A surprisingly cool vintage for Australia, 2002 has resulted in elegant Rhône-style wines rather than 2001’s blockbusters. MATTHEW JUKES reports on the vintage and selects his top picks.

What a strange feeling, to be flying out of Adelaide, heading home, in March 2002, wearing a jumper and cords. The year before I could hardly breathe at vintage time, such was the oppressive heat, which made 2001 the hottest summer for eons. What a difference a year makes – so much for that lack of vintage variation in Australia’s viticultural engine room! Nobody was even picking any fruit during my three-week tour, but by all accounts, as my plane left the tarmac, the sun broke through and the coldest year on record was saved by a spectacular Indian summer.

As you’d expect, this massive difference in weather had a profound effect on the wines. I loved the powerful, muscular, showy 2001s, but as the first 2002s started to creep into the market, it was apparent that we had an exciting change of tack occurring. On the basis that this article appears in December 2004, most of the very fast-moving, £5 Australian Shirazes will have been long drunk up. However, the serious, mid-priced 2002s will be in full flow. So don’t delay, as I consider 2002 sub-tenner Aussie Shiraz as one of the strongest red categories in the wine world. The top-flight wines that I have chosen for my Top 20 are a mixture of barrel samples and very early sneak previews which have been sent over for me to taste from Australia. What follows is a rundown of my favourite wines.

My advice is to get in quick – as this is a very serious vintage indeed, and one that will undoubtedly appeal to lovers of New and Old World wines alike, as the balance, complexity and age-worthiness in the very best wines is truly extraordinary.

2002: facts & figures

2002 was a record harvest, with 1.65 million tonnes crushed, 19% up on 2001. Red wine represented 58% of this haul, a huge turnaround from four years earlier, when red grapes represented only 38% of the crop. Shiraz was up by 43% to 445,000 tonnes, which equates to a quarter of the total harvest – a result of intensive planting in the late 1990s. This was a low-rainfall, cool vintage, with a late harvest which, thanks to a gorgeous autumn in some regions, resulted in very high quality. In some cases it was too cool for full ripeness – a fact that may sound surprising for Australia.

Regional guide

(best to worst)

South Australia

Adelaide Hills suffered a very cool vintage – perfect for Sauvignon Blanc and top Chardonnay, but not for Shiraz. There are some very nice reds, but not too many. With the coolest summer on record and a poor fruit set, Clare harvested a month late in many cases and in turn pulled in one of the most amazing vintages in decades (exceptional in both reds and Riesling); 2002 is a phenomenal vintage in Clare. Barossa and Eden also had very good harvests. Shiraz from here is touted as the best since the monumental 1998 harvest – and there is no doubt the wines will have finer tannins and more elegance than this brawny vintage. McLaren Vale and the Fleurieu Peninsula also suffered reduced yields and a late harvest, but all-round quality was excellent. In the Limestone Coast, Coonawarra had a much smaller harvest and had to work to make a tiny amount of good wine – interestingly Shiraz generally fared better than Cabernet. Wrattonbully did marginally better in volume terms. The Riverland had one of the best vintages on record – lots of first-class fruit with surprisingly serious complexity (the trouble was finding a home for it).

Victoria

In Northwest Victoria, Murray Darling and Swan Hill did well, with good intensity and depth of fruit in the reds. Northeastern Victoria was cool and rainy, but everything came out in fine fettle – whites look superb. Central Victoria’s Bendigo, Nagambie Lakes, Heathcote and Goulburn Valley also experienced tiny yields, but came out with epic reds, full of great acidity and intensity – some of the best and potentially long lived I’ve seen from this part of Victoria. Great Western, Pyrenees and the Grampians had a very late harvest, too, with minuscule yields, but stunning results. Further south things were more tricky. Geelong, Macedon and Mornington Peninsula seem to have suffered more than Sunbury and the Yarra Valley in terms of yields, but quality seems good to very good as well.

New South Wales

Most regions were down in volume, due to frost and rain, except for Riverina, which soared away with a 40–50% increase in yields and good quality throughout. Most of the smaller (and arguably finer) regions are down. Canberra, Gundagai, Hilltops and Tumbarumba all fared well, with lower yields, but good-quality fruit. Cowra, Orange and Mudgee also did very well despite the usual struggles with the elements.

Hunter Valley had another of its famous roller-coaster vintages, punctuated with heavy rainfall, but still managed to come in with some very good Shiraz. Up north Hastings River had a cracker, as did Queensland’s Granite Belt and South Burnett regions.

Western Australia

WA’s reds in 2002 are characterised by spicier notes and herbal tinges, as you’d expect in a cooler vintage. It seems crass to lump Margaret River, Frankland River, Pemberton et al in the same camp, but in my opinion, the reliable, well-established, experienced estates have come up trumps, while the rest will have to make do with producing earlier-drinking, lighter reds.

Tasmania

I have seen some fabulous, juicy 2002 Pinot Noirs, but Tassie Shiraz has yet to rock the world and it probably won’t for the foreseeable future.

Matthew Jukes is the author of The Wine List 2005 (£7.99, Headline). For the latest harvest reports on 2004 in Europe and California, visit www.decanter.com.

Top 20 of 2002

SHIRAZ

Dalwhinnie, Shiraz, Moonambel, Pyrenees, Victoria

It is a travesty that this wine is not actively sold and lovingly treasured in the UK. Every element of this bottle is astounding – super-smooth, velvety plum, cherry, blackcurrant, dark chocolate, tar and briar flavours, dusted with sooty tannins and topped with a never-ending finish. What is amazing is that this concentration and texture has all come at only 13% alcohol. 2006–2015. N/A UK; (+61 354 672 388)

Clonakilla, Shiraz-Viognier, Canberra, New South Wales

The first of the big names to perfect the northern Rhône recipe in Australia, this Shiraz-Viognier blend is right up here with the mind-blowing 1998, and I think it will age even more gracefully. 2006–2012.

£29.95; ACh, Ben, MoV, P&S, Vll, Wrt, You

Craiglee, Shiraz, Sunbury, Victoria

(Barrel sample, due in the UK in spring 2005)

The cool 2002 vintage is tailor-made for Pat Carmody’s Cornas-like Shiraz. The pepper and black fruit, combined with respectfully low levels of new oak make this a sensational wine. Fewer than 1,000 cases were produced, so don’t delay. 2006–2012. £17.50, Ben, Sel

Fox Gordon, Eight Uncles, Shiraz, Barossa Valley, South Australia

Made by Natasha Mooney, the extraordinarily talented winemaker who made my favourite vintages of E&E Black Pepper Shiraz, this is a textured, triumphant, benchmark (but modern) Barossa Shiraz. 2005–2010. £12.49; Odd, VdV

Jim Barry Wines, The Armagh, Shiraz, Clare Valley, South Australia

Not a ‘classic’, muscle-bound Armagh, but an open, blueberry, blackberry and sweet and sour oak style, with layers and layers of fruit, but thankfully no bullying tannins. A refreshing reflection of the vintage, and a wonderful, relaxed, collector’s item Armagh. 2007–2015. £49.99; Har, Hnd, Maj, P&S, Rbs, Sel, Tan, You

Keith Tulloch, Kester, Shiraz, Hunter Valley, New South Wales

(Tank sample prior to bottling) With lower alcohol (13.8%) but more intensity than the imposing 2001, this is a very clever wine indeed. Ripe, dark, vibrant and spicy, this is my favourite vintage of Kester to date. Sadly only 650 cases were made – this is gold dust. 2007–2012. £18.95; Bal, Hsl, VdV

Leasingham Wines, Classic Clare Shiraz, Clare Valley,

South Australia

With the 2001 arriving in early 2005, you’ll have to hang on for this wine a little longer, but it is well worth the wait. A stunning, pungently peppery nose, with dense, dark fruit and a lovely sweet core, this is not overly Australian, but is a model Clare Shiraz – it couldn’t be better named! 2006–2012. £20.99; P&R, P&S

Mount Langi Ghiran, Shiraz, Mount Ararat, Victoria

What a brilliant nose. This is a deep, spicy, unctuous wine, loaded with pepper and spices and harbouring a very dark, intense core of fruit. This will be utterly brilliant if you have the patience. 2007–2015.

£19.95; ACh, Ben, Dnl, MoV, P&S

Tim Adams, Aberfeldy, Shiraz, Clare Valley, South Australia

Aberfeldy is always a muscular, belligerent wine in its youth, but in 2002 it has surprising control and, dare I say it, a degree of finesse, too. Coming from 98-year-old vines, this is a very special creation and my highest scoring Aberfeldy to date. 2008–2018. £23; AWC, OzW

Torbreck, Struie, Shiraz, Barossa Valley, South Australia

Flamboyant and typically showy, with black olive, balsamic, cracked pepper and masses of blackcurrant coulis fruit flavours, this is another crowd-pleaser from Dave Powell’s impressive stable of wines. Up to 2010. £17; F&M, Har

Tyrrell’s, Rufus Stone, Heathcote Shiraz, Victoria

Superb, savoury and brilliantly balanced despite its imposing size, this is the most impressive Tyrrell’s Heathcote Shiraz for ages. Winemaker Andrew ‘Spin’ Spinaze kept Rufus’ feet on the floor, and the result is amazing. 2006–2012. £12.99; MHl, Odd, Sel, VtH

Ulithorne, Frux Frugis, Shiraz, McLaren Vale, South Australia

Even more impressive than the celestial 2001, this finely tuned, heavenly Shiraz is every inch a heroic wine. There are cult wines and pretenders to the throne and this is the real deal. Up to 2012. £21.99; Odd

Brokenwood, Rayners, Shiraz, McLaren Vale, South Australia

Intensely spicy and livid purple in colour, this is a luxuriously textured wine with fresh tannins and lovely depth. Not overblown, this is another modern wine with respect for balance and complexity. Up to 2010.

£28.95; Ben, V&C, You

Eldredge Wines, Blue Chip, Shiraz, Clare Valley, South Australia

With atypical density and Barossa-like power, this is a super-ripe wine that is just balanced by salty bacon nuances and crisp tannins. Dark chocolate, black olive and plum fruit all queue up, and make this a very complex creature indeed. Up to 2009. £14.50; Win

Jim Barry Wines, McRae Wood, Shiraz, Clare Valley, South Australia

Dark, brooding and intense, McRae has

tight, grainy tannins and despite its forward nose, requires some time to even out. It will be a heavenly wine given a few years. 2006–2012. £14.99; F&M, Har, Hen, P&S, Pip, Rbs, Res, SHJ, Wmb

Mitchelton, Shiraz, Central Victoria

Selling for a mere Au$20 down under, this stunning Shiraz was the highest scoring wine in my notes from the current Mitchelton portfolio, even eclipsing super cuvée 2002 Parish with its trendy dollop of Viognier!

Up to 2009. £8.69; Bib (due early 2005)

Peter Lehmann, The Futures, Shiraz, Barossa Valley, South Australia

A finer, classier, highly tuned version of the inaugural 2001 vintage. The Futures is very grown-up wine, with an affordable price tag. 2006–2012. £11.99; Adn, Bth, Odd, VdV

Two Hands, Lily’s Garden, Shiraz, McLaren Vale, South Australia

Lacking the elegance of Frux Frugis, this is a brazen, full-on, turbo-charged McLaren

Vale Shiraz and it is guaranteed to impress heavyweight wine lovers. 2006–2012.

£22–25; Hnd, Nid, P&S, VdV

Yarra Burn, Shiraz-Viognier, Yarra Valley, Victoria, Australia

Yarra Burn’s ‘new wave’ blend is not only one of the cheapest of its kind in the UK, but it is also one of the best – fantastic, glossy, blackberry fruit with an alluring nose and juicy finish – phenomenal value. Up to 2008. £7.99; P&S

Yering Station, Shiraz-Viognier Reserve, Yarra Valley Victoria

Flashy and unashamedly a headline grabber, Yering’s flagship red is nevertheless a clever wine with sumptuous fruit and an alluring aromatic nose. Yering will, no doubt, perfect the recipe next year! Up to 2010. £26.50; WoL

Written by Matthew Jukes