Erratic conditions reduced yields and dramatically compromised quality
Most of the Australian continent experienced an excellent but late vintage that began after an unusually cool summer, retarding ripening and harvest. Most regions were then able to escape the early onset of cooler and wetter autumnal weather, but winter made an early appearance in several of the cooler regions in the countrys southeast, especially the Yarra Valley and the Mornington Peninsula. Victorian regions north and west of the Great Divide like the Pyrenees, Grampians and Great Western enjoyed exceptional if late seasons, while on the opposite side of the continent conditions were generally too cool for top-drawer red wines. The state to fare best was certainly South Australia, where each of the major red wine regions, especially the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale, produced long-living and balanced wines.
Standout regions in 1996 were clearly the Barossa, McLaren Vale, Coonawarra (especially with the cabernet varieties) and the warmer regions in western and central Victoria. The wines are typically more elegant than usual, but those vineyards able to ripen fully produced wines of both density and fineness. Coonawarra certainly had one of its best cabernet vintages in a decade of generally good seasons, and even the Hunter Valley produced ripe flavours and some richness in its shiraz. The under-rated NSW region of Mudgee had its best season for some years.
Not infrequently its possible to measure the standard of an Australian red wine vintage by the Penfolds reds released from the year in question and this was certainly one of those occasions. From the stupendously concentrated and robust Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon to the Koonunga Hill, this was an exceptional release, even by Penfolds standards. Enthusiasts of Coonawarra cabernet should delight in wines like Orlando Jacaranda Ridge, Parker Terra Rossa First Growth, Rosemount Estate Show Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and Highbank Coonawarra. First-rate McLaren Vale reds included the Rosemount Balmoral and Show Shiraz labels, Wirra Wirra RSW Shiraz, dArenbergs Dead Arm Shiraz, Woodstocks The Stocks and Corioles Lloyd Reserve. Other reds of note were the Bests Thomson Family Shiraz (Great Western), Jim Barrys The Armagh (Clare) and Rosemount Estates exceptional and bony Mountain Blue Shiraz Cabernet from Mudgee.