Not that long ago, Riesling was Australia’s leading white grape variety. In 1988, the Riesling crush amounted to 30, 000 tons versus 20,000 tons for Chardonnay. Today, the figures are 50,000 tons for Riesling and 500, 000 tons for Chardonnay!
As you’d expect, Australia’s Riesling king, Jeffrey Grosset (pictured), is quick to defend Australian Riesling’s honour, pointing out that the figures are “not a retreat from Riesling, more a boom in Chardonnay,” plus Australia is the variety’s second biggest producer after Germany.
In short, Australia still takes Riesling very seriously and lest we were in any doubt, Grosset, who presented the Landmark Riesling Masterclass, rolled out a series of benchmark examples across region and style, kicking off with classic dry wines.
Australian Riesling is invariably dry and Grosset is proud of the fact that the success of this style has influenced producers in Europe, who are moving towards drier styles. Still, there are differences in approach.
In Australia, top dry Rieslings are the result of rigorously protective winemaking, designed to maximise fruit purity and minimise, eradicate even, any phenolic influence. As Grosset told me when I interviewed him in 2008 for a feature for The World of Fine Wine, “from the moment you crush, you’re on a potential downhill…the winemaking is in its purest form, with no oak, extended time on lees or malolactic fermentation.” Top wines are made solely from free run juice and producers like Grosset sell off the press juice.
On the other hand, in Germany, Grosset says Mosel king Ernst Loosen told him if he sells anything, it’s the free run. There, pressings are valued for the weight they bring to dry styles of Riesling.
For Grosset, Australia’s razor sharp dry Rieslings have sat very well with Australia’s food culture. He says “there’s been a subtle shift in Australia to the way we drink wine,” which he attributes to Asia’s influence on cuisine and a more relaxed style of dining focused on fresher, cleaner dishes with less if any cream or butter. This trend favours fresher, balanced wines and moderate alcohol by volume.
Clare Valley, South Australia
For Grosset, Clare Valley Riesling’s signature note is a relative generosity of lime fruit which, he says, brings great balance to these bone dry, acid-driven wines. This fuller, powerful style reflects the fact that, while the Clare Valley is warm in the daytime (too warm, Grosset points out, for Pinot Noir), Riesling works on account of significant drops in night time temperatures, especially late in the season.
Within the Clare Valley, expressions of the variety are also influenced by soil and site. Grosset, who famously produces two distinct wines from Watervale and Polish Hill, says“you should be able to see distinct differences.”
Mount Horrocks Watervale Riesling 2010 – from a single vineyard established in 1982 at Watervale’s highest point for Grosset this is a classic example of this sub-region’s exotic, generous style which he attributes to its “highly sustaining” red loam on “soft rock” limestone soils. Roots go deep, which insulates the vines against drought. The wine is aromatic, with lime blossom as well as mouthwatering lime notes. In the mouth, it’s very juicy with a lovely weight to lime to the mid-palate, with exotic/floral musk, lychee, turskih delight hints and a talcy, long finish. Dry but with a richness to the fruit, it’s a delicious, invigorating wine.
Petaluma Hanlin Hill Riesling 2002 – from a single vineyard planted by Brian Croser in the 1970s on the west side of a ridge to the east of Clare. I visited it in 2008 and recall it’s very high, with a wind swept quality, emphasised by contour planting for some rows. While the topsoil is red loam, the subsoil is “hard rock,” which seems to produce a ensile, mineral wine. Grosset describes 2002 as a great year for Riesling, “unusually cool,” which placed the accent on fruit (lime) rather than floral expression. Wines have been slow to age and, though eight years old, this wine is still quite pale. Though tertiary notes are evident on the nose and palate, which shows kerosene/toast and lime cordial hints, it remains vibrant and tensile, with a chiselled minerality which builds on the finish. Very good length, with vivid, mouthcleansing acidity.
Grosset Polish Hill Riesling 1984 – at 450m, the Polish Hill vineyard is at almost identical elevation to Mount Horrocks’ Watervale site but, Grosset says, Polish Hill is much cooler and thin hard rock soils hamper development. Vines have a smaller root system, so it’s critical to downsize crop and canopy. The resulting berries are smaller than those from Watervale. Deep yellow/gold, the nose and palate initially savoury but also sweet with butter mint (which blows off), lemon butter, toast and porcini, the whole buoyed by fresh acidity which supports a very long, dry finish which builds in intensity, showing great purity of lemon and lime butter. Lovely. For Grosset, unusually for Clare Valley, Polish Hill is “a lot about late flavour, especially as an old wine…Watervale builds much earlier then falls away to nice crisp acidity.”
Leo Buring DWC15 Riesling 1973 – this wine was made by John Vickery, Australia’s ‘father of Riesling’ and came from his cellar. Vickery was at the vanguard of modern, protective white winemaking, using refrigeration, air-bag presses and a carbon dioxide blanketing systems from the 1963 vintage and stainless steel tanks and centrifuges from 1971. This wine’s name denotes the fact that it was made from the 15th batch of the harvest. With nine more years under its belt than the Grosset, it’s a deeper gold hue and more developed on nose and palate, initially quite lean, compressed even, with earthy porcini and toast. As it opens up, it seemingly shrugs off the earthy notes, becoming stony and mineral, finishing long and lingering with round but rolling acidity. There’s a trace of bitterness to its thread of toast which follows through on the finish – TCA?
Eden Valley, South Australia
Eden Valley in South Australia is located a mere 80-90 km from Clare Valley. Though it’s further from the sea, it’s slightly cooler than Clare Valley which Grosset says translates into lemon and floral notes rather than lime.
Another difference is the quality of the acidity. Eden Valley wines have a lower Ph than Clare Valley Rieslings, but also lower total acidity. This is because, though in the run up to harvest Eden Valley grapes have higher acidity, the acidity then drops “much faster” than in the Clare. For Grosset, this accounts for their lingering but flavoursome finish, typically with a tight, chalky impression.
Peter Lehmann Reserve Riesling 2002 – burnished yellow with seductive lemon zest, lemon butter and lemon/lime curd notes which follow through in the mouth, animated by ample but well integrated acidity. Lovely depth, and length - beautifully fresh and zingy. Gorgeous.
Pewsey Vale Rhine Riesling 1980 – sealed under screwcap this still vivid wine shows attractive waxy evolution without detracting from its orange and lemon fruit, which is sweet and savoury in expression, with spicy pith, candied peel and lemon oil. The acidity is round yet present, making for a limpid finish. Very good. (See here for my notes of other vintages tasted at London Wine Fair in May 2010, including 1982, 1971 and 1967)
This far flung, westerly region close to the chilly Southern Ocean challenges assumptions that Riesling is best suited to a continental climate. And it’s marginal. To lift that off the page, Grosset pointed out that Seppelt’s 1976 Drumborg Riesling was sensational while the ‘77 was awful though he added, with greater experience, producers deal with vintage variation much better these days. For example, fruit affected by not infrequent occurrences of botrytis are sorted out.
Seppelt Drumborg Riesling 2009 – a very fine, floral nose and tightly etched palate, quite different from the South Australian wines. In the mouth its shows lovely lift, purity and line with ripe grapefruit, lemon pip “bite,” racy acidity and talc/chalk on a tight, long and mineral, mouthwatering finish. Total acidity is 8.3g/l while the Ph is below 3, so there’s ample acidity for ageing – it suggested that the wine will hit its peak in 2025 – it’s tight!
Crawford River Museum Release Riesling 2004 – the 28 year old north/north-west-facing vineyard is further from the sea than Drumborg, but still relatively maritime with basalt over permeable clay over limestone. In this warmer year, grapes were picked quite late, in early May and the acidity is lower. I’m a huge fan of Crawford River’s wine (see here for a report of a vertical tasting). This is no exception, showing a perfumed elderflower and lime blossom nose with lime cordial, which notes follow through in the mouth, delicately fleshing out a lovely, fine spine of acidity. Finishes long and mineral with an iron tang. Lovely complexity.
Great Southern, Western Australia
For Grosset, Great Southern Rieslings share the lime focus of Clare Valley. However, a cooler climate makes for a more finely etched frame.
Cherubino Porongurup Riesling 2009 – I love the line and minerality of the Porongurup sub-regions tightly coiled Rieslings. This shows fresh cut apples, traces of dried honey and, with racy, tight acidity, finishes bone dry and mineral. Razor sharp and will benefit from a few years in bottle before broaching, after which expect it to last a decade plus.
Frankland Estate Isolation Ridge Vineyard Riesling 2009 – the Frankland River region is drier, with more pronounced diurnal temperature variation than Great Southern’s other sub-regions and, for me, its wines tend to show a little more generosity and good concentration of flavour. This is a very expressive, complete wine with bright, round applely fruit with a herbal edge balanced by thirst-quenching, rolling acidity which seems to penetrate every pore of your tongue, impressing and reinforcing a long, lingering finish, with a pronounced mineral undertow.
Craigow Riesling 2003 – from Craigow, one of the first vineyards established in southern Tasmania’s Coal River Valley, whose growing conditions are similar to the cool-climate wine regions of northern France. And there’s more than a hint of Alsace. Though dry, it shows sweet honey with cool slate and subtle but exotic saffron spice notes on the nose – quite lovely. In the mouth, lime, grapefruit and sweet apple sauce notes mingle with more developed oilskin and brasso (my botrytis pick up) notes. A tight lipsmacking core of tart, crab apple-like acidity, reinforces its cool climate origins, but there’s ample depth, layer and sweetness to balance. Very good and plenty of go yet.
The interest in balanced wines with moderate alcohol levels has also played into the hands of a new niche trend in favour of sweeter expressions of Riesling, which Grosset described as a “shift in culture which is very exciting for the future.” He says “it’s exciting that a younger generation [of consumers] are not thinking sweet is cheap” and welcomes the fact that sommeliers especially are really embracing this development “showing sublime wines at all price points.”
And this trend is not just for the young generation! In 2010, Grosset released his first off dry Riesling (see tasting notes below). It’s simply labelled “Off-Dry” and, though he says there’s no official definition of off dry as yet, Grosset emphasises “our job is to show balance.” For this reason, he’s not in favour of labels which simply refer to residual sugar levels, as some do. He says, you have to look at the balance between sugar and acidity – “that’s really the story, the both.”
As for “the both” in terms of wine styles – dry and sweeter – Grosset recognises the challenge going forward is “to communicate about the new without jeapordising the story we’ve told.”
Grosset Off-Dry Riesling 2010 (Clare Valley) – 2010 is the third year that Grosset has made an off-dry Riesling, but the first time that he has been happy enough with the result to bottle and release it under the Grosset label. It’s a single site Riesling from the gentle north-facing slopes of the estate’s second vineyard at Watervale. Fruit thinning takes place late in the growing season to enable the remaining grapes to achieve full ripeness while still retaining high levels of acidity – for Grosset, the key to making a successful off-dry Riesling. This wine has 16 g/l of residual sugar, balanced by 9 g/l of total acidity. A pretty, lifted nose with elderflower, fresh yellow plums/greengage, honey and minerals, all of which mingle seamlessly on a honey and mineral licked palate, its acidity cool and slatey. Good length and precision – how very Grosset. Very good. 11.5%
Pressing Matters R9 Riesling 2006 (Tasmania) – from a tiny vineyard located on north east facing slopes in Coal River, Southern Tasmania on well-drained cracking clay over a calciferous base. Quite funky/mineral on the nose though, in the mouth it’s very brightly etched with juicy, well integrated fruity acidity to its honeyed, spicy, bruised apple fruit. Nice balance and length – its 9g/l of residual sugar worn lightly. Very good.
And finally, though it didn’t feature in the Masterclass, I’m adding my notes on De Bortoli’s new off-dry Riesling which we tasted at one of the Landmark dinners:
De Bortoli Reserve Release Riesling 2010 (Yarra Valley) – as Steve Webber cheerfully admits, Riesling shouldn’t work in the Yarra, but it does. Sarah Fagin did vintage at Leitz in the Rheingau and for Webber, the secret to this off-dry Riesling is getting enough dappled light in the canopy to keep the focus on the fruit and avoid phenolics and second, getting the numbers (sugar/acid) out of your head – just focusing on the balance in the glass, which was exemplary (7g/l residual sugar). Quite Pfalz like with the talc of a warm climate rizza on the nose together with greengage and stone fruits, especially on the palate, which is round and a little earthy. Very good, good balance.
I spent two weeks in Australia in 2008 focused on Riesling (see here). Though I’d wondered if I should line up a dental appointment for my return and/or if I’d ever want to drink Riesling again, far from being diminished, my appetite for Australian Riesling has grown.
Along with Semillon, it offers plenty of invigorating bang for buck in its youth and develops lovely lingering complexity with age. The Landmark masterclass simply served to reinforce the heights and range of which Australia’s uniquely dry, focused Rieslings are capable. And great to see the Riesling King adding another string to his bow with such an accomplished off-dry expression. Surely a style which has a great future if the winemakers forget the numbers, focus on the balance in the glass and keep those aspirations high. No-one wants to see the return of the mass-produced semi-sweetie….
The Wine Detective
(Wines tasted 23 September 2010)