Picking a top 20 becomes increasingly difficult every year as Australia's wines increase in quality and diversity. This year's choice represent wines that appealed at first taste, then passed the bottle test - that is, they held our interest all the way through to the last drop.
They're absolutely first-rate examples of the regions they come from, representing the best of modern Australian winemaking across a range of styles.
The two pinot noirs come from the excellent 2012 vintage - one from the Yarra Valley, the other from Stephen George's tiny Ashton Hills vineyard in the Adelaide hills.
Shiraz, as always, gets a good leg in and, indeed, probably is under-represented given the range and excellence Australian now produces across so many climates.
Geelong, the Grampians and Canberra represent the finer, more elegant end of the shiraz spectrum, each in its own distinctive way. And the warmer style is represented by a remarkable, medium-bodied Hunter Valley wine and a juicy, ripe and savoury Barossa blend of grenache, shiraz and mourvedre.
Coonawarra and Margaret River carry the banner for cabernet sauvignon in two contrasting styles - Sue Hodder's sublime Wynns John Riddoch 2010 and Vanya Cullen's supremely elegant Diana Madeline 2011.
The outlier is the extraordinary Seppeltsfield 100-year-old vintage tawny - a red fortified wine made in 1913, matured in oak for 100 years, bottled in 2013 and available for tasting and purchase at the cellar door. Could there be a better gift?
The lone bubbly in the white selections comes from Ed Carr in Tasmania - a beautifully built wine combining the unsurpassable fruit of Tasmania and Carr's mastery of the sparkling art.
My white selections include three beautiful dry rieslings - one each from Watervale in the Clare Valley, the Eden Valley and Canberra. Profoundly good chardonnay earns four spots, each from the cool south of the continent - Macedon, Mornington Peninsula and Yarra Valley Victoria, and the Coal River Valley, Tasmania.
For something different, I included a lovely soft and savoury Barossa Valley blend of marsanne, roussanne and viognier - a style that could well become the signature white from this warm, dry region. And the Hunter Valley completes the line-up with a brilliantly fresh but maturing almost seven-year-old semillon.
I deliberately chose wines across a range of price points, though the main thoughts in selection were drinking pleasure and individuality - wines that faithfully represent their regions and winemakers.
Oakridge 864 Single Block Release Pinot Noir 2012
Guerin vineyard, block 4,
Upper Yarra Valley, Victoria $75
Oakridge 864 comes from a single block of vines planted to the MV6 clone of pinot noir in 1997 at 300 metres in the cool Upper Yarra Valley. In this small-production pinot, winemaker David Bicknell goes against the trend of using whole bunches, including stems, in the ferment. Instead, Bicknell destemmed the bunches ahead of a natural ferment of the whole berries in open fermenters. After fermentation, he pressed the wine to barrel for malolactic fermentation and maturation on gross lees. The whole-berry ferment might suggest Beaujolais-like fruitiness. But the wine, while varietal and fruity, presents, as well, deep savoury and gamey notes, seasoned subtly with a more pungent character, no doubt derived from varietal interaction with the lees. What we end up with is a fine-boned, multi-layered pinot worthy of a longer essay.
Shiraz by Farr 2010
Geelong, Victoria $55
This is the sort of shiraz you'd expect from one of Australia's most accomplished pinot makers. Grown in the cool, maritime climate of Geelong and co-fermented with a splash of the white viognier, it's fragrant and lively, medium bodied, peppery and spicy and smoothly, gently textured. We tasted then drank Shiraz by Farr at a leisurely pace following a couple of top-end pinots. This proved a delicious segue into a fine, firm old Bordeaux, Chateau Pichon-Lalande 1986.
Ashton Hills Reserve
Pinot Noir 2012
Piccadilly Valley, Adelaide Hills, South Australia $65-$75
For all the talk of "terroir", the best wines, in any region, come from those making the fewest compromises in every little step through vineyard, harvest, grape transport, winemaking, maturation, bottling and storage. Stephen George's wines show these perfectionist traits year after year. So, on a recent visit to the cellar, it was no surprise to taste pinots probably as good as they'll ever be out of the Adelaide Hills - each showing the character of its vintage.
George's Estate Pinot Noir 2011 ($30) showed the edgy, just-ripe flavours of the cold season, albeit with pinot's slick texture and fine tannins. The reserve 2012 revealed the beauty of an exceptional year - pinot with extra fruity depth, flesh, power and layers of flavour; all without losing its "pinosity", that hard-to-describe character separating pinot from other varieties.
Mount Langi Ghiran Cliff Edge Shiraz 2010
Mount Langhi Ghiran vineyard, Grampians, Victoria $24.69-$305
The back label describes Cliff Edge as "baby Langhi", a reference to the winery's $100 flagship, Langhi shiraz. The beautifully elegant 2010 Langhi, reviewed last year, rates among the greatest shirazes I've ever tasted. And Cliff Edge, though somewhat chunkier in the tannin department, delivers its own elegance and irresistible charm. The intense flavour of cool-grown shiraz underpins the wine. But winemaking techniques weave attractive aromas, flavours and textures through the fruit: whole bunches in the ferment; warm fermentation; hand and foot plunging of the skins during fermentation; finishing the primary ferment and secondary malolactic ferment in barrels; and maturation in Burgundian oak barrels. These all add up to an aromatic, savoury-spicy, medium-bodied shiraz with considerable cellaring capacity.
Andrew Thomas Kiss Shiraz 2011
Pokolbin Estate vineyard, Hunter Valley, NSW $60
Andrew Thomas released four Hunter shirazes this month, each outstanding in its own way. But none matches the dimension of Kiss, Thomas's flagship from a vineyard planted in 1969. The wine presents another unique, and idiosyncratic, face of Australian shiraz, far removed, say, from the sheer power of Grange or savoury twang of Mount Langi Ghiran the Langi. Kiss is medium bodied, and its intense, underlying bright fruit flavour is cut through with earthy, savoury notes and fine, soft tannins. The wine grew more interesting and better to drink over four days on the tasting bench - a pretty good guide to future complexity and longevity.
Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier 2012
Murrumbateman, Canberra District, NSW $100
Canberra (and Australia's) benchmark shiraz-viognier came out of the blue - a wine style no one would have backed in the first two decades of Canberra viticulture. But the wine, now honed to perfection, speaks for itself. Indeed, without it, Canberra may have puddled around for decades seeking a red-wine identity. Fittingly, Gourmet Traveller named its creator, Tim Kirk, as winemaker of the year just as we finished the last few mouthfuls of our bottle. It's a stand-out vintage - all perfume, spice and silk. It's a unique wine in Australia's wide and extraordinary spectrum of shiraz styles.
Grant Burge Holy Trinity Grenache Shiraz Mourvedre 2010
Barossa Valley, South Australia $28.50-$42
Grant Burge made the first Holy Trinity blend in 1995. But, following a trip to France's Rhone Valley with winemaker Craig Stansborough, he refined the style dramatically over the following vintages. In particular, a move to extended post-fermentation maceration created silky, soft tannins; and a shift away from American to older French oak meant an altogether more subtle wine. The beautiful 2010 vintage matches anything else to date under the label, and provides smooth, satisfying, supple, spicy, vibrant drinking. It's an excellent example of this distinctive Barossa style.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate John Riddoch Cabernet Sauvignon 2010
Northern Coonawarra, South Australia $100-$150
Wynns new releases include this stunning John Riddoch cabernet - as good a wine as any in the line-up since the first vintage in 1982. The outstanding 2010 vintage arrived a decade or so after viticulturist Allen Jenkins and winemaker Sue Hodder embarked on a complete makeover of the parent company's extensive Coonawarra vineyards. And Hodder took full advantage of the new small-batch winery, husbanding grapes from the Alexander area, near the winery, and O'Dea vineyard, through fermentation and into top-quality French oak barrels. The result is a marvellously aromatic cabernet stamped with class and built for long cellaring. The wide range of retail prices indicates how little power parent company Treasury Wine Estates has over market pricing.
Cullen Diana Madeline 2011
Cullen Vineyard, Margaret River, Western Australia $115
While limpid and approachable on release - a wine of delicate violet-like aroma and seductive, subtle, supple, fine-grained palate - Cullen Diana Madeline enjoys a cellaring potential measured in decades, not years. It's a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, malbec, cabernet franc and petit verdot, planted 40 years ago by winemaker Vanya Cullen's parents, Kevin John and Diana Madeline. The fruit flavours are particularly pure and concentrated in 2011.
Majella the Malleea 2009
Majella Vineyard, Coonawarra, South Australia $75-$80
Majella's flagship red, the Malleea, rates among Australia's very finest reds. A blend of cabernet sauvignon (55 per cent) and shiraz, it presents Coonawarra's combination of power with elegance. The deep but limpid, crimson-rimmed colour sets the scene for a magnificent drinking experience. Deep, sweet berry flavours and rare harmony of all the flavour and structural elements puts Malleea at the top of the pile. It's sourced from low-yielding vines on Brian and Tony Lynn's Majella vineyard. The brothers grew grapes for other winemakers from 1968 but launched their own label from the 1991 vintage and the Malleea from 1996.
Seppeltsfield Para 100-year-old vintage tawny 1913
Seppeltsfield vineyard, Barossa Valley, South Australia $330 100ml, $999 375ml
Seppeltsfield released its first 100-year-old Para tawny in 1978 - drawn from a barrel set aside by Benno Seppelt in 1878. He instructed the family to bottle it in 100 years. Amazingly, Seppelt's successors, including corporate and then private owners, continued the practice without interruption. And today, for $40, cellar-door visitors can taste the current 100-year-old release (plus the $150 Seppeltsfield Uber Shiraz 2010). For most, tasting a wine freshly bottled after maturing 100 years in barrel will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The 1913 vintage (pictured far left), tasted at cellar door in July, poured slickly into the glass. The tawny and orange colours spoke of autumn leaf and old age; the aroma spelled the comfort of ancient leather furniture, shellac, cedar, soy and burnt sugar; the viscous but ethereal palate reflected the aroma - a luscious, precious glory of a thing, made before World War I, venerable but still fresh, in its own aged and stately way. (Available at seppeltsfield.com.au.)
Mount Horrocks Riesling 2013
Watervale, Clare Valley, South Australia $32
Everything appeals about Stephanie Toole's 2013 riesling - favourite by a big margin in a trio of 2013s from Canberra, Great Southern and Watervale. The shimmering, green-tinted colour gave it a visual edge - matched by its pure, lime-like varietal aroma and fine, delicate, mouth-watering, dry palate. The wine should evolve well for several years, though it's racy and a thrill to drink now.
Jacob's Creek Steingarten Riesling 2012
Eden Valley, South Australia $24.60-$32
The Steingarten vineyard, planted by Orlando's Colin Gramp in 1962, lends it name (and contributes part of the fruit) to Jacob's Creek's flagship riesling. I enjoyed a pre-release sample of the wine in January; and a recent taste confirms it as one of the best from a great year. It's delicate and intense at the same time with exhilarating acidity and pure, lime-lemon varietal flavour. Stock up when it's on special and put a little aside. Past vintages have aged well for decades - for example, the comparably outstanding 2002 vintage still looks young and fresh.
Ravensworth Riesling 2013
Murrumbateman, Canberra district, NSW $20
Bryan and Jocelyn Martin's 2013 riesling swept all competitors aside at the 2013 Canberra and region show. It won the top gold medal in the 2013 riesling class, then cleaned up in the taste-offs, winning trophies as the show's best riesling, best white wine and best wine. A few weeks later, it won another gold medal plus a trophy as best Canberra riesling at the Canberra International Riesling Challenge. Ravensworth shows the tight structure and acidic backbone of Canberra riesling, with pure, intense, fresh citrus varietal flavour and sufficient mid-palate flesh to offset the gripping acidity. Should drink well for the next decade.
Curly Flat Chardonnay 2011
Curly Flat vineyard, Macedon Ranges, Victoria $42-$47
In a year notable for skinny wines, Curly Flat 2011 stands out for its luxurious richness, power and elegance - a stately chardonnay from the maker of some of Australia's finest. Curly Flat's Phillip Moraghan writes, "Much has been written about the difficulties of vintage 2011, yet we see it as a triumphant year for our vineyard and team. Our vintage 2011 T-shirts carry the motto 'Divided we stand', acknowledging the role of our horizontally divided lyre trellis system in warding off the downy mildew demons." Moraghan's team not only defeated disease, but also coaxed the berries to a perfect ripeness that underpins this beautiful, barrel-fermented and matured white.
Main Ridge Estate
Main Ridge vineyard, Mornington Peninsula, Victoria $55
In a tasting of top-shelf chardonnays from the cold 2011 vintage, Main Ridge stood out from its bonier peers. The shift to leaner, tighter chardonnays in Australia has been overall a good thing, though some wines do seem a little too skinny, especially in very cool seasons. But even in one of the wettest, coolest vintages
Nat and Rosalie White manage to keep some flesh on the bone. Theirs is an elegant chardonnay, in the best sense of the word - finely structured and delicate, but with beautiful fruit flavours, a subtle, sweet, caramel-like undercurrent (probably a result of malolactic fermentation) and smooth, silky mid palate and brisk, clean finish.
Oakridge 864 Single Block Release Chardonnay 2012
Willowlake vineyard, Block 6, Yarra Valley, Victoria $75
David Bicknell makes a range of Oakridge Yarra Valley chardonnays reflecting various sites around the valley and little tweaks here and there in winemaking and maturation technique. This version underwent spontaneous fermentation in oak barrels (30 per cent of them new). Bicknell then aged it on yeast lees in the barrel for nine months and blocked the secondary malolactic fermentation - thus retaining the high natural acidity that drives this wine. The winemaking and maturation technique gives the wine a "funky" edge - winemaker jargon for small amounts of sulphides deliberately incorporated into so many modern Australia chardonnays, giving a "struck-match" character. This can overwhelm a wine, but in Oakridge 864 it becomes an incidental seasoning to the intense underlying fruit flavour and creamy texture - all held together by its thrilling acid backbone.
Tolpuddle vineyard, Coal River Valley, Tasmania $65
In 2011, highly regarded Adelaide Hills winemaker, Shaw and Smith, acquired the mature Tolpuddle vineyard in Tasmania's Coal River Valley (20 minutes drive north-east of Hobart). It joined a significant push into Tasmania by mainland winemakers searching for the very best chardonnay and pinot noir grapes. Its first release shows a combination of restraint, elegance and power - all hallmarks of top-end, cool-grown chardonnay. Intense grapefruit and white-peach-like varietal flavours underpin a creamy textured, dazzlingly fresh chardonnay of great finesse. It has the potential to evolve for some years.
Tyrrell's Vat 1 Semillon 2007
Hunter Valley, NSW $77
The Hunter's idiosyncratic semillon style tends to polarise people into lovers and haters. As youngsters, they're lean, acidic and austere, tending to lemon juice (even so, delicious with the right food). Over many years, the wines become richer and deeper in all aspects, taking on satisfying nutty, toasty aromas and flavours. Tyrrell's Vat 1 leads the way with this long-lived style and fortunately it generally offers at least one aged version alongside the current release (2013). Its website currently offers the magnificent 2007 which, at almost seven years, is just moving out of lemony youth, taking on lemongrass and honey-like flavours while retaining invigorating freshness.
John Duval Plexus 2012
Barossa Valley, South Australia $25-$30
A warm area like the Barossa floor is seldom going to make riesling to match the quality of those from the high, cooler Eden Valley in the hills to the Barossa's east. If any white styles are to match the region's reds in quality in future, I'd put my money where John Duval does with Plexus. He uses the Rhone valley varieties, marsanne (55 per cent), roussanne (35 per cent) and viognier (10 per cent), sourced, respectively from Marananga and Seppeltsfield, Kalimna and the Eden Valley. A combination of fermentation regimes, including both tank and barrel, created a full, fresh, richly textured dry white with a distinctive flavour, reminiscent of that sweet-tart area between the flesh and rind of rockmelon. It's delightful, different and in 2012, particularly rich and sweet fruited.
House of Arras Methode Traditionelle Brut Elite Cuvee No. 501
Perhaps more than any other wine style, top-notch sparklers are built layer by layer. Arras, for example, is the culmination of decades of work by Ed Carr - a quest that began with fruit sourcing (moving progressively south from Tumbarumba, to southern Victoria and, ultimately to Tasmania). Here, Carr found the aromas, flavours, structure, delicacy and acidity required to build outstanding sparkling wine. He uses handpicked grapes, gently presses the juice from them, fines it, then ferments it on grape solids before a secondary, malolactic fermentation on yeast lees. He clarifies then blends numerous components before bottling the wine for its secondary fermentation. The already "built" wine then spends five years maturing on spent yeast cells before clarification and topping up with a special "dosage" that includes older reserve wines. What arrives in our bottle, then, is a dazzling fresh bubbly pinot noir chardonnay blend. The unique Tasmanian fruit is at the core, but it's in a patina of flavours, textures and aromas built from the vineyard up by Carr over five years. It's a delight to drink.