The definitive guide to Australian Wines
I make my usual disclaimer: while there are two periods of intense tasting activity in
the 12 months during which the tasting notes for this edition were made, and while
some wines are tasted more than once, an over-arching comparative tasting of all the
best wines is simply not possible, however desirable it might be.
This group revolves around the grapes of Bordeaux, and primarily blends thereof, but with some single varieties most noteably merlot, the majority from moderately cool regions, Margaret River once again the leader of the band. Also included are the classic Australian cabernet and shiraz (or vice versa) blends.
The affinity of cabernet sauvignon with maritime climate is put beyond doubt by its home in Bordeaux's Medoc region. So it comes as no suprise to find that most (but not all) of Australia's top quality cabernets come from regions with climates similar to Bordeaux (conspicuously Coonawarra and Margaret River) and/or which are within 50 kms of sea with no intervening mountain. The far greater number of Margaret River cabernet sauvignons is due to three excellent vintages from 2007 to '09 inclusive (and '10 and '11 to follow in the same vein when ready). Coonawarra has not had the same fortune.
Chardonnay is a marvellously flexible variety, performing well almost everywhere it is grown. But four regions stand apart, in alpha order, Adelaide Hills, Margaret River, Mornington Peninsula and Yarra Valley. It is strongly arguable modern Australian chardonnay is our best varietal wine.
A relatively small but absolutely sensational group of magnificent wines, as quintessentially Australian as a Drizabone, and of unique style.
This group of wines shows that the 'alternative' varieties' Charge of the Light Brigade is yet to inflict many casualties on viognier, pinot gris, verdelho and gewurztraminer. The cause of the newer alternatives was not helped by the embarrassing discovery that the CSIRO-supplied albarino is in fact savagnin, a gewurztraminer clone grown in the Jura region of France.
All the key pinot noir regions are represented here, but the Yarra Valley is notably under-represented due to the Black Saturday bushfires and smoke taint that destroyed the 2009 pinot vintage.
These wines leave no doubt the Clare and Eden Valleys remain at the head of the regional pack. Equally, the riesling offer is significantly enhanced by the regions of South West Australia and Tasmania. Only three other regions contribute (in a small but impressive way) to the mix: Canberra District, Henty and Grampians.
The number of roses on the market continues to grow, seemingly unabated and unstoppable. There are no rules: they can be bone-dry, slightly sweet, or very sweet. They can be and are made from almost any red variety, red blends or red and white blends. They may be a convenient way of concentrating the red wine left after the rose is run off (bleeding or saignee) from the fermenter shortly after the grapes are crushed, or made from the ground up using grapes and techniques specifically chosen for the purpose. The vast majority fall into the former camp; those listed mainly come from the latter.
Sauvignon blanc is facing its moment of destiny as the waves of Marlborough sauvignon blanc continue to flood the market. Happily, Australia has stuck to its knitting, producing wines that have structure, and do not seek to emulate the Marlborough style. This variety is not going to go away any time soon. Adelaide Hills leads Margaret River at the head of the pack.
If there is to be a challenge to the monopoly the Hunter Valley has with semillon, it is Margaret River's hold on sauvignon/semillon blends. The maritime climate replicates that of Bordeaux, the Old World home of the blend (the percentage of muscadelle is rapidly decreasing in Bordeaux).
Little needs to be said, except to repeat Bruce Tyrrell's comment on the impact of screwcaps: 'Hunter Valley semillon is entering a golden age.' Every vintage between 2003 and '10 is represented; as the years roll by that range may increase.
The number of wines receiving 96 points or more may seem extreme, but in fact expressed as a percentage of the total number of wines tasted, it is no greater than that for riesling, semillon and chardonnay. Moreover, there is tremendous diversity of style from the resurgent Hunter Valley, thence through the whole of the Victoria, most of South Australia and thence to the southwest of Western Australia.
A class South Australia stronghold, mostly with some or all of shiraz, grenache and mourvedre, the Italians making a small mark with sangiovese and nebbiolo, the Spanish with tempranillo.
In best Australian Tall Poppy Syndrome fashion it has already become fashionable in some quarters to challenge the remarkable synergy obtained by co-fermenting around 5% of viognier with shiraz. When used in cool temperate regions, the enhancement of colour, aroma and flavour is remarkable, as is the softening and smoothing of texture. It is not a panacea for lesser quality grapes, and yes, it is and should remain a subtext to the thrust of shiraz's flavour. Nonetheless, the wines in this group offer pleasure second to none.
The best sparkling wines are now solely sourced either from Tasmania or from the coolest sites in the southern parts of the mainland, with altitude playing a major role. They are all fermented in the bottle, and the best have had extended lees contact prior to disgorgement, giving them great complexity.
Tasmania may have been under-represented in the dry riesling group, but it comes into its own here: from gently sweet Kabinett styles through to Auslese-equivalent or above, its truly cool climate gives the wines a tremendous zest and length to the piercing lime-accented flavours of riesling.
It makes no sense to put the semillons and the rieslings into the same group. Altogether different dynamics are in play with the semillon, which largely come from the Riverland; these are barrel-fermented, highly botrytised wines in vanilla bean, peaches and cream, creme bruleee, apricot or cumquat flavours - take your pick.
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