A year of woe brings an unexpected reward for the Best's winery crew.
AS FAR AS SEASONS GO, THIS fourth-generation winemaker is refreshingly matter-of-fact about 2011: Viv Thomson says it's the worst ever. It's an appraisal based on experience, one that comes off the back of his 51st consecutive vintage. Of course, there's a delicious irony in all this, namely Best's Great Western Bin No.1 Shiraz 2011. Last month that $25 easy-drinking wine won three trophies at the Royal Melbourne Wine Show, including the coveted Jimmy Watson Memorial Trophy.
''You never think you're going to win the Jimmy Watson,'' the sprightly 74-year-old says. ''But I can now tick that off my bucket list.''
A month has passed since this family-owned-and-run winery took the trifecta, including the gong for best Victorian table wine and the inaugural Trevor Mast Trophy for best shiraz in show. In the comfort of their lounge room overlooking the Concongella vineyards, including the historic and priceless 1860s plantings of shiraz, Viv and Christine Thomson, with son Ben (the managing director and vineyard manager at Best's), still seem star-struck.
Recalling the awards ceremony, Viv says ''picking up a bronze or silver [medal] would have been good, you just don't think about winning the trophies''.
When Viv ended his acceptance speeches, there were tears, two standing ovations, lots of laughter and much reflection.
''When the Jimmy was announced, dad said, 'It's nice when an old bloke can dream and it comes true.' We were all sobbing by then,'' Ben says.
Yet it's the poignancy of the Trevor Mast Trophy that resonates the most. It's personal. In 1975, the eccentric, diligent and wonderful Mast became the first external winemaker at Best's. Mast stayed for 12 years before becoming a co-owner of Mount Langi Ghiran, further championing cool-climate shiraz. He and Viv remained friends. In March this year, Mast died from pneumonia, aged 63, although early-onset Alzheimer's had already ravaged his brilliant mind. Fittingly, Mast's wife, Sandi, presented the trophy to Viv.
''Winning that award is very, very special,'' Viv says. ''Nothing comes close.''
Vintage aside, for the Thomson family, 2011 was one heck of a tumultuous year. Ben says it was a shock when winemaker Adam Wadewitz, who had been steering the wines beautifully since 2005, left, moving down the road to take over the reins at Seppelt (a job he's since quit. Wadewitz heads back to South Australia in the new year to work at Shaw + Smith). The newly appointed assistant winemaker, Justin Purser, had returned to Australia after a three-year stint in Burgundy and hadn't even started work at Best's when he was promptly promoted to the top job.
''In a way, the news was a dream come true,'' Purser says, ''as I actually got this dream job. That was exactly a year ago.''
To put the difficult 2011 vintage in context, Best's did not produce its two top wines, Bin No.0 and the flagship Thomson Family Shiraz, at all last year. And while many others in the region and nearby couldn't salvage anything, how did Best's still manage to make an award-winning wine, the Bin No.1 Shiraz?
''Undoubtedly it was the worst year ever with the rain, disease pressure from powdery mildew to botrytis,'' Viv says. ''But the story behind 2011 is a credit to three people: firstly Ben, who was on top of the vineyard early, spraying, opening up the foliage and cutting out excess wood. Adam did a bloody good job with the fruit on the sorting table. Adam wanted a sorting table and I thought it was a waste of time. Glad I was proved wrong. And then Justin, who did a good job putting the wine together. Without that enormous effort in the vineyard, we couldn't have made such a wine, but that wine is a combination of the effort of all three.''
Not surprisingly, he says, the wine is much lighter in colour and structure. I pipe up saying that at last month's Western Victorian Wine Challenge, I awarded it just 16 - equivalent to a bronze medal. ''That's about right,'' Viv says with a chuckle. Considering the depth and definition Bin No.1 usually achieves, even Best's sales manager was nervous as to how he could sell the 2011. He's having no problems now it's a trophy winner.
''The season produced that particular style of wine,'' Ben says. ''And it took time to see, but it has so much appeal.''
And it does. In fairness, it is a lovely drink. While 2011 turned out to be the vintage from hell, it is one none of the Thomsons would give up for anything. Three trophies vouch for that. Purser is reminded how Domaine de la Romanee-Conti's chef de cave, Bernard Noblet, once told him the wine from that famous Romanee-Conti vineyard had a spirit.
''The Thomson Family Shiraz also has a spirit … It's a wine of great complexity, presence and beauty with a certain magic.''
Three of the best
BEST'S GREAT WESTERN BIN NO.1 SHIRAZ 2011, $25
Bin 1 is Best's gluggable, drink-now shiraz and the prettiness, vibrancy and juiciness of this wine belies its difficult and wet vintage. But there it is, a gorgeous wine full of spice, pepper, clean bright fruit with earthy nuances, soft, giving tannins with a real lightness of being. While 6000 dozen were made in total, winning three trophies at the Royal Melbourne Show now means stocks are dwindling.
BEST'S GREAT WESTERN THOMSON FAMILY SHIRAZ 2010, $180
The epitome of Best's is its Thomson Family shiraz - a wine made only in exceptional vintages and sourced from 15 rows of ancient vines nudging 150 years. A wine that reflects Australia's wine history beautifully, yet it needs time to unfurl. It will age easily for another 20 years. The 2010 is full-bodied, richly flavoured, all earthy and concentrated with the cedary oak integrated, its ripe, round tannins velvety and the fruit fragrant and luscious. A finely tuned, structured wine. Astonishing.
BEST'S GREAT WESTERN E.V.T. 51 RIESLING 2012, $35
In a few weeks, this riesling will be released and it's one of Justin Purser's first wines at Best's. It's a beauty. Making use of a new 2500-litre foudre that's actually destined for chardonnay, Purser decided to put the riesling into the large oak cask for two weeks to gain texture and palate weight. It's rare for riesling to sit in oak, but Purser says the foudre sculpts the riesling. And it's true. It's also fragrant with white florals and honeydew melon and ginger spice, with the palate balanced by soft acidity and a long, persistent finish.
* Best's Great Western and Mount Langi Ghiran have each released a Trevor Mast tribute wine - the latter a 2005 Nowhere Creek Shiraz and the former, House Block 2012 Riesling. Available at their cellar doors, $200 for a six-pack. All money raised is donated to the Lovell Foundation, a charity raising funds for younger-onset dementia sufferers.