Mitchelton Riesling – the outsider with pedigree

There are three good things about Australian rhine riesling: it’s plentiful, it’s cheap, and it’s very, very good. The best, often retailing at modest prices on release, show tremendous staying power, drinking well ten years and more after bottling.

Even if South Australia grows 30 thousand of the 40 odd thousand tonnes crushed for wine making each year, it does not have a monopoly on quality. Those marvellous Clare, Watervale, and Eden Valley rieslings have a peer in Mitchelton vineyard, located on a peculiar bend of the Goulburn River near Nagambie, central Victoria.

That riesling should be grown there at all, in an area not previously noted for that variety, came down to decision, now proven visionary, by Colin Preece.

Preece, a distinguished table and sparkling wine maker of the fifties and sixties at Seppelt’s Great Western, selected the Mitchelton vineyard site in the late sixties after an extensive search through southeastern Australia on behalf of the Shelmerdene family.

As Stephen Shelmerdene wrote to me: “Such was Colin’s vision and enthusiasm for riesling that extensive plantings were made in 1970 and 1971, well before the white wine boom. Colin believed that the specific micro climate of the vineyards – surrounded on three sides by the deep, very cold, constant-height Goulburn River, a site very conducive to autumn fogs , providing suitable conditions for botrytis cinerea – would put Mitchelton in a very strong position to demonstrate the quality of riesling in Victoria.”. His judgement was spot on, although he did not live to see it vindicated.

Instead, Don Lewis, a young man selected and trained by Preece, presided over the making of Mitchelton’s first riesling during the massive floods of 1974. Don cannot recall the quality of the wine. But he well remembers the 1975 Mitchelton Rhine Riesling, a multiple gold-medal winner.

But times were tough for the wine industry with producers battling for margin in a glutted market. The going was particularly tough at Mitchelton as the owners struggled to fund an extravagant and still mind-boggling underground concrete and brick cellar and landmark observation tower.

During a period in receivership, Mitchelton sold most of its riesling as grapes or bulk wine. Most of the 1976 went as grapes to Brown Bros. However, a small portion was bought by Brian Croser, then lecturing in wine making at Riverina College of Advance Education.

Using a discarded Maralinga rocket fuel tank as a fermenter, he turned Mitchelton’s 1976 grapes into the first Petaluma Riesling. By this time Croser was an accomplished riesling maker, having put Hardys Siegersforf on wine shelves and restaurant lists all over Australia. Stephen Shelmerdene tells me Malcolm Fraser loved the inaugural Petaluma riesling and secured a quantity for the Lodge.

By 1978 Mitchelton’s financial trauma was over. For an undisclosed sum, believed to be just a fraction of the building cost, Melbourne’s Valmorbida family acquired the winery, tower and Mitchelton brand. The Shelmerdenes retained the vineyards.

At the Adelaide Show in 1978 Mitchelton’s 1978 Rhine Riesling earned a gold medal and the Clampett Trophy for best current vintage dry white of the exhibition. Lewis sees this as the turning point for his Rhine Rieslings. And, as he pointed out last week at a dinner celebrating his twentieth vintage, every one of his rieslings since then, including the 1993, has won at least one gold medal.

Gold medals, of course, don’t tell the whole story. They tell us mostly that a young, fresh wine, at a certain point in time, in the judges’ opinions, scrubbed up well against its peers. It’s only by drinking a wine, and seeing it at various stages of development can we form a valid opinion.

In the case of Mitchelton’s Rhine Rieslings, it’s very hard not to put them in the top flight of Australian rieslings. Young and old they stack up well, with the best mature vintages appearing stunningly good.

I’ve been fortunate to taste all the vintages 1978 to 1988 in one tasting and to have encountered most of those and all of the more recent vintages several times at dinner parties and other tastings. In recent months I’ve seen the 1978 and 1982 tasting as fresh and rich as ever.

At Don’s twentieth vintage dinner, the 1993, now labelled as Mitchelton Blackwood Park Riesling (Blackwood Park being the vineyard name) tasted extraordinarily good. Don views it in the same light as the legendary 1978.

I agree with Don. At $10 to $11 a bottle you get more flavour per dollar than you’ll ever find in chardonnay at the price. But it may not be the last word on Riesling, as 1993 appears to be an exceptional year for that variety, especially in its homeland of Clare, Watervale, and the Eden Valley.