The best of the 2011 vintage

Jeni Port
The Yarra Valley's Wedgetail Estate lost a large portion of its crop in 2011.
The Yarra Valley's Wedgetail Estate lost a large portion of its crop in 2011. 

There seems to be consensus among Australian wine producers that 2011 was a "challenging" year. That's probably where the consensus begins and ends.

Yes, it was an extremely wet year, as evidenced by record rains and major flooding throughout much of eastern Australia.

Yes, the wet did bring with it disease and in particular, botrytis rot.

And, yes, yields were down because of all of the above. Indeed, some makers did not produce a drop of wine.

But many of those who did rescue a harvest argue that 2011 shouldn't be written off as a poor vintage. There may even have been some great wine made.

So far, the number of wines lighter in weight, flavour and structure, not to mention lacking longevity, appear to outweigh the great wines.

They may not be the most opulent nor the richest but many 2011 whites and reds can be disarmingly friendly and drinkable.

But there is something undeniably attractive about some of the 2011 output.

You taste it in Best's Bin No.1 shiraz, which won this year's Jimmy Watson Trophy for the best young red (2010, 2011 vintages) at the Melbourne Wine Show — sheer deliciousness.

They may not be the most opulent nor the richest but many 2011 whites and reds can be disarmingly friendly and drinkable.


The winemakers of the Yarra Valley are among the vintage's most vocal proponents.

Steve Flamsteed, winemaker at Giant Steps, even uses the "G" word.

"It was a great white year!" he says. "I just think our whites are the best we have ever done and I've tasted a lot of whites of colleagues in the Yarra and again, they're the best they've ever done."

Modest alcohols, palate weight, structure and minerality are all there in Valley chardonnay and pinot gris, according to Flamsteed.

Guy Lamothe at Wedgetail Estate, a biodynamic winemaker, lost 70 per cent of his crop. He says his chardonnay looks more like Chablis than Yarra Valley and his pinot noir "reminds me of a good premier cru from Beaujolais".

Pinot noir for Toolangi at Dixons Creek was simply hard work, with vintage workers going through the vineyard 13 times dropping fruit affected by botrytis. Half the normal crop was lost.

Toolangi introduced two new labels as a result of harvesting selected parcels of fruit: the Pauls Lane range and Block F (chardonnay) and Block E (pinot noir).

Another winemaker using the "G" word is Rob Mann at Cape Mentelle in Margaret River.

But it's not white wines he raving about. It's the reds.

"It will prove to be among the greatest vintages for Margaret River," he says of wines that will be released in the years ahead.

"Plush ripe tannins, richly textured and still with strong regional character and elegance, the Bordeaux red varietals (cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc) were outstanding along with it being perhaps the perfect ripening conditions for shiraz as well," Mann says.

In Margaret River, 2011 was regarded as the warmest vintage in the past 10 years. Hence, some of the whites of that year have been described as over-ripe, producing flat wines.

Over-ripeness was not an issue in the Barossa and Eden valleys. Not by a long shot.

In order to produce good Eden Valley riesling, Andrew Wigan, chief winemaker at Peter Lehmann Wines, got working early.

"We could see botrytis was the problem and as the fruit ripened and had more sugar that gives botrytis something to feed on, we just picked. The fruit was incredibly clean and the wines look fine."

Alcohols were on the low side, less than 11 per cent, something Eden Valley riesling enjoys and carries well.

Barossa's neighbour to the north, Clare Valley, seems pretty happy with its rieslings from 2011. "One of the best years for riesling," says Jeffrey Grosset of Grosset. Chardonnay was also a big winner in Clare.

Hunter Valley winemakers such as Andrew Thomas at Thomas Wines are singing the praises of 2011, due in huge part to avoiding the great flood that befell the east coast. Hunter semillon in general is riper and more generous than usual. Shiraz, however, is the star.

"I reckon the reds are as good, if not better, than the '09s, which is generally regarded as very smart, almost a classic year," he adds. The bulk of the region's 2011 shiraz will be in the market early next year.

While the high levels of botrytis in vineyards had some mainland winemakers on the phone to colleagues in Europe looking for advice, in Tasmania they saved their dialling finger.

"Botrytis is always a risk in Tasmania but although incidence and severity was higher than usual, it did not pose a significant problem," Josef Chromy's chief winemaker, Jeremy Dineen, says. "Most fruit came in clean, albeit at relatively low sugar levels."

Expect higher levels of acidity in 2011 Tassie wines generally, with leaner whites than either 2010 or 2012. Pinot noir is on the more delicate side.

Delicacy also seems to be the byword around the Canberra region.

Summing up a difficult vintage, Tim Kirk at Clonakilla cuts to the chase: "In short, cool, wet and lots of extra work, but with careful attention to detail, some lovely, delicate wines were possible."

But a "challenging" year also means that, and not every winemaker or his or her vineyard was up to the challenge.

Sometimes Mother Nature does win.

Ten top 2011 wines
● Crawford River riesling (Vic)
● David Hook Old Vines semillon (NSW)
● Fraser Gallop chardonnay (WA)
● YarraLoch chardonnay (Vic)
● Stoney Rise pinot noir (Tas)
● Moorilla Estate Praxis pinot noir (Tas)
● Dowie Doole Garnacha & Tempranillo (SA)
● Head Red Barossa Valley shiraz (SA)
● Best's Bin No.1 shiraz (Vic)
● Cape Mentelle Marmaduke shiraz (WA)

Source: The Age Epicure, November 13, 2012