James Halliday's Top 100 Wines of 2015

Disclaimer: I wish it to be known I have written this year’s Top 100 without any knowledge of any of the advertising placed in conjunction with this article by retailers, wineries, or any other wine-related business.

As Great as the Wines of Yesterday?

One of the abiding problems of the Australian wine market is the dearth of 30- to 40-year-old wines on restaurant wine lists or in fine wine retailers. They do come up in auctions, but disappear into cellars leaving no trace. It is easier to buy a French wine of this age for birthday celebrations, but you need to have very deep pockets wherever you look. The law of supply and demand can result in Australian wines being more expensive than their French counterparts.

This scarcity gives rise to a frequently asked question: will the wines made today be as good as those great wines of prior generations? There is often an implicit assumption that the answer will be either ‘we can’t say’, or an outright ‘no’. Because of my age, I have had, and continue to have, the privilege of tasting today’s 40-year-old wines since they were newly bottled. Needless to say, not every one – far from it. But a cross-section of representative wines, yes.

So I can say with absolute certainty that the Top 100 wines have a brighter future than those that have gone before. The biggest game changer has been Australia’s unhesitating adoption of the screwcap: over 95% of the 1242 table wines submitted for the tasting were sealed with screwcaps, including 99.8% of all white wines and 100% of under $20 red wines.

Next is the ever-increasing age of the vines across all regions and all varieties coupled with changes (for the better) of virtually all aspects of viticulture. While hand-picking and hand-sorting of bunches and berries gives a near-perfect outcome for small batch winemaking, recent radical improvements in machine harvesters coupled with sophisticated berry-by-berry sorting equipment (either mounted on the tractor or installed at the receiving point in the winery) give much the same result as hand-sorting at a fraction of the cost.

There is a change in attitude in the holistic approach to vineyard management, although here it is possible to argue it is a return to the past when herbicide and systemic sprays were still to be developed. The adoption of either organic or biodynamic regimes – accompanied by certification – focus on healthy soil with maximum bacterial and earthworm population.

Those who practise this have reason to believe that vines with healthier root systems are better able to look after themselves when wet or humid weather conditions increase mildew and/or botrytis threats, or drought increases vine stress. Reducing the number of tractor-delivered sprays means less soil compaction, with all manner of flow-on benefits.

New winery equipment technology seemingly appears every day, all directed to protecting the flavour and texture spectrum of the wine. Peristaltic pumps are so gentle they can pump live goldfish (or so it is said), while crossflow (and now continuous flow) filtration clearly improve wine quality without any downside. Like organic viticulture, theory founds the belief, but as the old saying goes, seeing is believing. That said, filtration costs time and money, and should only be used where the wine is cloudy, has bacterial activity, or residual sugar.

I won’t dwell on this because of its technical complexity, but laboratory equipment, some in the winery, but even more importantly in institutions led by the Australian Wine Research Institute, allows the early identification of wine faults, and provides an ever-increasing pool of knowledge of what is by far the most complex substance that humans consume.

  • Modern Australian sparkling wines are a far cry from yesteryear when they were cobbled together from bits and pieces left in the winery. Now they are built from the ground up, with dedicated blocks of the three classic varieties grown in cool climates, and given extended time on lees. Expensive, but the payback is the quality.

  • The fall in the value of the Australian dollar against the euro has led to some increase in prices, but Champagne remains the most underpriced of all the great wines of France. You can’t buy good Bordeaux or Burgundy for less than $95 to $160 a bottle, the price of the nine of 12 Champagnes selected.

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