Among the drinks that made our wine writer go "Mmmm" this year were (from left): Okar Australian Amaro, Co-Op Cider Brandy, 2017 Willie Smiths Somerset Redstreak Cider, Brookie’s Dry Gin, Black Gate Distillery and 3 Ravens Juicy IPA. Frances Mocnik
by Max Allen
I have been writing about drinks for 25 years. I have researched the history of alcohol in this country extensively. And I can confidently state that there has never been a better time to be a discerning drinker in Australia. There's never been such a rainbow of wine styles and winemakers, from tattooed and beardy folk slinging cloudy natural gear in laneway bars to conservative moleskin-wearing vignerons refining the classics.
There's never been such a plethora of craft brewers and cider makers across the country, all busily fermenting new expressions of grain and apple in converted inner-city warehouses and remote farmhouses. And there's never been such an exciting array of artisan spirits and bitters, with new whiskies and brandies and vermouths and gins popping up behind bars and on bottle-shop shelves on a daily basis.
With all this choice, how did I settle on just 20 wines and drinks to recommend out of the thousands I've tasted this year? Simple. I selected drinks that made me go "Mmm…": drinks that stopped me in my tracks because they had that X-factor; drinks that made me smile and scribble "wow!", or "this is bloody lovely!" in my notebook when I tasted them; drinks I'd be particularly happy to find poking out of my Christmas stocking.
(As you'll see, I didn't stop at 20: I've snuck in a few other "if you like that, try this" recommendations.) I also decided to make this an all-Australian list that reflects the best of the current drinks scene.
Clockwise from top: 2016 Adelina Wines, Estate Grenach, 2017 Penley Estate Spring Release Cabernet Franc, 2017 Kalleske Zeitgeist Shiraz, 2013 Vasse Felix Tom Cullity and 2015 Bass Phillip Premium Pinot Noir. Frances Mocnik
Sure, there's no shortage of great imported alcohol: from obscure Japanese whisky to natural cider from Switzerland, to amphora-fermented wine from Friuli. If it's being made, some enterprising importer is probably shipping it to Australia. But you can now also find local versions of almost every conceivable style of drink that are not only made here, but also made to very high standards. When the home-grown stuff's so good, why not celebrate it?
(Note: prices are approximate; all bottles 750ml unless otherwise indicated)
1. 2017 Vickery Riesling, Watervale $24
John Vickery is a legend in Australian wine circles. He started his career as a winemaker at Leo Buring 60 years ago, producing rieslings in the 1970s that are still considered benchmarks of the style. Now, in partnership with Phil Lehmann (winemaking son of another legend, Peter Lehmann), Vickery makes rieslings that proudly bear his own name on the label. And they're brilliant: this latest vintage is chock-full of moreish lime-juicy deliciousness, hallmarks of great young Watervale riesling. It's a bargain, too, considering the reputation of the maker and the sheer quality of the wine. Buy by the case to ensure there's always a bottle in your fridge over summer.
2. 2017 Scarborough The Obsessive Semillon, Hunter Valley $30
From left: 2015 Oakridge Funder & Diamond Vineyard Drive Block, 2017 Scarborough The Obsessive, 2017 Grosset Alea Riesling, 2017 Vickery Riesling and 2016 Cape Jaffa La Lune Field Blend. Frances Mocnik
This stood out from dozens of young 2017 semillons I tasted in the NSW Hunter a few months after the last grapes had been harvested . The 2017 growing season was warm and dry (not all that common in this famously muggy region) and produced wines that are a little more generous, round and forward than usual. This is a cracking example: complex flavours of fresh herb, lemon pith and a hint of beeswax, with the chalky freshness that makes me think it'll also age very well in the cellar. Another irresistible standout from that tasting was the vibrant 2017 Thomas Braemore Semillon ($30), also available now and also crying out to be guzzled.
3. 2017 Grosset Alea Riesling, Clare Valley $35
If you like great riesling then you need to get your hands on a few bottles of Jeff Grosset's 2017s. This advice will surprise no-one even half-interested in Australian wine: Grosset has long been considered one of the country's best producers of riesling, thanks to the stellar quality of his Springvale ($45) and Polish Hill ($55) single-vineyard wines. But the 2017s are particularly superb, with an energy and precision that is quite outstanding. The icing on the cake for me is how good his Alea riesling is this year: Grosset has been making this off-dry style for a decade but I've never thought it up to the standard of the other two, until now. It is utterly ravishing, mouthwatering, juicy, with a perfectly balanced hint of spring blossom honey.
4. 2016 Cape Jaffa La Lune Field Blend, Mount Benson $42
From left: 2017 Indomitus Rosa, 2014 Cullen Amber, Usher Tinkler Wines Mr T’s Rare Batch Fortified Liqueur and 2013 Crittenden Cri de Coeur Savagnin Sous Voile. Frances Mocnik
An unusual blend of varieties – including chardonnay, pinot gris, semillon, sauvignon blanc, all planted in the same vineyard and harvested together – has produced a lovely, rich, aromatic white wine with the satisfying texture of grape pulp on the tongue. If this style of white appeals to you – textural, mouthfilling, complex – then look out, too, for the following wines that also impressed me this year and may still be around in some retail stores and on restaurant lists: the 2016 Quealy Amphora Friulano ($25) from the Mornington Peninsula, the 2016 Lo Stesso Fiano ($30) from Heathcote and the 2016 Yangarra Roux Beauté Roussanne ($72) from McLaren Vale.
5. 2015 Oakridge Funder & Diamond Vineyard Drive Block Chardonnay, Yarra Valley $75
One of the most important developments in Australian fine wine over the past decade has been the improvement in top-quality chardonnay. As the vines have matured and as the winemakers have become more confident in coaxing the best from those vines, the wines have become more complex and characterful. Oakridge's 864 chardonnay, sourced from a single block of vines in a single vineyard planted in volcanic soil in the southern reaches of the valley, has long been at the forefront of this development, but the 2015 takes it to the next level: incredible intensity and mineral drive right along the palate, amazing depth of flavour and complexity, so satisfying, so good.
6. 2017 Kalleske Zeitgeist Shiraz, Barossa Valley $26
Here's a wine to pour at your next big family Sunday lunch: it'll please all the red lovers, old and new. Your hipster cousin will love the fact that it's made from certified biodynamic grapes, wild-fermented, and bottled without any added sulphur dioxide preservative. And your more traditional uncle will also love that fact that it's about as "normal" a young Barossa shiraz as is possible to find – despite all that biodynamic mumbo jumbo: heaps of dark black fruit, a sprinkling of gutsy pepper and spice, and a deep, earthy, meaty undertow. If bold young Barossa reds is your thing, look, too, for Ochota Barrels' 2017 From the North Mourvedre ($45), a bloody lovely red rippling with hedgerow flavours of wild fennel and bramble berries.
7. 2017 Penley Estate Spring Release Cabernet Franc, Coonawarra $35
After decades of being blended with its better-known relative, cabernet sauvignon, Australian cabernet franc is increasingly being given the chance to shine on its own as a varietal wine, inspired in part by the wine-bar popularity of bright, juicy cab francs from France's Loire Valley. Penley has absolutely nailed the style with this, its first attempt at an early-release cab franc: vivid purple fruit, snappy, lip-smacking tannin, and juiciness. I love the packaging, too. Some retailers and restaurants may also still stock the 2015 Crawford River Cabernet Franc ($40), a brilliant example of the variety, too: more savoury and undergrowthy, but still beautifully lithe.
8. 2016 Adelina Wines, Estate Grenache, Clare Valley $40
If you haven't yet discovered the wines of Adelina, I urge you to track them down and give them a go. Everything I've tasted recently from this Clare Valley-based producer has been excellent, particularly the wines from the 2016 vintage. This grenache, made from Adelina's 80-year-old, dry-grown vines, is brambly and savoury at first, but opens with air to a cloud of perfumed red berries and fine tannins – almost pinot noir-like. I can also recommend Adelina's 2016 Adelaide Hills wines, labelled Eternal Return – a crunchy Arneis ($25) and ethereal Nebbiolo Rosato ($29) – as well as the rich, dense Estate Shiraz ($50) from Clare … Seriously, they're all good.
9. 2013 Vasse Felix Tom Cullity, Margaret River $150
In 1967 a Perth doctor called Tom Cullity planted Vasse Felix, the first commercial vineyard in Margaret River in the far south-west of Western Australia. Half a century later, current Vasse Felix winemaker Virginia Willcock has released this fabulously elegant red wine to honour his legacy and celebrate the 50th anniversary of what is now one of the world's top wine regions. Predominantly cabernet sauvignon blended with malbec and petit verdot, the wine is supremely elegant, with lifted aromas of dusty bush track and forest berries, but you can sense there's enough concentrated fruit and firm tannin in here to see it age well and develop greater dimension over many years in the cellar.
10. 2015 Bass Phillip Premium Pinot Noir, Gippsland $210
The 2015 vintage produced superlative red wines– particularly pinot noirs - in southern Victoria, and while many producers have moved on to their 2016s (which are also very good), you can still find the previous year's crop of Bass Phillips. And they're stunning: the 2015 Gamay ($50) is full of squashed morello and maraschino cherries; the 2015 Issan Pinot Noir ($85) has Campari-like snap and tang; the 2015 Reserve Pinot Noir ($650) is dark, dense and brooding, destined for the very long haul. The 2015 Premium – my pick of the bunch to drink right now – seems to combine the best qualities of all the other pinots in one: it has an entrancing red fruit purity and mouthwatering sappiness but also has the depth and concentration to see it develop brilliantly in the cellar.
11. 2014 Cullen Amber, Margaret River $39
"Orange" or "amber" wines are like red wines insofar as they are made from white grapes fermented on their skins. They can be quite cloudy, often quite tannic, and, if they're made with low or no preservatives, quite funky, drink-young propositions. But as this exquisite example of the style demonstrates, amber wines can also be remarkably refined, balanced and ageworthy. A blend of ripe semillon and sauvignon blanc, fermented and macerated on skins for up to a month, the Cullen Amber has a gloriously heady, golden persimmon aroma, and superb slinky vinosity on the tongue. The 2016 is about to be released, but there is still quite a bit of the 2014 around in the trade.
12. 2017 Indomitus Rosa, Canberra District $40
You have never tasted a wine like this. It's a blend of wild fermented red cabernet sauvignon and white riesling grapes, probably the first time anyone has ever put these two varieties together in this way. But trust me, while it sounds strange it tastes sensational in the mouth. You can "see" the cabernet in the berry and herbal flavours, and you can "feel" the riesling in the wine's juicy citrus quench. Another fabulous pale pink wine worth seeking out is the 2017 Tommy Ruff Poolside Barossa Syrah ($32): wonderfully light (only 11 per cent alcohol) but with heaps of crunchy juicy flavour.
13. 2013 Crittenden Cri de Coeur Savagnin Sous Voile, Mornington Penninsula $80
Inspired by the famous Vin Jaune, or "yellow wine" from Jura, in eastern France, this is wine made from the aromatic white savagnin grape variety, aged in barrel under a "veil" of flor yeast (hence the name, Sous Voile) for four years before bottling. The veil both protects the wine from oxidising and contributes its own unique, yeasty flavour, just as it does with fino and manzanilla sheries in Spain. The result is superbly multi-layered and textural, with enticing flavours of lightly grilled cashews and yellow flowers, and a sherry-like saline quality on the tongue. Another very good example of the style tasted recently is the 2015 Yellow ($30) from Denton vineyard in the Yarra Valley.
14. Usher Tinkler Wines Mr T's Rare Batch Fortified Liqueur, Hunter Valley 375ml $45
Yes, old fortified verdelho is deeply unfashionable. But that's why this one is so good. People haven't exactly flocked to buy it in the past, so the wine has been able to mature for longer in barrel, developing more nutty richness and sweet spicy complexity. Now that it's been given a glam retro facelift, though, that may be changing, with a new, younger audience attracted to the style, thanks to the brilliant label. If you do like this kind of fortified wine (over Christmas, say, with a nice mince pie), look, too, for the Bleasdale 16 Year Old Rare Verdelho ($69) from Langhorne Creek: deep flavours of dark caramel and tangy Seville marmalade.
15. Okar Australian Amaro, Adelaide Hills 500ml $40
One of the most exciting trends in local drinks production is the increasingly adventurous use of native Australian ingredients: ground wattleseed in beer, quandong in eau de vie, strawberry gum in gin, finger limes in cider. This deep crimson amaro comes from the Applewood Distillery in the Adelaide Hills and features riberries, native currants, blood limes and saltbush. Its flavours are super-punchy – intensely fruity and unmistakably Aussie, with crushed peppermint gum leaf and berry perfume – and it has a lovely balance of sweetness and bitterness. Use as you would a classic Italian amaro or bitters: with soda and ice; in a Spritz with sparkling prosecco; or as the basis for a Negroni.
16. Brookie's Dry Gin, Byron Bay 700ml $75
Of the countless new locally-produced gins released this year, Brookie's is the one I've reached for again and again when I develop a thirst for an all-Australian Negroni (mixed with the Okar Amaro, also reviewed here, and the excellent Maidenii Sweet Vermouth, $45). The gin is distilled with more than two dozen botanicals, 18 of which are indigenous to the Northern Rivers of NSW, including finger limes, macadamia and native ginger. It's rich in cool eucalypt and juniper aromas, and tastes round and characterful and warm on the tongue. Other standout Australian gins tasted this year include the intense, citrusy Something Wild Green Ant Gin ($100) and the fabulously bold, red Four Pillars Bloody Shiraz Gin ($85).
17. Co-Op Cider Brandy, Goulburn Valley 700ml $150
It's the perfume that sets this beautiful new cider brandy apart: an evocative burst of fresh, juicy, ginger-scented pears. The spirit started life two years ago as a batch of pear cider made from excess Goulburn Valley fruit, distilled and placed into old whisky barrels at Starward, one of Melbourne's best distilleries. Drink neat, as you would a fine Calvados, or as the base for some inventive brandy cocktails. It's been a big year for new spirits made from distilled cider: the Charles Oates Single Cask ($120 for 200ml) from Tasmania and Lobo Apple Brandy ($100 for 200ml) are also both very good indeed, although the influence of the oak casks in which they were matured is more obvious in the latter two spirits.
18. Black Gate Distillery, Cask #22 Single Malt Whisky, Mendooran 500ml $175
We're not in Scotland any more, Toto. Or even Tasmania, considered the hub of Australian craft whisky. This single malt, bottled from a single barrel, is made and matured at a small distillery in Mendooran, about five hours drive north-west of Sydney. It's hot here in summer, and the barrels of spirit are stacked against the north-facing wall of the shed, helping them mature faster and develop deeper, bolder flavours. Cask 22 (an ex-tawny barrel) is the latest release and it's a cracker: powerful flavours of honeyed malt and toasted nuts tumble across your tongue. When I visited the distillery I also tried some fantastic peat-smoked whisky still maturing in barrel that'll be lapped up by the aficionados when it's bottled in a year or two.
19. 3 Ravens Juicy IPA, Thornbury 6x375ml cans $29
I tried some wonderfully bonkers beers this year that take flavour intensity and brewing experimentation to extremes: Two Metre Tall's super-funky Tom is Tall (fermented in a wine barrel using leftover lees as the starter culture); Boatrocker's wall-of-sound Banshee Barley Wine (14 per cent alcohol, matured in whisky casks); 3 Ravens' La Oloroso Cerveza (five years old, strong, flat, dark brown, tastes of Vegemite and barrel-aged sake). This Juicy IPA, also from 3 Ravens, is what I'll be drinking most of this summer. Brewed using unconventional grains (triticale and oats) and super-aromatic yeast and hops additions, the result is a cloudy, flavour-packed IPA that does indeed taste as citrusy and refreshing as breakfast juice.
20. 2017 Willie Smiths Somerset Redstreak Cider, Tasmania 750ml $32
If you think cider is just a simple, sweet, fizzy drink that comes in a stubby and is drunk over ice, try this. In traditional cider-making regions such as the West Country in the UK and Normandy in France, there are dozens of incredibly flavoursome heritage apple varieties, bred over centuries, that produce ciders with as much character and complexity as great wines. Luckily, more and more Australian cider makers are planting and playing with these varieties, and the results can be sensational - as with this terrific Tasmanian expression of Somerset Redstreak: glowing golden colour, rich and heady apple blossom perfume, tangy, grippy, apple-core chewiness in the mouth. Delicious. Try it with a good old crumbly cheddar or roast pork.