Decanter Magazine – January 2024 – Around Australia in 20 Wines

Advance Australia Fair – 20 years and 20 wines

When you notch up twenty years doing something, there is always an urge to look back and reflect on the past, picking out the highlights and the lowlights while trying to plot a course for the future. I used to host a wine slot on the BBC’s London FM station GLR back in the nineties. As it turned out, this short ten-minute slot during the breakfast show turned into a half-hour spot and to pad out the weekly wine tastings and anecdotes, I took to interviewing notable wine personalities. As it turned out, touring Australian winemakers usually landed at Heathrow in the early morning, so it was a doddle for them to come straight to the studio in time for my show. I interviewed many of the big names back then, and it was during this time that I learned more than I could possibly imagine about the stories behind the great Australian wines and winemakers. I had always been a fan of Australian wines since the very beginning of my wine trade career in the late Eighties. I worked at The Barnes Wine Shop (now a Lea & Sandeman), and it occurred to me that the Cabernets from, say, Cape Mentelle or Wynns were more attractive, accurate and delicious than the same priced clarets. Peter Lehmann’s or Tim Adams’ Shiraz trumped the various Rhône wines.

Rosemount’s Chardonnay demolished inexpensive white Burgundies, while Pike’s Riesling outclassed the various Alsatian and German counterparts. My taste memories are incredibly vivid from all those years ago, and while I didn’t quite realise it at the time, I was already well on my way to becoming an Australian wine advocate. From 1990 and for the next 26 years, I wrote a wine list for Bibendum Restaurant in Chelsea, London. I remember buying a pallet of Zind Humbrecht 1989s on a whim – has anyone ever bought a whole pallet of top-flight Alsatian wines for just one restaurant? I had a blast buying 100 cases of 1987 Lafite for an average of £12 per bottle and sold it all by the glass for a tenner – this news made the headlines in the Evening Standard. One of my favourite coups was buying the entire UK allocation of 120 bottles of Torbreck’s 1996 Runrig. I sold it for £32.50 per bottle on the wine list and left it at this price after Parker awarded it a perfect 100 points and the retail price in New York hit $1000 per bottle. The Australian section in the wine list had over 100 bins, and our sommeliers and customers loved these wines. From 1999 until 2022, I wrote a weekly column for the Daily Mail, and I occasionally look back at old articles to remind myself of wines that caught my eye in the old days. So many of the best-value wines on the shelves during this two-decade period were Australian, and they still are. But it was my third book, The Wine List 2003, that inspired me to come up with the idea for my 100 Best Australian Wines Report. The Wine List detailed my favourite 250 wines retailed in the UK, and in the 2003 edition, 50 of them were Australian. Tassie Pinots, Pemberton and Adelaide Hills Chardonnays, Clare Rieslings, sparklers and sweeties, good old 1998 Penfolds St. Henri was £29.99, and cool climate Shiraz was already a thing! It drives me up the wall when people think that Australia only used to make big, blocky, clumsy wines when 20 years ago, delicacy and balance were already living and breathing mantras. Throughout my whole wine life, I have been a recommender and not a wine critic. There is so much to be said about delicious wine, and I prefer not to waste words on those bottles I don’t like. So, twenty years ago, I decided to move away from being a generalist and start to specialise in the wine styles that I loved. Of course, the Daily Mail was the excuse to keep abreast of what was happening in the wine world, but I focused my efforts on Bordeaux, Burgundy, Piemonte and Australia and each one of these topics are now comprehensive reports on my website. After all, these four wine categories make up 90% of my cellar.

100 Best was born, and I launched the first edition at the Wine Trade Fair in London. I invited the Australian High Commissioner to bring a degree of formality to proceedings. Back then, the list was a double-sided piece of A4 paper with heroic wines such as 2000 Leeuwin Art Series Chardonnay, 2001 Cullen Diana Madeline, 1999 Jansz Tasmania, 2003 Mount Peasant Lovedale Semillon, 2001 Kooyong Havens Pinot Noir, 2002 Shaw + Smith M3 Chardonnay, 2001 Penfolds Bin 389 among others making the cut. It was simply a list with no tasting notes, but it has evolved greatly over the years.  A couple of months ago, I launched my 20th Anniversary edition with recent vintages of the very same wines mentioned above, and others besides, making the grade. The Report is now a 32000-word colour booklet, and the new Australian High Commissioner came along to lend his support. In addition to the consistently excellent wines that form the heart of this report, other smaller estates always catch my eye. The inaugural 100 Best featured curios such as 2003 Craigow Riesling, the epitome of a cool climate Tasmanian white wine – very much the flavour on everyone’s lips today. I included 2002 Wirra Wirra Grenache – McLaren Vale has come of age recently as a Grenache Mecca, but the signs were there twenty years ago. Of course, some brands have disappeared over the years, but new finds keep coming. Australia never sits still, and this year, I have no fewer than 13 new to 100 Best wineries in this year’s century of greats. Over the last 20 years, 290 different wineries have featured in my various reports.

I started touring with the wines in 2011, bringing them directly to keen consumers at focussed masterclass events, but I didn’t only focus on the UK.  I held events in Australia, America, Hong Kong and, importantly for Australian wine sales, China. These huge events were some of the most exhilarating I have ever hosted; on one occasion, the tasting was live-streamed to 90 million people on a news channel.

I could never have kept up my excitement for 100 Best had the wines stayed the same. The rate of improvement in all sectors of the Australian wine scene is staggering, and one of the most overlooked aspects of Australian wine is its ability to age. While most wines drink beautifully from the off on account of their intrinsic balance, I am always amazed at how exquisite old vintages of Semillon, Riesling and Chardonnay, to name three important white grapes and virtually all styles of red wine age. Perhaps this is because Aussies have mastered bottling under screwcap, while being expert ‘finishers’ – so many wineries around the world can make decent plonk, but then fail to get it into the bottle in one piece.  Australians are sensational at this discipline.  While the rest of the world suffers from wines that tend to age prematurely, Australian wine, at all price points, defies logic in its ability to mellow and evolve without losing traction and freshness.

Other spin-offs from 100 Best have been incredibly enjoyable, too. I started hosting two specialist Sommelier Lunches each year, one in Edinburgh and one in London.   I have always kept my hand in writing wine lists for restaurants, and I have a real soft spot for the skill it takes to compile a genuinely excellent wine list that contributes both fiscally and sensorially to a restaurant’s gastronomic offering. I could not continue 100 Best without helping top sommeliers and wine buyers broaden their horizons by introducing them to fantastic 100 Best Australian wines.

Another extremely rewarding spin-off is my The Great Australian Red competition, now in its 17th year. Aussie wine writer Tyson Stelzer and I gather a group of elite palates each year, and we taste through the finest Cabernet / Shiraz blends. This is a style of wine that I dub ‘the blend that defines Australia’, and I believe that the best wines are as fine as any red wine from any region in the world. This initiative has highlighted some extraordinary wines over the years, and I do not doubt that I will be drinking these wines alongside my favourite red Bordeaux for the rest of my life.

100 Best continues to evolve, and in 2024, I will host a series of Australian Wine Festivals bringing the best wines to an even larger audience, alongside great food, music and art. Australians are great story-tellers and the stories that inspired me to follow these wines nearly four decades ago, told to me by Peter Lehmann, Bob McLean, Charlie Melton, Di Cullen, Len Evans, and many, many others are mine to pass on to young people wishing to learn more about the incredible wines from Down Under and it is my honour to do so.

20 wines with my scores out of twenty converted to Decanter’s preferred 100-point system

2020 Idée Fixe, Premier Brut Blanc de Blancs, Margaret River, WA | 12.5% | £36

Although Vasse Felix had made traditional method sparkling since the mid-eighties, the 2019 vintage that made last year’s Report was my staggeringly exciting introduction to this wine. It took no more than a nanosecond to realise that this 2020 is another exquisite wine. It reminds me of some of my favourite Côte des Blancs classics with brittle, long, gleamingly fresh Chardonnay fruit and discreet moments of tenderness along its path.  95/100

2022 Berton Vineyard, Winemaker’s Reserve Vermentino, Riverland, NSW | 12.5% | £13

The Berton family is famous for crafting stunningly priced treats, and this Robin Hood mentality has served them well. With a near-tropical nose, a sleek, saline-tinged palate and a crisp, pointy finish, the flavour puts my palate on a yacht in the Med instead of a rib in the Gulf of St Vincent. This is a genuinely accurate, delicious and insanely well-balanced wine.  93/100

2022 Tyrrell’s, Hunter Valley Semillon, Hunter Valley, NSW | 11% | £22

After just one sip, the grandeur here is apparent. While this is a youthful wine, there is incredible perfume, flavour intensity, and a super-refined finish.  It is drinking, but it will outrun many other innocent Semillons by a mile. I was immediately hypnotised by the sleek, super-cool lemon balm and white flower hints and minutes long finish.  It’s a stunning wine made by a world class winery.  95/100

2021 Jim Barry, The Florita Riesling, Clare Valley, SA | 12% | £32

2021 Florita is tense and focused with gleamingly bright, laser-sighted Riesling purity and an acid-soaked ninja of a finish. Every facet of a great dry Riesling is already in place, and nothing is hidden from view. Highly strung, yes, but not belligerent, this is a young wine that you feel not a trace of guilt for opening five minutes after the delivery driver has dropped off a case at your door.  96/100

2022 Laissez Faire by Larry Cherubino, Field Blend, Pemberton, WA | 12.5% | £23

This year, I have not enjoyed any complex white blend more than this wine. The Laissez Faire wine label is a hands-off, ‘let it be’ collection, and these wines are among the most intellectually pleasing and deeply rewarding in the country. Made from Pinot Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Gris and seeing some skin contact and six months in French oak, this wine is total class.  96/100

2022 Silver Lining, Chardonnay, Adelaide Hills, SA | 13% | £20

Marty Edwards is a consummate expert at fine-tuning his wines.  This Chardonnay occupies more head-scratching and consternation than a chess grandmaster limbering up for a world tournament.  Inside each bottle is a kaleidoscopic array of components, each bringing its own character and timbre to proceedings. The result is that it flows seamlessly and harmoniously across the palate, maintaining perfect pitch throughout.  95/100

2021 Shaw + Smith, M3 Chardonnay, Adelaide Hills, SA | 13% | £35

‘21 M3 is tremendous, the equal of any past wine and perhaps even finer than some of the quieter wines for which I held a bright candle.  It is edgy, lime-pith-imbued, generous as it billows on the palate, and enticingly oaked. It is impressively light to the touch, but a firm and controlled spine brings rigidity and discipline, allowing the more transient and less serious flesh notes to fly without constraint.  95/100

2020 Leeuwin Estate, Art Series Chardonnay, Margaret River, WA | 13.5% | £93

This vintage is a triumph with typically firm fruit surrounded by a rigid suit of armour which compresses the flanks and ratchets up the drama. This adds immeasurable length to the flavour without any diminuendo in power or persistence.  The fruit is cradled with beautiful blonde oak and shot through with sublime pith and herb details, and these allow the flavours to transcend expectation.  98/100

2022 Paringa, Peninsula Pinot Noir, Mornington Peninsula, Vic | 13% | £27

Bright, crisp, tangy and black fruited, yes black(!), this is a delicious, lively and deceptively powerful wine. It has the same shape, style and minerality of a modern Monthelie Rouge, and it is crammed with herbs, spices and a fair old dollop of flashy oak. Peninsula still represents some of the most compelling value for money in the world if you are, like me, obsessed with the Pinot Noir grape.  95/100

2020 By Farr, RP Côte Vineyard Pinot Noir, Geelong, Vic | 13.5% | £92

Taken from the famous Côte Vineyard, ‘Robyn Pamela’ is treated to around half the crop being destemmed and half the wine being matured in new Allier oak barrels.  This is my favourite RP vintage I have tasted, and only a couple of Aussie Pinots manage to engender the richness, intensity, gravitas and flair that this wine seemingly summons with ease. Texturally, it seems richer and more succulent than any Aussie Pinot I can think of.  96/100

2019 Wynns Coonawarra Estate, Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon, Coonawarra, SA | 13.8% | £30

2019 Black Label, the 64th vintage of this wine. Everything about this wine is magnificent. It is desperately classy and much more grand, seasoned and noble than expected. Bygone vintages have tended to err on the muscular side of the tracks, but not anymore. This is a thoroughly civilised Cabernet with a finely tuned alcohol level, expressive, refreshing fruit and a heroically long finish.  95/100

2019 Yalumba, The Signature Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz, Barossa, SA | 14.5% | £45

This elegant, compact The Great Australian Red blend of Cabernet and Shiraz rolls on and on for minutes.  All the energies and complexities have been captured, and instead of being released in a firework explosion of flavour, they rumble like distant thunder, building and growing on the palate, teasing and attenuating the flavour seemingly without end.  It is nothing short of spectacular.  96/100

2022 Alkina, Kin Grenache, Barossa Valley, SA | 13.8% | £25

Kin is a blend of four parcels of Grenache and approximately 70% whole bunches are included in the ferment.  This wine slams the door shut on any pretence at fruitiness, preferring to walk a tense and tortured line on the finish. It has the same dramatic tension as a brittle, energetic, dry Riesling and it raises the bar for Grenache higher than any other wine this year.  95/100

2021 Willunga 100, Smart Vineyard Clarendon Grenache, McLaren Vale, SA | 14.5% | £28

2021 Smart Vineyard shows a fabulously expansive, open and floral nose, and then it straightens up on the palate, showing formality and decorum. Classy and elegant, it would be lazy to compare this wine to a Pinot, as I have done in the past, because Pinot cannot match the effortless beauty of this Grenache on the nose and then follow this gentleness with bare-knuckle tension and threatening acidity.  95/100

2021 Cullen, Mangan East Block, Wilyabrup, Margaret River, WA | 13.5% | £44

East Block is a 59% Malbec to 41% Petit Verdot creation, which sees a punchy 40% new oak for seven months, and the result is a truly arresting wine with serious complexity and amazing weight. It is light and yet full, with purple and black-hued notes that are both welcoming and tangy, but they stop short of sourness, and this means that even at this young age, you can crack on with this wine.  95/100

2021 Swinney, Farvie Mourvèdre, Frankland River, WA | 14% | £99

The nose is simply terrific, mobbed with mulberries, cloves, plums and wild cherries, and then, at once, without warning, you are in an elevator plummeting down below ground where you find ironstone, gravel, bitterness, smokiness and raw meaty malevolence. This is a spectacular wine with drama and dynamism, and it takes over the senses and guides you through its chapters of flavour.  98/100

2021 Mount Langi Ghiran, Billi Billi Shiraz, Vic | 14% | £16

’21 Billi Billi is an incredible Shiraz with sour, peppery and amazingly aromatic fruit with a green peppercorn note atop ridiculously ripe fruit.  Crunchy tannins form the perfect platform on which the glorious blackberry, liquorice, rhubarb, and cherry notes cavort.  70% of this wine is estate fruit, so that goes some way to answering why this wine has such an elite flavour.  93/100

2020 Torbreck, Descendant, Barossa Valley, SA | 15% | £90

2020 Descendant is gobsmacking.  A raptor on nose and palate, locking on without a moment’s hesitation, there is an insane iodine and black fruit perfume here that conjures up images of the most dementedly talented parfumier going to work with the rarest musks and scents imaginable.  The sense of heady Balkan tobacco alone is hypnotic.  I have waited a long time for this wine to move from a ‘high-gold’ level to perfection, and this graduation happened in one fell swoop in 2020.  100/100

2020 De Bortoli, Noble One Botrytis Semillon, Riverina, NSW | 9% | £20 half bottle

Noble One is a legendary Botrytised Semillon and when you consider its value for money, it is at the top of the pile. I am lucky to have tasted every vintage of this wine back to the inaugural 1982, and this 2020 is up there with the very best. The opulent orange blossom and honey-soaked palate is perfectly balanced by crisp acidity on the finish keeping it keen and classy.  96/100

NV Campbells, Grand Muscat, Rutherglen, Vic | 17.5% | £56 half bottle

I wrote the word ‘heroic’ in my notes when I tasted this wine earlier in the year, and I am sure I was talking about the wine as opposed to how it made me feel, but there is a strong chance it was both because this is one of the world’s most profound fortified wines.  Intense, bafflingly complex and stunningly balanced, this is near-perfect in every sense.  98/100


I have mentioned that some things never change and that the signs were there many years ago for trendy hooks that appear to be recent phenomena, like cool climate wines, the emergence of Grenache as an elite wine style, Pinot Noir coming of age, old vines earning the respect they deserve and, Australian Chardonnay finally being recognised as every bit as refined and even more long-lived than the most famous examples overseas. So, what are the real threads that are genuinely new and exciting? I can safely say that I never fell for the so-called natural or low-fi wines that temporarily distracted many retailers and restaurateurs, and unsuspecting consumers, over the years. I think that most of these wines have cleaned up their act, realising that hands-off winemaking only makes sense if customers genuinely enjoy the wines and come back for more. I have tasted a large number of wines recently that, in the past, I would have dismissed as faulty and unpleasant, but which today taste dynamic, clean, detailed and accurate. These wines often employ little oak, preferring to focus on their authenticity, purity and openness. Australia leads the way with this new style of bright and professional ‘natural’ wine. I was in West Australia recently when a wine buyer who was a chest-thumping natural wine acolyte back in the day, when I couldn’t stomach the wines, preaching to me how he now cannot drink murky, cidery old-style natural wines and is on a mission to spread the word about the new, clean, evocative styles that Australia makes in spades and which lead the world.