Perpetually afforded the tag of Australia’s nicest and most affable winemaker, John Hughes also has a very serious side, with a slavish obsession to his favourite grape, riesling. Hughes’ Rieslingfreak imprint has been steadily redefining that noble grape, bending it into all manner of shapes, and making perfect sense at the same time. His wines are all bell-clear reflections of variety, whether dry, off-dry, intensely sweet, sparkling or fortified. Hughes was the Young Gun of Wine Winemaker’s Choice winner for 2017.
John Hughes acquired the Rieslingfreak moniker long before he had his own wine label, with the nickname earnt through his unconcealable obsession with that noble white grape. Growing up on a family vineyard in Penwortham in the Clare Valley, his parents moved operations to their own property in the White Hut subregion in 1998. That vineyard has remained the core of the Hughes family business, with it informing many of the dizzying catalogue of Rieslingfreak expressions.
That early life among the riesling vines and healthy exposure to the best regional expressions, as well as those from around the world, led to an inevitable career in wine, though the blossoming of his full obsession would have to wait. A degree in Wine Marketing at the Univesity of Adelaide saw the birth of the Rieslingfreak epithet, a fitting tag for someone who lives and breathes the stuff.
A decade at the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI) got in the way of Hughes spinning out his own riesling-themed tunes, but the benchmarking and guest vintage shifts never slackened. By the time he dropped his first Rielsingfreak track in 2009, there was no ambivalence about Hughes’ path. (Although a deep-seated passion for cooking did take him to be a contestant on MasterChef in 2011, where he refused to present a dish he wasn’t happy with – a signpost of his rigorous standards, for sure.)
Hughes is obsessed with riesling, that much is clear. But he is also keen not to box it into a well-worn category of limey, dry raciness. He makes wines in this mould, for sure, but he has become one of this country’s most adept judges of balancing sugar and acid in wine, from barely perceptible off-dry levels to lusciously rich Germanic echoes, and all afforded a number as a label reference: No.2, No.3 etc. He also makes a sparkling riesling, or Sekt (as the Germans call it), a fortified version, releases wines with age, and has launched a glass-ceiling smashing premium Riesling, which was fermented wild and matured in a bespoke 1,500 litre oak cask, which naturally fills the long empty No.1 spot in the catalogue.