dublin have the opportunity to buy it at present. However, leading British distributor, Liberty Wines, is extending its operation in Ireland and many more of the wines in its portfolio, including Clonakilla, should become available in Irish off-licences. u

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