Nine hundred and seventy eight wines were submitted for this year's Top 100, over a hundred more than last year. To keep the task within reasonable bounds, I followed the practice of previous years by short-listing those producers which I felt most capable of providing wines of exceptional quality in a given price bracket.
I went into the endless days of tasting without any particular sense of anticipation. Neither the 1999 nor 2000 vintages in South Australia (still the engine room of the wine industry) were particularly kind in that part of the world, and bore no comparison to the classic 1996 and 1998 vintages.
In fact, the tastings were filled with pleasant surprises - or should I say filled with reminders firstly that this is a vast country, and secondly that generalisations about any vintage in any region are most likely to be proved by the exceptions to the rule.
So 1999 was a great year for much of Western Australia, led by the reds from the Margaret River region; it was excellent through all of Central Victoria and Tasmania; and was one of those rare Hunter Valley vintages where the rain stayed away.
Tasmania and the Hunter Valley - an odd couple if ever there was one - doubled up in 2000; almost all of Victoria flourished, the south in particular; and the reliability of the Margaret River shone through again.
Thus my draft lists of wines worthy of inclusion were far longer than ever before; there are more than another 100 wines which might equally well have made the final selection. It is fashionable these days to harp about wine surpluses, falling quality and falling value for money, but I am yet to see the evidence to sustain that.
True enough, super-premium and icon wine prices have risen dramatically over the past few years, pulled upwards by international demand. the brakes are now full on, and we may well see a fall in price over the next few years, something I look at in more detail in my global overview.
Reverting to the Top 100, the most notable inclusion was of 13 pinot noirs, compared to three last year, five in 1999 and four in 1998. All but two of this year's 13 pinot noirs came from the 2000 vintage, which has to be regarded as outstanding for this temperamental variety.
Since the wines are sorted by price, not variety, I complete the statistical break down thus: 12 chardonnays, 11 rieslings, seven semillons and six other whites and blends. The red wines provided the 13 pinots, 16 shiraz, 12 cabernet sauvignon/cabernet dominant and three other reds. Twelve champagnes and eight Australian sparkling completed the list.
Other highlights were a trio of great mature Hunter semillons (from 1996) at last commanding a price sufficient to encourage their makers to continue fashioning such wines; the dominance of the cabernet group by Coonawarra and Margaret River; and the continuation of the re-emergence of riesling.
On a slightly sour note, there were some strange gaps in the wines submitted: none of the Penfolds top reds (Grange, St Henri, Bin 707, RWT Shiraz, etc), no Hill of Grace, nor, at the other end, Lindemans Bin 65. On a predictable note, the big three groups shared the spoils equally, with 11 wines from BRL Hardy, ten from Southcorp and nine from Beringer Blass.
This left plenty of room for the small to medium-sized players, which dominated the riesling, semillon and pinot noir classes.
The usual caveats on price apply. I have used the prices supplied by the producer or distributor with the wines at the time of submission. Actual retail prices may be higher in some instances, lower in others. Clearly, by virtue of their inclusion in the Top 100, I regard the wines as appropriately priced (at the least) at the stipulated prices.
The price/quality ratio raises questions which have no simple answers. The range of the selected wines is from $5.50 to $90 for the Australians, topping out at $240 for the Champagnes.
In choosing the wines, I do have regard to price, firstly to provide a spread from top to bottom, but also to separate wines on identical points and similar styles. But it's by no means the only factor: I have deliberately sought a balanced selection across regions, varieties and styles within the broader price parameters of whites under $20 (16 wines), whites over $20 (21 wines), reds under $25 (18 wines) and over $25 (25 wines).
Finally, remember the 978 wines were the tip of the iceberg; these were carved out of a 10 000 to 15 000 field, each wine in the Top 100 thus being a one in 100 selection.
Published in The Australian, 1 December 2001.