James Halliday is one of Australia’s most respected and prolific wine critics and he has been commentating on the Australian wine industry for almost 50 years. He tastes and rates thousands of wines and wineries for the annual Halliday Wine Companion guide, and from those, he chooses the best winemakers, wines and wineries for an awards ceremony held in August each year. Here are some of those highlights from the past five years in Australian wine.
#1 – Taking white wine seriously: a near-perfect score
It was a surprise to many when a Riesling appeared in James Halliday’s Top 100 Wines of 2017 with a 99-point score, as he had never awarded a white wine so highly before. The unprecedented event should have predicted what came next – the following year, Hilde and Ian ‘Duke’ Ransom of Duke’s Vineyard in Western Australia collected James Halliday’s Wine of the Year for that same Magpie Hill Reserve Riesling (RRP $35). The idea that white wine isn’t as worthy of attention as red is a common misconception the world over. In Australia, Shiraz gets the lion’s share of the spotlight, but did you know that this country’s dry style of Riesling is unrivalled around the globe? Australian Riesling also offers incredible ageing potential and, as seen with the winning Duke’s Riesling, great value to boot. Regions with the conditions to produce the lively acidity and pure fruit of the best Australian Rieslings include Great Southern (the location of Duke’s Vineyard), the Eden and Clare Valleys, and Tasmania.
#2 – Top talent: Australian women in wine
Yarra Yering is one of Australia’s cult favourite labels, founded by Dr Bailey Carrodus in 1969. Based in the Yarra Valley of Victoria – a cooler climate wine region only an hour’s drive from Melbourne (and the place James Halliday calls home) – Yarra Yering makes wines with exceptional intensity and complexity. Before Dr Bailey died in 2009, he expressed his wish that his legacy is carried on by the incoming owners and managers, wanting the vineyard and winery to be run in much the same way. So, when Sarah Crowe stepped into the chief winemaker position in 2013, she was faced with some big expectations – both from the brand’s founder and devotees. She didn’t let that spook her, however, and impressed all right from the start, making her mark while still respecting the range. James Halliday was among those to recognise Sarah’s impressive work with Yarra Yering, leading him to name her his Winemaker of the Year for 2017. The award was a victory not only for Sarah but also for the growing number of women in the Australian wine industry who are making waves.
#3 – Great wines for great prices: the best of the best reds for less than $50
Considering the world’s great red wines will likely conjure names such as Barolo, Burgundy and Bordeaux. And when thinking of those regions and their celebrated producers, another word might come to mind too – expensive. In Australia, the pinnacle red wines are Penfolds Grange (RRP $900) and Henschke Hill of Grace (RRP $825). Compared to the prices you would pay for the rarest Burgundy reds, even those probably seem like bargains, and for the most part, you can get top Australian reds for much less. A beautiful example of the value found among Australian red wines came when Yarra Valley winery Serrat’s Shiraz Viognier was named Wine of the Year back in 2016 – a wine that retailed for just $42. Despite the massive demand for the limited-release wine following its win, including being snapped up from auctions for as much as $2000, owners Tom and Nadege Carson have kept the wine at practically the same price ($44 for the most recent vintage). “We just want people to be able to buy it, drink it and enjoy it,” Tom says.
#4 – More than Shiraz: a gong for Australian Pinot
As with most things we don’t know well, we tend to form broad opinions. It’s one reason people tend to associate Australian wine with big, bold reds – particularly Shiraz from warm regions. In reality, though, the vast landscape and unrestricted winemaking conditions of this country give rise to diverse and vibrant styles, including reds that are bright and food-friendly, medium-bodied and supple, and, of course, those well-known (and well-loved) luscious wines. Pinot noir is a lighter red variety Australian winemakers love working with, and they turn this finicky grape into beautiful wines. Australia’s top Pinot regions reflect the grape’s preference for a cooler climate, and it’s in the southern parts of the country that the wine thrives. In the state of Victoria, there’s what’s referred to as the Melbourne ‘dress circle’ of Pinot regions – the Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula, Gippsland and Geelong among them. Further south still, Tasmania’s proximity to the Antarctic waters of the Bass Strait provides the perfect cool conditions for Pinot, producing consistently excellent wines (albeit in limited supply). The Adelaide Hills in South Australia is another top Pinot region. James Halliday is a huge Pinot fan – it’s a part of the reason he moved to the Yarra Valley and established the Coldstream Hills winery. It makes sense, then, that for the inaugural Halliday Wine Companion Awards, the 2014 Wine of the Year was the Bass Phillip Reserve Pinot Noir from Gippsland. Near to the southernmost point of Australia’s mainland, Bass Phillip remains a cult producer of Pinot Noir, quickly selling out its stock every year.