James Halliday Australian Wine Companion 2010 - plus video

An expert roundup of the best of Australian wine - with a future warning

By Robyn Lewis
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James Halliday, wine expert and author

James Halliday, wine expert and author [©VisitVineyards.com]

Australian Wine Companion, 2010 Edition, by James Halliday

It's a highlight of the wine collector's year - the release of  the 2010 edition of the James Halliday Australian Wine Companion on 29th July, officially launched days later at a book-signing dinner at Oyster Little Bourke in Melbourne on 3rd August 2009, in the leadup to Father’s Day.

This is the third year Halliday’s Australian Wine Companion has been published by Hardie Grant. Despite the growth in the number of wineries and vineyards since 2008 (VisitVineyards.com now lists well over 4000), the Australian Wine Companion is the same size – a very good thing, not only for practicality, also because it is more selective; surely what is needed in the current overcrowded wine market.

The 2008 edition profiled 1740 wineries – the 2010 is pruned to 1467 (including 148 new ones since 2009). That’s over 2500 who don’t make the cut - at least in print - for varying reasons: inadequate wine quality, not submitting samples (either by neglect or by choice), or simply being too small or with very limited production.  The number of tasting notes remains about the same, at 5884 – what a year for James Halliday and his expert sommelier assistant taster Ben Edwards, who together look at all these wines and many more that don’t make it into the 768 pages.

Those reviewed in the Australian Wine Companion are largely of the 2007 and 2008 vintages, although some go back over a decade to 1998 (depending on how long the wines were matured before release) – with the exception of the centenarian plus 1908 Barossan Para Port, which once again scores a ‘possible’. Most would be available in the marketplace now. Those included all scored 88 points or more on the 100 point scale employed by Halliday, and ‘the best of the best’ lists those scoring 94 plus, with many red classes starting at 95. The bar is set high.

Each winery is star-rated based on an (undisclosed) overall formula pertaining to its wines, largely of the current release but presumably also with a nod to the winery/vineyard’s track record. Five red stars are closely followed by five black, then in half star increments down to 2 ½ (there may be a 2 but I haven’t found one yet). Some of the 148 newcomers are not star-rated, however.

A number are ‘virtual wineries’ – those with no vineyard or winery of their own, whose wines are made under contract but marketed under their own label – which  have become more frequent in recent years, some meeting with considerable success.

A very useful section covers pages 13-27, the ‘best of the best by variety’. What is a good year for say riesling in one region is not necessarily good for cabernet sauvignon in another. One must not forget how vast Australia is, now how variable its climate, even (or especially) in the years of drought that have prevailed through much of the ‘noughties’.

Through the whites, the rieslings are dominated by those from South Australia’s Clare and Eden Valleys; the smattering from other regions such as those in south west Western Australia, Tasmania and elsewhere are as much a reflection on the limited quantities available for submission as their quality, however. Chardonnay is undergoing something of resurgence now that winemakers’ love affair with oak has mellowed from lust to respect; WA and the Mornington Peninsula are highlights, with the Adelaide Hills and other cooler regions of Geelong and Gippsland doing well, through to the slightly warmer Macedon and Yarra Valley. Victorian chardonnays seem to be on the rise, fittingly in my humble opinion.

The sun also shines on the Hunter Valley’s semillons, which - in the words of wine legend Bruce Tyrrell - are ‘entering a golden age’ now they are under screwcap, along with some good contenders from Margaret River.

The sauvignon blancs are not rated against the near-ubiquitous New Zealand contemporaries; the list clearly demonstrates that Australia can clearly hold its own, however. All are from cool-climate regions of the Adelaide Hills, Mornington Peninsula, southern Tasmania and South West WA and Margaret River, plus Orange, Hilltops and Canberra Districts in NSW. Margaret River cleans up in the sauvignon blanc semillon blend (SSB) category – currently the fastest growing wine style in the market.

‘Other white wines’ are a diverse range of ‘alternative’ grape varieties ranging from the 96 point gewürtztraminer from Orange (yes, you’ll have to buy the book) through to Verdelho from the Swan Valley in WA and arneis from Victoria’s King Valley.

Tasmania has been partly knocked off its sparkling perch by some aged releases from the Adelaide Hills and Macedon Ranges, although does well against more current vintages from the Yarra Valley and other cooler sites from ‘the mainland’.

There are eight good rosés from regions as diverse as Southern Tasmania to the Barossa, and moving into the ‘more serious’  pinot noir, the Mornington Peninsula vignerons must be congratulated for an outstanding performance, absolutely cleaning up this category in the 2010 Companion. Whilst this is partly a reflection of more difficult vintages in the Yarra Valley, Tasmania and Geelong, it is also testament to the fine winemakers and growers of the Peninsula. Once again Tuck’s Ridge Buckle Vineyard takes out the top rating, also starring with their chardonnay.

Shiraz is likewise dominated by South Australian makers, from the multi-region Grange through the Adelaide Hills, Barossa, Clare and Eden Valleys, Coonawarra to McLaren Vale. Victoria fares reasonably well, with wines from the Pyrenees, Grampians and Heathcote, plus Paradigm Hill’s excellent cool climate shiraz from the Mornington Peninsula, along with examples from Canberra and the Lower Hunter.

Shiraz/viognier performs better in cooler regions, and it is pleasing to see some from Western Australia included in an otherwise eastern lineup. Rhone blends show even more regional variability with some winners from as far afield as the Granite Belt and Hastings River.

There’s a lot of red star ink on the cabernet pages, especially the Bordeaux and cabernet/shiraz blends. Once again South Australia predominates, but as reflects their maritime climate, the West’s Margaret River, Great Southern and Frankland River are well represented, as are Mount Barker and Denmark in the straight varietal.

Lastly, the fortifieds – two from Barossa (one the century old Para) and the rest delicious muscats, tokays, ports and muscadelle from Victoria’s Rutherglen. I know where I’ll be spending this weekend, searching out treasures in the local bottleshops – by the time you get hold of the book I suspect it may be too late for an online bargain.

And I’m only on page 27. What follows is a regional ‘best of list’, then ten of the best new wineries and another ten ‘dark horses’ – four from WA, three from SA, two from NSW and one from Victoria. Producers to watch. Fittingly for the GFC era Halliday lists ten best whites and reds under A$10 and A$10-15.

Halliday’s winery of the year happens to be my personal favourite, an Australian icon in the true sense of the word: Tyrrell’s of the Hunter Valley. No doubt the choice was a tough one but this accolade is long overdue, and congratulations to Bruce Tyrrell and his team for a well-deserved result. Not only does Tyrrell’s produce some great wines, it’s a genuine must-visit too, for Australians and international visitors alike.

Then there are vintage charts and vintage comparisons, an overview of the 2009 vintage around the country, after which follows nearly 700 pages of wineries and wines, listed in alphabetical order.  These include optimal drinking times, vintage specific ratings, and information on the closure, % alcohol and price. A year of reading and tasting awaits.

It is little surprise that a major market for Halliday’s Australian Wine Companion is comprised of the vignerons and winemakers themselves, as they pore over their own results and those of their neighbours – and plan for the next vintage, and how to win that extra star or point.

To return to the beginning, however, some cold winds of caution buffet the industry as it moves towards the 2010 vintage. Climate change, the GFC, fashions in European markets away from Australian wines (for now), drought and lack of irrigation water but most significantly general excess supply over demand lead Halliday to one conclusion about our wine future - that Australia’s wine grape production needs to be reduced by as much as one quarter, or to put it more bluntly, 46,500 hectares should be bulldozed and returned to other land uses. That’s a lot of grapevines, love, sweat and tears.

This unpalatable forecast is unlikely to influence those in the five red or black star category, unless they are caught in particularly bad drought or other adverse conditions, but the sword of Damocles seems equally poised over the heads of both smaller boutique growers and wine makers, and those in the Riverland (the Riverina and Murray Darling). The latter produces 60% of Australia’s wine and at first it would appear to make sense that this is where the cuts should occur, especially given the competing demands for irrigation water, but as Halliday points out the converse is that their yields are stable (assuming they get water) and those who suffer may well be in the higher quality cool climate zones, which are by definition ‘marginal’ – meaning that at least one vintage in ten, and possibly more, can be a writeoff due to one climatic vagary or another. You only need two in a row and an unsympathetic bank…

Like everything the answer to this dilemma will probably lie in the middle. Indeed, it will have to, as even if Halliday’s figures are a 50% overestimate, it could imply the end of 2000 ten hectare vineyards - almost the entire long tail of boutique-scale wine producers. Some of them have the wherewithal, the quality and the marketing smarts to survive and prosper, so areas of large scale grape plantings in water-scarce regions with little point of difference must be under pressure. I for one would not wish to see many Australian wine regions with their associated accommodations, restaurants, food growers and makers, provedores, spa retreats, cooking schools and more, lose too many of their vineyards, which provide the core attraction for many a wine traveller.

The 2010 edition of the James Halliday Australian Wine Companion may well then be a turning point - one predicted for some years but so far failing to materialise - a snapshot of the wine industry before it travels down a road whose direction we currently cannot predict. Our wine future is definitely uncertain, and this year with the GFC there will be no 'silver bullet'. In raising the profile of the 1467 wineries within, Halliday does the wine industry a great service – once again bringing the fabulous wines that Australia produces to the attention of an ever-more-enquiring and discerning wine consuming public.

Let the rush begin.

 

Buy many of James Halliday's Wine Companion 2010 top-ranking wines at Auscellardoor.com before they sell out - and for every dozen you will receive a FREE copy of the Australian Wine Companion 2010 (while their stocks last).

Better still, become a VisitVineyards.com Member first and receive 5% off all your purchases at Auscellardoor. (When you join you receive a special purchase code to enter into the Auscellardoor shopping cart and your discount is calculated automatically. Or quote your Membership number when ordering by phone or fax).

 

The James Halliday Australian Wine Companion 2010 is published by Hardie Grant (Melbourne, July 2009, pb; RRP A$ 34.95) and can be purchased via our book partners Seekbooks at 12.5% discount off RRP (postage extra).

 

Listen to James Halliday talk about the current Australian wine situation on ABC radio:

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July 29th, 2009
 
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