Riesling in this country has been characterised by dramatic highs and plunging lows, from its all-conquering height in the 1970s to its dramatic decline at the hands of chardonnay in the 80s. However, riesling has remained a wine afficionados’ darling throughout, with wines of exceptional quality and character at democratically affordable prices. The long prophesised ‘riesling renaissance’ has been stalled for some time, never quite gaining the momentum that many had – perhaps hopefully – forecast. Well, in the hands of makers both experienced and somewhat newer to the scene, riesling is once again sharing more of the spotlight.
Riesling was a pivotal grape variety in the makeup of Australia’s wine identity around the middle of the 20th century. It was the vehicle that most dramatically reflected technological advances in winemaking at the time. With the use of stainless-steel tanks, temperature-controlled ferments (cooler ferments help retain bright fruit characters), sterile filtration and mechanised bottling, the pure-fruited and vibrant wines were a revelation.
Riesling rode that wave through the 70s, but chardonnay crashed that party, and though riesling was never entirely relegated, proper dry riesling became a bit of a wine buff’s drink. For many, the riesling name eventually became associated with the less salubrious products that were made through the boom and beyond, becoming somewhat of a tainted legacy.
“Riesling is making a comeback.”
“In Australia, the identity crisis brought about in the ’70s and ’80s where riesling was a more of a style rather than a varietal claim, led an entire generation of consumers to associate riesling with cheap bag-in-box wines that were often cloyingly sweet and rarely actually made from riesling,” says Belinda Hughes of Rieslingfreak. “The stigma of this unfortunate association is finally fading, and a new generation of consumers are discovering the joys of riesling.”
Australian riesling plantings declined by over 30 per cent between 2009 and ’15, even dropping below 2001 levels by about 10 per cent. But there is still a meaningful amount of the grape planted, and it Australia sits third on the global plantings, well back from Germany but not dissimilar to France’s hectarage, which is almost exclusively in Alsace.
In Australia, the Clare and Eden Valleys are the historic homelands of the grape, and they still account for about a third of the country’s plantings. And while total plantings may have declined a bit, riesling is getting a foothold, albeit modest, in more regions, which will no doubt result in greater variety and choice for drinkers.
A cooler future
Nadja Wallington and Steve Mobbs’ ChaLou label is centred around an established vineyard in Orange, New South Wales, that they purchased in 2020. That site sits at about 900 metres in what is one of Australia’s coldest winegrowing regions. It’s an area that one might expect to see a bit of riesling planted, given the variety’s cools-climate pedigree, but it only accounts for 3.5 per cent of the total plantings – though this is still well above the national average.
“Riesling is certainly one of Orange’s most underrated white varieties,” says Wallington. “It is very well suited to the cooler sites, and there is an emerging regional expression from Orange with citrus fruits and white floral perfume, varying degrees of texture, with many producers leaving texture and a bit of residual sugar to add depth and interest to the wines, but all with great acid drive and length.”
“We are both kinda acid nuts, so love this variety for its acidity, and when it comes to picking decisions, acid trumps sugar ripeness, with flavour making the call.”
In many respects, that low representation is not uncommon, with many suitable territories largely under-explored. Even in Tasmania, which has long been feted as having many ideal sites for the grape, there’s only 5 per cent of vineyards devoted to the grape. That’s well over the national average, but considering its potential on the island, it still seems somewhat underdone.
Andrew Kenny makes wine under his eponymous label in South Australia’s Clare Valley, but he believes the push into cooler territory will only increase. “Riesling has a huge future in my glass,” he says. “I think we’ll start to see more plantings in the cooler areas and a bit more prestige for the variety – I think there are some really special wines around that don’t have as much spotlight as they should.”
Strength in diversity
That lack of attention, and lack of “prestige” is no doubt holding back more intensive planting, with most bottlings – no matter how good – still priced well below comparable or lower quality vines made from varieties like chardonnay and pinot grigio. But that’s something that some makers are working hard to correct, and nuanced expressions are coming from different regions and at the hands of creative makers, which is only enhancing that.
“I think riesling is making a comeback,” says Wallington. “People are starting to play with the range of styles this variety can do so well, and they are making some cracking wines! Riesling has a fantastic ability to make fresh and engaging wines in both sweet styles and dry styles. We are both kinda acid nuts, so love this variety for its acidity, and when it comes to picking decisions, acid trumps sugar ripeness, with flavour making the call.”
That versatility in being able to make different styles is certainly not limited to newer territories either, with Rieslingfreak celebrating the potential of riesling across a panoply of styles from the traditional regions of the Clare and Eden Valleys.
“Great riesling is always a feat of perfect balance, a harmony of a thousand notes that, while difficult to achieve, is life-changingly beautiful to behold.”
“Riesling is the ultimate variety in versatility,” says Hughes. “Riesling has the capacity to be made in almost any style imaginable; from dry to sweet, sparkling and fortified. The versatility comes down to its unique acid profile and varied flavour spectrum. Sweeter styles are best when balanced with racy natural acidity, creating wines of delicacy and crispness even with high levels of residual sugar. Sweet rieslings should not be sweet for sweetness’s sake, but as a balance to the acid in the wine. Great riesling is always a feat of perfect balance, a harmony of a thousand notes that, while difficult to achieve, is life-changingly beautiful to behold.”
The challenge for vignerons like Hughes and Kenny is very much linked to climate change, where more extreme weather, drought and more sustained heat extremes are presenting challenges in the vineyard and requiring adaptions in the winery. However, it’s a challenge that they are rising to.
“My approach to riesling making has shifted a lot throughout my career,” says Hughes. “A series of drought years and extreme heat has made minimising the effects of sunburn and phenolics extremely challenging. Picking at lower sugar levels has certainly been a gradual yet dramatic shift over the last decade, and this has allowed us to reduce irrigation requirements in the vineyard, reduce sun exposure to the ripe berries, and retain higher levels of natural acidity.”
That’s an approach that is echoed by Kenny, who works closely with growers to setup the vines to produce optimal fruit. “Our major approach is on the vineyard,” he says. “We’re picking earlier, keeping canopies healthy, protecting the fruit from sunlight, helping the wines develop flavour so that we’re not left with bags of acid water. Our favourite vintages are those that age gracefully due to healthier canopies.”
In the winery, Kenny has experimented with building texture through barrel ferments and extended lees contact, and he uses this resource to manage vintage conditions. “We focus on the vintage variation and what lends itself to that year,” he says. “That is, if it’s quite a cool vintage like 2022 and ’21, we will leave the wine on lees, stirring it to help soften it out.”
Those recent cool years are against the general trend, though, with Hughes noting that managing the fruit from picking through the winemaking process is a very precise art, with her focus firmly on retaining purity, without harsh phenolics or the inclusion of components that could lead to overt kerosene characters in the wine as it ages. Hughes picks the fruit in the cool of the night and only uses the juice that comes off as ‘free run’ without any pressing.
“Riesling is a demanding wine to produce, requiring the ultimate in attention to detail and extremely gentle handling, which makes it a test of skill for any winemaker,” says Hughes. “A technically exceptional riesling is many a winemaker’s guilty pleasure (at least among those I know), so there are often wines of exceptional quality receiving that little extra TLC in many a winery, purely for the winemaker’s pleasure. Riesling consumers have a plethora of wines to explore that offer incredible value for money.”
“Picking at lower sugar levels has certainly been a gradual yet dramatic shift over the last decade, and this has allowed us to reduce irrigation requirements in the vineyard, reduce sun exposure to the ripe berries, and retain higher levels of natural acidity.”
That agreeable pricing may be holding back the broad expansion of riesling plantings, but that’s something that Hughes believes is slowly changing, with it challenging the price per tonne on many red varieties in the Clare and Eden Valleys. “While demand is relatively slow growing, we are seeing a shift towards increasing its production among existing grape-growers. Many are moving away from the now less-profitable red varieties previously in high demand as export opportunities, and towards riesling, which currently enjoys comparatively high demand and favour.”
That rise in fortune is music to riesling lovers’ ears, with Hughes believing that soon enough it will take its rightful position as one of Australian wine’s greatest assets, not just here but in international markets. That will no doubt result in the glass ceiling on riesling prices being shattered, but it’s unlikely those premium bottlings will threaten the grape’s position as making our best value white wines. And for those that love the grape, it’s the least that riesling deserves.
“This grape has something over us,” says Kenny. “It has moved us from the Hills to Clare, from Australia to Germany. Rizz is extremely versatile across its lifespan, ever-changing, moving from lime leaf and citrus to lemon curd, toast and butter. As it ages, it softens, opens up, and anyone can find enjoyment in the glass. Riesling is a truly expressive grape, in my eyes showing a snapshot of the vintage and site without the winemaker’s hand clouding it too much.”
This is a blend of prime parcels from both the Clare and Eden Valleys as a pinnacle expression of a great vintage. It’s racy and tight, an exercise in restraint and compressed power, built for the long haul. Aromas of lime pith, lemon leaves, green apple and white flowers are set against a flinty mineral backdrop, with hints of crisp pear and subtle spice chiming in on the palate. This is long and tight, but there’s so much yet to be revealed, with cellaring built into its DNA.
2021 Rieslingfreak No.12 Flaxman Valley Riesling
Eden Valley, 11% ABV, $37
This is intensely aromatic but composed and elegant, with classic notes of lime and lemon, but there’s a big step up from the norm in complexity, with layers of coolly ripe stone fruit, orchard blossom, rocky minerals and a delicate perfume of talc. This is loaded with flavour, but there’s reserve and drive, a graceful composure to it that marks it as something extra special. Dry, subtly textural and driven by perfectly ripe acidity and lingering mineral notes.
Notes of lime pith, lemon leaves, talc and struck flint are arrayed across a refined mineral nose of real depth and intensity. That understated stature is a continuing theme on the palate, with compressed power and intensity carried by perfectly ripe and racy acidity, that lime pith note closing out with a persistent river stone minerality.
An expressive and delicate nose of lime pith, apple blossom, white florals and coolly ripe golden apples with a hint of mandarin zest. This is carrying a little residual sugar, which never looks sweet as such, rather complexing the fruit flavours, plumping out the front palate and balancing the vigorous line of ripe acidity.
2021 Kenny Wine ‘Polish Hill River’ Riesling
Clare Valley, 11.5% ABV, $30
This has classically expressive nose of lime pith and juice, lemon leaves, kaffir lime and citrus blossom, with a slatey minerality lurking below. The palate has race and drive, a core of intense but ripe acid, persuasive, rather than aggressive. There’s an uncommon level of intensity to this, though, while still being linear and poised, with a subtly judged textural component cushioning but never intruding – the product of a great year and clever winemaking.
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