Sunday 4 September 2011

An interview with James Halliday

A graceful gentleman, James Halliday was in town recently with an entourage of seven equally outstanding winemakers to promote the 2012 edition of his Australian Wine Companion. The book, 4.5cm thick with over 700 pages and some 3,400 tasting notes, represents only half of what James has tasted during the year. The rest can be found on his website.

James is a prolific taster. He has written over 69,000 tasting notes, spanning some 10 years of tasting—6,900 per year or nearly 600 a month! No wonder he is proud of his iPhone app. The book can only hold 3,400 tasting notes, otherwise it would become impractical to publish and carry around, but with the iPhone app one can carry his entire collection on the move in the nifty device. I admire James not only because he embraces technology but also because, until recently, he wrote all the notes himself. Unlike most wine critics who have a team of reviewers behind them, James tasted and wrote his notes single-handed until three years ago when he engaged a part time reviewer as part of his succession plan. After all, this gentleman is over 70 years old.

While he thinks it is important for Australia's wine industry to defend its UK and US markets, James is truly ‘gung ho’ about China. Although China does not have an established wine culture, its people, especially the young, are learning fast. He reckons China will be the biggest market for all New World wines in less than a generation. So it was no surprise that his entourage’s next stop after Hong Kong was China, fully supported by Wine Australia.

I believe the only way for Australian wines to secure market share in China (and indeed Asia) is to shake off once and for all the ‘cheap and cheerful’ image that still dogs it. Take Hong Kong for example: Australian wine has long been the wine of choice for novice drinkers who do not want to spend too much on a bottle, but as these consumers become more confident many tend to trade up to Old World or even New Zealand wines, leaving the Aussies behind.

Encouragingly, there are more and more quality conscious Australian producers who recognise this. Instead of churning out factory-produced oaked Chardonnay and big fruity Shiraz, they are releasing hand-crafted, small production, terroir-driven wines with individual style. Some of them were showcased at Mr Halliday’s media lunch and the masterclass that followed. Here are my favourites (Available from Maxxium):

By Farr Geelong Chardonnay 2009: creamy, mouth-filling but not fat, with multi-layered flavours.

McHenry Hohnen Rocky Road Vineyard Margaret River Chardonnay 2010: an elegant, barrel fermented Chardonnay; far superior to a lot of Burgundies.

O’Leary Walker Wines Polish Hill Riesling 2010: lime, honey, mineral and smoky; somewhere between a Mosel and a Rheingau.

Saltram No. 1 Barossa Shiraz 2006: High alcohol perfectly balanced by the rich fruit flavours and tannins. Went very well with the equally rich braised pork belly casserole with preserved vegetables.

Tyrell’s Vat 9 Hunter Shiraz 2009: Old World style; elegant with a balance between fruit and a soft tannin from 60-90 years old vines.

Long may this trend continue, because if it does the future for Australian wine in Asia should be bright.

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