Reviewers’ Favorites 2022: Erin Larkin

2022 has been a brilliant (and incessant) year: wall-to-wall wine tastings and judging amid a never-ending flow of work. Taking over reviewing Australian wines for Robert Parker Wine Advocate has come with monumental responsibility, but it has also brought exciting opportunity. Getting out to vineyards and walking between rows has been a major highlight for me—kicking dirt, asking winemakers and viticulture crews about clones and weather, their wins and their challenges has defined much of my travel this year.

If you’ve ever been to Australia, you’ll understand why I hesitate to refer to it as a “winegrowing region.” It’s just too vast for such a succinct term (7.7 million square kilometers/three million square miles and 4,000 kilometers/2,500 miles wide). We are a large country with many diverse regions (~ 65 classified GIs, not counting subregions) and styles within it; each state offers an abundance of wine styles, regions, subregions and vineyards. I would posit that there are some varieties that Australia has come close to mastering: Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Riesling and Semillon (although since Hunter Valley has little international competition for varietal table Semillon, I’d say Australia is one of the only fish in that particular pond). There are many good arguments for Grenache to be included in that number as well. Many of these varieties feature in my list below, and each for good reason.

With the joint effects of COVID, China’s tariffs and prolonged extreme weather in parts of the east coast, it’s fair to say that Australia has been through the ringer, so to speak, and fighting for every bit of success it has won in recent times. So, where is Australia at currently? Well, from a quality perspective, I’d say it’s in the healthiest position it’s ever been in, despite the inclement political/commercial and climatic challenges faced by wineries/vineyards around the country. 

A Wine for the Cellar: 
2020 Standish The Relic Shiraz Viognier (Australia, South Australia, Barossa, Barossa Valley)
Standish Winery in Barossa Valley (Photo courtesy of Standish)

While the Standish wines retail for over $100AUD (actually $125 at last release), the wines punch well above this in quality, making them superb premium wines at an affordable price. When I say “superb,” I of course mean they are, in any given year, some of the greatest Shiraz/Syrah produced outside of Rhône—that is to say, in the New World—and for a fraction of the price of many of their peers. These are powerful, full-bodied wines, make no mistake, but what sets them apart from the pack is the attention to detail in the mouth. They are focused, balanced and most importantly, they speak so clearly of the dirt in which they were grown. They could come from nowhere else on the planet. Made by a man and his wife (Dan and Nicole Standish) for the pleasure of the Shiraz-drinking world. Sadly, I never seem to be able to hold onto my bottles, there always seems to be a good reason to open one early… 

A Producer That's Under the Radar: 
2021 Windows Estate Petit Lot Chardonnay (Australia, Western Australia, Margaret River)
A trio of wines from Windows Estate (Photo courtesy of Windows Estate)

Margaret River is a premium wine region in the southwest corner of Western Australia. It is flush with highly skilled, boutique producers that are able to coax the place from the vines into the bottle, so to choose one that fits into this “Under the Radar” slot was a tough choice… Windows Estate is a tiny producer on the western side of Caves Rd (i.e., the beach side, as the road runs north/south) in Yallingup, run by husband-and-wife team Chris and Jo Davies. The wines are extraordinary both in quality and value, and this 2021 Chardonnay is one of my favorites in the region for its poise, delicacy and crystalline acidity. The fruit riffs off the power of the Gingin clone (the main clone in the area and responsible for Margaret River’s formidable Chardonnays) but is pulled into line by an inclusion of Dijon clones. The acidic linearity of these Dijon clones is the perfect foil to the abundant generosity of the other. If you haven’t tasted one of these wines, I accept they may be challenging to track down, but you will be heartily repaid in drinking pleasure.

A Wine to Drink Now: 
2021 Tahbilk Winery Marsanne (Australia, Victoria, Nagambie Lakes)
Tahbilk Winery in Nagambie Lakes (Photo Courtesy of Tahbilk)

This wine, if you can believe it, sells for circa $21AUD at full mark up. It’s often on promotion around the place. It ages prodigiously, and unbelievably slowly. It is fresh and a little bit tropical and textured to boot. It drinks remarkably well as a young wine and is peerless in Australia when it comes to aged Marsanne. It’s easier to understand the cult following when you take in the full picture. Superstar.

A Wine from a Producer That Exemplifies Sustainability:
2020 Yangarra Estate Vineyard Ovitelli Grenache (Australia, South Australia, McLaren Vale)
Bush vine Grenache in the Yangarra High Sands vineyard, planted 1946

I am so glad that this producer satisfies two things I wanted to talk about here today: McLaren Vale Grenache and a leader in sustainability in the vineyards. The McLaren Vale Grenache story is a very important one to the global world of Grenache. Grenache, the grape that loves sun, thrives on a bit of water and throws a huge crop that is susceptible to high alcohol and robust tannins. Grenache, that in McLaren Vale has the propensity to express in a balanced, ripe, low-pH frame, littered with blood, ferrous, red fruits and a plume of tannin through the fruit that feels both firm and finely milled at once. These wines are growing up to be the pride of Australia in this space, and this Ovitelli Grenache has been matured entirely in concrete egg. The tannins derived solely from the grape. A marvel, and one that warms not just the belly but the soul too, knowing that only good things go into the biodynamic/organic vineyard, and only good things come out. A singular wine style.

A Wine That's Especially Good Value:
2020 Deep Woods Estate Reserve Chardonnay (Australia, Western Australia, Margaret River)
The 2020 Reserve Chardonnay (Photo courtesy of Deep Woods Estate)

This wine sells for $50 in Australia, and routinely sells out within only a few weeks of release each year. While it may not be the cheapest wine here in my list, it is outrageous value for money, and that is the stipulation in this category: Especially Good Value. Understatement. It delivers the characteristic fruit power of Margaret River, the coiled acidity from the Gingin clone and all of it wrapped in a spicy, worked and complex package of deft handling in the winery. It’s hard to overstate how good this wine is; my only criticism is that it is released too early… an indication of the thirst of the market. Best drunk circa five years from harvest. Awesome. 

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