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Top 10 Australian fine wines

Australia is rapidly gaining ground in the trade and the public’s estimation as a fine-wine producing country of note.

As we said in the drinks business September issue: “The Australian wine investment market has evolved significantly over the past few years. Grange, once Australia’s only serious investment wine, now leads an ever-growing list of wines regularly traded for both profit and pleasure, with new players entering the fold.”

As the piece also made clear, in the 1990s Robert Parker’s high scores for certain wines (such as Torbreck RunRig and others which are not listed here) show that Australia has been rising for a long time and not been entirely unnoticed.

What makes Australia increasingly compelling is the mix of growing reputation and renown, the emergence of clearer regional narratives coupled with greater evidence of all-important geographical characteristics in the wine, relatively low prices and the realisation that many of the best wines have the potential to age for a considerable amount of time.

Several Australian companies are investing heavily in Asia too, and there is increasing interest for that doyenne of Australian wines, Penfolds Grange – though little is exported directly for now.

The list here is based on Langton’s Classification of Australian Wine Index (LCAWI), which follows what are considered to be the 28 leading Australian wines, based on Langton’s Classification of Australian Wine.

The wines are tracked by their performance at auction and then ranked as “exceptional”, “outstanding”, “excellent” or “distinguished”. The index utilises Langton’s considerable database, which allows it to track wines back to the 1980s.

10. Rockford

Basket Press Shiraz

Region: Barossa Valley, South Australia

Top vintages: 2009, 2008, 2006, 2004, 2002, 1999, 1998, 1996, 1994, 1991, 1990, 1986.

Langton’s describes Rockford’s wines as encapsulating “traditional and contemporary winemaking philosophies and embracing the inherent qualities of old-vine Shiraz.”

The vines here are very old indeed, with average ages ranging from 60 to 140 years, and the fruit is sourced from several growers in Barossa, which helps to concentrate colour and power.

Winemaker Robert O’Callaghan is also a stickler for old-school winemaking, including the use of a petrol-powered Bagshaw crusher from 1910, open fermenters and basket presses (from which this wine takes its name).

French and American oak is used, but tasting notes often describe how the oak is never at the fore, leaving its “understated power, balance and minerality” to do the talking.

9. Penfolds

Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon

Region: Barossa Valley, Coonawarra, Padthaway, Robe, Bordertown, South Australia

Top vintages: 2010, 2008, 2006, 2004, 2002, 1998, 1996, 1991, 1990, 1986, 1976, 1964.

The first Penfolds wine on the list (but by no means the last) and one considered to present Australian winemaking at its robust and powerful best.

Bin 707 was born out of Max Schubert’s experiments with Cabernet Sauvignon in the late 1940s and 1950s, spurred on by the acquisition of the Kalimna Vineyard in 1945, a plot containing some of the oldest Cabernet vines in the world, still on their 19th-century rootstocks.

After several prototypes in the early 1960s, Bin 707 emerged in 1964 as Penfolds first commercial Cabernet Sauvignon-based wine.

It faltered in 1969 with unpredictable production, but with more vineyard acquisitions, it was brought back in 1976.

It is not a wine made every year, as the winemakers do not wish to dilute the wine’s powerful, muscular image – notable exceptions include 1995, 2003, 2000 and 1981.

On a similar note, beware of Bin 707 offered from any year between 1969 and 1975 – it’s fake, as the wine was not made in this period, as noted above.

Langton’s notes: “Bin 707 is an immensely concentrated style with dark berry/dark chocolate fruit balanced by well-seasoned new oak, plenty of fruit sweetness, and strong but not overwhelming tannins.

“This is a medium to long-term cellaring style of wine. If you can wait the distance, Bin 707 builds up into a wonderfully complex and interesting wine.”




8. Mount Mary

Quintet Cabernets

Region: Yarra Valley, Victoria

Top vintages: 2006, 2005, 2004, 2001, 2000, 1999, 1998, 1996, 1994, 1992, 1991, 1990, 1988, 1986, 1984, 1982, 1981, 1979. Not made in 2007.

Mount Mary emerged from John Middleton’s love of good French wine, a passion that was stirred by trips to Bordeaux and Burgundy throughout the 1960s.

A friend, Colin Preece of Great Western, commented once that Australia had yet to produce a Cabernet with the elegance and precision that could be found in Europe.

Middleton decided that this would not do and in 1971, having found the right spot, planting of the first vineyards began.

The varieties are classic Bordeaux: Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc, Petit Verdot, Merlot and Malbec.

The winery remains in family hands, John died in 2006 at the age of 82 and his son David is now in charge.

As well as creating a benchmark for regional Australian Cabernet, Middleton wished the wine to be food-friendly, a trait that is still sought today, although vine age has helped the wines gain in concentration so that they are slightly heftier today than they were to begin with.

7. Moss Wood

Cabernet Sauvignon

Region: Margaret River, Western Australia

Top vintages: 2009, 2008, 2007, 2005, 2004, 2002, 2001, 1999, 1997, 1996, 1995, 1994, 1992, 1991, 1990, 1987.

Moss Wood was founded by one of Margaret River’s “pioneers”, Dr Bill Pannell, in 1969. The first vintage arrived in 1973 and by the early 80s Pannell had already acquired a reputation for producing highly perfumed, restrained but powerful Cabernets.

Today the estate is run by Clare and Keith Mugford. Keith began at Moss Wood as an assistant winemaker before he and his wife bought the property in 1985.

The wines have “proven ageing potential” according to Langton’s and take on “subtle earth/demi-glace briar characters on the bouquet, and complexity and suppleness on the palate”.

Moss Wood was founded as a “specialist, high-quality winery” the website explains and this is the view continued to this day.

The touchstones are still the first wines made between 1974 and 1977, but some things have changed, notably longer skin contact and the introduction of small amounts of Cabernet Franc (5%) and Merlot (0.05%), with 5% of Petit Verdot added from the 1995 vintage.


6. Leeuwin Estate

Art Series Chardonnay

Region: Margaret River, Western Australia

Top vintages: 2009, 2008, 2007, 2005, 2004, 2003, 2001, 2000, 1999, 1997, 1996, 1995, 1987.

Australian Chardonnay has undergone something of a revolution recently, the days of big, oaky styles are not gone, but there is greater restraint and skill in marrying wine and wood together.

Langton’s says of Leeuwin’s Chardonnay: “Art Series Chardonnay is one of Australia’s rare long-lived fine-boned Chardonnays, with superb fruit definition and clarity. When youthful, they are a balance between exuberant fruit and savoury complexity.

“With a few years of bottle maturity, the Art Series Chardonnay seems to shed its aniseed top notes. The wine becomes a harmonious whole with beautifully defined grapefruit/melon aromas and complex lanolin nuances. The palate is richer and fleshier but remains tightly bound by mineral acidity.”

Leeuwin is one of Margaret River’s founding wineries, its site chosen in 1972 by that famous American viticulturist and winemaker, Robert Mondavi.

Pickings are slim for the Chardonnay, the vineyard planted with the low-yielding “Gin Gin” clone.

The winery was considered state of the art in 1978 and the estate maintains to this day that it has one of the most advanced wineries in the southern hemisphere.


5. Henschke,

Hill of Grace Shiraz

Region: Barossa Valley, South Australia

Top vintages: 2009, 2006, 2005, 2004, 2002, 1999, 1998, 1996, 1994, 1992, 1991, 1990, 1986, 1978.

Hill of Grace is possibly the most famous single-vineyard wine in Australia and one made with some of the oldest, ungrafted, Shiraz vines in the world.

Langton’s describes it as “quintessential Eden Valley Shiraz… It has a compelling vinosity and singularity of voice; a scent of place that reaches a crescendo with age.”

The Henschke family is descended from German Lutheran settlers who planted the area’s first vineyards in the 1860s and named the eight-hectare plot after the nearby Gnadenberg church.

Some of those vines, the Grandfather’s and Post Office Blocks One and Two survive to this day, while Church Block, House Block and Windmill Block, planted in the 1950s, use the same vinestock.

The first vintage of Hill of Grace as recognised today was 1958 and since then it has been a wine that “speaks profoundly of place”.

4. Giaconda


Region: Beechworth, Victoria

Top vintages: 2008, 2005, 2004, 2002, 2000, 1998, 1997, 1996, 1994, 1991, 1990. Not made in 2003 and 2009.

Another entry made from Australia’s most renowned white grape, and one that is slightly different in style again to Leeuwin – for a start it comes from a cooler area with higher rainfall.

Winemaker Rick Kinzbrunner worked in New Zealand, Europe and California for ten years before he found himself in Victoria.

His style of Chardonnay, picked in the cool of the mornings in vineyards 400 metres above sea level, is more mineral- and citrus-driven, while Langton’s describes his use of oak as “masterful”.

The very best vintages benefit from ten years in bottle, but the majority are best after five.

Langtons describes the “feeling of discovery” when drinking Giaconda Chardonnay that makes it “such an evocative and extraordinary experience. They have a subliminal and emotional quality that is difficult to pinpoint; utterly Australian yet totally individual, unforgettable and unique.”

The wine was not made in 2003 and 2009 because of bushfire smoke damage.

3. Cullen

Diana Madeline Cabernet/Merlot

Region: Margaret River, Western Australia

Top vintages: 2009, 2008, 2007, 2005, 2004, 2002, 2001, 1999, 1998, 1997, 1996, 1995, 1994.

Another Margaret River wine, surely sealing the region’s deserved reputation as one of the country’s great Cabernet Sauvignon producers.

This wine is notable on this list as a proper blend (ignoring the small quantities of other wines that make their way into the others, which are counted as mono-variety in true New-World style) and the work of a female winemaker.

Vanya Cullen is chief winemaker, a role inherited from her mother Diana, who served in the role for two decades. She is, naturally, the wine’s namesake.

Diana and her husband Kevin began an experimental vineyard in 1966 and as their success grew, Kevin carried on his work as a doctor to help support the business, while Diana concentrated on the wine. She made history in 1982 when she became the first woman to win a trophy at the Perth Royal Show.

Vanya joined her mother in 1983 and was appointed chief winemaker in 1989. Kevin died in 1994 and the estate’s Chardonnay was named after him.

The winery today is completely biodynamic, as Vanya believes that, “as time passes, a greater understanding of the vineyard and grapes is gained and this makes possible the creation of a more individual wine style.”

Andrew Caillard MW of Langton’s once described the Diana Madeline as “pure bottled philosophy”, while the index’s tasting notes talk of “blackcurrant pastille/ dark cherry fruit and violet camomile notes.”


2. Bass Phillip

Reserve Pinot Noir

Region: South Gippsland, Victoria

Top vintages: 2007, 2005, 2004, 2003, 2001, 1999, 1998, 1997, 1996, 1994, 1991. Not made in 2008 and 2006.

The first Pinot Noir on the list, and one produced in tiny quantities from vineyards that are less densely planted than even some of Burgundy’s Grand Crus.

This “madly rare” wine is generally accepted as being the country’s greatest Pinot.

It was also the first estate in South Gippsland, founded in 1979 by Phillip Jones and named after George Bass and Arthur Phillip, two explorers of the region. As well as Pinot, a small amount of Chardonnay is also planted (as is a little Gewürztraminer and Gamay).

The cool climate and mineral-rich soils have made their mark on the wines ever since the first vintage in 1984.

Jones’ methods, which are a little extreme, lead some to refer to him with a mixture of affection and seriousness as a “complete maniac”.

However, no one seems able to go away from a glass of Bass Phillip without singing its praises.

Langton’s offers: “Bass Phillip’s Reserve Pinot Noir can be incredibly complex and sinuous. It constantly evolves and changes in the glass. One instant it can smell of pure dark cherries, red plums and cranberries, and then another moment frankincense, wood varnish and gardenias.

“Highly individual and often beautiful, it sings utterly of light and shade as much as it agonisingly flaws and triumphs.”

1. Penfolds, Bin 95

Grange Shiraz

Region: Predominately Barossa Valley, South Australia

Top vintages: 2010, 2008, 2006, 2005, 2004, 2002, 1999, 1998, 1996, 1991, 1990, 1986, 1980, 1976, 1971, 1966, 1963, 1962, 1955, 1953. Extremely rare: 1951, 1952, 1953, 1954, 1956, 1957 and 1958.

There could only be one wine to take the top Australian wine spot and it would have to be the vintage with the prestige and reputation that comes with being one of the country’s oldest wines and the product that kick-started modern Australian winemaking.

Starting life in 1951, the wine and its creator Max Schubert subsequently emerged as minor celebrities among the Australian wine cognoscenti.

Dominated by Barossa fruit, it is in many ways the archetypal Australian Shiraz: massive, concentrated, immensely rich and full of dark chocolate and black fruit flavours – it is no surprise to learn that the methods that led to its creation were born out of fortified wine production.

Nonetheless, it is a wine that will stand 50 years in bottle and is rightly considered to be an Australian “first growth”.

Yet, even with this reputation bottles can be picked up for under AU$400 (£255) further testament to the huge potential for the very best Australian wines to appreciate should the market evolve that way.

In an interesting aside, the 1957, 1958 and 1959 vintages were all made without the knowledge of the Penfolds head office and are counted as extremely rare collectors items should you be lucky (and rich) enough to come across them.



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