Australia's white wine scene is a hotbed of quality, and very much on the up. The country's foremost wine communicator, Huon Hooke surveys new and established wineries, large and small, to name his top estates. As published in the Decanter July 2012 issue.
The mere idea of selecting my top 10 Australian white producers is almost an insult to the next 10 – no, the next 50 – in line. I could easily have picked all 10 from purveyors of Hunter Valley Semillon, or Yarra Valley Chardonnay. The important thing was to find a balance between big and small, old and new, varietal specialisations and regions.
If I’d done this 80 years ago, Yalumba would again have figured – but as a master of Riesling. Otherwise, the map has changed beyond recognition. Chardonnay, almost unknown 35 years ago, is now one of Australia’s greatest strengths. Semillon, always a strong suit, is better than ever before, and while it’s a hard sell, its makers and drinkers are ever more passionate.
And there’s a panoply of ‘new’ grapes: Viognier, Pinot Gris, Fiano, Arneis, Vermentino, Roussanne, Gruner Veltliner, Friulano, Greco, Garganega, Grenache Blanc, even Bianco d’Alessano.
Improvement in Aussie whites isn’t limited to the variety: site selection and choice of winemaking technique ensures we have an increasingly fascinating menu from which to drink.
Written by Huon Hooke
Bindi Wine Growers
Bindi Wine Growers
Macedon Ranges, Victoria
Few Australians come closer to the Burgundy model of the vigneron than Michael Dhillon of Bindi (pictured). Working entirely with a single, 6ha (hectare), cool-climate vineyard, Dhillon crafts spectacularly refined, delicate, compact and multi-layered Chardonnays (and Pinot Noirs) of great precision. There are two Chardonnays. Composition is the second-rung wine – lesser in price only – while Quartz is, as the name suggests, from a single block of vines on particularly quartz-rich soil (though rich is the wrong word – these gold-bearing soils are very low in fertility and grape yields are paltry). Quartz is a spine-tingling wine of great purity and intensity, line and focus. These wines are rare but thrilling, and destined for greatness. If they weren’t so scarce, they would be household names by now. Certainly, whenever Chardonnay is discussed by the cognoscenti, Bindi is recognised as among Australia’s finest.
Bindi, Quartz Chardonnay 2010
Intense citrus aromas, fresh and clean. Bright lemon with touches of grapefruit. Very fine and taut in the mouth, intense and penetrating, with impressive power. Very persistent. More nervy, mineral and intense than the softer Composition. 19.5pts/20
Price: £57.49 Les Caves de Pyrène, Swig
Hunter Valley, New South Wales
Since this venerable family winery, under fourthgeneration proprietor Bruce Tyrrell, sold off the Long Flat brand and non-premium assets, and re-focused the portfolio on high-quality Hunter regional wines, Tyrrell’s has soared to a new high. With longstanding chief winemaker Andrew Spinaze calling the shots and running a strong team, quality is outstanding across the board, especially with white wines. The array of Semillons is breathtaking, with Vat 1 (and Museum Releases thereof) at the crown, and single-vineyard bottlings of HVD, Belford, Stevens, plus the marginally eccentric Johnno’s Basket Pressed Semillon on its tail. Chardonnay is also better than ever, with Vat 47 and Belford maintaining their position among the Hunter’s elite – finer, less oaky and less alcoholic than the wines of the past.
Tyrrell’s, Single-Vineyard HVD Semillon 2006
Fresh, crisp, youthfully fragrant aromas of freshly squeezed lemon juice. This has stacks of pure, zesty fruit on the palate. Really delicate and yet intense, it fills the mouth, dancing on the tongue and blossoming on the back palate. A truly delicious wine. 19.5pts/20
Price: £21.99 Fells
Yarra Valley, Victoria
Since David Bicknell took over as chief winemaker, quality here has soared, especially in Chardonnay, of which there are around seven each vintage. Over the Shoulder is deliciously light and fresh, barely sees wood, and is among the most slurpable examples in Australia. A rung further up on the price ladder is the estate wine, combining lightness and complexity. Next is the Local Vineyard Series (formerly ‘Lieu-dit’), with the vineyard specified – eg, Lusatia Park. The 864 is the top Chardonnay, also vineyard-named. Oakridge has been a pioneer in the move to lower alcohols and the style is delicate, subtly wooded, crisp and refreshing. And don’t miss the Limited-Release Fumé, 864 Botrytis Riesling and Over the Shoulder Pinot Grigio.
Oakridge, 864 Lusatia Park Vineyard Chardonnay 2010
Oily texture; subtle, shy aromas of toast and nut, and flavours of grapefruit which build in the mouth. Delicate yet intense, subtle and refined, with a long finish. Understated and delicious.18.5pts/20
Price: £43.99 Matthew Clark
Eden Valley, South Australia
With chief winemaker Louisa Rose (pictured) and director of winemaking Brian Walsh setting the style, Yalumba is arguably the greatest white producer in Australia, with a wide range of varieties at the top level and an unusual level of pioneering exploration. In that area, Yalumba has made Viognier its own, producing about seven each year (including an organic bottling and a stunning Wrattonbully Botrytis Viognier). The flagship wine is Virgilius (the regular Eden Valley Viognier is less worked and almost as good) and other new varieties include Running With Bulls Vermentino. But it’s Riesling that is this family company’s great strength, all grown in the Eden Valley. Pewsey Vale (and its five-year-old reserve release, The Contours) has been extended to an off-dry version, Prima. Heggies and the cellar-aged Heggies Reserve are outstanding in a more austere style, and Mesh is a justly celebrated joint venture with Grosset. Yalumba Chardonnay is less fêted but recent strides have been made with FDW Adelaide Hills (made with Dijon clones), Heggies and Heggies Reserve. Heggies also yields stunning botrytised Noble Riesling.
Yalumba, Virgilius Viognier 2009
Discreet, subtle aromas, a lick of restrained toasty oak, and spicy fruit which is complex and a far cry from one-dimensional, apricotty Viogniers. A sneaky hint of honey adds complexity. Smooth and very long finishing. Beautiful balance. Could easily take more age.18.5pts/20
Price: £24.99 AC Gallie, Harrods, Majestic, Nidderdale Fine Wine, Planet of the Grapes, Selfridges, Slurp, Taurus Wines, The Wine Society
Although putatively based in Margaret River, Howard Park has adopted a determined southerly focus for its top whites. The Burch family wine business never sleeps: there’s a bewildering array of wines and new ones are constantly being added to the range. The most surprising thing is how good they all are, and a succession of top-notch winemakers has been pivotal: Janice McDonald is in charge today, while owner Jeff Burch, whose knowledge of wine is wide and deep, plays a key role. One superb Great Southern Riesling turn deserves another: now there’s also a single subregion Porongurup Riesling that’s equally thrilling. Concurrently, the Great Southern Chardonnay has been gradually refined into a tense, nervy, spinetingling wine which invites comparison with Chablis, yet in many ways is nothing like it. The Great Southern Sauvignon Blanc is also one of the best in Australia – again, unlike Loire or Marlborough but very much its own style. The Mad Fish range, especially the Gold Turtle Chardonnay, is also worth checking out.
Howard Park, Chardonnay, Great Southern 2009
Mealy and toasted, nutty to sniff, with a lively and intensely flavoured palate that’s fresh and zippy, lively and tangy, intense and tremendously persistent. Structure is tight and fine. An outstanding Chardonnay. 19pts/20
Price: £20.85–£21.71 Bibendum, Slurp
Bay of Fires
Bay of Fires
The ex-Hardy group is undergoing profound changes under the ownership of Accolade (which bought it from Constellation in 2011) but the calibre of the wines remains extraordinary. Houghton, under Ross Pamment, makes excellent Western Australian wines, Arras is Australia’s best sparkling brand, and Eileen Hardy is a great Tasmania-based Chardonnay. Tom Newton takes the major credit for the output of the group’s central winery at McLaren Vale, along with group chief winemaker Paul Lapsley. But the most multi-faceted jewel in the crown is the group’s Bay of Fires winery in Pipers River, Tasmania. First with Fran Austin and now Peter Dredge (pictured) as chief winemaker, Bay of Fires is plumbing the true essence of Tasmania, with terroir-driven whites of real panache – Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Pinot Gris. The Pinot Gris is head and shoulders over its competitors, and more Alsace-like than most, while the Riesling is off- dry and rich. The 2011 Sauvignon has already won a major show trophy (in Sydney) and the Chardonnay is only less exciting because its excellence is less uncommon.
Bay of Fires, Sauvignon Blanc 2011
Pungent capsicum, radish, nettle and herb nose. Intense and challenging for its piercing flavour, power and aromatic lift. Not subtle but deserves its rewards.18.5pts/20
Price: N/A UK www.bayoffireswines.com.au
Margaret River, Western Australia
Vanya Cullen (pictured) and her deputy Trevor Kent push this exemplary biodynamic winery to ever-higher levels. The Chardonnay especially has acquired another level of complexity and charm in recent years. Wild primary and malolactic ferments, earlier picking and lower alcohols, sensitive usage and choice of oak and shunning of acid addition are all ingredients in the mix. The flagship white is the magnificent Kevin John Chardonnay, a true grand cru Burgundy impersonator, while the Cullen Vineyard Sauvignon-Semillon is also superb, and ages into something miraculous after 10 years. The simpler, more fruit-driven Mangan Vineyard Sauvignon-Semillon is also very good.
Cullen, Kevin John Chardonnay 2009
Tangy, edgy and lean, with a firmness and angularity. Chablis-esque: chalky, honeyed, complex and layered. Also tight, with frisky acidity. A magical wine of line, length and steely purity. 19pts/20
Price: £65 Bennett’s, Fortnum & Mason, Philglas & Swiggott, Secret Cellar, Swig, Vineking, WoodWinters
Barossa Valley, South Australia
The Penfolds team, led by Peter Gago for the past decade, has put paid to the old cliché that Penfolds is strictly a red wine company. Yattarna is firmly enthroned as one of Australia’s greatest white wines and has spawned a growing series of fine and steadily improving Chardonnays such as the Bin 311. Yattarna is a pristine, refined, high-tensile style based on the scintillating fruit flavour of Derwent Valley, southern Tasmanian grapes, while Reserve Bin is all about funky winemaking and oak supporting slightly fuller Adelaide Hills fruit. There’s a bevy of other varieties at the Cellar Reserve, Koonunga Hill and Rawson’s Retreat levels (notably Koonunga Hill Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc), while back in the so-called Luxury range there’s the super-smart Bin 51 Eden Valley Riesling, from old vines at High Eden.
Penfolds, Yattarna Chardonnay 2009
Very fine and clean aromas – it’s all about pristine fruit. The oak is not obvious, nor is winemaking overly funky, in contrast to the Reserve Bin Chardonnay. This has great delicacy and refinement, subtlety and purity of fruit. Finishes with tremendous line and length. 19pts/20
Price: £70–£85 Slurp, Treasury Wine Estates
Margaret River, Western Australia
Cullen (pictured) and Vasse Felix are an interesting Margaret River pair that invite comparisons. Both are at the top of their game, run by highly talented women and produce remarkably similar product ranges. Vasse Felix is owned by one of Australia’s top business families, the Holmes à Courts, and of late the winery has been streamlined and refocused. Chief winemaker Virginia Willcock’s powerful but elegant, complex yet clean Heytesbury Chardonnay has had a stunning run of success in wine competitions, taking out several top white wine of show awards, but the very affordable Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon has also been cleaning up the trophies. Meanwhile, the regular Vasse Chardonnay is hard to beat for value in an everyday drinking package. The Classic Dry White (Semillon- Sauvignon Blanc) is also smart stuff at a nice price. Most of the grapes come from the estate vineyards in Wilyabrup.
Vasse Felix, Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon 2010
Sauvignon Blanc-led aromas of tangy herbs, salad greens and lime juice. Tropical and minerally, with a hint of oak lending an extra boost. Delicate but intense, with abundant refined fruit, the merest tinge of sweetness adding juiciness. 18.5pts/20
Price: £11.99–£13.50 Morrison’s, Slurp
Clare Valley, South Australia
Jeffrey Grosset (pictured) is Australia’s Mr Riesling. This fastidious grapegrower and winemaker produces two sensational dry Clare Valley Rieslings each year, a fuller Watervale wine now labelled Springvale – from calcareous soil – and the more nervy Polish Hill, grown on the slate soils of the higher-altitude Polish Hill River sub-region. In 2010 these were joined by a wine labelled Off-Dry, which is barely off-dry and crafted in the same restrained, refined, delicate style as the other two. It’s destined to be another classic. Occasionally, in suitable seasons such as 2011, there’s a rivetingly powerful Noble Riesling made from botrytised grapes. Grosset’s Piccadilly is a superbly taut, ageworthy Chardonnay from that Adelaide Hills locality, and his Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc blend deftly combines Clare Semillon with Adelaide Hills Sauvignon. Mesh, of course, is his superb Eden Valley adventure, jointly produced with Yalumba..
Grosset, Off-Dry Riesling 2011
Fresh, fragrant, young-wine aroma of floral notes and green apples. A pristine wine, very delicate and fragrant in the mouth, with the barest minimum of sweetness. Fine and long, taut and balanced; a lovely wine with a big future.18.5pts/20
Price: £17.30–£20 Noel Young, Selfridges, Slurp, Swig, Vineking