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Wine

For the love of Riesling

Why don’t people go crazy for Riesling? I mean, every new vintage wine critics across the country bombard us with rave reviews for Aussie Riesling with the underlying message that this once mighty varietal is making a comeback – if only the drinking public would embrace it. But that is where it seems to fall down.

Fifty years ago Riesling was the dominant white wine in this country, but it lost its lustre in the 1970s when Chardonnay started to boom. In more recent decades, Riesling has remained stagnant at about 2.2 per cent of total grape production in Australia while being surpassed in popularity by Sauvignon Blanc, Semillion and even Pinot Gris/Grigio.

Our wine scribes aren’t alone in their infatuation with Riesling. Ask a winemaker and they will get slightly frothy at the mouth as they rabidly equate the art of making Riesling as akin to a religious experience. This is mainly due to the fact that, of all the white grape varietals, it is the one that truly reflects the place it was grown, while at the same time maintaining its varietal characteristics. It is the purist expression of grape in the bottle. What’s more, winemakers and critics sing in unison that we have never been better at making it than today.

So what gives here? Why isn’t Riesling more popular?

My theory is three-fold – marketing, a fashion crisis and multiple personality syndrome. Let me explain.

Marketing

Most companies these days have a marketing department and like many of us, I don’t know exactly what they do. So I looked it up. It seems the definition of marketing is not just about advertising and promoting the business; it is about identifying and understanding your customer and giving them what they want. But if the statistics in wine trends are to be believed, Riesling is not what the public wants, so why would marketers waste their time and effort coming up with campaigns to sell it?

One solid fact of marketing is that it works best on the younger end of the scale – the ‘Gen Y’ drinkers of the wine industry. Marketers are too busy trying to get that newly lean ol’ cougar Chardonnay back up on her pedestal and aggressively pitching ideas to swank up their Sav Blanc. Or they’re creating a buzz around Pinot Grigio with a viral campaign where antipasto platters served by suave Mediterranean men are bid upon by nubile young women using wine as currency. Could you imagine dear old nanna Riesling being part of promotion like this? And that leads into the next problem...Riesling is not sexy. And as any marketer worth her witty campaign briefs will tell you – sex sells.

Fashion

What is your perception of Riesling? Truly? I just described her as a nanna and I will confess that before this tasting that is what I thought of her. Sweet, juicy, occasionally bitter with an overbearing aromatic floral perfume – just like my dear old nan Ruby (except for the bitter part, she was always laughing despite constantly losing her false teeth, God rest her soul). In my marketing plan, every bottle of Riesling could have been sold with a handkerchief embroidered with edelweiss or maybe a set of matching doilies. It would have been the perfect wine to sip while listening to the Sound of Music soundtrack. Those of us in the Gen X generation, or old enough to remember the lunar landing, would have also had their Riesling memories tainted by the cask wine revolution, when copious amounts of Riesling were pumped into a silver bladder stuffed inside a cardboard box.

Maybe I am taking things a bit too far, but add to the equation the fact that Riesling has its own bottle shape. What is that about? Sure, other varietals have their own look. Champagne is the most obvious, but it works perfectly for sparkling – slot your thumb up that punt, pop that cork and the party starts. But most people could not distinguish a Chardonnay from a Sav Blanc from a Semillon in a silhouette-only line-up. However, that tall thin bottle of Riesling stands out like the dog’s proverbials. And, just like those canine gonads, I reckon that distinctive bottle shape deters the occasional drinker. So in the end they won’t bother to pick it up to read the tasting notes or buy it because of a pretty label or accidentally purchase it thinking it was another style of wine. It’s bottle racism, excuse the pun... it’s a glass war.

Multiple Personality Syndrome

Let’s just say you are above the marketing tactics, that you were old enough and wise enough to avoid wine casks, and/or that you had enough education in the viticultural realm to accept that those sleek green glass tombs harbour a wonderful vineous offering.

If so, you’d be well aware that the style of Australian Riesling these days is not sweet and florally, but is instead dry and citrussy.

The fact that it is so versatile and can be made in these different styles is one of Riesling’s great assets, however, at the same time, one of its great frailties. Without going into too many winemaker technicalities, a number of factors including canopy management, timing of picking, contact with skins, time on lees, etc., can determine the style of Riesling, be it sweet, dry or everything in between. To help educate (and market Riesling better), Riesling comes with its own scale on its label – the International Riesling Foundation Sugar Guidelines. This scale takes into account the sugar and acid levels in Riesling to give a rating of either; Dry (sugar to acid ratio less than 1), Medium Dry (ratio between 1 and 2), Medium Sweet (ratio between 2 and 4) and Sweet (ratio above 4). Are you still with me? It is a lot to take in and let’s not get started on late-picked Riesling, which produces a dessert-style wine, as that is a whole other kettle of fish.

I will, however, inform you of another reason why Riesling has laboured under a cloud of confusion. Because Riesling was established in Australia very early, newer plantings of grapes have often been labelled as Riesling, when in fact they weren’t. Most famously, Hunter Valley Semillon was known as Hunter Riesling for many years. This oversight, and many more like it, was only corrected in the 1970s. Needless to say, if you’ve had a bottle of Riesling in the last 50 years, you may have had one that was not to your liking and it could have turned you into an anti-Rieslingist for no good reason.

An Australian icon

In my view, Australian Riesling deserves better, after all, it owns a truly unique place in our wine industry. Firstly, Riesling is believed to be one of the first, if not the first, varietal planted when Australia was colonised. In 1791, Governor Arthur Phillip had a vineyard established in what is now the Sydney CBD, as well as three acres of vineyard on a property at Parramatta. It is thought Riesling was among these vines. John Macarthur established a vineyard with these cuttings on his ‘Elizabeth Farm’ at Camden in 1794. When these varietals were officially identified in the 1840s they included Riesling. Whatever the exact timing of Riesling coming to Australia, there is little doubt it one of our oldest varietals.

Secondly, it stands out from the majority of our traditional grape varieties due to the fact that it is a German varietal, from the Rhineland to be exact, while most of our other major grape varietals, e.g., Shiraz, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, etc. are of French descent. Then there is the sense of serendipity around where Riesling excels in this country – the Clare and Eden Valleys of South Australia. These are the same regions where the displaced Lutherans of German descent came to settle, live and eventually make wine in the late 19th century. Sure, there might have been some inherited knowledge on how to grow Riesling by these new Australians, but in all honesty, the reason for Riesling’s success in these regions is due to terroir – the soils, the terrain, the prevailing weather conditions – the land itself. Now I don’t know if you are a big believer in fate, but I find this fact truly remarkable and proof that Riesling was destined to thrive here in Australia.

Finally, Riesling was the varietal that led our screwcap revolution. You see, another remarkable quality of Riesling is that it is practically the only white varietal that ages gracefully. Zesty and citrussy young, it can develop in the bottle to show gorgeous honey, toast characters after a number of years (which is probably why Hunter Semillon was confused with it). As was discovered in these instances, cork is an inferior closure to the Stelvin cap and so, in 2001, the Riesling growers in the Clare Valley united as one and bottled the entire Riesling vintage under screwcap.

The take home message is this - good Riesling is all about purity. It is really about preserving the pristine purity of the grape. At the same time, there are different styles. You just have to do some detective work. Get to know the style you like, get to those producers who make that style and follow them – you will be rewarded. And, after all, Riesling deserves some love, don’t you think?

Click here to shop our great range of Riesling.

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The Gee in Pinot G
Words by Peter Forrestal on 12 Aug 2015
The rise Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio in the Australian marketplace has been nothing short of remarkable, especially as it has occurred at the same time as the country has been drenched by a tsunami of increasingly cheap Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. While there has been a knock-on effect with increased interest in local Sauvignon Blanc , and substantial growth in plantings of Muscat à Petit grains (from a small base) for Moscato, there has been huge consumer interest in Pinot Gris/Grigio. So, what better time for the Wine Selectors Tasting Panel to line up 60 of the country’s finest and put them to the test? The Panel was joined by two learned Pinot Gris/Grigio producers: Mornington Peninsula vigneron Garry Crittenden and King Valley winemaker Sam Miranda, as well as yours truly. A quick history lesson Pinot Gris was planted in Australia much earlier than most would have imagined. Chris Bourke of Sons & Brothers in Orange mentions on his website that when James Busby imported his collection of grape varieties from France and Spain in the 1830s, what he had thought to be Cabernet Sauvignon was, in fact, Pinot Gris. As with much of Busby’s collection, it didn’t survive. Today’s Pinot Gris/Grigio was pioneered on the Mornington Peninsula in the 1980s by Kathleen Quealy and Kevin McCarthy at T’Gallant and, although slowly at first, in the past decade it has taken hold of the public consciousness with increasing speed. Kathleen sees three factors coming together to enable Pinot Gris to succeed on Mornington. It was the right region for the right variety. The clone that was available was ideal as it produced small berries, small bunches and only moderate vigour. There were adequate good sites (north facing slopes), which were as vital to ripening Pinot Gris as they were to ripening Pinot Noir. Consumers were the other key in this equation and she saw them as being interested in new varieties: looking for unwooded whites and wanting premium varieties as expressive as Pinot Noir . In Australia no variety, except Sauvignon Blanc , has grown more impressively than Pinot Gris/Grigio in the last five years when the industry trend has been to stabilise or decrease the supply of grapes. In that time, it has moved ahead of Viognier , Verdelho , Muscat, Colombard and Riesling : more of it is produced than any of the major white varieties except for Chardonnay , Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. There are in excess of a hundred different labels of Pinot Gris/Grigio on the market in Australia at present. What’s in a name? A major marketing and consumer issue in Australia is that the same grape variety is produced and sold as both Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio and, for many, this can seem pretty confusing. This difference has its roots in the vineyards of Europe. Pinot Grigio is most successfully grown in the regions of Fruili, the Veneto and Alto Adige in North-Eastern Italy where it is picked early and produces a fresh, zesty, racy style with clean savoury characters. In France, it is known as Pinot Gris and is popular in Alsace where it is picked riper and therefore has a richer, fuller, plumper profile and is higher in alcohol. The variety produces bluey grey grapes (deep purple with green flesh when fully ripe) that make white or lightly pink wines and are thought to be related to (or a mutant of) Pinot Noir. Throughout this tasting the issue of colour was rigorously discussed. Garry Crittenden said he liked his wine to be clear, while others on the Panel thought the wine should have a pinkish tinge to it. Whatever the preference, it is important that the consumer knows most Gris/Grigio will have a ‘pink-grey’ tinge to it, and that is completely normal. Another key issue for Gris/Grigio has been the importance of identifying the places where it can be grown most successfully. Kathleen believes that far too much Gris/Grigio has been planted in warm Australian regions for which it is patently unsuitable. For Garry Crittenden, Pinot Gris/Grigio, like Pinot Noir, has become genetically adapted over the centuries to showing its full phenolic character in cool climates where the grapes ripen slowly over a long period of time. Low vigour is also vital to producing Pinot Gris/Grigio grapes that show concentration and character. The results reveal Firstly, the results supported Kathleen Quealy’s theory that Pinot Gris/Grigio does best in cool climate regions. The majority of wines in the tasting were cool climate and all of the top 20 wines were sourced from cool climate areas. More than half of those wines were sourced from Victorian vineyards, with the King Valley accounting for six of the top 20, while the Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula claimed three each and Geelong , one. The Adelaide Hills , Eden Valley and Tasmania also registered as strong regions for Gris/Grigio, while Orange and Tumbarumba were the only regions of note north of the border. Seven of the top 10 scoring wines were Pinot Gris. This result was explained by the fact that this varietal style is generally more malleable to winemaker manipulation. The Grigio style should be lighter, drier and more minerally, so will generally be picked quite early, cool-fermented in tank, then bottled, whereas the Gris style would be picked later and therefore riper, which means it can handle some winemaking artefact, such as lees stirring and barrel fermentation or maturation. Pinot G? The results also showed the Gris tasted were significantly removed from the wines of Alsace, while the Grigios were substantially different from their Mediterranean counterparts, and there were some wines that sat in between. Panellist Trent Mannell posed this revolutionary hypothesis: had Australia developed its own style of Pinot Gris/Grigio, a style that is neither Gris nor Grigio but sits somewhere in between, a style we could simply label as Pinot G? For instance, the Thorn Clarke Sandpiper Pinot Gris showed floral aromas but had some minerality on the nose with zippy acidity, while the The Pawn ‘Caissa’ Pinot Grigio was described as having a delicate acid balance and vibrance while at the same time was lauded for its muscaty aromatics and thick viscous texture. So you can see in these two examples there is some overlap in styles. If the results of the tasting were seriously scrutinised, then the outcome would suggest that we do indeed have three styles of this versatile varietal in Australia: Gris, Grigio and G. The element of food One of the other main issues that the Panel discussed during the tasting was the importance of drinking Pinot G in the company of food. These are textural wines, much more savoury and less fruity than most Aussie whites. They are transformed by being paired with appropriate foods. One of the magic moments during the tasting came when Chairman Karl Stockhausen condemned a Pinot Gris as being lean, tight and watery. “I want some flavour,” he growled. Sam came to the Eden Valley wine’s defence, agreeing that it was neutral but insisting that placing it alongside food would bring the wine alive. Then he asserted, “I could drink it all day!” With Pinot Grigio, you could try oysters, clams, prawns, grilled whiting, lightly battered barramundi fillets, mildly spiced stir fries, and with Pinot Gris, go for onion tart, lobster, barbecued or roast pork, or roast chicken. It’s a question of finding dishes that you think will work with the crisp zestiness of Pinot Grigio or the richer, fuller, weightier, more viscous character of Pinot Gris. Overall, Sam believed that the tasting showed how far Pinot Gris/Grigio has come in Australia in the past decade. He said that if we’d held a similar tasting in the 1990s, far too many of the wines would have been bland or faulty. Most importantly, he was impressed at how well producers achieved the style that the label told us they were aiming for. For you, though, the message is both clear and welcoming. Pinot Gris/Grigio, or for that matter, Pinot G, is doing very well in Australia. So when you are sitting down al fresco-style to a shared mezze plate or some antipasti this summer, crack open a bottle of Australian Pinot G and discover what all the fuss is about.
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Biodynamic – going beyond organic
Words by Jackie Macdonald on 5 Apr 2016
If someone told you that filling a cow’s horn with dung and planting it at a certain phase of the moon would help your vines to grow, you’d probably think they were bonkers. Far out it may indeed sound, but this is one of the central steps in biodynamics, a form of organic viticulture that’s being embraced by an increasing number of Australian wineries. While it might sound like a theory cooked up by modern hippies, biodynamics actually has its origins in Europe over 90 years ago. Let’s set the scene. It’s 1924 in Silesia, Germany (now part of Poland) and a group of farmers has gathered to hear a series of lectures by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner. The farmers are looking for an alternative to chemical fertilisers, which they believe have caused extensive damage to their soil and brought poor health to their livestock and crops. Steiner proves sympathetic as he reveals a system of agriculture that shuns chemicals and treats the farm as an individual, self-contained entity. Rather than focus on the health of individual plants, Steiner’s system teaches that good health requires that the entire eco-system in which the plant exists be thriving. This includes the other plants, the soil, the animals and even the humans who are working the land. The system he describes he calls biodynamics. By taking away all artificial fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides, Steiner presented one of the earliest models of organic farming. However, it’s the next steps that really separate biodynamics from organics (and it’s at this point that I imagine some of the listening farmers’ eyebrows began to rise). Steiner claims that for this environment to truly blossom, a series of field and compost preparations needs to be added. These preparations, nine in total, are man-made solutions, derived from nature, that are labelled 500 through to 508. To the conventional farmer, these preparations may appear somewhat far-fetched. For example, ‘500’ is made by filling cow horns with cow manure, which are then buried over winter to be recovered in spring. A teaspoon of the manure is then mixed with up to 60 litres of water, which is stirred for an hour, whirled in different directions every second minute. ‘501’ also requires a cow horn, this time filled with crushed quartz. It is buried over summer and dug up late in autumn, then mixed the same way as 500. Stretching his credibility even further in the eyes of the pragmatic farmer, Steiner brings a spirituality to his teachings by suggesting the growth cycles of the farm are influenced by astrological forces. Decisions such as when to spray the preparations, when to weed and when to pick should all be made according to a calendar that details the phases of the moon and stars. “Hocus-pocus!” you may very well cry. Not so, according to the ever-increasing number of wine producers in Australia and internationally who have embraced biodynamics. Choosing an environmentally sustainable approach to viticulture is obviously to be applauded in these times of climate crisis. However, talk to biodynamic producers and you’ll find that superior wine quality is the number one motivation for being biodynamic. At South Australia’s Cape Jaffa, the Hooper family has been using biodynamic principles for many years and their conviction in its effectiveness is complete. “We believe that cultivating the vines in this way is what allows them to achieve balance within their environment. Achieve balance, and the vines are able to fully express themselves – leading to a wine that bares a true and remarkable resemblance to its environment,” says Derek Hooper. The Buttery family of Gemtree in McLaren Vale are also converts. Since their biodynamic beginnings in 2007 they say they can now “see a noticeable difference in the health of our vineyard and quality of our fruit.” A fellow McLaren Vale winemaker, David Paxton of Paxton wines says, “Biodynamics is the most advanced form of organic farming. It uses natural preparations and composts to bring the soil and the vine into balance, resulting in exceptionally pure and expressive fruit.” The proof is in the tasting, however, so next time you’re looking for a new wine to try, why not put biodynamics to the test and see if you can taste the natural difference?
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Who makes my wine?
Words by Tyson Stelzer on 28 Apr 2016
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