Picking a top 10 reds and whites becomes increasingly difficult every year as Australia’s wines increase in quality and diversity. This year’s selection represent wines that appealed at first taste, then passed the bottle test – that is, they held our interest all the way through to the last drop
They’re absolutely first-rate examples of the regions they come from, representing the best of modern Australian winemaking across a range of styles.
The two pinot noirs come from the excellent 2012 vintage – one from the Yarra Valley, the other from Stephen George’s tiny Ashton Hills vineyard in the Adelaide hills.
Shiraz, as always, gets a good leg in and, indeed, probably is under-represented given the range and excellence Australian now produces across so many climates. Geelong, the Grampians and Canberra represent the finer, more elegant end of the shiraz spectrum, each in its own distinctive way. And the warmer style is represented by a remarkable, medium-bodied Hunter Valley wine and a juicy, ripe and savoury Barossa blend of grenache, shiraz and mourvedre.
Coonawarra and Margaret River carry the banner for cabernet sauvignon in two contrasting styles – Sue Hodder’s sublime Wynns John Riddoch 2010 and Vanya Cullen’s supremely elegant Diana Madeline 2011. Coonawarra wins another spot with it Brian and Tony Lynn’s magnificent cabernet–shiraz blend, The Malleea.
The outlier is the extraordinary Seppeltsfield 100-year-old vintage tawny – a red fortified wine made in 1913, matured in oak for 100 year, bottled in 2013 and available for tasting and purchase at the cellar door. Could there be a better gift?
The lone bubbly in the white selections comes from Ed Carr in Tasmania – a beautifully built wine combining the unsurpassable fruit of Tasmania and Carr’s mastery of the sparkling art.
My white selections include three beautiful dry rieslings – one each from Watervale in the Clare Valley, the Eden Valley and Canberra. Profoundly good chardonnay earns four spots, each from the cool south of the continent – Macedon, Mornington Peninsula and Yarra Valley Victoria, and the Coal River Valley, Tasmania.
For something different I included a lovely soft and savoury Barossa Valley blend of marsanne, roussanne and viognier – a style that could well become the signature white from this warm, dry region.
And the Hunter Valley completes the line up with a brilliantly fresh but maturing almost seven-year-old semillon.
I deliberately selected wines across a range of price points, though the main thoughts in selection were drinking pleasure and individuality – wines that faithfully represent their regions and winemakers.
TOP 10 REDS
Oakridge 864 Single Block Release Pinot Noir 2012 $75
Guerin vineyard, block 4, upper Yarra Valley, Victoria
Oakridge 864 comes from a single block of vines planted to the MV6 clone of pinot noir in 1997 at 300 metres in the cool upper Yarra Valley. In this small-production pinot, winemaker David Bicknell goes against the trend of using whole bunches, including stems, in the ferment. Instead, Bicknell de-stemmed the bunches ahead of a natural ferment of the whole berries in open fermenters. After fermentation, he pressed the wine to barrel for malolactic fermentation and maturation on gross lees. The whole-berry ferment might suggest Beaujolais-like fruitiness. But the wine, while varietal and fruity, presents, as well, deep savoury and gamey notes, seasoned subtly with a more pungent character, no doubt derived from varietal interaction with the lees. What we end up with is a fine-boned, multi-layered pinot worthy of a longer essay.
Ashton Hills Reserve Pinot Noir 2012 $65–$75
Piccadilly Valley, Adelaide Hills, South Australia
For all the talk of “terroir”, the best wines, in any region, come from those making the fewest compromises in every little step through vineyard, harvest, grape transport, winemaking, maturation, bottling and storage. Stephen George’s wines show these perfectionist traits year after year. So, on a recent visit to the cellar, it was no surprise to taste pinots probably as good as they’ll ever be out of the Adelaide Hills – each showing the character of its vintage. George’s Estate Pinot Noir 2011 ($30) showed the edgy, just-ripe flavours of the cold season, albeit with pinot’s slick texture and fine tannins. The reserve 2012 revealed the beauty of an exceptional year – pinot with extra fruity depth, flesh, power and layers of flavour; all without losing its “pinosity”, that hard-to-describe character separating pinot from other varieties.
Shiraz by Farr 2010 $55
This is the sort of shiraz you’d expect from one of Australia’s most accomplished pinot makers. Grown in the cool, maritime climate of Geelong and co-fermented with a splash of the white viognier, it’s fragrant and lively, medium bodied, peppery and spicy and smoothly, gently textured. We tasted then drank Shiraz by Farr at a leisurely pace following a couple of top-end pinots. This proved a delicious segue into a fine, firm old Bordeaux, Chateau Pichon-Lalande 1986.
Mount Langi Ghiran Cliff Edge Shiraz 2010 $24.69–$30
Mount Langhi Ghiran vineyard, Grampians, Victoria
The back label describes Cliff Edge as “baby Langi”, a reference to the winery’s $100 flagship, “Langi” shiraz. The beautifully elegant 2010 Langi, reviewed last year, rates among the greatest shirazes I’ve ever tasted. And Cliff Edge, though somewhat chunkier in the tannin department, delivers its own elegance and irresistible charm. The intense flavour of cool-grown shiraz underpins the wine. But winemaking techniques weave attractive aromas, flavours and textures through the fruit: whole bunches in the ferment; warm fermentation; hand and foot plunging of the skins during fermentation; finishing the primary ferment and secondary malolactic ferment in barrels; and maturation in Burgundian oak barrels. These all add up to an aromatic, savoury-spicy, medium bodied shiraz with considerable cellaring capacity.
Andrew Thomas Kiss Shiraz 2011 $60
Pokolbin Estate vineyard, Hunter Valley, NSW
Andrew Thomas released four Hunter shirazes this month, each outstanding in its own way. But none matches the dimension of Kiss, Thomas’s flagship from a vineyard planted in 1969. The wine presents another unique, and idiosyncratic, face of Australian shiraz, far removed, say, from the sheer power of Grange or savoury twang of Mount Langi Ghiran “The Langi”. Kiss is medium bodied, and its intense, underlying bright fruit flavour is cut through with earthy, savoury notes and fine, soft tannins. The wine grew more interesting and better to drink over four days on the tasting bench – a pretty good guide to future complexity and longevity.
Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier 2012 $100
Murrumbateman, Canberra District, NSW
Canberra (and Australia’s) benchmark shiraz–viognier came out of the blue – a wine style no one would have backed in the first two decades of Canberra viticulture. But the wine, now honed to perfection, speaks for itself. Indeed, without it, Canberra may have puddled around for decades seeking a red-wine identity. Fittingly, Gourmet Traveller named its creator, Tim Kirk, as winemaker of the year just as we finished the last few mouthfuls of our bottle. It’s a stand out vintage – all perfume, spice and silk. It’s a unique wine in Australia’s wide and extraordinary spectrum of shiraz styles.
Grant Burge Holy Trinity Grenache Shiraz Mourvedre 2010 $28.50–$42
Barossa Valley, South Australia
Grant Burge made the first Holy Trinity blend in 1995. But, following a trip to France’s Rhone Valley with winemaker Craig Stansborough, he refined the style dramatically over the following vintages. In particular a move to extended post-fermentation maceration created silky, soft tannins; and a shift away from American to older and larger French oak barrels meant an altogether more subtle wine. The beautiful 2010 vintage matches anything else to date under the label, and provides smooth, satisfying, supple, spicy, vibrant drinking. It’s an excellent example of this distinctive Barossa style.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate
John Riddoch Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 $100–$150
Northern Coonawarra, South Australia
Wynns new releases include this stunning John Riddoch Cabernet – as good a wine as any in the line up since the first vintage in 1982. The outstanding 2010 vintage arrived a decade or so after viticulturist Allen Jenkins and winemaker Sue embarked on a complete makeover of the parent company’s extensive Coonawarra vineyards. And Hodder took full advantage of the new small-batch winery, husbanding grapes from the Alexander area, near the winery, and O’Dea vineyard, through fermentation and into top-quality French oak barrels. The result is a marvellously aromatic cabernet stamped with class and built for long cellaring. The wide range of retail prices indicates how little power parent company, Treasury Wine Estates, has over market pricing.
Cullen Diana Madeline 2011 $115
Cullen Vineyard, Margaret River, Western Australia
While limpid and approachable on release – a wine of delicate violet-like aroma and seductive, subtle, supple, fine-grained palate – Cullen Diana Madeline enjoys a cellaring potential measured in decades, not years. It’s a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, malbec, cabernet franc and petit verdot, planted forty years ago by winemaker Vanya Cullen’s parents, Kevin John and Diana Madeline. The fruit flavours are particularly pure and concentrated in 2011.
Majella The Malleea 2009 $75–$80
Majella Vineyard, Coonawarra, South Australia
Majella’s flagship red, The Malleea, rates among Australia’s very finest reds. A blend of cabernet sauvignon (55 per cent) and shiraz, it presents Coonawarra’s combination of power with elegance. The deep but limpid, crimson rimmed colour sets the scene for a magnificent drinking experience. Deep, sweet berry flavours and rare harmony of all the flavour and structural elements puts Malleea at the top of the pile. It’s sourced from low-yielding vines on Brian and Tony Lynn’s Majella vineyard. The brothers grew grapes for other winemakers from 1968 but launched their own label from the 1991 vintage and The Malleea from 1996.
Seppeltsfield Para 100-year-old vintage tawny 1913 $330 100ml, $999 375ml
Seppeltsfield vineyard, Barossa Valley, South Australia
Seppeltsfield released its first 100-year-old Para tawny in 1978 – drawn from a barrel set aside by Benno Seppelt in 1878. He instructed the family to bottle it in 100 years. Amazingly, Seppelt’s successors, including corporate and then private owners, continued the practice without interruption. And today, for $40, cellar door visitors can taste the current 100-year-old release (plus the $150 Seppeltsfield Uber Shiraz 2010). For most, tasting a wine freshly bottled after maturing 100 years in barrel, will be a once in a lifetime experience. The 1913 vintage, tasted at cellar door in July, poured slickly into the glass. The tawny and orange colours spoke of autumn leaf and old age; the aroma spelled the comfort of ancient leather furniture, shellac, cedar, soy and burnt sugar; the viscous but ethereal palate reflected the aroma – a luscious, precious glory of a thing, made before World War I, venerable but still fresh, in its own aged and stately way. (Available at seppeltsfield.com.au).
TOP 10 WHITES
Mount Horrocks Riesling 2013 $32
Watervale, Clare Valley, South Australia
Everything appeals about Stephanie Toole’s 2013 riesling – favourite by a big margin in a trio of 2013s from Canberra, Great Southern and Watervale. The shimmering, green-tinted colour gave it a visual edge – matched by its pure, lime-like varietal aroma and fine, delicate, mouth-watering, dry palate. The wine should evolve well for several years, though it’s racy and a thrill to drink now.
Jacob’s Creek Steingarten Riesling 2012 $24.60–$32
Eden Valley, South Australia
The Steingarten vineyard, planted by Orlando’s Colin Gramp in 1962, lends it name (and contributes part of the fruit) to Jacob’s Creek’s flagship riesling. I enjoyed a pre-release sample of the wine in January; and a recent taste confirms it as one of the best from a great year. It’s delicate and intense at the same time with exhilarating acidity and pure, lime-lemon varietal flavour. Stock up when it’s on special and put a little aside. Past vintages have aged well for decades – for example, the comparably outstanding 2002 vintage still looks young and fresh.
Ravensworth Riesling 2013 $20
Murrumbateman, Canberra District, NSW
Bryan and Jocelyn Martin’s 2013 riesling swept all competitors aside at the 2013 Canberra and region show. It won the top gold medal in the 2013 riesling class, then cleaned up in the taste offs, winning trophies as the show’s best riesling, best white wine and best wine. A few weeks later it won another gold medal plus a trophy as best Canberra riesling at the Canberra International Riesling Challenge. Ravensworth shows the tight structure and acidic backbone of Canberra riesling, with pure, intense, fresh citrus varietal flavour and sufficient mid-palate flesh to offset the gripping acidity. Should drink well for the next decade. The wine won another gold at the National Wine Show in November.
Curly Flat Chardonnay 2011 $42–$47
Curly Flat vineyard, Macedon Ranges, Victoria
In a year notable for skinny wines, Curly Flat 2011 stands out for its luxurious richness, power and elegance – a stately chardonnay from the maker of some of Australia’s finest. Curly Flat’s Phillip Moraghan writes, “Much has been written about the difficulties of vintage 2011, yet we see it as a triumphant year for our vineyard and team. Our vintage 2011 tee-shirts carry the motto ‘divided we stand’, acknowledging the role of our horizontally divided lyre trellis system in warding off the downy mildew demons”. Moraghan’s team not only defeated disease, but also coaxed the berries to a perfect ripeness that underpins this beautiful, barrel-fermented and –matured white.
Main Ridge Estate Chardonnay 2011 $55
Main Ridge vineyard, Mornington Peninsula, Victoria
In a tasting of top-shelf chardonnays from the cold 2011 vintage, Main Ridge stood out from its bonier peers. The shift to leaner, tighter chardonnays in Australia has been overall a good thing, though some wines do seem a little too skinny, especially in very cool seasons. But even in one of the wettest, coolest vintages Nat and Rosalie White managed to keep some flesh on the bone. Theirs is an elegant chardonnay, in the best sense of the word – finely structured and delicate, but with beautiful fruit flavours, a subtle, sweet, caramel-like undercurrent (probably a result of malolactic fermentation) and smooth, silky mid palate and brisk, clean finish.
Oakridge 864 Single Block Release Chardonnay 2012 $75
Willowlake vineyard, Block 6, Yarra Valley, Victoria
David Bicknell makes a range of Oakridge Yarra Valley chardonnays reflecting various sites around the valley and little tweaks here and there in winemaking and maturation technique. This version underwent spontaneous fermentation in oak barrels (30 per cent of them new). Bicknell then aged it on yeast lees in the barrel for nine months and blocked the secondary malolactic fermentation – thus retaining the high naturally acidity that drives this wine. The winemaking and maturation technique gives the wine a “funky” edge – winemaker jargon for small amounts of sulphides deliberately incorporated into so many modern Australia chardonnays, giving a “struck-match” character. This can overwhelm a wine. But in Oakridge 864 it becomes an incidental seasoning to the intense underlying fruit flavour and creamy texture – all held together by its thrilling acid backbone.
Tolpuddle Vineyard Chardonnay 2012 $65
Tolpuddle vineyard, Coal River Valley, Tasmania
In 2011, highly regarded Adelaide Hills winemaker, Shaw and Smith, acquired the mature Tolpuddle vineyard in Tasmania’s Coal River Valley (20 minutes drive north east of Hobart). They joined a significant push into Tasmania by mainland winemakers searching for the very best chardonnay and pinot noir grapes. Their first release shows a combination of restraint, elegance and power ¬– all hallmarks of top-end, cool-grown chardonnay. Intense grapefruit- and white-peach-like varietal flavours underpin a creamy textured, dazzlingly fresh chardonnay of great finesse. It has the potential to evolve for some years.
Tyrrell’s Vat 1 Semillon 2007$77
Hunter Valley, NSW
The Hunter’s idiosyncratic semillon style tends to polarise people into lovers and haters. As youngsters, they’re lean, acidic and austere, tending to lemon juice (even so, delicious with the right food). Over many years the wines become richer and deeper in all aspects, taking on satisfying nutty, toasty aromas and flavours. Tyrrell’s Vat 1 leads the way with this long-lived style and fortunately they generally offer at least one aged version alongside the current release (2013). Their website currently offers the magnificent 2007 which, at almost seven years, is just moving out of lemony youth, taking on lemongrass- and honey-like flavours while retaining invigorating freshness.
John Duval Plexus 2012 $25–$30
Barossa Valley, South Australia
A warm area like the Barossa floor is seldom going to make riesling to match the quality of those from the high, cooler Eden Valley in the hills to the Barossa’s east. If any white styles are to match the region’s reds in quality in future, I’d put my money where John Duval does with Plexus. He uses the Rhone valley varieties, marsanne (55 per cent), roussanne (35 per cent) and viognier (10 per cent), sourced, respectively from Marananga and Seppeltsfield, Kalimna and the Eden Valley. A combination of fermentation regimes, including both tank and barrel, created a full, fresh, richly textured dry white with a distinctive flavour, reminiscent of that sweet-tart area between the flesh and rind of rockmelon. It’s delightful, different and in 2012, particularly rich and sweet fruited.
House of Arras Methode Traditionelle Brut Elite Cuvee No. 501 $30–$50
Perhaps more than any other wine style, top-notch sparklers are built layer by layer. Arras, for example, is the culmination of decades of work by Ed Carr – a quest that began with fruit sourcing (moving progressively south from Tumbarumba, to southern Victoria and, ultimately to Tasmania). Here, Carr found the aromas, flavours, structure, delicacy and acidity required to build outstanding sparkling wine. He uses handpicked grapes, gently presses the juice from them, fines it, then ferments it on grape solids before a secondary, malolactic fermentation on yeast lees. He clarifies then blends numerous components before bottling the wine for its secondary fermentation. The already “built” wine then spends five years maturing on spent yeast cells before clarification and topping up with a special “dosage” that includes older reserve wines. What arrives in out bottle, then, is a dazzling fresh bubbly pinot noir chardonnay blend. The unique Tasmanian fruit is at the core, but it’s in a matrix of flavours, textures and aromas built from the vineyard up by Carr over five years. It’s a delight to drink and to me runs rings around most non-vintage Champagnes – the French originals.
But to appeal to drinkers, Arras needs to learn how to connect emotionally with consumers as the French masters do. Arras is sublime. But successive owners have shown little talent for marketing a luxury product.
Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2013
First published 4 December 2013 in the Canberra Times and goodfood.com.au