Hallowed Ground

As the Australian wine industry celebrates the 30th edition release of the Australian Wine Companion, Alexandra Brocklehurst discusses the milestone with its author and veteran expert within the world of wine, James Halliday.

Each year without fail, winemakers, wine consumers and all those with an interest in the Australian wine industry, eagerly await the release of the Australian Wine Companion (now the Halliday Wine Companion). Over the last 30 years, the book – which includes detailed tasting notes, wine ratings, and information on hundreds of wineries and winemakers throughout Australia – has evolved to become the definitive guide to Australian wine.

As well as tasting notes and winery profiles, the Halliday Wine Companion includes awards for best wine, winemaker and winery of the year, as well as naming the ten best new wineries and best-value wineries in Australia.

To keep the page count from exceeding the thousands (the 2016 edition is a hefty 776- page volume) the Halliday Wine Companion website and iPhone app also contain more than 55,000 tasting notes that date back to earlier editions, allowing users easy access to a wealth of knowledge.

A LIFE IN WINE

Growing up in Sydney, Halliday’s fledgling interest in wine was initiated by his parents’ own enjoyment of bottles they had collected in their cellar. Nonetheless, Halliday’s more formal wine education began while working at a major Australian law firm, Clayton Utz. During the mid-to-late 1960s, Halliday attended wine education classes hosted by the late Len Evans, who became his mentor and a life-long friend. Through classes with Evans, Halliday learnt about the great wines of France and Germany, and by the late 1960s he was becoming a more serious wine buyer with cellars in several locations.

Along with Tony Albert and John Beeston – two of his close friends and fellow members of their college Wine Club during university – Halliday set off to the Hunter Valley with the intention of buying land to establish their own vineyard and winery. In October 1970, the trio purchased a 4-hectare block in the Hunter Valley, and planted vines the following year. They named the vineyard Brokenwood Wines, and the Brokenwood partnership expanded over the following decade, until Halliday sold his shares in 1983 and moved to Melbourne. During this time, he became more involved in writing about and judging wines at shows, where he would take comprehensive tasting notes – a clear indicator of the fount of knowledge he would later become.

In 1985, Halliday’s wine-producing experience grew when he established Coldstream Hills in Yarra Valley. In 1996 it was acquired by Southcorp in 1996, and led Halliday to spending brief periods of time in the renowned French wine regions of Bordeaux and Burgundy.

As his career in the wine industry expanded and his reputation as a trusted critic and wine writer grew, Halliday received the ultimate accolade in 1995 when he won the coveted Australian wine industry’s Maurice O’Shea Award. Fifteen years later, Halliday was also made a Member of the Order of Australia.

TASTE OF SUCCESS

Tasting each wine that features in the Halliday Wine Companion, as well as those that are included on the website and accompanying iPhone app, is a vast undertaking that would arguably intimidate even the most dedicated wine experts. Even as he heads into his late 70s, however, and the number of wines he tastes in a day has decreased, Halliday approaches the task with the same vigour as he did 30 years ago.

Until recently, Halliday completed all the tasting notes himself and 25 years ago he tasted approximately 160 wines per day. Nowadays, Halliday has two staffers who help out in the office and the number of tastings he completes per day has decreased to a respectable 80 wines.

“I alternate between white wines and red wines... [ideally] tasting in blocks of ten wines,” explains Halliday. “I use soda water (alkaline) to neutralise the build-up of acidity from the wines, rinsing my mouth with this every 20 minutes or so.”

“I use green olives on their stones when tasting red wines to strip the tannin build-up – only a small portion of an olive will be nibbled each time. [Alternatively], I use hard cheese when tasting white wines, once again, with a tiny amount,” says Halliday of the tasting rituals he has refined over the years.

When judging a wine, Halliday critiques the “balance and length, plus appropriate varietal and/or regional definition”. In a previous interview, Halliday had said that he came to the “conclusion in a millisecond” when deciding on Serrat’s 2014 Yarra Valley Shiraz Viognier for Wine of the Year in the 2016 Halliday Wine Companion, which seemed to be an almost instinctive decision.
When asked if he has developed a kind of ‘sixth sense’ for great wines, Halliday explains that “it’s seldom a question of sixth sense; the process is more structured than that, however, there are some wines each year that go close to ultimate perfection, and are instantly recognisable.”

“There are some wines each year that go close to ultimate perfection, and are instantly recognisable.”

BEST IN SHOW

Despite the continual growth and success of the Halliday Wine Companion, Halliday says he has “never felt the pressure” as such a trusted voice within the industry, because for so many years his wine writing income was so small in comparison to that of his law career.

In the 2016 edition, Halliday named Tahbilk – a winery located in the Nagambie Lakes region of Victoria – as Winery of the Year for its great-quality wines, which are steeped in the vineyard’s history. These vineyards, which spread across 227 hectares of the 1214-hectare property, include 16 varieties. At Tahbilk, there are vineyards that date back as far as 1860, and with winemaker Alistair Purbrick at the helm, Tahbilk has overcome a decade of financial struggle and secured a loyal customer base through a highly-successful wine club.

The title of Winemaker of the Year in the 2016 edition was taken by Peter Fraser, who first tasted great Australian red wines when serving in the Australian army. Since then, he has moved through a successful career to become chief winemaker at Yangarra Estate Vineyard in McLaren Vale, South Australia. Halliday notes Fraser’s philosophical and practical changes to his winemaking approach as significant, such as the reduction of alcohol levels. In addition, Fraser’s use of 675-litre ceramic eggs for red wine fermentation in 2013 is a technique that highlights his dedication to biodynamic winemaking.

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE

Just as the Halliday Wine Companion continues to hold its place as one of the most important books within the Australian wine world, Halliday explains that “the future [of the Australian wine industry] is brighter than that of most of our competitive countries”. He is equally excited about the new techniques and technologies on the horizon for the global wine industry.

“Berry-to-berry selection is now possible for those countries/winemakers who wish to, or can afford to, use the new automated sorting. The vibrating sorting system can be mounted on a mechanical harvester, radically improving the picking process.

“The same technology can be installed at the winery to do the same job, getting rid of any foreign matter (leaves, stalks, etc.) or damaged (by botrytis or mould) grapes. In the winery, cross-flow filtration has revolutionised filtration of juice and/or finished wine.”

VARIETAL WINES

As well as the latest Halliday Wine Companion, Halliday has released another book under his publisher, Hardie Grant, titled Varietal Wines. As the name suggests, “the book covers all 130 different grape varieties being grown in Australia as at 2015 [that] are used to make varietal wines”.

“There is no question of choosing the varieties covered; every variety grown in Australia is discussed. There is far greater content for the classic varieties, where I look at the places in the world where they are used to make great wines, noting some of the best producers of such wines.

“There are also exciting changes in understanding the evolution of grape varieties. Thus, we now know that pinot noir is one of the great-grandparents of both shiraz and cabernet sauvignon, and that pinot noir, pinot gris, pinot meuniere and pinot blanc are genetically identical.”

Publication of the book is timely, as wine producers around Australia continue to refine their approach to matching individual grape varieties to specific sites, so the book is a great supplement for any Australian wine enthusiast wishing to learn more.

Halliday notes that this new book adds to the “vast amount of information that has become available over the last three or four years” on wine varieties. Varietal Wines sits alongside the 1242-page tome Wine Grapes by Jancis Robinson MW, Julia Harding MW and DNA evidence expert Jose Vouillamoz, which covers 1368 vine varieties, their origins and flavours, and their genetic makeup.

“The other mine of information has been research carried out by Professor Kym Anderson at the University of Adelaide, tracking every variety country-to-country, showing the hectares of each variety planted in Australia and elsewhere in the world.”

These explorations of the different wine varieties grown in Australia emphasise the importance of understanding the history of every vine across the country and highlight the depth of knowledge that is available for all those looking to broaden their own knowledge of varietal wines.

As an author, writer, wine judge and vigneron, Halliday juggles an ambitious and busy schedule. “Tasting for the 2017 Wine Companion commenced on 20 May 2015,” explains Halliday, who also assessed more than 1200 wines that were submitted for the 2015 Top 100 Wines published in the Weekend Australian in November. Three decades after his career as a wine critic began, Halliday remains the most respected voice in the Australian wine world. With opinions that are informed and based on a broad, as well as in- depth knowledge of wine, his books continue to attract wine lovers, both old and young.