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Deep Dive:
Australia’s Best Textural Riesling

Wines Of Now
Words by YGOW. Images by James Morgan.

Although there is this nagging – seemingly unshakeable – collective memory that riesling is often sweet, the benchmark Australian rieslings have always been dry, and often aridly so. It’s a noble style – one charming in its first flush of youth, but then requiring patience to evolve. But the riesling landscape has become somewhat richer in the last little while, with a wealth of wines that combine electric acidity with balancing deposits of residual sugar (due to the fermentation stopping at a certain point, so some of the sugar is not converted to alcohol, hence residual sugar). It’s a very exciting category, one that produces wines that are seductive in their youth and can age astonishingly well, as well as pairing with myriad cuisines. It’s just that kind of situation that triggers a Deep Dive…

With eight gun palates in attendance, we gathered every example we could find in Australia and set our expert panel the tasks of finding the wines that compelled the most. All wines were tasted blind, and each panellist named their top six wines. Below are the top wines from the tasting.

Our panel: Meg Brodtmann MW, Winemaker Rob Dolan Wines; Patrick Walsh, Director and Owner Cellarhand Wine Wholesalers; Dr Ray Nadeson, Winemaker and Owner Lethbridge Estate; Mac Forbes, Winemaker and Owner Mac Forbes wines; Kayleen Reynolds, Manager City Wine Shop; Sophie Carbonneau, National Sales Manager Bibendum Wine Co.; Jen Latta, Owner Winespeake; Justin Purser Head Winemaker Best’s Great Western. All wines were tasted blind.

The Top Textural Rieslings in Australia

2019 Rieslingfreak No.8 ‘Schatzkammer’ Riesling, Clare Valley $37

“Excellent wine!”, wrote Carbonneau in declaring this her top pick. “Powerful and rich nose, reminiscent of chenin blanc character, leaning on lanolin and green apple notes. …Impressive balance on the palate with fantastic concentration but also finesse and detail.” Nadeson also billed it as his prime selection. “My standout of the tasting,” he wrote. “I was struck by the intense fresh, yet complex aromas/flavours of lime, ginger, spices and slightly unripe apricots all underpinned by a driving balanced acidity. After allowing myself a little swallow I was impressed by the length and incredible persistence of these flavours” The wine also found favour with Walsh, declaring it, “A wine that you could easily skim over and miss in a line-up like this because of its instant charm and drinkability, but the longer this sat in the glass, the more it revealed. …There’s no obvious point where the sugar ends or where the acidity starts. A lot of extract, layers of limey lemony flavours and a steely backbone render this a pretty bloody compelling textural riesling.” Brodtmann also included it in her top six. “Definitely more developed on the nose with plenty of toast, honey and nougat with hints of fresh straw. The complexing development continues on the palate with nougat, honey and toast but superb balance and length.”

2020 Rieslingfreak No.5 Riesling, Clare Valley $27

Forbes, Carbonneau and Nadeson all rated this highly. “Mineral purity with a lick of citrus fruits and lime/grapefruit pith,” wrote Forbes. “This nose has me salivating immediately. The palate opens with such fine detail of acid, phenolics and so much energy and vrrrmm. Fruit and flavours follow the nose, but the excitement is firmly due to electric mouthfeel.” Carbonneau also had this just shy of top spot. “Delicate nose revolving around floral notes, reminiscent of Mosel riesling with its delicacy and mineral aromas. Elegant on the palate with superb purity and balance. White and rose flowers with fine citrusy acidity. Highly drinkable.” “Knife-edge balance of sweetness and acid drive,” wrote Nadeson. “Zesty aromas of lime/lemon blossom complemented with flavours of lemon pith ginger, apricots and wet stone. I found this wine very compelling perhaps a wine the greatness of which is yet to be realised.”

2020 d’Arenberg ‘The Dry Dam’ Riesling, McLaren Vale, Adelaide Hills, Clare Valley $19

This was Forbes’ wine of the day. “Initially slightly closed, this wine revealed a hugely appealing mix of chalk, citrus (kaffir lime) and piercing freshness. A calm surface tension inviting a big sip. Immediately the drive from front to back palate is a showstopper. A refreshing wet stone structure provides a salivating undercarriage for the gorgeous taught fruit above. Subtle white blossom and balanced residual sugar weave through the restrained fruits, resulting in a wine I’d like to drink a lot this summer.” Walsh also rated it well. “Very pale in the glass, matched with some real purity on the nose with particularly clear aromas. Palate has some lovely vitality and verve and is literally singing with white stone fruit nuances and an abundance of mouth-watering sherbetty acid. Lovely and fine, not overtly pungent or massively powerful but just an all-round joy to drink, which ultimately ought to be the whole point in the first-place. Salivating and refreshing.”

2019 Logan Wines ‘Weemala’ Riesling, Orange $20

Though missing out on her top spot, Reynolds rated this highly. “The diversity of Australian Riesling is really showcased here,” she wrote. “This wine is delightfully ripe, loaded with vibrant stone fruits and citrus whilst maintaining restraint and finesse. I love the slight bitter grapefruit note on the palate here. This wine is very smart – perfectly balanced with a very long finish.” It also found favour with Latta. “Delicious on the nose. I wanted to love this wine because of the bouquet. Wonderful length and fruit without being overbearing. If I had to guess a location, somewhere slightly cooler. Sugar levels alleviate the fruit, not overpower it, lifting up the wine beautifully. Whilst it’s not a guzzler, it’s a bit more powerful than that, it certainly goes down very well. Fantastic wine.” “Heady perfume of musk rose, spice and lemongrass,” wrote Nadeson. “Am I imagining a splash of gewürztraminer? Fascinating and complex if not exactly expected. A richer style with all the acid and drive needed to hold all the components in check and balance. Exciting and different.”

2018 Bream Creek ‘Old Vine’ Reserve Riesling, Tasmania $48

This was Latta’s top pick. “Initially I said, ‘This is getting lost in the line-up, but I feel as a standalone wine it would be delicious.’ …When I revisited, I realised it was being overshadowed because it was so finessed, and I wanted to keep coming back to it. Lifted palate, spice dancing on the tongue, subtle bouquet but there’s something so romantically enticing in this wine. That white pepper spice dancing around gives it a keen interest.” Reynolds also rated it highly. “So Australian, so fresh, so complex, so alive! …The balance of sugar and acid is very smart here. Again, a more modern style of the classic Australian Riesling we all know and love.”

2019 Lark Hill ‘Canberra Region’ Riesling, Canberra District $25

“Now, this is what I call a modern take on classic Australian Riesling!” wrote Reynolds in awarding her top spot. “It was about the delicate perfume that sat perfectly well with a soft but fresh palate line. This wine was charming from the beginning and won me over again and again. Every time I went back to it, I saw something else and wished I had the whole bottle to share amongst friends. Orange blossom really personalised this wine, reminding me of that first welcoming springtime al fresco glass!” Carbonneau also rated it well. “The nose is perfumed and deep with notes of fresh citrus, white flowers and wet stones. On the palate, the acidity is racy but in balance, with a great texture and intensity to the wine. Beautiful finesse with a nice, savoury finish, making you reach for a second glass.”

2019 Schmölzer & Brown ‘Obstgarten K’, King Valley $35

Forbes, Walsh and Nadeson all picked this in their top six, with Nadeson rating it towards the top of his list. “Lemon and lime zest interplaying with hints of mandarin and green apple aromas on a stage of flinty wet stone aromas,” he wrote. “All these aromatics are underpinned by a palate of crunchy red apple, lemon and flint. Outstanding lush mouthfeel with a crunchy acid finish. I think this wine is a great exemplar of not merely balance but thrillingly so… a man/woman on a tightrope.” “The nose is still a little disjointed as a young wine,” noted Forbes, “but with white melon, citrus and a subtle sweeter note of roasted spice, it has my attention. Salivating as F**K. So good, with the riper fruits embraced by a platform of granite and stones ensuring the finish is fresh and moreish.” “Love the aromas here,” wrote Walsh, “and like so many wines today, it just feels as though everything is in the right spot. Palate has some real bracing acidity that perfectly offsets some really plump fruit compote notes. Walks the tightrope without falling off! Seduced by the sugar here? Possibly. Happy about that? Totally.”

2019 Gilbert ‘RS11’ Riesling, Orange $36

Brodtmann, Forbes and Walsh all included this wine in their top-six lists. “This wine digs its claws in on many levels,” wrote Forbes. “Green tropical fruits with a slight stink of just fermenting (rotting) fruits in a most pleasantly appealing way. Weird I know. Contrasting the tropical fruits, the palate is slender and taught, dragging you through the fruits and out the other side. Great wine.” “On the nose, the wine is reserved with more citrus (lemon, lime) and blossom notes,” noted Brodtmann. “Hints of minerality. Quite light palate weight with the crisp acid balanced by the perceptible residual sugar. A delicate, limey style. Fine lined with loads of florals and grip with an interesting musk stick finish.” Nadeson found it, “Delicate and delicious. Aromatics of fresh lime leaf and lemon blossom… very inviting. Lingering flavours in the lime/grapefruit spectrum and excellent balance of sweetness and acidity. Long and persistent in the mouth, an absolute treat.”

2018 Logan Wines ‘Weemala’ Riesling, Orange $20

This was the top pick for Purser. “An enchanting nose of cumquats, white flowers, roasted almonds and brioche,” he wrote. “An appealing amount of sweetness is balanced by a noticeable chalkiness and a drive of steely acidity. A beautifully composed wine that lingers in the mouth.”

2017 Pressing Matters ‘R9’ Riesling, Tasmania $40

In awarding it his top spot, Walsh wrote: “Immediately some real interest and power here, really jumps out of the glass, more so as the minutes passed. Ripe but not overripe fruits; waxy, lemony palate, with lots of persistence and drive. Phenolic touches add a complex dimension to the overall impression of balanced dryness. This is a wine that is seamless from start to finish and a lovely example of the kind of textural composition we are looking for today.”

2019 Naked Run ‘Der Zweite’ Riesling, Clare Valley $28

This was Brodtmann’s top selection for the day. “Pale lemon colour with a green tinge. Delicate aromas of orange blossom, lime and mandarin. Perceptible residual sugar but perfectly balanced with the green apple acid. Slight spritz. A lovely, fresh, delicate, floral wine showing balance and length.”

2019 Chaffey Bros. ‘Tripelpunkt’ Riesling, Eden Valley $25

Selected by Purser as a one of his top picks, he wrote: “Attractive aromas of beeswax, toast, lime zest and ginger. Perhaps some skin contact at work here with a pithy viscosity and a richness to the palate. The racy acidity and talc notes reign in the fruit to give a long, persistent and drying finish.”

2018 Bream Creek Riesling, Tasmania $31

Reynolds and Latta both picked this in their top selections. “This Riesling caught me straight up, struck by the enticing reduction that with air, sat nicely in the background,” wrote Reynolds. “Coiled with wet stone and loaded with fresh lime, this riesling has complex, dense fruit and a very long finish. It will go the distance.” “Great length, a very classic style,” noted Latta. “Not powerful, quite delicate. Face in the glass and you want to gulp down that bouquet. Nice line of acidity to bring it home, but I feel like it coats the palate deliciously. Moreish and elegant. …Bring on the deckchairs and sunshine.”

2016 Artis ‘Single Vineyard’ Riesling, Clare Valley $40

Latta: “Has a toasty-ness, which adds warmth and depth to this wine without being overbearing. Deceptively pale in colour given warmth on palate. …sunshine in a glass (but wearing a hat, so no sunburn here!).”

2020 Plan B! ‘OD’ Riesling, Frankland River $25

Nadeson and Latta both rated this wine well. “Fresh, lacy, delicate and almost fragile, with wonderful aromas and flavours of lemon sorbet and ginger spice,” wrote Nadeson. “A very appealing wine that would be incredibly pleasing with your favourite xiao long bao.” “Subtle bouquet on the nose,” noted Latta, “so not sure what to expect but pleasant palate. Has that young green fruits with natural vine ripeness. Feels like a young vine wine that’s been picked at the right time. I don’t see any confusion about what the balance of sweetness/acidity should be. Clean, easy, pleasant. Not pushing the boundaries, just decent wine. …Really lifted.”

2018 Kate Hill Riesling, Tasmania $32

Purser: “Lifted and youthful, showing white flowers, lavender oil, lime leaf and spice. A seamless wine from beginning to end. It is finely weighted with fruit but perfectly counterbalanced by a chalky acidity. A wine that asks you to come back for more.”

2020 Mr Riggs ‘Ein Riese’ Riesling, Adelaide Hills $25

Forbes: “High-tone green fruits of lime, spice, herbs and finger limes, with complexing lees. On the palate the residual sugar is noticeable as it coats and carries the appealing extract and fine acid and tannin. The balance is undeniable.”

2017 Mitchell ‘Kinsfolk’ Riesling, Clare Valley $30

Latta: “Slight floral bouquet sneaking through, nice and light with elegant lift and balance. Acidity not overpowering. Feels like it was picked at perfect ripeness to not just be a balance to the acidity. It definitely has the stalkiness/warmth that can be seen as a negative, but I f$&king love it when it makes sense. That sunshine warmth in a glass. Almost feels viognier-esque in display. Maybe that’s why it stands out against the bunch? But it gets my vote in the top six due to interest.”

2019 Helm ‘Half Dry’ Riesling, Canberra District $30

Carbonneau: “The nose is jumping out of the glass screaming drink me! Appealing notes of fresh white flesh fruit and flowers. The palate displays great balance with a lovely roundness and excellent flavour intensity, finishing on a gentle phenolic grip making it very food friendly. Long and intensity. A good wine.”

2019 Robert Stein ‘Half Dry’ Riesling, Mudgee $40

Brodtmann: “Pale lemon colour with a green tinge. On the nose, interesting chalky and cheesy aromas (lees?). Riper style with apricot nectar and white blossom aromas. The residual sugar fills out the middle with zesty acid to balance. Limey and juicy. Great length with a crisp acid finish.”

2019 Seppelt ‘Drumborg Vineyard’ Riesling, Henty $40

Purser: “Decadent aromas of tropical fruits, beeswax, ginger and a diamond saw cutting through rock. It is poised and balanced with the hardly noticeable sweetness left to be dried out by the chalky wet stone tannins and finely latticed acidity tingling the senses.”

2020 Mac Forbes ‘RS22’ Riesling, Strathbogie Ranges $42

Walsh: “Exuberant nose here that takes me for some reason to an Asian spice market. Kaffir lime freshness, ginger spice. Love the earthy, stony wet-rock characters and the extra dimension of interest that this wine exhibits over many others in the line-up today. A wine that (even after lunch!) makes you think about what you’d want to eat with it, which is always a good sign. Spicy scallops in betel leaf anyone?”

2019 Best’s ‘Foudre Ferment’ Riesling, Great Western $35

Brodtmann: “Mid yellow colour showing potential development. Pure lime juice on the nose, wet stone and chalk. Hints of honeysuckle and a hint of toast on the nose showing complexity with freshness. Beautiful, fine-lined palate but a little broad on the initial attack. Plenty of phenolic grip and grunt but supported by the honeysuckle, lime and mineral flavours. Textured and balanced. Hints of creaminess suggesting lees contact.”

2019 Pewsey Vale ‘Prima’ Riesling, Eden Valley $28

This featured on both Brodtmann and Carbonneau’s top-six lists. “Riper fruit on the nose, showing definite development,” wrote Brodtmann. “Honey, nougat and wet hay. Quite a delicate nose but plenty of complexing aromas to make it interesting. On the palate, balanced residual sugar with green apple acid. Definitely showing some development with nougat, honey and kerosene but complexing rather than dominant. Phenolic grip. A textured wine which is just crying out for food.” “The nose is delicate,” Carbonneau noted, “a little shy at first but opening up nicely after a few minutes in the glass. The palate is all about raciness and minerality, making a great aperitif. The wine is light on its feet, leading me to believe it might be slightly lower in alcohol. It’s a vibrant little number.”

2019 Mewstone Riesling, Tasmania $50

Reynolds: “A different style once again, maybe more in line with an Alsatian style of wine. Spicy and phenolic, subtle but dense. A modern and sophisticated take on Grandma’s favourite wine.”

2020 Comyns & Co. Riesling, Hunter Valley $30

Purser: “A very pale colour that leads to a wine of purity and precision. Florals and lime leaf dominate on the nose and the fresh citrus flavours continue to the palate. The wine is dialled in with all the elements of fruit, sweetness, extract and acid working in perfect harmony.”

2019 Ferngrove ‘Black Label Off-Dry’ Riesling, Frankland River $22

Walsh: “Freshly ground white pepper is the lead aromatic here in this clear stand-out wine in the bracket quite late in the day. Palate is well composed, overall impression is of freshness, length and balance. A wine that feels very relaxed, where nothing is forced, everything just in its spot. Quite subtle in a way but all the better for it, tastes more of ‘riesling’ than of any particular place but just about gets away with that.”

2020 Lethbridge ‘Dr Nadeson’ Riesling, Henty $35

Purser: “A very pale colour contrasts the rich and layered aromas and flavours of this wine. Wet stone, fresh lemons and spice wrestle for attention. The palate is quite viscous with flavours of honey and green papaya, but the line of citrus pith gives finesse and poise.”

2020 Teusner ‘Empress’ Riesling, Eden Valley $23

Forbes: “Bright pure fruit nose with complexing interplay of green apples, citrus and white flowers. Very focused. Palate is firm and sinewy as weight and drive build on the back palate. So finely tuned that it’s like your hand is being held the whole way through the bottle.”

2019 Best’s ‘House Block’ Riesling, Great Western $35

Carbonneau: “Vibrant nose, displaying fresh white flowers and green apple notes. The palate shows excellent balance between refreshing acidity and sugar. We’re overall left with an impression of elegance and poise, with attractive flavour intensity. Well done.”

2020 Langmeil ‘Live Wire’ Riesling, Eden Valley $20

Reynolds: “This wine is a delight. That wine that never fails to impress any riesling drinker, doesn’t scream for anything except for a reason to drink a damn good glass of wine! Beautifully perfumed, delicate and unpretentious. Soft, lovely, approachable.”

Textural Riesling in Australia – The Backstory

Riesling was one of the earliest grapes planted in Australia, being first imported in 1817, a decade and a half before James Busby brought in his fabled collection of vine cuttings (which also included riesling). Seeking to preserve their traditions, it was unsurprisingly embraced by South Australia’s German settlers, committing it to ground in areas that are still regarded as prime territory for the grape – the Clare and Eden Valleys.

However, like many of Australia’s pioneering wine efforts, most of those plantings fell into neglect during the early part of the 20th century, with table wine as a whole, well, mostly off the table. Fortified wines were de rigueur, and riesling had no starring role to play there.

Riesling vines in the Clare Valley. Photo courtesy of Rieslingfreak.

There’s little doubt that 19th century Australian rieslings would have been rustic affairs, employing rudimentary winemaking facilities and practices, but the resurgence in table wines that gathered pace in the 1950s was very much walking in lockstep with a technological revolution, which saw purity of expression take the lead.

The introduction of temperature regulation and pressure tanks to preserve freshness and prevent oxidation gave Australian wine a new direction, and it was responsible for a style that would become the internationally celebrated face of Australian riesling.

That technology was also used at the time to produce reliable, clean wine that helped popularise wine as an everyday beverage. Many of those were semi-sweet sparkling wines, fun, flippant beverages of the moment, but those same makers were also the leaders in redefining not just Australian riesling but riesling as a category.

While the great Leo Buring was appeasing the masses with Sparkling Rheingolde (a fizzy version of a simple white he had been making since the 1930s), he was investing heavily in riesling. In league with the equally legendary John Vickery as winemaker, Buring began producing mostly dry rieslings in 1955, from sources in both the Clare and Barossa Valleys.

Those early mass-market sparklings were immense commercial successes in their day, alongside such things as Orlando’s Barossa Pearl and the little-known horrors – from their competitor Kaiserstuhl – that were Cherri Pearl and Pineapple Pearl, fruit-infused wine made by a young Wolf Blass – the “serve cold” advice on the label now looking more like a stern warning than a serving recommendation.

A Barossa Pearl advertisement. Note the “serve cold” advice on the neck of the bottle.

It’s easy to look at this nostalgia and snicker, but without Barossa Pearl (the first and most successful of the sweet sparklers), Orlando’s Colin Gramp may never have had the resources to plant the Steingarten Vineyard, in the Eden Valley, a rocky, marginal site, which is still seen as hallowed territory for the flinty style of wines that made Australian riesling famous. Nor would Buring have been able to indulge the pursuit of riesling in the way that he did.

While major commercial success came gradually, Australian riesling was finding its groove. Like Hunter Valley semillon, riesling from the Clare and Eden Valleys became emblematically Australian: taut and eye-wateringly dry expressions that aged for decade after decade. And the category boomed throughout the 70s and 80s, until chardonnay came along and sent both demand and plantings into a sharp downward – though thankfully not terminal – spiral.

Mac Forbes was one of the first modern Australian makers to embrace the idea of including varying degrees of residual sugar in his wine as an ongoing, quality-focused venture. “From a winemaking point of view, it’s changed so much. I remember my first couple of rieslings in 2006, we had Clare producers coming through, and they were like, ‘That’s not how you make Riesling.’ It wasn’t like, ‘Why are you doing that?’ but more, ‘This is the recipe, and you’ve diverged.’”

Those methods for making Australian riesling of the day were adaptive ones, an approach that suited our climate. Protection of purity became key – no doubt a reaction to earlier rustic styles – with the fruit picked relatively early then fermented at low temperatures until bone dry. There were no deviations in the making. No experimentation. No rule breaking. That was how riesling was made.

Mac Forbes was one of the first modern Australian makers to embrace the idea of including varying degrees of residual sugar in his wine as an ongoing, quality-focused venture. “From a winemaking point of view, it’s changed so much. I remember my first couple of rieslings in 2006, we had Clare producers coming through, and they were like, ‘That’s not how you make Riesling.’ It wasn’t like, ‘Why are you doing that?’ but more, ‘This is the recipe, and you’ve diverged.’”

John Hughes grew up on a vineyard in the Clare Valley, but was equally inspired by the wines of Germany when he launched his Rieslingfreak label in 2009. While making a suite of dry wines, Hughes also paid homage to styles with residual sugar as a feature. For Hughes, riesling was not a grape given to a narrow band of expression, but rather one capable of remarkable variety.

John Hughes, the ‘Winemaker’s Choice’ at the 2017 Young Gun of Wine Awards, making his Rieslingfreak wine.

“When I first made my No.8 Polish Hill River Riesling, a Kabinett Style, I was seen as going outside the square, and really pushing the boundaries for riesling,” says Hughes, reflecting that his experimentation didn’t always sit well in a traditional region. “Recently, the 2019 No.8 scored the Chairman’s Trophy at the Clare Wine Show. The trophy was great, but Nick Ryan’s speech was even better. He was giving the Clare Winemakers a subtle hint to further explore the grape of their region, and to go outside the boundaries.”

In Germany, and Austria too, skin contact is not uncommon for riesling. We’re not talking orange wine territory, but a few hours – or overnight – soaking in contact with the skins imbues the juice with more complex aromatics (there are more of those in the flesh closer to the skins) as well as some phenolics that can enhance the structure. So, why didn’t we do that here?

The prime territories for riesling in the Old World are cold, and quite dramatically so at times, while the historic homelands for riesling here are not particularly, with the Clare Valley somewhat warmer again than the Eden Valley. When the sun beats down on grapes, and when water is hard to come by, those grape skins can become thick and tough.

“Riesling does have a history of sunburnt fruit carrying through to the wine,” says Forbes. “which is potentially why there was an aversion to any phenolics in riesling for so long. I think it’s now all being managed a lot better in the vineyard.”

Not only are viticultural practices now more in tune with managing fruit to avoid sunburn, as well as heat and water stress – even in a warming world – but riesling is also now planted in regions that are significantly cooler than the Clare Valley. Perhaps counterintuitively, these cooler zones can also often produce riesling with more weight and drive – with the conditions allowing for longer and slower ripening – as well as a different flavour spectrum.

Riesling grapes at harvest. Photo courtesy of Rieslingfreak.

Classically, when we think of Australian riesling, one flavour takes the lead. Variations on lime – lime juice, lime peel, lime pith, kaffir lime, Bickford’s lime cordial – dominate Australian riesling tasting notes, with lemon riding shotgun. Delve into the world of tasting notes for German riesling, and particularly ones with some sugar in them and that narrow citric band explodes into a fan of flavours that include orange citrus fruits and peel, as well as stone fruit and tropical fruits – some tasters even mention forest berries in their notes.

It’s important to note that even German dry, or “trocken”, wines often have a good deal more sugar than anything you might see in an Australian riesling, with up to 9 grams of residual sugar. That’s a level we would typically refer to as off-dry here, but with their high natural acidity, the sugar acts as ballast, adding weight, richness, flavour and texture, but not noticeable sweetness.

It’s important to note that even German dry, or “trocken”, wines often have a good deal more sugar than anything you might see in an Australian riesling, with up to 9 grams of residual sugar. That’s a level we would typically refer to as off-dry here, but with their high natural acidity, the sugar acts as ballast, adding weight, richness, flavour and texture, but not noticeable sweetness.

And that’s where things can get quite interesting, as sugar can contribute to the complexity of a wine, and even not appear particularly sweet at high concentration, while also allowing for the inclusion of other elements, like phenolics from the grape skins, to add even more textural detail. Additionally, the range of aromatics in a wine with residual sugar varies somewhat from one that is fermented dry, just as wine does not smell and taste exactly like the grape juice that it was made from.

Texture in Australian riesling is a notion that has been sidelined for much of its history. The emphasis was placed on acid, on the linearity of the wines, of their cut and thrust. And while these styles still flourish, as they should, there is an increasing diversity that is making Australian riesling a very exciting category, and one that’s become impossible to pigeonhole.

Outtakes from the tasting

With eight gun palates in attendance, we gathered every example we could find in Australia and set our expert panel the tasks of finding the wines that compelled the most. All wines were tasted blind.

Our panel: Meg Brodtmann MW, Senior Winemaker Helen & Joey Estate; Patrick Walsh, Director and Owner Cellarhand Wine Wholesalers; Dr Ray Nadeson, Winemaker and Owner Lethbridge Estate; Mac Forbes, Winemaker and Owner Mac Forbes wines; Kayleen Reynolds, Manager City Wine Shop; Sophie Carbonneau, National Sales Manager Bibendum Wine Co.; Jen Latta, Owner Winespeake; Justin Purser Head Winemaker Best’s Great Western. All wines were tasted blind.

The panel tasting. Photo: by James Morgan, taken at the Prince Deck.

The tasting turned up a great diversity of styles, with varying levels of sugar, acidity and grip, along with a broad range of flavour profiles.

“If we went back 10 years,” said Walsh, “the relationship between sugar and acidity would be a lot more obvious – all over the shop. There’d be sugar here, acid there, and things would not be anywhere near as in balance as a lot of the wines we saw today. A lot of the wines we saw today, you’d be saying, ‘Is it sweet? Is it textural?’ They just presented as quite balanced and delicious rieslings. And that’s a massive tick for the Australian riesling winegrowing community. They’re not looking like the caricatures of wines when people started doing this stuff.”

Patrick Walsh and Sophie Carbonneau. Photo: by James Morgan, taken at the Prince Deck.

“I think I was most impressed with the diversity of fruit expression and styles,” said Reynolds. “Modern versus traditional. The diversity of fruits coming through, from green apples and ripe stone fruit, and tropical guava-y things in there. And the really good wines, you weren’t even talking about sugar or acid. To see so many different, well made, full of character examples from all over the country was a real treat!”

That variety of expression also came hand in hand with a real degree of harmony. “There were very few examples with that hard, green acid that you would have found say 10 years ago,” agreed Carbonneau. “There was a lot to get excited about.”

“If we went back 10 years,” said Walsh, “the relationship between sugar and acidity would be a lot more obvious – all over the shop. There’d be sugar here, acid there, and things would not be anywhere near as in balance as a lot of the wines we saw today. A lot of the wines we saw today, you’d be saying, ‘is it sweet? Is it textural?’ They just presented as quite balanced and delicious rieslings. And that’s a massive tick for the Australian riesling winegrowing community. They’re not looking like the caricatures of wines when people started doing this stuff.”

“It’s never as simple as sugar and acid balance,” noted Forbes. “There are phenolics in a lot of those wines, and it’s a saving grace for some of them. The imbalance in the past was when there were no phenolics to pull it all together.”

“The worse wines for me were when the sugar seemed to be there to mask some issues, but when it all came together, it was just superb,” said Brodtmann. “And I think Australian riesling has evolved, in that we are more accepting of [sugar]… and you shouldn’t see it, as far as I’m concerned. If it’s well balanced, it should fill out that mid-palate. We’ll know that it’s there, because we’re the nerds, the anoraks of the wine world, but most people will taste it and think ‘well, that’s just a really well balanced, fruit-driven wine,’ where the sugar drives the fruit.”

Justin Purser and Meg Brodtmann. Photo: by James Morgan, taken at the Prince Deck.

“I think the ones that were obviously sweet were out of balance, straight away,” commented Purser. “The ones where you could see the sugar, and there were quite a few in there with elevated levels of sugar, but the better ones were in balance because they were checked with grippiness from phenolic or lees contact, or acidity. And it is all about balance in the end, and the wines that were better balanced stood up in the tasting.”

Nadeson noted that even though he makes wines with residual sugar, that he can still have a subconscious bias for drier wines, or wines that opulently declare that they contain sugar. “I was tasting a wine, and I came back to it three times. And I thought, ‘That is sweet, but it’s beautifully balanced, and it has flavour and intensity. Why am I not happy with it?’ Actually, if I had a slightly different hat on, I’d say this is incredibly interesting and delicious.”

“Sweet can be good!” declared Walsh. “I find it hard not to get sucked in by sugar when you’re looking for flavour. And that’s a massive thing in wine, isn’t it? Because you want it to tase like something,” he laughed. “It’s a really simple thing, but we talk about not blocking terroir, about making wine as lo-fi as possible so that the flavour is there, and if it’s not there, then what’s the point. We always crap on about Clare Valley purity and freshness. It’s bullshit… Today, I was looking for the most delicious wine, because that was the brief. Not the most ‘correct’ wines and all that. What’s the most delicious? If you could grab a bottle right now, which one would it be? Surely that’s what today’s about.”

That idea of balance between sugar, acidity and phenolic structure was a constant, with Nadeson stressing that the technical numbers are irrelevant. “The sugar varies so much from year to year for me, it could be anything from 35 [grams per litre] to 10; it’s so dependent on the acid,” he said. “We always talk about balance… At the end of the day, we don’t want our wines to look sweet. It the acidity that drives the wines. If that means 35 grams [of sugar], then so be it. We never run it on a machine to test; we do it purely by taste.”

Ray Nadeson and Jen Latta. Photo: by James Morgan, taken at the Prince Deck.

“You were one of the first guys to put residual sugar front and centre on your labels… What do you think of that now?” Walsh asked Forbes.

“Yeah, how stupid’s that,” laughed Forbes, though he noted there was a positive. “Our sweetest wines generally taste the driest. Our customers will say, why is the ‘RS22’ tasting drier than the ‘RS6’, and all of a sudden, the conversation opens up. I think there’s an increasing awareness that the RS on its own is not the full story.”

That idea of talking about wines to customers about being seen as sweet or dry was tricky. Latta noted that she was seeing a good level of appreciation, but her local community is particularly rich in winemakers and wine-focused individuals. “We’re really luck that we have quite educated customers. They’re either sitting on the deck in the sunshine and they want something lean and racy, or if they’re pairing it with cheese, they might want something in a ‘German style’, with powerful fruit.”

The mention of sugar, though, was still seen as something of a barrier for consumers. “The way to approach it, I have found,” said Carbonneau, “is to describe them as fruity… ‘a fruity, full-bodied riesling…’ The word sweet… forget about it, and it doesn’t mean much, but fruity and full bodied seems to create a better predisposition to the wine – that it’s not a sweet wine, it’s a generous wine.”

Kayleen Reynolds. Photo: by James Morgan, taken at the Prince Deck.

“I didn’t speak about sugar much at all in my notes as I believe it just isn’t that important,” said Reynolds. “Wine drinkers are spending way too much energy on talking about something that doesn’t determine whether the wine is delicious.”

Reynolds also noted that the wines in the tasting were a neat mirror to our dining culture. “I think we’re so lucky with so much diverse food here, that this diversity of wine is translating in the restaurants. I thought about dumplings a lot in this tasting,” she laughed.

“Were there actually that many terrible wines here today?” asked Nadeson. “That’s my take home message, that there were a lot of wines that were very good.”

“Yes, less than half a dozen wines [showed poorly]… the rest you’d happily take home and drink,” agreed Walsh.

 


The Panel

Meg Brodtmann MW began her career as a medical research scientist before studying winemaking at Adelaide University. She worked internationally as a consultant winemaker throughout Europe and South America while also completing her Master of Wine qualification – the industry’s toughest test. Today, she is winemaker at the Yarra Valley Rob Dolan Wines.

Patrick Walsh founded Cellarhand Wine Wholesalers over 20 years ago with a core of German Riesling producers. Since then he has expanded to represent arguably Australia’s most compelling selection of Austrian and German makers, as well as those from Australia and France. He was the winner of the inaugural Frankland Estate International Riesling Scholarship, and has since been instrumental in raising the profile of riesling in this country through countless events. He is also a regular tutor at the Len Evans Tutorial. In a previous life, Walsh was a highly regarded sommelier, working in such establishments as Walter’s Wine Bar.

Dr Ray Nadeson is the winemaker and owner of Lethbridge Wines. During a career researching and teaching neuroscience at Monash University, Nadeson founded Lethbridge Estate with his partner Maree Collis. He also managed to squeeze in a winemaking degree in his spare time. Since 2003, Nadeson has been focused solely on the estate, farming with biodynamic principles and making wine from home vines, select local vineyards and as far afield as Heathcote, the Pyrenees and Henty.

Kayleen Reynolds is the manager of the City Wine Shop, in Melbourne (the inaugural Wineslinger winner). She has worked harvests both here and in New Zealand, and is also a budding wine judge, including as an associate at the National Wine Show, and at Sommelier Australia Scholarships. She is currently a WSET Diploma student.

Sophie Carbonneau worked for 10 years as a sommelier both in Australia and her native Montreal, Canada. She moved to the wholesale side of the business a decade ago, first alongside legendary retailer, importer and wine judge Randall Pollard at Heart & Soil, his import business, then at industry-leading independent importer and local wholesaler Bibendum Wine Co. She is now Bibendum’s National Sales Manager. Carbonneau is also a second year MW student, though she has pressed pause on her studies – for now.

Jen Latta is the founder and owner of Winespeake Cellar and Deli in Daylesford. Latta moved site and changed name (from Wine and the Country) mid-pandemic, with the new iteration firmly established in one of the town’s most iconic sites. Winespeake is one of the country’s best wineslingers, with a vast and sought-after collection that would be the envy of any inner-city bar or wine store.

Mac Forbes is the owner and winemaker for his eponymous label, which focuses on chardonnay and pinot noir from the Yarra Valley, as well as riesling from the Strathbogie Ranges. Forbes started his career as a winemaker at Yarra Valley great Mount Mary and has worked extensively overseas, with an extended stint consulting in Austria.

Justin Purser has been the winemaker at Best’s Great Western since 2011. A graduate of the University of Adelaide with a Bachelor of Oenology, Purser has worked around the world, including at Brezza in Piedmont, and as a senior winemaker at Domaine de Montille in Volnay between 2008 and 2011. Purser is also a regular wine show judge.


How the tasting was conducted

All wines were decanted into clear wine bottles, so as to not let bottle shape or closure type intrude on the appraisal. The identity of the wines was revealed after the panellists had disclosed their opinions.