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Belinda Hughes Rieslingfreak

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Belinda Hughes only officially joined her husband, John Hughes, at the helm of Rieslingfreak from the 2021 vintage, but in reality, she had been intimately involved in the operation for five years prior. Vintage 2021, though, was a good time to formalise her role making riesling in a dizzying array of styles – from dry to sweet to sparkling to fortified – across the Clare and Eden Valleys. Hughes had just left her role as head of making white wine at Grant Burge, and the vintage has turned out to be one of the all-time greats – an auspicious start!

“I love riesling,” says Hughes. “I live riesling. Riesling brought my husband and I together in 2015, and it has shaped every part of our life together since. I want the world to know how amazing this variety is, and all the different styles that can be made with it. There really is a riesling for everyone!”

The first Rieslingfreak wine was made in 2009, growing over the years to now have many different expressions (each has a number allotted on the label: No.1, No.2 etc., with No.99 reserved for “experiments gone right”), with each a different expression of the grape, from regional differences to winemaking styles. There are dry and off-dry wines, as well as ones that have deceptively large amounts of sugar due to their impeccable balance. There’s a sparkling in the German Sekt tradition, and a glass-ceiling-shattering premium riesling aged in foudre called ‘Grounds of Grandeur’, which is aptly denoted as No.1 in the line-up.

“Riesling is all about attention to detail. Every decision and move you make, from the vineyard to the bottle, is laid bare for all to see. Riesling making demands perfection at every step – there is nowhere to hide!”

“Rieslingfreak is a celebration of the versatility of riesling, and of John’s and my passion for this most noble of varieties,” says Hughes. “Our wines explore every stylistic avenue from dry to sweet, sparkling to fortified, all with the singular focus of celebrating riesling in every form. No other wine producer in Australia makes wine with such a one-eyed approach quite like we do!”

While 2021 marks Belinda’s first official vintage at Rieslingfreak, she has naturally been intimately involved along the journey. It was in 2021, though, that she became devoted to the label full time. “Rieslingfreak was originally launched by my husband, John, but we are now working together,” she says. “After 13 years of working as the white and sparkling winemaker for Grant Burge Wines, I had developed many skills and produced a slew of award-winning wines.”

Hughes completed her agricultural science degree in 2004 with first class honours. After a stint in wine research at the CSIRO and several vintage roles in the Adelaide Hills, Barossa and Clare Valley, she landed the assistant winemaker role at Grant Burge Wines in 2008. Hughes was promoted to white winemaker in 2010.

“During my time at GBW, I produced a range of wine styles, but it was always clear that riesling was my passion,” says Hughes. “Winning the trophies for Best Riesling and Best SA White Wine at the Royal Adelaide Wine Show in 2019 was the highlight of my winemaking career there.”

Hughes was a regular attendee of the Canberra International Riesling Challenge while at Grant Burge, which is where she met John Hughes. “John and I became a couple in 2015 and were married in October of 2017,” she says. “After more than 12 years at GBW and five years of quietly helping John behind the scenes, he finally persuaded me to officially join him as a Rieslingfreak in January of 2021.”

Hughes sites five years of the increasing pressure and restrictions of corporate winemaking under Accolade Wines as making the attraction to join Rieslingfreak irresistible. “The uniqueness of producing a single variety and exploring every conceivable opportunity it offers, the freedom to create wines of beauty and individuality without restriction, the singular focus on quality over cost, and the sense of ownership and achievement is absolutely euphoric. I may have missed the hard-yards John put-in in the early days, but I am fully appreciative of everything he has achieved and am thrilled to be part of shaping its future.”

While the pair’s home base is in the Barossa proper, which Hughes describes as “our physical and spiritual home”, their fruit comes exclusively from the Clare and Eden Valleys. “John’s family own a spectacular vineyard in White Hutt (Clare) where his love for Riesling was nurtured,” she says. “And we are lucky enough to live in the Barossa, which is home to the Eden Valley, my personal favourite riesling-growing region. Both regions produce fruit of distinctive character and high natural acidity, producing highly aromatic and flavourful wines of purity and elegance with great ageing potential.”

The pair make the Rieslingfreak wines at the Belvidere Winery in Langhorne Creek, which is ideally equipped to make wines of purity and finesse. “Riesling is all about attention to detail,” says Hughes. “Every decision and move you make, from the vineyard to the bottle, is laid bare for all to see. Riesling making demands perfection at every step – there is nowhere to hide!

“Winemaking is also a constant learning curve. I learn something new every day! I have had some great teachers, from learned mentors in Peter Leske and Craig Stansborough, to our old-school grape-growers with decades of life experience, and the greenest of vintage cellar-hands who have keen eyes and a fresh perspective to question everything I do. There is no end to learning, every wine teaches you something, and every job brings new challenges.”

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