Australia is blessed with regions and climates that can produce truly world-class wines from the noblest of vines, and Riesling is no exception. When it comes to Australian Riesling, the most common comment you’ll hear from winemakers is to ‘let the grapes do the talking’ – a very minimalist way of thinking. Riesling’s clarity, freshness and purity don’t need manipulation or enhancement in the winery. The delicacy of citrus, white flowers and crisp fresh tropical fruit need nothing more than time to ferment to a level of dryness chosen by the winemaker. Riesling is the wine that winemakers love to drink. And it’s one of Australia’s most underrated white wine wines, which makes it a collector’s dream as it provides an affordable taste of greatness.
Australian Riesling’s history
The foundation of Australian Riesling came in 1817 when vines were imported by John Macarthur and in 1833 by James Busby, today remembered as the ‘father of Australian wine’. The mid-season ripening varietal Riesling soon found a home in areas of Australia that would become known for producing classic wines: Clare Valley, Eden Valley, Victoria, Mudgee, Tasmania and Western Australia. Silesian settlers were the first to start making Riesling. Barossa Valley settler William Jacob bought land in the south of the valley called Jacob’s Creek. Bavarian immigrant Johann Gramp recognised the value of the land and planted vines at Rowland Flat, making a dry white Riesling labelled as ‘Hock’. By 1850 Eden Valley pioneer Joseph Gilbert had planted Riesling in an area of the Barossa Ranges that would become known as Pewsey Valley, one of Australia’s first high-altitude, cool-climate vineyards. In 1961 after years of neglect, Pewsey Vale’s then owner, Geoff Angas Parsons, paid a visit to his friend Wyndham Hill Smith of Yalumba and proposed that they restore the vineyard entirely to Riesling and vines were replanted on the contoured Eden Valley slopes. In the 1930s, winemaker and businessman Leo Buring became known for his Rieslings and in the 1960s winemaker John Vickery created a crisp, tangy style of Eden Valley Riesling under the Leo Buring Label (bottled as ‘Rhine Riesling’). This drier style reflected the shifting tastes of Australian consumers.
Innovation and technology cleans up
Riesling is all about tension and balance. Walking a tightrope of fruit sweetness and acidity, Riesling can be made as a rich, fruit-filled style with residual sugar, or with a crisp, nervy nature that jumps about on the palate. In the early days of Australia’s commercial wine endeavours, the demand for fresh, clean wines over oxidative fortified wines called for a new approach to winemaking. New technology began making its way into the Australian wine industry in the early 1930s when Alfred Basedow installed a refrigerator to cool white wine at the Stanley Wine Company in the Clare Valley. In 1934, Yalumba winemaker Rudi Kronberger experimented with the early bottling of white wine using Riesling. And at Orlando, Colin Gramp took this further using cold-pressure fermentation to prevent the escape of carbon dioxide and control fermentation temperatures. The 1953 Gramps Riesling made using this innovative technology won the Melbourne and Sydney Wine Shows and kick-started the popularity of the clean, clear style with a succession of award winning vintages. In winemaking circles, this new approach earned Colin Gramp the nickname ‘Pressure Cooker Gramp’. Following their lead producers like Heggies and Brian Croser followed suit with Rieslings made in the flinty, crisp European style. By the 1970s and 1980s, many famous Australian wine companies included dry Riesling in their ranges: Seaview, Hardys, Lindeman’s and Seppelt to name but a few. Until the Chardonnay boom struck in the 1990s, Riesling was Australia’s most widely planted white wine grape. Chardonnay’s surge in popularity coincided with, or even caused, Riesling to decline.
A bitter-sweet reputation
The public’s perception – or misconception – that Riesling is always sweet has dogged its progress throughout the world. In the 1970s many white wines containing various grape varietals were mislabelled as Riesling. This was partly in response to the white wines from overseas labelled ‘Rhine Riesling’ and partly because consumers weren’t aware of the qualities of individual grape varietals. Styles and brand names such as ‘Porphyry’, ‘Moselle’ and ‘Hock’ were more important than what was in the bottle. The impact of technology on creating fresh, vibrant styles changed consumer perception to the extent that Riesling has (largely) shaken off its image as a sweet wine. Clare Valley winemaker Stephanie Toole believes this is rarely a problem today. ‘Younger consumers don't remember or know the dreadful four litre casks of old which were labelled Riesling and made from sultana and god knows what. I think globally people know that Riesling from the Clare Valley, and in particular good producers, make wonderful dry Rieslings.’
The screw cap revolution
No history of Australian Riesling would be complete without mentioning Jeffrey Grosset, owner and winemaker at Grosset Wines in Auburn, Clare Valley. Grosset was behind the push to restrict the use of the word Riesling to wines made exclusively from that grape (or containing at least 85%) and he was instrumental in implementing Australia’s screw cap revolution. The success of this push is clear: in 2016, 98% of white wines in Australia and New Zealand were sealed with screw caps. Grosset led a group of 13 Clare Valley winemakers who banded together to import screwcaps from France to bottle their entire 2000 vintage Rieslings. ‘This has been the most significant contribution to wine quality in recent times, certainly at least half a century,” says Grosset. ‘It has made the ageing of all wines more reliable, not just Riesling, so at least now, if the wine is not very good it’s most unlikely to be due to the closure.’ The Australian-specified screw cap design adopted back in 2000 set the standard that virtually all screw caps follow today. ‘We’re certainly delighted to have played a crucial part in this universal acceptance. It’s one big quality issue solved!’ While there is wide international acceptance of the screw cap, some countries and cultures are reluctant to buy wines unless they’re sealed under cork. Grosset identifies an opportunity to take the lead in educating markets like mainland China about screw cap closures. ’We (and the New Zealanders) would reap huge benefits and our innovative approach generally would be much better appreciated – this is an opportunity we shouldn’t miss.’
Riesling: age and evolution
The best Rieslings can easily be cellared for decades. The high acidity and bright fruit characters provide the perfect framework for maturation. Over time, the primary fruit characters of lemon, lime and flowers take on richer honey nutty, toffee-like characters. High acidity aids longevity and screw caps ensure very little oxygen contact. Some of the John Vickery-made Leo Buring Rieslings bottled in the 1970s still thrill with their freshness and purity. A waxy or kerosene character in aged Rieslings is an undesirable quality, a sign of stressed or overcropped vines that lose their basal leaves and leave bunches exposed and prone to burning.
One classic grape, a myriad of classic wines
Ray Nadeson from Lethbridge Estate in Geelong, Victoria, likes to let the soil guide his winemaking approach. With the top layer of soil on his vineyard interspersed with broken ironstone, Dr Nadeson’s Riesling accentuates the mineral qualities of the land. With hints of Alsace prettiness on the nose, the palate reveals a distinctly Australian take on the style, with complexity, leesy barrel ferment notes, acid and sweetness all vying for attention giving the tension that Nadeson loves. From a rustic winemaking facility in the Clare Valley, Col McBryde and Jen Gardner create Adelina Riesling from the Springfarm vineyard. They are also the brains behind the more experimental VineMind Riesling, fermented and matured in concrete vats. In Victoria’s Strathbogie Ranges, Mac Forbes uses low-tech inputs and next-to-no additions to create wines that reflect a sense of place. ‘RS10’ Riesling shows a deft balance of ripe, fruit and crisp acidity. Four months on skins gives the Mac Forbes ‘EB22 – Tradition’ Riesling a distinctive ginger-ale aroma, while ‘RS29’ Riesling is made in an Alsace-style with a mouth-watering hint of residual sweetness. While most winemakers will let Riesling do the talking as a single-varietal wine, some are using it to interesting effect in blends. At Ruggabellus, Abel Gibson blends Eden valley Riesling with Semillon and Muscat to create ‘Sallio’, fermented with skin contact. Gary Mills of Jamsheed in Victoria creates ‘Le Blanc Plonk’ Riesling with a touch of Chardonnay to add roundness and body. Showcasing purity with minimal intervention is the aim of Daniel Chaffey Hartwig of Chaffey Bros, whose ‘Düfte Punkt’ blend of Gewürztraminer, Riesling and Weisser Herold (a Riesling-Trollinger crossbreed) offers lychee and Turkish delight characters over a floral background. And David Bowley at Vinteloper highlights the longevity of Clare Valley Riesling’s crunchy, mineral and lime qualities using a long, cool fermentation to craft ‘RS/15’ Watervale Riesling. Jeffrey Grosset’s approach to making Springvale and Polish Hill Rieslings is focussed on the quality of the fruit: organic certification and a small amount of whole bunch pressing. Grosset takes a more experimental approach with Alea, a dry European style. By closely monitoring vine care, implementing organic practices and keeping crop levels low, Grosset has had great success achieving more intense flavour in his Rieslings at lower alcohol levels. Another Riesling of note is Stephanie Toole’s Mount Horrocks in Auburn. Stephanie has been making Riesling since 1992 from her own single vineyard which has been certified organic since 2006. When asked about her perception of sweetness in Riesling, Toole said, ‘My Watervale Riesling has always been dry but with such gorgeous fruit they often think its sweet – the cellar door is a great place to educate people.’
Riesling and food
When it comes to food matching with Riesling, simplicity, delicacy and freshness are key. For crisp, dry Riesling with clear lemon-lime characters, fish, shellfish and crustaceans are perfect partners, especially served with a touch of lemon, capers, butter sauce or Asian-inspired dressing. Riesling with a sweeter profile makes a great partner to rich pate or ripe, soft cheeses, providing a foil to the creamy richness, cutting through the fat and leaving the palate ready for another bite. Mature or sweet botrytised Riesling sings alongside a pungent blue or soft white-rind cheese. Asian dishes with a touch of chilli respond beautifully to sweet Riesling, helping carry the heat across the palate. Riesling can also come to the table as a perfectly acceptable dessert wine with light flavours in fresh fruit salads, sponges and fruit tarts.
Australia’s white queen?
In common with Rieslings from around the world, Australian Riesling has had to battle to endure. It has had to be finer in quality than its peers in order to overcome negative preconceptions, lower in price than its quality warrants and be championed by illustrious winemakers in a way that Chardonnay or Sauvignon never have. Today, however, its reputation is again soaring as wine-lovers discover or rediscover the charms of what is, without question, the finest quality grape on the planet. Exciting, versatile, charming and wonderfully characterful, its breeding is beyond question. Long live the queen of vines!
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