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When 2020 gives you smoke taint, you turn Riesling into gin

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It started out with a bushfire catastrophe, and 2020 has continued in delivering us one apocalyptic event after the next.

But award-winning vigneron Sarah Collingwood is trying to stay upbeat.

In fact, she is positively chuffed to have been able to turn around a disastrous smoke taint across the 2020 vintage of her Four Winds family vineyard in Murrumbateman and create a new bespoke alcohol: Riesling Gin.

In a collaboration with The Canberra Distillery, Sarah and her family have been able to recycle their smoke tainted grapes into a completely new and delicious product (yes, we had to have a try before writing this article in the interests of journalistic integrity).

Sarah concedes it was heartbreaking watching the bushfire smoke blanket the vines day after day in January, and then she received the scientific analysis that confirmed what every grape grower across the region feared—the grapes were smoke tainted. It is the first vintage in owning the winery for 22 years where the whole crop had been lost.

“Being optimists, we held out hope that we would harvest a crop right up until we received the smoke taint results from the Australian Wine Research Institute. The levels of smoke taint are difficult to predict as it depends on how far away the fires are, what kind of fire it is and how long the smoke hangs around the vines for.  Our results were high so it was an easy, but heart-breaking, decision not to harvest the grapes to make wine.

“After 12 months tending to the vines; pruning, shoot-thinning, fruit-dropping, we couldn’t bear letting all the grapes go to waste,” she said. “We ran through the options of things we could make; grape jelly, verjuice, brandy or gin. For us, gin made the most sense.”

Sarah put in a call to distiller Tim Reardon to see if he would be interested in working on a Riesling gin with them.

“He was enthusiastic and had lots of ideas for different flavour profiles, botanicals and productions techniques which made the process fun.”

For the record, Tim’s right-hand woman Freddie Raimbaud confirmed the botanicals used for the Riesling gin included cinnamon, coriander, juniper, cardamon, and tangelo citrus, complemented with tea made from unfermented Rooibos tea, chamomile, dried orange peel and dried apple.

Then it was time to pour in some Riesling “juice” and balance it all together.

The result, according to Freddie, is a similar aroma and flavour you would find in a glass of Canberran Riesling—including floral, citrus, apple, and a smooth clean texture. It’s highly recommended to be poured over a slice of pink grapefruit or a sprig of rosemary.

Sarah Collingwood with Four Winds’ new gin.

“It has been a strange year knowing that we have a large vineyard and the only thing that it produced this year was a gin,” says Sarah.

“But making it was a fun process trialling different botanicals and amounts of Riesling juice to get just the right Riesling gin.

“We really enjoy a gin and tonic and I have loved being a part of the process, improving my gin-palate and enjoying the finished product.”

If you’re keen for a taste, Four Winds Riesling Gin is available on their website and at the cellar door. You can also find it at some local independent bottle shops and bars that stock it including Bolt Bar, Prohibition Bottle Shop, Plonk Fyshwick & Belconnen, Statesman Hotel, The Friendly Grocer Chifley and Spence and Canberra Wine & Spirits.

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