The Rise of Riesling
Selector Magazine's 'State of Play' puts Riesling in the spotlight. Adorned by winemakers and serious collectors around the world, Riesling is yet to win hearts more broadly, but it seems the tide may be turning.
Riesling. Surely the purest, most noble white grape of all. Certainly it is the most versatile, capable of being produced in many styles, from dry to off-dry and also with many levels of sweetness too. No variety reflects its vineyard as clearly as Riesling does: elegant and complex, but with a transparency allowing the palate to contemplate an array of possible flavours. This magnificent white grape, indigenous to Germany for centuries and that country’s most famous wine, is now planted all over the world and more often than not produces unique wines of purity and elegance.
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Riesling is important to the Australian wine story and has always been with us. Our Riesling vines go back to the First Fleet with plantings recorded in Camden, NSW in 1838. Persecuted Prussian settlers in the Barossa started making Riesling in the 1860s, but it took a further 100 years before Australian Rieslings starting gaining real fame.
From the 1960s, a number of winemakers began to craft Australian Rieslings of profound quality – Leo Buring, John Vickery, Rudi Kronberger and Colin Gramp all took up the cause and it was their iconic wines that finally proved Australia could produce world class Rieslings.
Despite this, the variety received little of the respect it deserved, with producers in the 70s and 80s naming many white wines Riesling when in fact they were more likely Semillon, Crouchen, Trebbiano, Traminer or some other unfashionable variety. And, of course, we all remember the plethora of bulk ‘bag in a box’ wines, most of which had Riesling in them, but were labelled Chablis, Moselle and Fruity Gordo. No doubt these misgivings help to explain why today this noble variety still suffers from an identity complex with Australian wine drinkers.
From the 1990s, however, things began to change. Labelling laws tightened up, dictating that what was listed on the bottle had to be at least 85 percent of what was in the bottle, and screwcaps began to be used, helping maintain Riesling’s freshness and clarity longer and with more consistency.
The Riesling Regions
Today the best Australian Rieslings are made from the classic South Australian regions of Clare and Eden Valley, as well as Great Southern in WA, Henty in western Victoria, but the ‘newer’ regions of Canberra and Tasmania are gaining attention for their unique and attractive expressions of this special grape.
Louisa Rose, Chief Winemaker at Yalumba and custodian of one of Australia’s most famous Rieslings, Pewsey Vale, believes that while it is not the most popular variety, the future is bright. “Riesling has always had its challenges, but it’s such a beautiful variety to make and drink” she explained.
The Taste Test
To get a clearer view into the state of play of Australian Riesling, Selector rounded up a collection of 24 wines from around the country, masked them up to remove their identity and sent them out to three industry players with three very different positions and perspectives, before hosting them at a virtual tasting.
Along with Louisa Rose, there was Jeremy Oliver, who for over 25 years has been one of the country’s most respected wine critics, commentators and authors, and Alex Kirkwood, Head Sommelier at Aria, who has also done time at Quay and Rockpool Bar and Grill.
Style, quality, price and consistency were themes that came up and were suggested as possible reasons why the variety is not more popular.
“Higher acid levels can be the issue for many consumers, not sweetness as is often perceived to be the problem,” Louisa remarked. “The best Rieslings show the desirable purity of fruit and balance, but must be approachable at a young age, otherwise the consumer is turned off by the searing acidity."
Jeremy thought that while there were a few examples that disappointed him, there were some outstanding wines. But he cited two clear challenges to the overall popularity of Riesling.
“For the consumer, it’s a hard variety to navigate,” he remarked. “There is little correlation between price and quality and the best wines are not necessarily the most expensive.”
Although this allows those 'in the know' to grab great wines at great prices, it does little to help people new to the variety explore and have price be a guide.
“For people with no technical training, it’s hard to know what’s going on,” Jeremy continued. “It’s the same with sweetness, the industry as whole has failed to explain to the consumer that the wine they are buying is either dry, very dry, or sweet.”
Louisa agreed. “There needs to be a scale on the label to indicate the level of sweetness. “We do it because it helps people know what they are going to get.”
Overall, however, it was agreed that these sweeter styles are in the minority as the broader preference for Riesling in Australia is dry.
A Strong Comeback
Riesling was our most widely planted white variety until 1995, until Chardonnay and others took over, but the overall feeling across the tasting was there is much to sing about when it comes to modern Riesling.
As Alex described, “Riesling is gaining in popularity with our customers. We are supporting Australian wines much more now and Riesling is top of mind because it’s such a great food wine.”
Generally, the quality across the regions was high, but the favourites came from the Clare and Eden Valleys.
Jeremy Oliver particularly liked the Pikes 2019 The Merle, commenting that it showed lusciousness, intensity and length with balanced acids – "a beautiful wine and a classic Clare!”
Louisa had similar praise for the Henschke 2019 Julius from Eden Valley, saying she loved "the softness, dried herbs, balanced acidity and minerality.”
For Alex, Louisa’s 2018 '1961' Pewsey Vale, with its delicate aromatics won him over. "Beautifully delicate citrus and roses on the nose with a palate displaying lovely savoury characters,” he remarked. “It’s quite Alsatian in style and I’d love to see this wine in a few years.”
Outside of the traditional regions, there was also much to praise. Robert Stein’s 2019 from Mudgee was popular because of its bright purity, mouthfeel and finish.
Howard Park’s 2103 from Mt Barker was so fresh and poised for its age, while Frankland Estate’s 2019 from Frankland River was loved for its complexity and generosity, and the Shaw 2019 from Canberra’s Murumbateman region won the group over with its classic style and sweet-fruited balancing act.
An Optimistic Outlook
At the conclusion of the tasting, all agreed that the future is very bright for this noble grape, but more work needs to be done to move it forward.
“We need to get better with the messaging to all wine consumers,” Jeremy concluded. “That is, make them aware that Australia is the global home for dry Riesling, that it goes perfectly with a multitude of cuisines and occasions, that you can drink it young or you can drink it old, that it's insane value for money and that it's what you choose if you want to support an Australian tradition through tough times.”
Henschke Julius Eden Valley Riesling 2019
Eden Valley, RRP $45
A favourite across the board, this special wine from the Henschke family is named in honour of their ancestor Julius, a famous craftsman and highly acclaimed artist and sculptor. As pretty as it is fine, with complex and intense aromas of lemon, apple, kaffir lime, green melon and pear pouring out of the glass and making way for a zesty mouthful of pure fruit characters, minerals and acidity. The flavours are light yet intense with green apple and talc notes lingering on the finish. A real keeper.
Pewsey Vale 1961 Block Eden Valley Riesling 2019
Eden Valley, RRP $32
Another standout of the tasting, this recently released wine, crafted from the oldest vines on the Pewsey Vale vineyards, is likely to join the winery's stable as a great. The aromatics are varietal and pretty – soft, just-ripe limes, apples and white peaches neatly flanked by delicate blossom, tea tree and lemon myrtle. The palate is soft yet fresh with a juicy mix of lemon and lime fruit and lanolin, mouth-watering acidity and a pure finish. The mouthfeel is Germanic in style, making for a great food wine. A benchmark.
Vickery Watervale Riesling 2019
Clare Valley, RRP $23
Widely considered one of Australia’s Riesling masters, John Vickery has been making wines for over 50 years. This wine is a Clare classic with its fruit
from a high altitude, cool climate vineyard in the heart of the region. A vibrant nose of green apple, lime zest, lavender and river stones makes way to a vibrant, powerful palate characterised by apple, lemon sherbet and chalk characters energised by sherbet-like acidity. With both power and purity of equal importance, this wine is both a drink-now and a mid-term (8-12 year) cellar prospect.
Pikes the merle Clare Riesling 2019
Clare Valley, RRP $50
The Merle is the Pikes' flagship, and is renowned as one of the Clare Valley's finest Rieslings, which given the region's reputation for the variety, is quite a feat! It's named after managing director and viticulturist Andrew Pike's mother and is a stunning tribute. A standout for its complexity, balance, power and poise. The aromatics are complex and pure showing jasmine, lime zest, kaffir lime and green apples. On the palate, the wine is juicy, crisp and zesty with fine layers of apple, lime and river stones. Some Panel members noted that this wine stood out for its delicate yet restrained power. A purist’s favourite.
Z Wine Saul Riesling 2020
Eden Valley, RRP $35
Having just been released, this classic Eden Valley Riesling from the Zerk sisters is showing plenty of promise.
The aromatics are bright and fresh with zesty-fresh lemon, lime, dried herb and slate-like minerality. On the palate, the wine is just as fresh and youthful with fine lime and grapefruit acid lines framing green apple and citrus characters. This wine features great concentration, balance and persistence with a soft mouthfeel.
Tahbilk Riesling 2020
Nagambie Lakes, RRP $19
As one of the few Victorians in the tasting, this wine flew the flag high. Coming from vines planted in 1975 on Tahbilk’s Nagambie Lakes estate, this Riesling has a fragrant nose packed full of lime zest, apples and white flowers. The flavours are fresh and dominated by green apple, lime and grapefruit. The palate is framed with soft acidity, which gives a smooth and silken texture, making it very approachable.
Reillys Watervale Riesling 2019
Clare Valley, RRP $30
This wine has an impressive list of accolades including an Elite Gold from the Canberra International Riesling Challenge. It's blessed with fresh and complexing aromas of citrus peel, lime leaf, green apples, blossoms and white peaches. In the mouth, the flavours match the aromas with waves of juicy white peach, apples and limes flowing across the palate. A zesty acid backbone shows cellaring promise, but is soft enough to approach now.
Kirrihill EB’s The Settler Watervale Riesling 2019
Clare Valley, RRP $35
The Panel noted this wine displayed archetypal Clare Valley Riesling aromatics, flavours and character – living up to the winery's aim of capturing the essence of the region in the bottle. Fragrant green apple, citrus, zest and talc aromas move to a palate full of spicy green apples and limes. Overall, this wine was characterised as bright, fresh and pure with a crisp, punchy finish.
Howard Park Mount Barker Riesling 2013
Great Southern, RRP $34
This fantastic wine from Howard Park’s Burch family is one of the most collected Rieslings in Australia. Mainly sourced from the sub-region of Mount Barker with a touch of Porongurup fruit, it was the aged standout of the tasting, further reinforcing the ageing potential and value of the variety. As a seven-year-old wine, the aromatics were incredibly perfumed with fresh white peach, lemon curd and grapefruit. The palate is pure and long with a riot of lime and lemon flavours, mouth-watering acidity and touches of toast appearing to add complexity to the long finish. Delicious!
Pikes Traditionale Clare Riesling 2019
Clare Valley, RRP $25
The 2019 vintage represents the 35th release of this wine and as one of Australia’s most recognisable Rieslings, it did not disappoint. Tight, bright and opulent, it delivers complexing aromas
of lime, guava, lemon and grapefruit pith. The palate is a pure varietal expression of the variety showing lime, lemon and tropical fruits framed with a satiny texture. Balanced and mouth-watering.
St John's Road Peace of Eden Riesling 2019
Eden Valley, RRP $22
Defined by the Panel as a wine with plenty of character this Riesling from
the 'peace and tranquility' of the Eden Valley showed loads of zesty fresh lime and lemon, slate and peach skin aromas. On the palate, fresh layers of lime, grapefruit and green apple are framed by a soft and gentle mouthfeel and finished with delicate citrussy acidity. Soft, fine and elegantly textured.
Chaffey Bros Tripel punkt Eden Valley Riesling 2019
Eden Valley, RRP $25
Made from a selection of three Eden Valley old vine vineyards, this wine stood out for its overall balance and bright juicy characteristics. An attractive array of mandarin, lemon peel, green apple and jasmine aromatics surge out of the glass and make way to a mouthful of powerful apples, white peach and limes. There is a nice line of acidity at the end that balances out the equation and brightens up the finish.
Byron and Harold The Companions Riesling 2019
Great Southern, RRP $32
Created in celebration of the shared wine journey of Paul Byron and Ralph Dunning, this wine shows why Great Southern is so well regarded when it comes to Riesling. The aromas are lifted lime zest, grapefruit, apple and dried herbs with the palate showing power and length characterised by lively acidity, intense lime juice, apple and grapefruit. Well structured.
Frankland Estate Riesling 2019
Frankland River, RRP $30
Frankland Estate has long been the star of Frankland River, Western Australia’s most isolated wine region. Their commitment to crafting some of the region's finest wines is matched only by their dedication to sustainable farming. Thanks to the talents of winemaker Brian Kent, their 2019 Estate Riesling displays great skill in balancing the complexity and power in this wine. The aromatics feature preserved lemon, lime, lemon pith, grapefruit and wet stone, while the generous palate is showing a fruit-sweet mix of lime juice and ripe green apple characters with fine chalky layers. The finish is generous and precise.
Forest Hill Block 2 Mount Barker Riesling 2019
Mount Barker, RRP $36
Another Great Southern beauty reinforcing how well suited the marriage is between this region and Riesling. Forest Hill has been making wine for
50 years and the experience shows here with the Block 2 showing clean green apple, citrus, oyster shell and sea spray aromatics moving to a palate full of poised Granny Smith apple, grapefruit and pear. Shows great structure with excellent cellaring potential.
Robert Stein Dry Riesling 2019
Mudgee, RRP $45
This highly decorated wine from Jacob Stein and family is the only NSW contender, and holds its head high against its southern cousins. A bright
and expressive nose of fresh citrus,
stonefruit, talc and white flowers.
The palate is light yet with an intense core of flavour showing as fresh-cut lime, lemon sherbet, guava and jasmine. Powerfully flavoursome yet with purity. Mouth-watering and one for the cellar.
Wellington & Wolfe Riesling 2019
Tasmania, RRP $38
This newcomer from Northern Tasmania is the passionate love child of Hugh McCullough whose love of Riesling and history has resulted in Wellington & Wolfe. Hugh is a specialist, only making Riesling and it shows in this wine. The aromas are a fragrant lift of citrus, apple, sherbet and wet stone with an intense but refreshing palate full of lime, pear and star fruit wrapped in a crisp frame of refreshing acidity. Another one for the cellar.
Tahbilk Riesling 2019
Nagambie Lakes, RRP $19
Another slightly older entry from the 125-year-old estate showing that the custodians, the Purbrick family, have a real soft spot for Riesling, despite their love affair with Marsanne. Lots of blossom on the nose with
notes of stonefruit and red apple. The palate greets you with a rush of lime and stonefruits. The soft acidity in this wine gives it a smooth and silken texture.
Shaw Wines Winemakers Selection Riesling 2019
Murrumbateman, RRP $32
Hailing from Shaw Estate’s Murrumbateman vineyard, this wine is representative of the high quality of the Riesling produced in the Canberra District. The nose is lively, fragrant
and full of apple, citrus zest, flower and slate aromas. The palate is pure, pristine and zesty with lime, apple and nectarine characters filling the mouth. Overall, this wine is generous and persistent.
Chaffey Bros Tripelpunkt Riesling 2016
Eden Valley, RRP $25
As a four-year-old wine, this 'Tripelpunkt' is starting to display why well-made Riesling is such great value. With developing characters of lime curd, lemon, honeysuckle and lanolin, it is evolving beautifully. The palate proudly shows off both primary citrus and green apple and complex aged notes of lanolin and honeysuckle delivering freshness, but with added depth.
Clare Valley, RRP $35
This six-year-old from Woodvale Vintners in the Clare is showing beautifully aged characters and stood out to the Panel for its complexity, freshness and development with light and elegant characteristics. On the nose, it shows citrus, green apple, marmalade toast and slate and the palate is light but intense with barbequed lime, nashi and lemon curd. Hints of talc and mineral add complexity to the picture.
Reillys Museum Release Watervale Riesling 2011
Clare Valley, RRP $40
As the oldest wine in the tasting, this was a real treat and was labelled the wine for 'serious Riesling nerds'. It shows some regal development, but still has tension and acid to keep driving it along beautifully. The aromas are lemon rind, peach, lime curd, honeysuckle and the palate is vibrant, complex and long with stonefruit, bush honey, lime zest and toast. A delicious drinking experience.
Best's Foudre Ferment Riesling 2019
Great Western, RRP $35
Coming from the Thompson family in Victoria's Great Western region, this wine is another for the Riesling nerds and explorers. Made in a 2500L French Foudre, it showcases another deliciously textural side to Riesling. The aromas are soft and delicate with apple blossom, jasmine, lime, grapefruit and almond meal leading to a textural, attractive mouthful of white and yellow fruits, nuts, chalk and a zesty lemon lift.
Josef Chromy SGR Delikat Riesling 2019
Tasmania, RRP $29
Made by Jeremy Dineen as a nod to the great German Auslese wines of the Mosel, this wine proves that you can have deliciously sweet fruits and spice but finish dry. Made with 60g of residual sugar (SGR), there’s jasmine, pink lady apple and lime leaf on the nose. The palate has a thrilling acid backbone which carries with it lime, apple and stonefruit notes.