Semillon, riesling and sauvignon blanc have become bywords for crisp white wine in this country, fruit forward, dry and laced with vibrant acidity. But that convention is no longer a given, with the grapes now being differently expressed, both subtly and with grand gestures, laying out a future than fans out with possibility.
The 2021 Top 50 features Luke Monks (Made by Monks), Greer Carland (Quiet Mutiny) and Ryan O’Meara (Express Winemakers), who are all expressing these classic varieties in new and exciting ways. (Tasting notes appear at the end of the article.)
Chardonnay has come to dominate Australian white wine, almost equivalent to the kingship that shiraz has over reds. And that’s a relatively new thing, with Australia’s historic reputation for varietal white wine resting on the twin pillars of riesling and semillon, with internationally recognised regional styles.
Hunter Valleysemillon, and riesling from the Clare and Eden Valleys are Australia’s emblematic white wines, linear and pure expressions, uncluttered with oak and able to age for decades. They were joined somewhat later by the equally racy sauvignon blanc, which has now eclipsed both for plantings.
Those three grapes make up almost 30 per cent of white wine produced in this country. And there’s an expectation of what this high-acid trio bring: generally aromatic, fruit-forward styles with fresh flavours and bright acidity. But much has changed, with makers tinkering to turn out wines that reconfigure expectations.
“In striving for more mid-palate presence, I have taken inspiration from German rieslings and their use of phenolics and wild ferments,” says Greer Carland of Quiet Mutiny. Prior to launching her label in 2016, Carland had worked for 12 years with Tasmania’s largest contract maker, Winemaking Tasmania – a winery that wouldn’t have much scope for creative risk.
“I have embraced the more lo-fi approach and combined it with my New World winemaking experience where fruit and intensity are the target heroes of the wine,” she says. “I’m exploring purity through the two schools of thought. I have found this balance creates delicious wines that are well received and seem to be finding a niche.”
While there are now well-known Australian rieslings that are inspired by the wines of Germany, many take the route most famously associated with the wines of the Mosel Valley, with varying degrees of sweetness. Pioneers like Mac Forbes (Mac Forbes Wines) and Greg Melick (Pressing Matters) perhaps best exemplify this approach, while more recently, John Hughes (Rieslingfreak) has meshed a range of classically styled dry Clare and Eden Valley styles with those carrying residual grape sugars.
But, like Carland, many makers are increasingly building flavour with the traditional German methods of judicial skin contact and/or time in old oak on lees (the expired yeast cells that build flavour and texture in a wine) while sugar is left in the wine as a barely perceptible ballast for acid and grape tannin (phenolics). It’s a subtle approach, with fruit purity and texture given equal emphasis, and it’s an approach that other local makers, like Anna Pooley (Pooley Wines), Peter Dredge (Meadowbank and Dr Edge) and Jonny Hughes (Mewstone and Hughes & Hughes), have refined in their own individual ways.
“To me, riesling is the most suited white variety for skin contact. It is so distinctive and those unique vineyard characters are heightened. But I've found the more delicately flavoured rieslings are better being off skins, with minimal winemaking influence. For skin contact or different vessels, you're better off with slightly riper parcels from vineyards that produce bolder flavoured fruit.”
“I still enjoy the early picked, bone-dry styles of riesling, particularly with a bit of age, but the versatility of the grape needs to be shown off,” says Ryan O’Meara of Express Winemakers. Based in the prime riesling territory of Western Australia’s Great Southern, he has made it somewhat of a mission to explore this versatility.
“I used to feel it necessary to try and put my fingerprints all over the riesling fruit,” he says. “More recently, I’ve simply crushed and pressed the fruit in a timely manner, transferred to a variety of vessels, including ceramic, old oak and stainless steel, and let it ferment naturally on full solids [on the lees]. I’ve found this provides plenty of texture, as well as dialled-back flavours that are in balance with the wine.”
Although O’Meara has pulled back skin contact, that process of crushing before pressing brings in more phenolics, while he also matures under varying degrees of flor yeast, with his 2019 showing a strong influence, and a little less so in the 2020 iteration. But O’Meara stresses that his winemaking would differ depending on the site, with the approach responsive, rather than prescriptive.
“Even within our region, different subregions and even different vineyards create such unique wines,” he says. “To me, riesling is the most suited white variety for skin contact. It is so distinctive and those unique vineyard characters are heightened. But I’ve found the more delicately flavoured rieslings are better being off skins, with minimal winemaking influence. For skin contact or different vessels, you’re better off with slightly riper parcels from vineyards that produce bolder flavoured fruit.”
“Riesling is a wonderful variety that has a strong expression of origin,” says Carland, echoing O’Meara. “However, the quality and intensity of the fruit you use is often a stronger determiner of winemaking options than region alone. But there really is no silver bullet; you must get to know your fruit to understand where you can go.”
That re-examination of variety is also occurring with semillon, finding some flex away from Australia’s established styles. Aside from sweet wine – De Bortoli’s ‘Noble One’ being the exemplar – semillon often appears in a blend with sauvignon blanc, but it reaches its heights as a standalone bottling, to an increasingly smaller degree in Margaret River – in a riper, quite aromatic style – but most commonly as the low-alcohol, lemon-scented whites that are a cornerstone of the Hunter Valley.
In Tasmania, Luke Monks uses semillon to make two wines, a white (part-raised in old oak in a ‘fumé’ style), as well as in a blend with shiraz from Meadowbank fruit in what he describes as “a tongue-in-cheek ode to the Hunter Valley from Tasmania” that is made in a fresh style and designed to be chilled
“I used semillon in 2019, as I thought it would be an interesting experiment, playing with Tasmanian sem… not something you hear of every day,” says Monks. “The vines were planted back when sem sauvs were all the rage, and with such blends out of fashion, the fruit was being blended away or not picked at all.”
“I thought it would be an interesting experiment, playing with Tasmanian sem… not something you hear of every day. The vines were planted back when sem sauvs were all the rage, and with such blends out of fashion, the fruit was being blended away or not picked at all.”
Monks picked his fruit on the riper side, though he notes that retaining acidity in grapes is never a problem in in his neck of the woods. “With these high-acid varieties in Tas, waiting for true phenolic ripeness is, in my opinion, important. The acid is there and ripening in the marginal cool climate areas can take a long time – patience is key. This is especially true if using skin contact.” In the winery after harvest, he kept the berries whole to start fermentation, then pressed half to finish fermenting as juice. Both portions were fermented with naturally occurring yeast, with the wine raised in tank and old oak.
Monks describes it as an interesting and ultimately rewarding project – with two strikingly individual wines produced, plus un-sulphured magnums bottled, too – but one that has been diverted by a lost crop in 2020, then a different direction in 2021. But it highlights the creative focus increasingly being given to a variety that has been somewhat pigeonholed. That new direction has already seen makers like Abel Gibson (Ruggabellus), Pete Schell (Spinifex), Andrew Wardlaw (Edenflo) and Dan Graham (Sigurd) make semillon an integral part of their blended wines – and not with its typical companion, sauvignon blanc.
With a less noble history than riesling or semillon in this country, sauvignon blanc has arguably never achieved a distinctive domestic style, aside from a few classic wines, such as Shaw + Smith’s from the Adelaide Hills or that of Gembrook Hill in the Yarra Valley. But the extraordinary amount of New Zealand sauvignon hitting our shores in more or less the same style has seen makers turn in creative directions, very much finding a different path – or rather, paths – away from the Kiwi benchmark.
Whether employing barrels for fermentation and maturation, alternative vessels – like amphora or eggs – and/or skin contact, sauvignon blanc is finding a multitude of new expressions. And while some of those expressions are wildly different to the anticipated norm, there are many that occupy a happy middle ground, with restrained varietal character allied with textural interest.
Nick Dugmore makes sauvignon blanc under The Stoke label from Kangaroo Island fruit. “KI is such a young region,” he says, “and our goal is simply to show that the place can make strong, consistent, varietal wines.” This may lead one to expect a simple, highly aromatic sauvignon, but that’s not how he and his wife, Bec, operate, with a preservation of varietal character not coming at the expense of subtle texture and an overriding desire to express the regional imprint as emphatically as the varietal one.
“It is a very slow-ripening region,” says Dugmore. “We have the benefit of a lot of flavour with high natural acidity. We ferment a portion in barrel pretty warm, which helps blow off some of the intense green character and helps to develop mouthfeel. The other portion is kept cool and clean through ferment – it is more seamless and elegant and retains freshness with the natural acid. This gives us components to achieve a well-balanced wine doesn’t have an overpowering character.”
Riesling, semillon and sauvignon blanc all come with very specific expectations for drinkers, but those expectations are now being challenged in a major way. Today’s makers are breaking the bonds of established style constraints, colouring outside the traditional lines to create increasingly engaging and diverse expressions, enriching the already exciting progressive Australian wine scene in compelling new ways.
This is lifted and vibrantly aromatic, but with a level of fine restraint to it as well. There’s classic citrus, lime pith and lemon leaves, along with flashes of coolly ripe white peach and red apple skin, offering ample flavour, with some more exotic notes of rambutan. This is dry, but there’s perhaps a whisper of residual sugar in there, which adds a little texture, fills out the mid-palate, balances, but there’s no sweetness to it, a gentle grip closing out with bright and ripe acidity.
Lemony gold in colour, this is an expressly savoury take on riesling, with the classic lemon and lime notes taking a little bit of a backseat to a gently nutty and saline overlay. This was matured under flor yeast, but that impact is subtle, adding a whip of sea spray and maltiness, but keeping fruit flavours on the bright side, if at the coolly tart end of things, with green apple and lemon juice notes prevailing. There’s zip and line, with that malty and yeasty note travelling along the persistent zip of acid, an orange zest note in subtle attendance.
This is certainly aromatic, but not so much in the classic herbal and tropical ways of the variety, with scents of peach and green pawpaw on a relatively subdued but very pure nose. Those flavours persist on the palate, which has a delicacy to it, flavourful but properly dry, a hint of tart passionfruit suggestive rather than impactful. The texture is gently pliable, with a little grapey chew complexing.
There are lifted smoky notes here, with a lift of dried lemongrass, lemon barley water and a salty and rocky quality. This is tight and dry, but there’s gentle flex of texture, with a light chewy feel across the structure, and a gentle pillowing around the vibrant acidity, that lemon barley water quality leaving a pucker in the mouth once swallowed.
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