James Halliday's Top 100 wines of 2012

Best Australian wine

These are interesting times for the Australian wine industry, which is being simultaneously pulled and pushed, restricted and liberated, criticised and applauded.

The headline news, as it were, is the difficulty posed in virtually all export markets by the strong dollar and the reluctance by domestic consumers to compensate by spending more (even though their bank balances suggest they should be able to do so). The demise of a number of good restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne is a testament to that caution.

Yet there are tangible signs of the determination by wineries, both large and small, to increase prices and margins. Thus John Casella recently announced there would be proportionately more reserve branded Yellow Tail wines. At the other end of the scale, Penfolds demonstrated its resolve to underwrite its worldwide brand strength by dissociating itself from Rawson’s Retreat, and making Koonunga Hill its entry-point wine. (There is no longer any mention of Penfolds on the front label of Rawson’s Retreat, only a small-type admission of ownership on the back.)

Attacks on various medical fronts continue. The call by Australian Medical Association federal president Steve Hambleton for the minimum age for alcohol consumption to be raised to 25 caused a predictable response. He and others in the public health arena are rightly concerned about binge drinking by teenagers, young adults and Aborigines, yet these groups represent a small minority of the Australian population. There is also the campaign encouraging pregnant women to abstain from wine (or other alcohol) because it may harm the unborn child.

On these issues, raising the tax on wine is being urged on a federal government that is anxious for revenue and aware the anti-alcohol lobby is well funded and certain to support such a course of action. What neither the government nor the lobbyists will admit is that a significant part of the increased tax will fall on the people who read this Top 100 issue, and who regard the responsible consumption of wine as one of life’s most civilised pleasures.

Moving from such dark and gloomy shadows into bright sunlight, the quality of Australian wine has never been higher. Whether or not global warming is occurring – and if it is, how much is due to CO2 emissions – Western Australia has had an unbroken run of top-quality vintages since 2006; and in the east, the only seriously problematic vintage since 2003 was the effect on red wines of a cool and wet 2011. Older vines, younger top-flight winemakers and an increasing range of varieties and regions are all playing a part in that increased quality.

And that improvement is receiving third-party acknowledgment at international wine shows and from the English-speaking wine press overseas – albeit grudgingly. This is particularly important for the only export market to have grown over the past 10 years – China. It is our third-largest importer (by value), increasing 16.3 per cent by volume and 23.1 per cent by value in the year ended September 30, 2012, compared to the corresponding period a year earlier. China consolidated its position as the biggest destination for Australian bottled wine exports above $7.50 per litre, ahead of the US and Canada.

The US and Britain remain Australia’s foremost markets by value, but within five years they are likely to be surpassed by China (especially when Hong Kong is included in the calculations). And when this comes to pass, we shall experience a grape shortage, not a surplus.

Finally, a word on the selection process for this year’s Top 100. With a handful of exceptions, only the 244 wineries awarded five red stars in my annual Australian Wine Companion were invited to participate in the table wine and Australian sparkling section. The exceptions were wineries with a track record of producing very good wines sold for $20 or less. In the end, 1256 table wines, 74 Australian sparkling wines and 75 champagnes were submitted, a grand total of 1405. Cheers.

Why those stubborn defenders of the cork really do have it all wrong

This accompanying table offers a remarkable snapshot of the closures used for the table wines submitted this year. Those who suggest that screwcaps are inferior to other closures are clearly out of step.

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The apologists for cork are alive and well outside Australia and (largely) New Zealand, including some – such as Jamie Goode – who should know better. Those apologists talk of it being a natural product (correct, and that means no two corks are precisely the same) and of the much reduced – though not eliminated – incidence of cork taint. The latter point is correct, simply because the Portuguese realised they had to completely change the manufacturing process or lose their market forever.

However, the defenders of cork ignore the elephant in the room – the issue of sporadic (random) oxidation, which remains as big a problem as ever. Ask the Hunter Valley winemakers who held semillon in perfect storage conditions for five years before releasing it. Brokenwood, McWilliam’s and Tyrrell’s all say a third of the b tles with cork closures showed accelerated colour development, which correlated precisely with unacceptable oxidation. Moreover, having cleared the remaining two thirds, the same problem may reoccur, although with a lower failure rate.

Nor is the problem limited to Australian white wines. Makers of white Burgundy have had a torrid time since the second half of the 1980s. Thus American author Bill Nanson in his excellent book The Finest Wines of Burgundy (Fine Wine Editions, 2012) says in his vintage chart: “The pervasive influence of oxidised bottles renders this period (1994 to 2004 inclusive) a complete lottery. Spend only what you can afford to lose.”

While I have referred to semillon, all Australian white wines sealed with corks are prone to oxidation. So are reds, although it takes longer, affects fewer bottles and is not as obvious. The British wine trade recognised the issue 80 years ago with the saying: “There are no great old wines, only great old bottles.”

Finally, if you have a cellar as large as ne (and as neglected), there is the small matter of outright failure of corks leading to the slow or not-so-slow loss of wine from the bottle, leaking all over those beneath it, and on to the floor. Do I hate corks? You bet.

James Halliday's Top 100 wines of 2012

  • Best white wines under $20

    I was severe when I shortlisted 38 wines from the field of 200, but did so knowing that almost half would not be selected, and that there would be a tug of war between the principal varieties.

    View the best white wines under $20 >>

  • Best red wines under $20

    You might think choosing one in every 10 wines submitted by the crème de la crème of Australian wineries was best done with a dart board, and you wouldn’t be far wrong. The one qualification is that I have deliberately ensured a limited spread of varieties and styles. Limited because of the surfeit of shirazs, and to a lesser degree cabernets, demanding inclusion.

    View the best red wines under $20 >>

  • Best white wines over $20

    Australian white wines are in a good space. Those that benefit from prolonged ageing — notably semillon and riesling — are protected against taint and oxidation issues by the universal use of screwcaps. Chardonnay is the excitement machine, as social media, word of mouth, sommeliers and retailers all attest to its decisive move away from too much new oak and its move to fresher fruit from lower alcohol levels. So those tiring of sauvignon blanc have plenty of places to go: either new arrivals such as vermentino, savagnin and fiano, or back to the classics.

    View the best white wines over $20 >>

  • Best red wines over $20

    It is not rocket science to deduce that this truly was mission impossible. The conjunction of the outstanding 2010 vintage in all parts of Australia, and 2011 in Western Australia; the impact of the strong dollar on exports; and the subtext of increasingly skilled winemaking all add up to wonderful wines across all price points.

    View the best red wines over $20 >>

  • Best Australian sparkling

    Just as the quality of Australian sparkling wines continues to become much better, the strong dollar, direct or parallel importing of champagnes, and massive discounts of champagne prices, has eroded or extinguished the difference in price between the two categories that should theoretically exist. Nonetheless, these wines fully deserve their place in the Top 100.

    View the best Australian sparkling >>

  • Best champagne

    Surely there has never been a time when, in real/adjusted dollar terms, champagne at all quality levels has been so inexpensive. Shout yourself to a bottle (or more) at Christmas and the ills of the world will seem less obvious.

    View the best champagne>>

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