Before I give you my highly subjective notes on the best of various kinds of wine, here are some general tips:
- When buying from cellar doors, be aware that prices range from fair (Penfolds, Grosset, Mitchell) to a near-ripoff (Sandalford, Knappstein). Don't assume you're getting the best price.
- On the other hand, you can be fairly certain of the quality when you're buying from the cellar door - some shops may have stored the wine in such a manner as to damage its quality.
- When buying chilled wine, think twice about it. Often, it's been chilling for so long that it will either dent the flavor or kill the bubbles in sparkling wine.
- Don't be afraid of checking out dodgy bottle shops in small towns - near Skid Row in Geraldton, for example, I found Yattarna for $70 a bottle, a savings of over $40 off the retail price. Sometimes folks will get talked into buying expensive stuff they can't sell & they'll want to get rid of it cheap.
OK, on to my ideas on what I've liked best so far.
Best cheap shiraz: Yalumba Barossa, $15. (Actually has 5% viognier in there, which is cheating. It's great though!)
Best cheap riesling: Orlando St. Helga, $15.
Best cheap blended white wine: Cape Mentelle Georgiana, $14.
Best cheap blended red wine: Cape Mentelle CM, $20 (1.5 liter bottle).
Best shiraz: Plantagenet Mt Barker, $40.
Best cabernet: Knappstein Enterprise, $38.
Best merlot: Peter Lehmann, $20.
Best grenache: Charles Melton, $24.
Best zinfandel: Cape Mentelle, $32 (presumably).
Best sangiovese: Penfolds cellar door reserve, $36.
Best dolcetto | nebbiolo: Yalumba (cellar door only), $25.
Best barbera: Brown Brothers, $16.
Best pinot meunier (OK, the only one I've seen, but it was good): Charles Melton, $30.
Best pinot noir: haven't had one that really impressed me yet. Maybe the Picardy, $30.
Best cabernet franc: Knappstein, $18.
Best pink wine: Charles Melton Rose of Virginia, $20; Peter Lehmann Grenache Rosé (if packaging is important to you - it's a beautiful bottle), $16.
Best riesling: Grosset Polish Hill, $32.
Best chardonnay: Penfolds Yattarna, $110.
Best viognier: Petaluma, $28.
Best gewürztraminer: Henschke, $28 (unless you can't stand completely dry gewürz, in which case you should probably go for the Knappstein at $16.)
Best marsanne: Tahbilk, $12.
Best semillon: Penfolds Adelaide Hills reserve, $28.
Best sauvignon blanc: none. You'd have to go to New Zealand for that.
Best sparkling (white): Jansz NV, $22.
Best sparkling (red): Mitchell NV, $28.
Best sweet white: Castle Rock Estate late harvest riesling, $20.
Best dessert wine: Mitchell botrytis semillon, $20.
Best sticky: Campbells liqueur muscat or tokay, $20.
Best cheap port: Penfolds Magill Bluestone, $20.
Best port: Penfolds Grandfather, $80.
Best Bordeaux blend: Grosset Gaia, $48.
Best Rhône blend: Rosemount GSM, $27.
Best wine overall: Clonakilla shiraz/viognier, $48.
Coolest packaging: Peter Lehmann 'Eight Songs' shiraz - comes in a huge black box; every bottle has a different label. A snip at $520. Runner up: the Charles Melton Sotto di Ferro, which comes in a recycled corrugated cardboard presentation box that holds two 375 mL bottles - $100. (No, I didn't buy either!)
Other honorable mentions:
Brown Brothers moscato is a real pleasure at $12, but I'd like to see a carbonated version of this one - it isn't spritzig enough for my tastes.
The next-to-lowest-end Penfolds wines are pretty OK for $12. They're a little less in your face than the el cheapo Yalumba Barossa shiraz - if you want a cabernet-ish or a shiraz, try them.
If you've got to buy a cask, might as well go with the Lindemans Bin 56 chardonnay (white). The Yalumba cask wines are okay, but you really should go with the bottles (which cost just as much, but at least that way you don't wine up drinking way too much).
Most frustrating winery: d'Arenberg, for groovy packaging and marketing - without good wine in the bottle.
Most fun tasting rooms: Charles Melton, Peter Lehmann, Plantagenet.
Most annoying tasting rooms: Chandon (because you have to pay for everything by the glass), Houghton (because you can't taste the good stuff), Leasingham (because, again, they won't pour the good stuff), Dalrymple (for arguing that I should like their stuff).
Biggest surprise: Jacob's Creek, especially the restaurant at the visitor center. One of the best meals I've had, ever, at less than US $30 a person (appetizer, entrée, cheese plate, coffee, four glasses of excellent wine).
Biggest disappointment: Evans & Tate rosé (sparkling wine), Leeuwin Estate sparkling wine... in fact, almost every Aussie sparkling wine (aside from Chandon and Jansz, and a few sparkling reds).
Worst value for money proposition: any of the heavily marketed lifestyle wines of Western Australia, especially Palandri, Evans & Tate, Xanadu; some of the Brown Brothers portfolio (especially aged Bordeaux blends); nearly everything from Queensland and/or Tasmania.
Worst wine in the entire country: Country Rose, Rimfire vineyard, Queensland.
Wine brands I now hate, completely irrationally: Houghton, Pipers Brook, Seventh Island, that winery near Melbourne that does both a pinot gris and a pinot grigio.
A special circle in Hell will be reserved for: whoever keeps getting Clonakilla all the publicity. Just this last Sunday, the Melbourne Age ran a photo of two wine critics holding an obvious bottle of Clonakilla. Great. It's expensive now - guess it's going to be incredibly expensive and/or sold out in the future. Grrrr.
Coolest man in the entire Aussie wine industry: Tim Kirk, winemaker at Clonakilla, for dragging us out back to try barrel samples of the 2002 shiraz/viognier, and for sharing his private family reserve of his port. What a guy!
Winemakers I'd be most interested in meeting: whoever does the wines at Mitchell, Plantagenet, and Yalumba.