With guest Wine Wanker, Grace Donald from Wine is a Verb.
In part 1 of her story, Grace sipped and savoured Australia’s best wines at the annual James Halliday Top 100 wine tasting, but the best was yet to come. Grace got to chat with her idol, and asked him the questions we’d all like to ask. Including what iconic wines weren’t in his top 100 and why.
Let’s eavesdrop in on their conversation….
Grace (like an excited teenager meeting Justin Bieber): James, thank you so much for chatting with me! I know you are a busy man so I appreciate your time.
James (cool, calm and collected, obviously): It’s no issue at all!
G: Were there any wines not submitted that you would have loved to include in the blind tasting to see how they fared?
J: No, we send emails to all of the 5 Star rated producers, with some others added in where they are rated for the value of their wine. They may not be in the same point section, but as they are cheaper, we do get some spread in terms of prices, or more than we would otherwise get.
That said, there are a number of wineries who for various reasons don’t submit wines, an obvious example that springs to mind would be Mount Mary (Yarra Valley), where they’re selling all of the wine they produce. There’s no need to create extra demand.
There aren’t too many in that category, and because they are in our database as Red Star wineries, they almost inevitably have already submitted wine in the last 12 months, not necessarily for the Top 100.
There will be wineries who want to stay out of the loop, partly for not needing more publicity or more sales, or believing they do not – there is a difference between the two, but no, nothing springs to mind.
G: I notice you have mentioned the price points may need to increase next year ($25 for Whites & $30 for Reds). Do you think there is a trend of people spending more for higher quality table wine?
J: Yes there is a trend; it’s more of a diverse market than the UK on one hand, and the elephant in the room, China, on the other.
It’s still tough out there [in the Australian market]. The vacuum of China continues however, and in the last 12 months (till Sep 30) the increase is quite astronomical! There have been some quite hefty increases year on year over the last 5-7 years, so that is taking supply out of the domestic market, thereby allowing producers who don’t have a reasonable profit margin over cost of production to actually make some money.
So it’s a murky area, it depends which side of the glass half full or glass half empty side of the situation you would answer.
G: Penfolds Grange is not on the Top 100 list, which gives the indication it is currently not Australia’s best wine – Do you believe it is?
J: The 2011 Grange came out of the worst red wine vintage in South Australia since 1974, they had powdery mildew for the first time.
Penfolds elected to make Grange in 2011, and didn’t take the opportunity of putting a major sign up saying they wouldn’t make the wine in the years that they feel the quality doesn’t live up to the long-term benchmark for Grange. There was no Hill of Grace in 2011 [Henschke single vineyard Hill of Grace Shiraz, produced in Eden Valley wine region], nor will there be.
Penfolds are relying no doubt, on the quality of the 2012 Grange, which will be wonderful when it comes out.
Now when you say best wine, in the Companion I do Wine Of The Year, but it comes out of a large field and it is unashamedly a wine of a style that particularly appeals to me. When I say of a style, it has been beautifully made in a medium bodied, highly perfumed Shiraz style which will typically come from cooler climates. Shiraz is a prime example of that.
So I am always a bit wary of using the word best wine in a quote, without defining the pool from which that wine can come.
G: What will you be doing to relax for Christmas, and more importantly, what will you be drinking?
J: No Idea! My wife caught me working on Christmas Day some years ago now and she said, “You do know this means you will be working for 364.5 days this year,” because she knew what was happening between then and the end of the year. From that came an agreement that every year we would have at least one week’s holiday away from wine.
But I do tend to work during that period as I don’t have any calls or distractions, so it’s productive for me.
I will be doing as many tastings as I can get in, but I don’t have someone to steward for me so it takes a bit longer as I will be doing all the stewarding myself and cleaning up all the mess etc.
What will we be drinking? Well, a sort of extended family come along to the Christmas lunch and over the years they have fixed firmly on Dr. Loosen Rieslings from the Mosel Valley (Germany) mainly, which are intensely fruity with a wonderful acid sugar balance.
They blow you away with their flavour but don’t leave a sticky feeling (figuratively speaking), so cleans your mouth out on the way out, so the best thing you should do is have another glass!
They are only 7-8% alcohol, so you can actually drink twice as much as most table wines.
Those of us who have had enough of those Rieslings will happily hop into 6-8 year old Semillions (at 10.5%) and also old Australian Rieslings of a similar sort of age. There is a bit of a split between aged Hunter Valley Semillions because they are so incredibly fresh and because they are only 10.5% alcohol.
Pinot Noir is the red wine of choice and once again, the Hunter Valley features a bit these days with their Shiraz.
A modern Shiraz coming out of the Hunter Valley is typically 12% alcohol, significantly lower than most other South Australian or Victorian Shiraz’s.
G: You are obviously a very hardworking man, with no look of slowing down! When you do finally retire, how would you like the Australian wine industry to remember you?
J: Oh dear (laughing)! One thing I could say is someone who is never afraid to speak his mind, basically through written material, to peers who largely end up inhabited by winemakers and wine marketers.
So that would be one thing. I don’t know much more than that!
I think being true to myself. Not everyone agrees with my views and nor should they. There are still winemakers around who love red wines at 15-16.5% alcohol and have clients who share the same views. I mean you’re going to go no where fast if you are making a style of wine that no one is prepared to buy or drink.
But as I say, being true to myself, which is just another way of saying speak my mind. Being true to my beliefs comes out of that.
*** the end ***
Grace: As a proud Australian wineo, I’m sure on the sad day that James Halliday does decide to retire, he will be remembered exactly the way he wants to be and more. Not afraid to speak his mind, true to his beliefs, and a damn good Wine Wanker.
For the full run down of the 2015 Top 100 wines, check out the James Halliday Australian Wine Companion website, and get tasting!