IT WAS ONE OF THOSE YEARS, THIS time for all the right reasons. The 2012 vintage wasn't mired by truly awful weather - that was definitely cause for celebration. And winemakers released their 2010 reds - an excellent vintage.
Then came the kind of news that warms the cockles, unless you happen to work for a big multinational wine company.
In November, market researcher Nielsen released figures showing that family-owned wine brands are booming. According to Nielsen, Australian family-owned wine producers now account for almost one-third of the retail wine market in the country, having increased sales in the bottled wine market by $200 million over the past five years.
''Australian family wine producers such as McWilliams, Taylors and Yalumba have shown great resilience by nurturing their brands through the good times and the bad, and emerging in great shape,'' Nielsen Pacific executive director Michael Walton says.
So, not a bad year at all for producer and drinker. Here's the best of 2012 …
Sometimes we can be too close to shiraz, as the amount of 16 per cent alcohol shiraz on the market attests. Why not let someone else interpret the great little Aussie grape? That's what the Rhone Valley's Alain Graillot did with Heathcote fruit in 2010. It was magnificent. If only he'd called it shiraz. The 2010 Graillot Australia syrah ($50): The savoury earth and leather on the nose is followed by fresh herbs, a musky lavender, red fruits and fine, fine tannins.
Best cabernet sauvignon
For 30 years, Cape Mentelle has competed against the world's best in its annual International Cabernet tastings. That confidence is on show in its 2010 cabernet ($89), an assured coupling of power and complexity. Just remember to give it plenty of air.
Best cabernet blend
Cabernet merlot blends have gone off the boil. However, my top blend was the utterly delicious West Cape Howe 2011 cabernet merlot ($17), with heaps of black and red fruits, a pinch of pepper and a touch of vanilla, all in a dashing medium-bodied style.
Best pinot noir
Phil Moraghan is a studious disciple of the pinot noir grape and we get to share his lifelong journey. With his Curly Flat 2010 pinot ($53), we see an interesting development with the introduction of exotic cardamom and Indian spice overlaying bright cherries and mint, with sweet fruit to close.
Best use of an Aussie classic grape variety
Aussie grenache often displays all the charm of a bulldozer. It's not subtle and rarely pretty. The Tscharke Collection 2011 Marananga grenache ($36) reminds us just what a great grape it is, a grape that can be heartbreakingly beautiful and delicious at the same time.
The Iberians are coming. As far afield as Orange, Cumulus winemaker Debbie Lauritz and Portuguese colleague Francisco Antunes combined to produce the excellent and savoury Luna Rosa 2012 rosado ($15). Packed with juicy cherry-berry freshness, the creamy palate and whisper of sugar go down very easily, which is a rosé´'s primary reason for being, surely?
Best $20 and under red
The winner of this year's Great Australian Shiraz Challenge was a wine that retails for just $19.95 a bottle. It beat 370 other wines, many way more expensive. Leconfield 2010 Richard Hamilton shiraz, made by Paul Gordon with fruit from McLaren Vale, offers a quality way beyond its price tag. Just don't tell Leconfield.
Youthful riesling will always be overshadowed by the beauty that comes with age, making Peter Lehmann's Wigan 2006 Eden Valley riesling ($30) the obvious choice for best riesling of 2012. Here you have a riesling in full bloom. The scent has progressed from the fresh citrus of youth into a rich lime compote/marmalade with an additional floral spiciness and just-developing toast. On the palate, Eden Valley minerality and bright acidity provide the bones for the developing body to fill out. It finishes super dry with that soft, breathy riesling ''talc''.
As chardonnay claws its way back into our hearts, it's returning rejuvenated, almost reborn. It's not oak we consumers prize like we used to, it's structure. This is where Beechworth enters the picture. The place sits on 415 million-year-old granite and shaly slate, translating into minerality in its wines and in turn, structure and longevity. Savaterre is headed by Keppell Smith, a passionate man making passionate, lion-hearted chardonnays. The 2009 chardonnay ($75) is an intricate mosaic of a wine, just another reason why Beechworth has to be the new go-to region for the grape.
Best sauvignon blanc
New Zealand still makes the best sauvignon blanc. Taste Giesen's The Brothers 2011 Marlborough sauvignon blanc ($22.99) and tell me I lie …
Best new style
Occam's Razor Lo Stesso 2011 Heathcote fiano, made by Emily Laughton and friend Georgia Roberts, brings an edginess that has made it a hit with sommeliers. Little wonder. Lo Stesso offers a less fruit-first, broader rustic look at the Italian varietal, with strong herbal influences. Wow.
Best $20 and under white
It's good to see historic Seppeltsfield back on top with some smashing wines, courtesy of winemaker Fiona Donald, formerly of Penfolds. The 2011 Eden Valley riesling is a classic beauty, very fine, soft aromatics, gentle lemony fruit and bright acidity. So good now, it'll be even better in a couple of years. The price is $19.80 a bottle on seppeltsfield.com.au.
Best imported wine
The upside of a strong Aussie dollar in 2012 is that American wines are suddenly more affortable. And who knew they could be so intriguing? Wines such as Randall Grahm's Bonny Doon 2007 Le Pousseur ($54) a heavily earth-bound syrah with the smell and taste of the soil mixed with an arresting spiciness and the fruit appeal of stewed cherries and plums. Tannin plays a strong role, especially to close.
Yellowglen's less pedestrian direction this year succeeded with its XV (Exceptional Vintage) sparkling range, in particular the 2002 vintage ($50) combining a wonderful youthful vivacity with a great depth of aged flavour.
Welcome back, tawny. One of the joys of 2012 was the release of some stunning tawnies, including those from Grant Burge. But it was De Bortoli's award-winning 'Old Boys' 21 barrel-aged tawny ($35), with an average age of 21 years, that so excited. So smooth.