The abnormally soggy east Australian summer is likely to result in lower-alcohol wines from the 2011 vintage. Winemakers from Clare to Canberra, McLaren Vale to the Yarra Valley, say this year's wines will have moderate alcohol strengths, more like 13 per cent rather than 14.5 per cent, which has become the norm in recent years.
It will give heart to those who regret the trend towards stronger alcohol. But not all wines will be good: in some cases, low-alcohol is a sign of under-ripe grapes. In the Barossa, Clare and McLaren Vale the wines are likely to be a "cool-climate style", reminiscent of the 1990s and 2002.
Balance is one of the most important features of wine but alcoholic balance is not always synonymous with low alcohol. Concurrent with the high-alcohol trend has been a trend towards richer fruit flavours, more concentration and power, and red wines of this style can accommodate more alcohol than leaner wines, without losing their balance.
Chateau Tanunda winery in the Barossa Valley has harvested great success with rich reds in recent times. The historic winery, opened in 1890, has been restored at a cost of more than $5 million by current owner John Geber.
He has done a superb job. The wines took a little longer to hit their stride but are now reaping the rewards of years of planning. Key to the strategy was Ralph Fowler (winemaker 2005 to '08), who Geber credits with much preparatory work, identifying and securing source vineyards, and Tim Smith (winemaker 2007 to present), who leaves at the end of this vintage to pursue his own venture.
The Chateau Tanunda building, a magnificent edifice of bluestone quarried at Bethany, houses a new winery with all-important basket press. The chateau's five vineyards cover 100 hectares excluding 25 contracted growers. This enables fruit to be sourced widely from the Barossa and Eden valleys.
Chateau Tanunda has four levels of wine: from the bottom up, they are Barossa Tower ($15 to $18 reds and whites), The Chateau Range ($18 whites to $28 reds), Grand Barossa ($30 shiraz and cabernet sauvignon) and Limited Release ($48 Terroirs of the Barossa shirazes; $95 The Chateau 100-Year-Old Vine Shiraz, and $160 The Everest series of grenache and shiraz).
It's a big range so I'll pick the eyes out of it. The Chateau riesling and semillon are excellent: fine, modern, well-priced dry whites. The 2010 Eden Valley riesling is a ripper whose price only reflects the absurd unfashionableness of this grape.
Off to one side, we find the 2009 Vine Vale Shiraz ($28 ex-winery) - delicious and remarkable value; the 2009 120th Anniversary Celebration Release Shiraz ($25), under a resurrected early label, is oaky but rich and a must for nostalgia buffs.
I find the Terroirs of the Barossa range a little unconvincing: terroir differences are more fascinating in marginal climates (for shiraz: say Yarra Valley, Canberra or the Grampians) and I remain to be convinced that anyone in the Barossa has really captured anything compelling in a range of sub-regional wines.
The Ebenezer is idiosyncratic; the '09 Lyndoch is elegant and charming, more so than the '08; and the Greenock is my preference, the most complete and delicious, especially (again) from the very good '09 vintage.
Then we come to the 100-Year-Old Vine Shiraz (from Angaston; $95) which is a rip-snorter. The '08 is rich, sexy, decadent and utterly delicious, a triumph from the difficult year. The one-third new oak does not show, and while it doesn't stint on alcohol (14.5 per cent) it tastes very well balanced. Geber reckons the use of open-top vats helps dissipate some alcohol during fermentation.
The Everest limited-release reds are where the greatest excitement lurks. It's these wines that delighted the judges at the International Wine Challenge in England late last year, winning the trophy for the world's best single-estate wine ('08 The Everest Old Bush Vine Grenache) and the International Shiraz/Syrah Trophy ('05 The Everest Chateau Cru Shiraz).
These are knee-tremblingly opulent, decadent wines, hovering about 15 per cent alcohol and loaded with flavour. If you're into very big reds, these are some of the best. The '08 vintage of the shiraz and '06 of the grenache are also superb and cast in the same mould. Normally, grenache is not matured in new oak but the '06 spent two years in new French puncheons. It doesn't show. This attests to the great flavour of the fruit.
These wines are only made when the fruit is right, Geber says, and that means no '07s, although both wines were made in '09 and '10. They are rare and you must go to the chateau to buy them.
One man's chateau is still his castle
Chateau Tanunda must be the last Australian wine property to still use the word "chateau". And it's not about to change. Owner John Geber fought successfully in the highest court for international trademarks, the Trademark Court of Appeal in Brussels, for the right to use the name. And fair enough: the grand building is more of a chateau than a lot of French wine properties bearing the name.
chateautanunda.com, (08) 8563 3888.