8 December 2021

Grape expectations: learning the ways of wine at the Southern Cross Club

| James Coleman
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Wine glasses

A glass for every occasion. Photo: James Coleman.

“And this is a …”

Like a genie brandishing a lamp, I’m putting the glass of wine through a gentle spin cycle in my hand, hoping it will eventually reveal its deepest secrets.

I give up.

“A white?” I announce, as triumphantly as possible for a statement of the obvious. Turns out it’s a 2008 Pinot Gris from one of the ACT’s own vineyards. It was on the tip of my tongue.

Every few months, the Canberra Southern Cross Club in Tuggeranong pulls out all the stops, lets the chefs go to town, and hosts a ‘wine night’. The one I attended is the last for 2021 and features bottles from our own backyard.

There will be six elegant courses, each one expertly paired with wines from the Mount Majura Vineyard. The sales and marketing manager for the vineyard, Fergus McGhie – with his unapologetically Scottish name – will be on hand to explain what each of the wines is and what makes a good combination.

It’s an opportunity for not only a hearty feed but also, for a novice like me, a learning experience.


The menu for the night. Photo: James Coleman.

The night opens with canapes in the foyer. I have to say the thought of chicken liver parfait was cause for pause, but when served on a crouton and topped with a sliver of caramelised orange and cider jelly, it is something else. I had at least three of them.

These were paired with the Silurian Sparkling Chardonnay/Pinot Noir 2019, named after the estimated age of the rock where the vineyard is located and, Fergus explains, often mispronounced.

“That’s the romance of wine. It’s not what you get when you drink a Coke or beer. You’re getting that taste from ancient land.”

It turns out Canberra’s climate compares very well to at least one of the prime wine-growing locations in Spain, while some of the best worldwide are grown out of limestone, also common in the region.

Fergus McGhie

Fergus McGhie, the marketing manager for Mt Majura Vineyard. Photo: James Coleman.

In the early 1980s, Dr Edgar Riek, a pioneer of viticulture in the Canberra district, spotted some of this precious rock near Mount Majura and knew it was not an opportunity to be missed. The first hectare of the Mount Majura Vineyard was planted in 1988. Since then, the mission has been to eke out the best wine from those slopes.

Clearly, it’s worked. James Halliday has often bestowed his highest honour on the vineyard, printing their name in red alongside five red stars in his annual wine guide. The previous year, the 2018 Silurian won the silver medal for the NSW Wine Awards.

Our group of 50 or so people move into the ‘Brindabella Room’ for the feast itself, a room that has just been majorly overhauled. There is fresh carpet underfoot, white paint on the walls, and new blinds on the way. Apparently, this is only the beginning – the renovations are set to ripple out to the rest of the club over the coming years.


The cured kingfish. Photo: James Coleman.

The second course consists of two slivers of kingfish, cured in gin and topped in pomegranate, lime and aioli. I knew it was good because my wife can’t stand fish and here this was, in all its raw fishy glory, and she loved it.

The accompanying Pinot Gris 2021 is fermented in stainless steel with no oak barrels involved, to keep it “clean, crisp, and bright” and much like “biting into a fresh pear”. It’s Mt Majura’s best-selling wine and the Southern Cross Club stocks a large amount of it.

“It’s the wine that most people like the most, because it is really simple and simple is good,” Fergus says.

A Chardonnay, also from this year, follows with a piece of free-range chicken breast and a king brown mushroom, drizzled in a white-wine-based sauce.

Chicken and mushroom

Chicken breast and king brown mushroom. Photo: James Coleman.

“This wine knocked my socks off when I first tried it,” Fergus says. “This year’s is possibly the best we’ve grown at the vineyard. It was a cooler year and that suits growing Chardonnay in Canberra.”

After a quick game of ‘guess the wine’ (for some, ahem, it was a very brief game), the first red of the evening comes out, a 2019 Tempranillo served with slow-roasted lamb.

White wine with white meat and red wine with red meat is the extent of my matching capability, and Fergus explains that this basic rule of thumb is as much built on taste as culture and history. Japan, for instance, mostly rears the grapes behind the delicate, pale wines while also consuming a vast amount of fish. It’s a combination we’ve come to expect and, therefore, a good one.

Wine magicians might also seem to pull their descriptions out of a hat, but even here, the science is simple. Typically, the berry references are reserved for the darker, redder wines while the more tropical fruits align with the tastes of crisper white wines. Of course, the oft-quoted ‘hint of oak’ comes from the oak barrel.

Roasted lamb

Slow-roasted lamb paired with a 2019 red. Photo: James Coleman.

A brief intermission brings cheese, grapes, and a 2019 Shiraz before it’s time for dessert. The caramelised white chocolate and raspberry tart is accompanied by pistachio ice cream, fresh spring berries and a dessert wine called Remi.

Before you think there is something sophisticated behind the name, Fergus explains that the group of “daggy dads” at the vineyard got together and, rather than calling it ‘Slightly Sweet Chardonnay with a Dose of Spirit Added To It’, turned to the abbreviations on the wine tanks for inspiration.

“This one was marked ‘RAT’,” Fergus says. “As the marketing guy, I said that we certainly can’t call out wine ‘Rat’. But there is a Disney film starring a rat that loves food and wine, so this wine is named after Remy, the rat from Ratatouille.”


The room always falls silent for this bit – dessert. Photo: James Coleman.

Remi might mark the end of these regular wine nights for the year, but the Southern Cross Club says they’ll definitely be back with more in 2022. The price per head is $90 which includes a lavish meal and plenty of home-grown drinks.

If you’ve always thought the main difference between wine was whether it came in a bottle or a box, the Mt Majura Vineyard Wine Dinner will be a revelation – for the food as well as the wine. And every event takes you one step closer to being a wine expert.

To stay up to date with the latest events, including the next Mount Majura Wine Dinner, visit Canberra Southern Cross Club, or sign up to their newsletter.

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