Marathon Man

James & Suzanne Halliday at the Great Barrier Feast

James Halliday is a wine legend. Both a wine maker and wine lover, he has written or contributed to more than 65 books on wine since he began writing in 1979. His annual Australian Wine Companion is the bestselling and definitive guide to Australian wine. In his inimitable style, Halliday shares his extensive knowledge through detailed tasting notes and winery information, making it an indispensable industry reference and a must-have guide for anyone planning to visit a winegrowing region or wanting to replenish their cellar or wine rack. Each year Hamilton Island invites him to select the wines to be served at the Great Barrier Feast and he offers a sneak preview of forthcoming favourites, ahead of the top wines announcement, begging the audience as he presents them, to keep the winners a secret. To compile the 2014 Companion some 8,064 wines were tasted, with full tasting notes for 4,009 wines, ratings, drinkto dates and prices for a further 2,207, making the cut for the book. He profiles 1,396 wineries and lists his ‘best of the best by variety’.

It’s a mammoth task, one that Halliday likens to painting the Harbour Bridge. “I’ve already started work on the 2015 edition,” he says “with the first of what will be several hundred days of tastings, with 120 wines per day tasted. “Wines are sent to me for tasting throughout the year, and it is an inflexible rule that every wine sent will be tasted.

“The first period of intense activity is for the annual Top 100 appearing in The Australian Weekend Magazine. I normally allot the first two weeks in September for this task, and in that time taste around 1,400 wines. This will involve tastings both on weekends and weekdays.

“Letters will have been sent to preselected wineries, which I know are either making high quality wines or especially good value for money wines. Some clever wineries try to sneak into the tasting, but do not get past my PA’s guard. Given the limited timeframe, there has to be a prequalified tender basis.

“The system is constantly evolving, but in principle I will taste 70%-75% of the 8,000-plus wines that will have been submitted and tasted for each (future) edition of the Wine Companion. The remainder will be tasted by either Ben Edwards, Tyson Stelzer or Campbell Mattinson.

“It is more mentally tiring than physically damaging, although I have several palate protectors. The chief being: soda water (alkaline, and thus balancing the acidity of the wines); green olives on their stones (to strip out tannins from the red wines); and hard cheese (counteracting the acidity in white wines). I also frequently swap between white and red wines.”

Robert Oatley Vineyards first appeared in the 2008 Companion with a credible three and a half stars, rising to five stars in 2011 and the highest possible rating of ‘red five stars’ in 2013: “outstanding winery regularly producing wines of exemplary quality and typicity”. Less than 5% of wineries enjoy this status, they must have at least two wines rated at 94 points or above, and had a five star rating for the previous two years.

The just released 2014 edition once again credits Oatley with a red five star rating, with three wines reviewed making Halliday’s ‘best of the best’ listings, a great achievement in five years.