Riesling’s decline a boon for consumers

It’s only in the past few years the tonnage of chardonnay crushed for winemaking edged ahead of riesling. Yet, in consumer interest expressed through sales of varietally labelled bottles, chardonnay has streaked ahead.

A Nielsen survey of bottled white sales in NSW, Victoria, and South Australia for the twelve months to April, shows chardonnay with 32.1 per cent of the market compared to riesling’s 23.2 per cent – a gap far wider than plantings of the two varieties dictates.

Riesling’s decline in popularity, though, has a beneficial fallout for drinkers. Vast plantings of riesling vines, many in prime growing areas, are still in the ground. So, it follows that the fruit goes somewhere. The stern laws of supply and demand, then, virtually guarantee the consumer a good deal.

It’s no mistake that prices of popular riesling brands such as Wolf Blass, Siegersdorf, and Seaview have tumbled in real terms in the past few years. And when the big brands tumble, wines from the middle-sized producer immediately follow suit, and, with time, even the boutique producer comes under pressure. Thus, an oversupplied market has virtually guaranteed a favourable result for the drinker.

In a masked tasting last week two of the popular wines mentioned above, Seaview and Siegersdorf, were included as benchmarks in a field of rieslings from small wineries. The exercise was planned to identify small makers turning out decent wines. A few did stand out, but it was also clear that Siegersdorf is excellent and totally reliable drinking at around $8 a bottle and Seaview, for $4 to $7, is one of the great white wine bargains of our troubled times.

Before saying more about Seaview and its amazing qualities, there were three small-maker rieslings worthy of a mention. Two local wines, Madews Rhine Riesling 1992, from Queanbeyan, and Lark Hill Rhine Riesling 1991 from the Bungendore escarpment, were outstanding.

Madews wine, about to be released, shows an uncommon intensity and length of flavour with very sharply defined varietal character. The Lark Hill was considerably softer with a pleasing touch of sweetness. The third small-maker wine came from Plunketts Vineyard high up in Victoria’s Strathbogie Ranges.

I was unable to make contact with the Plunketts during the week to find out more about the 1989 Whitegale Rhine Riesling. But the appealing thing about it was the influence of a very cool growing climate on its smell and flavour. In brief it more resembled the gentle, sweet wines of the Rhine Valley than the big, ripe wines we grow here.

Now back to Seaview’s 1991 Rhine Riesling and the reasons for its excellence.

In the tasting, all judges ranked the wine highly. What we all noted were its clean, fresh flavour, very clear rhine riesling flavours, high, crisp acidity, delicacy, and a lingering, dry finish that left the mouth refreshed. All of us ranked it highly and, likewise, we were all surprised to see the label after the points had been awarded.

We were surprised, because cheap rhines normally have telltale aromas and flavours of muscat where the winemaker stretches the blend with a legal addition of other floral grape varieties. As well, mass produced wines don’t normally have such good solid acids giving the wine the backbone this one has.

A call to winemaker Neville Falkenberg confirmed our judgement of the wine. And the news that it has just picked up a gold medal in Brisbane shows there’s something special about it.

Falkenberg’s opening comment tells it all, “. there’s so much good material available”, he said, referring to the Penfold Wine Group’s vast plantings of Rhine Riesling. Not only have they broad acres in the absolute plum Eden and Clare Valleys, but also in the very good Barossa, Coonawarra, McLaren Vale and Padthaway regions, with sprinklings as well in Victoria.

As Falkenberg says, when you’ve got all those fantastic grapes coming in, the last place it will end up is in wine casks.

With few up-market Rhine Riesling brands capable of earning bigger consumer dollars in the group’s portfolio, there really is no alternative to putting those excellent grapes in large-volume commercial blends and taking what the market will pay until times get better.

Falkenberg also points out that Seaview Rhine Riesling has declined from its peak production of around 100,000 cases to an average now of 30,000. Hence, the current blend, he tells me, is predominantly Eden and Clare with a touch of Barossa.

That extra ‘zing’ in the 1991 comes from a naturally low pH level from early picked components in the blend. This is one to buy up and drink over the next five years as it matures.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1992 & 2007