Ken holds court at the cellar door

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Winemaker Ken Helm… “You could drink a good riesling after 100 years.”

“Ken Helm is no Mr Bumble; his pronouncements are more Joycean stream-of-consciousness than 19th century social commentary. But he is a heck of a talented winemaker,” writes wine columnist RICHARD CALVER

KEN Helm is a charming and knowledgeable raconteur. He barely drew breath as he poured samples of his aged rieslings and the latest-release cabernet sauvignon. 

They were on taste at the Helm cellar door, the quaint school house built in 1888, in a one-off demonstration of how riesling can sing if it is left in the bottle to grow in complexity, with one of Ken’s more hyperbolic pronouncements of the afternoon: “You could drink a good riesling after 100 years.” 

Four of us had ventured to Butts Road, Murrumbateman to sample Ken Helm’s latest vintage and then compare the current offering with riesling from as far back as 2005. Our designated driver sat under a shady tree and contemplated the picturesque landscape while we lined up in the school house, tasting glasses at the ready, waiting to say: “Please sir, can we have some more” but that request was otiose as the pace of pouring was almost matched to the stream of the narrative. 

Ken Helm is no Mr Bumble; his pronouncements are more Joycean stream-of-consciousness than 19th century social commentary. But he is a heck of a talented winemaker. 

The range of aged wines were a 2013 Premium and Tumbarumba, a 2005 and 2012 Classic Dry and a 2007 half-dry riesling. We also tasted the current 2019 release of these wines. 

The intensity and fresh lime zest of the current Premium Riesling, which is only released in good vintage years, was remarkable. Strangely, I preferred the current release to the 2013 which was still vibrant but has a different, hard-to-pinpoint minerality that I find less appealing than the zinging of the 2019. 

I am also a fan of the half-dry because it is such a food-friendly wine, especially with spicy foods (with Ken rattle-fire listing a number of Asian fine-dining establishments around Australia that stock this wine) as he poured us a generous glug of the 2007. It was remarkably different from the current release, with a toasty edge that framed a level of complexity that made me scratch my head, with a nuttiness and a hint of marmlade left in the mouth from this small sample that made me long for more so that I could quietly and reflectively savour the differences. 

Generally, the aged rieslings were drier, fuller and more complex than the current release wines. There was none of the paraffin smell or taste that I’ve previously experienced with older rieslings, apparently attributable to the breakdown over time of rieslings’ main aroma compounds called terpenes, something also found in marijuana plants (book learning only being displayed, officer).

The finale to the tasting was as unexpected as it was gratifying. Helm is also known for producing quality cabernet sauvignons. We had the pleasure of tasting the Helm 2018 Premium. It was outstanding. 

As Ken was talking, he lost track of where we were up to and we got a second taste of this marvellous wine. Its colour is red/purple and the nose full of fruit with a hint of oak. It has just enough tannin to provide a full-bodied hit in the mouth and a pleasing, clean black fruit finish. 

Wow, we all looked at each other to see if anyone was prepared to stump up the $90 for a bottle of this fine achievement of wine making. Nope, we were happy with the extra taste of this beauty and each bought the current release of the half-dry riesling at $30 a bottle instead. We bowed to Ken Helm’s knowledge and skill, knowing that despite the parsimony, we were buying a quality drop.


Through wisdom your days will be many,
and years will be added to your life…
By wisdom a house is built, by understanding it is established; And by knowledge the rooms are filled with all precious and pleasant riches.”

–King Solomon

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Richard Calver
Richard Calver walks, talks, thinks, drinks and writes passionately about wine, especially the wines of the Canberra region.

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