The Top 12 Australian Wines of 2020
My Top 12 Australian Wines of 2020 is not a curated list, but simply the pinnacle of my top-scoring wines of the year. The final line up provides a fascinating insight into Australia’s benchmark styles on the world stage right now: four cabernet blends, four shiraz, two chardonnay, one riesling and one sparkling shiraz. For the first time this year, I’ve included my Top 10 Runners Up, rightfully adding a cabernet shiraz blend and a Tasmanian sparkling to the line up.
Henschke Hill of Grace 2015
$865 | Eden Valley | 14.5% alcohol | Screw Cap
My Australian Wine of the Year 2020 is Henschke Hill of Grace 2015. I have awaited the 58th release of Hill of Grace with great anticipation, ever since arriving at the vineyard half an hour before dawn, amidst gentle mist and the soft light of the full moon on the day of harvest, a week before Easter. The fruit tasted textbook perfect that day, as it did six months later from barrel, when Stephen Henschke quietly declared it ‘one of those fairy-tale vintages that comes around every 10 or 20 years.’ A record-breaking coolest January in 11 years and a mild autumn gave birth to a Hill of Grace of particular elegance. Its greatness is declared not in depth of colour or might of flavour. A medium, perfectly penetrable red more akin to pinot noir than Barossa shiraz unashamedly declares its restraint. The inimitable fragrance and spice of this hallowed place is stamped with greater clarity and fragrance than ever in 2015. It is the signature of Hill of Grace, brimming bountifully with Chinese five spice, pot pourri, rose hip, sage, white pepper, blueberries and dark chocolate. Every detail is laced together eloquently with velvet fine tannins of a suppleness only possible from vines of such commanding maturity, yet with an endurance that will propel it for decades. 2015 sits confidently and resolutely alongside 2010 and 2012 as the greatest expressions of the modern era of this fabled and spiritual vineyard.
Yarra Yering Dry Red Wine No 1 Yarra Valley 2018
$120 | Yarra Valley | 13.5% alcohol | Screw Cap
This blend of cabernet, merlot, malbec and petit verdot has rightfully gone down in Yarra folklore over the past 51 years, a beacon and inspiration for what is unquestionably the region’s benchmark style. Sarah Crowe and her team have elevated 2018 to rank among the greats, a seamless and thrilling union of fragrance, energy, polish and poise, sealed with the ultimate line and length. Breathtaking.
Penfolds Yattarna Bin 144 Chardonnay 2018
$175 | South-Eastern Australia | 13% alcohol | Screw Cap
In these days of championing single region, exclusive vineyard and artisan maker, blends are too often derided, yet it remains that in the most dextrous of hands, a far-flung composition is capable of producing the finest result. Long overshadowed by the fanfare of the lauded parade of Penfolds reds, Kym Schroeter has been integral to the Penfolds team for 34 years, and has spent the second half of his time establishing himself as one of Australia’s geniuses of chardonnay. Yattarna 2018 is an exemplar of his craft and nothing short of his finest wine yet. Never have I tasted an Australian chardonnay that so intimately unites three very diverse regions, that envelops oak so seamlessly into its folds (and 60% new, no less), and that holds every nuance of lifted fragrance, pristine white fruits and tense, crystalline yet somehow calm Tasmanian acidity in suspended animation on a finish of astonishing line and length. In precision and poise, this is utterly breathtaking chardonnay. Yattarna 2018 not only surpasses the profound 2012 as the greatest white wine I have ever tasted from Penfolds, it’s one of the very finest ever conceived in this country.
Vasse Felix Tom Cullity Cabernet Sauvignon Malbec 2016
$180 | Margaret River | 14.2 % alcohol | Screw Cap
The fragrance of cabernet and the savoury detail of malbec unite to distinguished effect in this long-ripening season, giving birth to one of the greatest blends in the lauded history this legendary estate. Intricately scaffolded, with ethereal fruit, enduring, powder-fine tannins and sensitive oak interlocking seamlessly, this is a masterfully crafted creation. It is impeccably polished from the outset, yet possessing staggering longevity. Kudos, Virginia Willcock.
Yarra Yering Carrodus Cabernet Sauvignon Yarra Valley 2018
$275 | Yarra Valley | 13% alcohol | Screw Cap
There is no doubt in my mind that cabernet is the true hero of the Yarra, and this wine perhaps more than any other is evidence that it does not always rely on the presence of its Bordeaux varietal friends to achieve dizzying greatness. The finest parcel of the Yarra Yering vineyard carries profound grace and medium-bodied brilliance. Fragrant lift. Textbook ripeness. Fine-boned poise. Epic carry. Undeviating line. Patience.
Penfolds Grange Bin 95 2016
$950 | South Australia | 14.5% alcohol | Cork
2016 represents another standout in the fabled lineage of Grange, a season in which unbridled power meets consummate polish, an exemplar of the impeccable balance that defines modern Grange, yet infused with all of the enduring potential that its legacy embodies. The bombastic concentration and deeply characterful personality of Grange is something to behold, set apart from the outset by its potent and impenetrable black robe, intense even by Penfolds standards. The depth of fruit showcased here is profound, with spicy, glossy black fruits of all kinds rightfully holding prime position. Dark chocolate and coffee American oak is as confident as ever, yet holds its place impeccably at every moment, always just behind the fruit. All the complexity that we expect of Grange is bundled into its folds in coal dust, black olives and crushed ants – though these, too, sit eloquently under the surface. Exquisite tannins of fine-grained, mouth-consuming presence are never assertive, promising longevity of true Grange proportions. A monumental and worthy benchmark of South Australian shiraz.
Seppelt St Peters Exceptional Vineyard Grampians Shiraz 2018
$80 | Grampians | 14 % alcohol | Screw Cap
It’s not its commanding, black power that sets this apart as a grand expression of St Peters, nor its seductive, fragrant, five spice and pepper-laden personality, nor even the effortless, supple, silky tannins of these fabled old vines, but rather the consummate and seamless manner in which it effortlessly unites these three universes to monumental effect. World class.
Grosset Gaia Cabernet Sauvignon Cabernet Franc 2017
$89 | Clare Valley | 13.7 % alcohol | Screw Cap | 9000 bottles
There is a grace, an effortless confidence and a refinement exuded by Gaia, and it is particularly exemplified in the cool 2017 season. This high, bony, exposed site nurtures cabernet of crunchy pop, perfumed fragrance and small-berry concentration. Exactingly crafted as only the legendary Jeffrey Grosset can do, this is a release of stunning harmony, delightfully integrated acidity and tannins at once paper fine and yet enduringly confident. In line and length, it is unfaltering for minutes. This is the essence of cabernet and evidence that Grosset is king of more than just riesling. I am continually astounded by the pinpoint accuracy of his wines. His inimitable signature is becoming ever more pronounced with each passing vintage. And somehow, ironically, as his own hand becomes ever more defined, it serves to highlight the detail of his terroirs and seasons with ever more dramatic clarity.
Oakridge 864 Single Block Release Yarra Valley Chardonnay Aqueduct Block Henk Vineyard 2018
$90 | Yarra Valley | 13.5 % alcohol | Screw Cap
The flagship of one of the country’s most celebrated chardonnay geniuses, this is a sensational take on the Upper Yarra. A pale straw hue announces a benchmark vintage, uniting epic tension with concentration, impeccably and seamlessly fusing crunchy citrus and white peach fruit with magnificent struck flint reduction, enveloping 20% new oak into its folds. Length and line are profound, riding on crystalline acidity. Another brilliant rendition from the great Dave Bicknell.
Seppelt Show Sparkling Limited Release Shiraz 2008
$100 | Great Western | 13.6 % alcohol | Crown seal
Seppelt Show is the most legendary of Australian sparkling reds, uniting exacting terroir expression, grand maturity and breathtaking longevity like no other. The medium-bodied black cherry and black plum fruit of the fabled Seppelt Great Western Vineyard is bathed in signature, super fine black pepper, and subtly accented by the dark chocolate and game complexity of 14 months in large oak vats and a further seven years on lees in bottle. As it opens in the glass, its fruit lifts and its secondary complexity shrinks into the background. The inimitable tannin mesh of this site is something to behold, powder fine in texture and enticing, yet upholding a confidence that will sustain it in the cellar for half a century. A creamy bead and intimately harmonised dosage completes another masterfully crafted release. It is monumentally complex, yet at every moment exactingly medium-bodied and elegant, with line of undeterred focus and length that hovers in suspended animation for minutes. With a heritage of more than 120 years, this remains the pinnacle of Australian sparkling, and it will outlive all others.
Peter Lehmann Wines Stonewell Shiraz Barossa 2013
$100 | Barossa Valley | 14.5 % alcohol | Screw Cap
If you adore Stonewell (as I do), you’ll relish this release. It epitomises the inherent contrast in this label to unite profound depth and concentration with the structure and endurance that screams out for decades in the cellar. It’s dark yet vibrant, packed with black fruits, yet never blowsy, framed unashamedly in French oak (hogsheads for 15 months), yet in no way woody. In fruit integrity, engineering, line and length, this is Barossa shiraz of the highest order, and all it asks for is another two decades to show its true potential. Kudos to its creators, Wigs and Honky!
Grosset G110 Clare Valley Riesling 2019
$105 | Clare Valley | 12.8% alcohol | Screw Cap
Just when we were all convinced that there was nothing more that the uber-fanatical Jeffrey Grosset could possibly do to make riesling of any more profound distinction, he has gone and honed his regime to an all new level of molecular detail. As the story goes, after 40 years of fermenting riesling clones separately, one consistently stood out as more concentrated, more persistent and less fruity. It was his daughter Georgie who suggested that they trial bottling individual clones (hence ‘G’ in the name), and only 1100 bottles of this, the best clone, were produced. The result is a riesling like nothing I have tasted from Australia. A singularity of just one clone from one plot, yet more exuberantly concentrated, more generously luscious, more exotically spicy, more emphatically persistent, more euphorically alluring. It immediately transported me to the fabled Ürziger Würzgarten in the Mosel (perhaps the red soil link and its inherent spicy exoticism?). G110 is every bit as emphatically distinct to Polish Hill and Spring Vale as Ürziger Würzgarten is to Wehlener Sonnenuhr and Bernkasteler Lay. And it is every bit as mesmerising as them all. Its fragrant, spice-laden generosity spans the full expanse of fruit spectrum from apple and pear to stone fruits and citrus, packed with all of the breadth of its dry, low-yielding season, enlivened magnificently with crystalline acidity and salty minerality. This mineral signature is a world away from the slate of Polish Hill and the limestone of Springvale. In line and length, G110 takes Australian riesling to hitherto unknown heights. And for all it represents, it’s a bargain, too. Kudos Jeff – and Georgie. Respect.
The Top 12 Runners Up
Xanadu Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2017
$110 | Margaret River | 14 % alcohol | Screw Cap
Glenn Goodall and his team have elevated Xanadu to a lofty rank among the greatest estates in the country, and Reserve Cabernet is his crowning achievement this year. A 5% dribble of malbec lends its characteristic savoury voice to a core of cabernet sauvignon of crunchy, black-fruited poise. Engineered for the long-haul, this is a wine that unites oak and fruit seamlessly yet confidently, with firm, fine tannins weaved together in an impenetrable mesh that will sustain it long indeed. A cool, slow ripening season has infused effortless integrity, graceful harmony, and exciting promise.
Xanadu Reserve Chardonnay 2018
$110 | Margaret River | 13% alcohol | Screw Cap
Xanadu’s original Lagan vineyard is a thrilling high point for Margaret River chardonnay, and the vintage that Glenn Goodall describes as a ‘near perfect’ season in Margaret River continues a breathtaking legacy of tightly coiled precision and monumental potential. More distinct than ever by comparison with its sibling Steven’s Road, this is a release that unashamedly celebrates the full tension of malic acidity and streamlined lemon and white peach fruit. Even though there’s a little more new oak here (30%) compared with Steven’s Road, it sits quietly and confidently behind its energetic fruit. In line and length, a true sensation, destined for an exceedingly long life indeed.
Penfolds Reserve Bin 19A Adelaide Hills Chardonnay 2019
$125 | Adelaide Hills | 13% alcohol | Screw Cap
The transparency of chardonnay to articulately convey its terroir is remarkable, and this wine tells the intricate story of the Adelaide Hill’s hot summer and mild autumn of 2019. There is a generosity and a determined reservation communicated in aromatic reluctance, ultimately emerging a day after opening, charged with all the tension of cool autumn nights. Maker Kym Schroeter considers 2019 to be up with 2017 as a cracking vintage for good sulphides in the Adelaide Hills. This struck flint reduction that we adore in Bin A wafts gracefully over a core of precise lemon, grapefruit and white peach, leaping forth triumphantly on the front and coasting into a long tail of beautifully poised acidity, backed with masterfully deployed, high-class cashew nut French oak. Another great hit in the grand legacy of Bin A.
Moss Wood Cabernet Sauvignon 2017
$128 | Margaret River | 14% alcohol | Screw Cap
Moss Wood is in a very confident place right now, and its flagship is singing like I haven’t seen in years. It’s at once ethereally fragrant, emiently fine-boned and unashamedly medium-bodied, yet simultaneously deep and rich in its exemplary black fruit expression. I have not always adored Moss Wood, but, by goodness, I do now. This is one of the greats.
Clonakilla T&L Vineyard Block One 2018
$130 | Murrumbateman | 14 % alcohol | Screw Cap
Another monumental release from the lower half of my favourite block on the Clonakilla vineyard, naturally fermented with 6% viognier and 35% whole bunches. It’s effortlessly floral, profoundly spice-laden and deliciously black fruited, underscored by ultra-fine, mineral tannins that lay the framework for an immense finish. Tim Kirk has done it again.
Ox Hardy Upper Tintara Vineyard 1891 Ancestor Vines McLaren Vale Shiraz 2010
$225 | McLaren Vale | 14.5 % alcohol | Screw Cap
In the making since 1861, one of the legendary stories of Australian wine history has been reborn. I suspect we hvae not seen a new release of such pedigree, such depth of history and such sheer and effortless magnificence since the very launch of Hill of Grace itself in 1958. Magnificently bright colour. Deep spice meets ethereal perfume, silky fine tannin structure and layers of berry compote, blue fruits and high cocoa dark chocolate. A silky and graceful old vine shiraz, yet with the structural confidence of ironstone tannins. It showcases the most gentle winemaking touch. The length is ethereal, hovering undeterred for minutes.
Yarra Yering Carrodus Shiraz Yarra Valley 2018
$275 | Yarra Valley | 14 % alcohol | Screw Cap
There is something quite cerebral about this release, exemplifying the wonderful ability of the Yarra to nurture shiraz of tremendous depth and magnitude, yet never departing its medium-bodied frame. Deep satsuma plum, liquorice and dark chocolate are bathed in a wave of spice and herbs. Exactingly ripe, magnificently persistent and impeccably structured with powder-fine, enduring tannins, Dr Bailey would be proud indeed.
Yalumba The Caley Coonawarra & Barossa Cabernet & Shiraz 2015
$365 | South Australia | 14 % alcohol | Cork
The reincarnation of the Coonawarra/Barossa blends of Yalumba of a half-century ago, lifted by a modern refinement and precision that defines a breathtakingly fragrant style. The great 2015 season has built a magnificently scaffolded Caley engineered for the long-haul in the true legacy of the great Australian blend. It’s classic and medium-bodied in every way, led triumphantly by Menzies vineyard Coonawarra cabernet (74%) of exquisite redcurrant and blackcurrant definition and fragrant rose petal perfume, impeccably and seamlessly encased in the spice of Barossa shiraz (mostly 1901 plantings) and the chassis of top-class French oak (46% new barriques). For a Coonawarra site of higher clay content, the mineral finesse of its super fine tannins is profound, carrying a finish of honed precision and incredible carry.
Henschke Hill of Roses Eden Valley Shiraz 2015
$390 | Eden Valley | 14.5 % alcohol | Vino Lok
Hill of Roses is young vine (currently 27 years old) Hill of Grace and 2015 is infused with all of the fragrant floral perfume and exotic Chinese five spice that denotes this legendary place. An effortless core of red fruits is underscored by finely textured tannins and impeccably supported by dark chocolate oak. With outstanding line and length, this goes down as the greatest Hill of Roses yet, and must surely leave Stephen Henschke pondering how soon these vines might graduate to the big boy.
House of Arras EJ Carr Late Disgorged Méthode Traditionnelle en magnum 2004
$399 | Tasmania | 12.4 % alcohol | Cork
A breathtaking declaration of the enduring longevity of Arras in magnums, this is a cuvée of astonishing energy and tension at sixteen years of age. Still a bright, medium straw hue, it leads out with the full, fragrant confidence of chardonnay in primary wild lemon, crunchy beurre bosc pear and white peach, becoming preserved lemon and lemon butter. Age has brought layers of spice and the beginnings of toasty complexity (enhanced subtly by a little oak in the liqueur), though less so even than Arras’ current 2009 releases. Ed Carr describes 2004 as one of the years in which the stars aligned, permitting his ideal balance of two-thirds chardonnay and one-third pinot, producing a wine of enduring freshness that looks much more vibrant in magnums than in bottles (released last year). He has successfully talked the marketing team into producing more magnums recently (though it will of course be many years before these come through). The energy and focus of the finish of the 2004 are something to behold, driven by a line of immaculate, crystalline Tasmanian acidity with all of the presence and promise to sustain it for decades still. It holds undeviating line and unerring persistence in a finish at once dramatic and yet calm. A breathtaking Arras, the pinnacle of Tasmanian sparkling and one of the great sparkling wines of the world.