Riesling master John Vickery unveils a life’s work

One of the Barossa’s ugliest wineries makes some of its loveliest wines.

Richmond Grove Winery – previously Leo Buring’s Chateau Leonay, previously Orange Grove – blights the landscape on the northern edge of Tanunda township within cooee of Peter Lehmann and Veritas wineries.

It was here that John Vickery, a Roseworthy College graduate, made his first wines for Leo Buring in 1955, and here that he honed the skills that made him Australia’s leading riesling maker.

In the early years under Leo Buring, John saw the high quality of riesling grapes from the Barossa and more especially from Buring’s Florita vineyard at Watervale in the Clare Valley to the north.

However, wine making equipment was rustic in the early days and Vickery’s greatest riesling-making achievements came after Lindemans purchased Chateau Leonay in 1962, a year after the death of 85 year old Leo Buring.

Over a tasting of thirty rieslings back to 1963 in the Barossa last week, Vickery said refrigeration, air-bag presses and bulk carbon-dioxide reticulation systems arrived in time for the 1963 vintage.

These were not all the tools required to make great riesling, but they were sufficient to reduce the risk of oxidation and conduct the controlled, slow, cool ferments that best capture the riesling grape’s delicate aromatics and flavours.

Ferments were still conducted in concrete tanks and there was no centrifuge to separate grape solids from juice prior to fermentation.

However, the gentle extraction of the finest, sweetest juice with air-bag presses, the use of refrigeration and a combination of carbon dioxide blanketing, with additions of ascorbic acid all improved flavour retention to ‘a marked degree’.

Vickery’s thumbprint can still be seen in those 1963-1970 rieslings. And had a better seal than cork been available all those years ago, all wines of that period might still offer vibrant drinking today.

As it was, several continue to drink magnificently. Leo Buring DWV 12 Eden Valley Rhine Riesling 1966 – of which Vickery said, “… it was always looked up to as the classic, the epitome of Eden Valley riesling… and it still shows breeding” – still delivered wonderful, intense ‘lime’ flavours. What a delight to drink, even though past its peak.

Leo Buring DWW 22 Eden Valley Rhine Riesling 1967 was just superb – fully mature, vibrant, and with a dimension of flavour never seen in young wines. It probably sold for $1 or so on release (a reminder that today’s rieslings as just as big a bargain).

From the 1971 vintage stainless steel tanks and centrifuges gave Vickery even greater control over wine making at Chateau Leonay. This had a beneficial effect not just on limited-production show wines but on cheaper, mass produced rieslings as well.

For me the greatest wine of the tasting was Leo Buring DWB 15 Eden Valley Rhine Riesling 1972. At 25 years of age it still looks, smells and tastes young and fresh but with an extraordinary intensity. It still pops up at auction from time to time for around $100.

Such magnificence overshadowed the two wines preceding it in the tasting: Leo Buring Bin 33 Black Label, vintages 1972 and 1973. But both are still alive and well (especially the 1972) and stunning when you think these were the bargain-basement whites of their day.

Wines of the seventies contributed greatly to Vickery’s impressive white-wine show-award tally (to date) of 50 Trophies and 400 Gold Medals and, at the Barossa tasting, these Leo Buring riesling wines put a particularly big smile on my face: WD E17 Eden Valley 1975 and DW G 37 Watervale 1977.

The eighties, generally, showed weaker than the seventies and Vickery confirmed that there were some problems in the vineyards in that era, particularly in a lack of irrigation.

But Leonay DW U13 Watervale 1991 (the last of the Leo Buring wines made at Chateau Leonay before Southcorp sold the winery to Orlando-Wyndham and the name was changed to Richmond Grove) showed its class.

Vickery joined Orlando Wyndham in 1993 and from 1994 we have enjoyed his special riesling touch in Richmond Grove wines from Watervale and the Barossa Valley.

One of my highest scored wines of the day was Richmond Grove Watervale Riesling 1994, a delicate white pulsing with the vibrant, fresh, intense flavours unique to this sub-region of Clare.

John Vickery’s legacy goes beyond the modestly priced Richmond Grove wines we enjoy today. He revealed the riesling grape’s great potential in Australia. And, in turn, greatly influenced how riesling is made in this country.

To a large degree, we can thank Vickery for the amazingly high riesling quality we enjoy today. And we can thank god that it remains bargain-priced as our other top wines move out of reach.

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