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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?

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