Vintage 2003 — outstanding for Aussie rieslings

By April this year, Clare and Eden Valley riesling makers could hardly believe their own good luck.

They’d barely finished crowing about 2002  — the best vintage in twenty years, they said — even better than the excellent 2001s. And, here were the barely fermented 2003s looking every bit as good as the 2002s, perhaps better.

What reticence there was to crow yet again has almost totally crumbled as realisation sets in as to how good the 2003s are.

The usually staid Robert Hill-Smith, proprietor of S. Smith & Sons, owner of the Yalumba, Heggies and Pewsey Vale brands, issued a press release this week – the first I can recall in a 20 year acquaintance. “Eden Valley riesling the best in decades”, screams the headline.

And it goes on, “2003 vintage classification tastings were recently held at Australia’s oldest family-owned winery, Yalumba. Proprietor Robert Hill Smith declared 2003 Riesling quality from the winery’s high country vineyards as the best in decades. And, in seeking the opinions of Riesling specialists from flagship cool climate regions, a similar enthusiasm is shared.

2002 was seen as one of the greatest ever Riesling years in Eden Valley and also Clare, yet the low pH and high natural acids seen in the 2003 wines, combined with tight and concentrated citrus lime flavours are delivering aromas showing even greater finesse than the 2002 vintage”.

A similar enthusiasm seems to be bubbling at Clare — a little to the north of Eden Valley on the Mount Lofty Ranges. English critic, Matthew Jukes, tasting Tim Adams Riesling 2003 (reviewed below) wrote, “Tim’s 2003 looked simply stunning, It was forward, even juicy and sensuous and then came the wall of awesome acidity. The overall feel was one of a stroll through a lemon grove”.

Tim Adams’ press release asks, “Is it too early to have another best-in-living memory vintage?” – a sentiment repeated in this note from Cardinham Estate’s Jim Smith, “Nearly all the winemakers, Cardinham included, are rating the 2003 rieslings as good as or better than 2002. It is funny to think that last year we all said ‘this is the best riesling vintage in the Clare Valley for 20 years’. What will everyone say this year? ‘This is the best riesling vintage in the Clare Valley for … 12 months!’”.

The quality of the 2003s is certainly very high. And if the fruit flavour seem rather well developed already (in comparison with the more austere 2002s), another characteristic is what Matthew Dukes called ‘the great wall of awesome acid’ – ie the wines are fruity but with the high natural acidity associated with long-cellaring potential.

A few weeks back I tasted a masked line up of 12 2003 rieslings – one a Mount Barker/Margaret River blend, one from Central Victoria, one from the Eden Valley, the rest from Clare.

I’ve recommended three of the wines in recent columns – Petaluma Hanlin Hill Clare Valley 2003, Taylors Clare Valley 2003 and Sandalford Mount Barker Margaret River 2003. But the standard across the board was extraordinarily high

This tasting, followed by  another of three Clare Valley 2003’s with Rob and Kay Howell at Jeir Creek winery, simply confirmed early impressions of dazzlingly fresh, fruity well-structured rieslings from the vintage. To add local flavour, Rob and Kay served their own 2003 ($20 at cellar door). It, too, showed crystal-clear, intense varietal flavour, but with notably more acid backbone than the Clare wines.

These tastings tend to support winemaker excitement about the vintage. And it’s worth noting just how fresh and pure these rieslings are under screw cap. For the first time we’re seeing virtually the whole vintage sealed this way – not a corked, cork-woody or oxidised wine in sight at this stage.

Other 2003 rieslings to perform well in the tastings were: Penna Lane  Clare, Skillogalee Clare, Jeanneret Clare,  Annie’s Lane Clare, Crabtree Watervale and Stephen John Watervale 2003.

I also formed a strong opinion on Richmond Grove Watervale and Orlando Steingarten from tank samples tasted in the Barossa back in April – although these have not hit retail shelves yet.

What all this boils down to is amazingly good quality, comparatively cheap drinking. If you like riesling, then now’s the time to mop up the last of the outstanding 2002s and begin tasting the first of the 2003s.

There’s rich pickings out there whether you want something to quaff now or prefer to pop a few cases away to enjoy in five, ten or even twenty years.

Tim Adams Clare Valley Riesling 2003, $15 to $18
UK writer Matthew Jukes writes, “The overall feel was one of a stroll through a lemon grove” – a colourful description for this delicious, zesty, pure riesling. Typical of the 2003 Clare rieslings tasted to date it offers heaps of up front, lemony varietal aroma and flavour with a bracing, tingly, spine of acidity. The full flavour and freshness means terrific current drinking. But, as long history shows, these are wines that develop wonderful new dimensions with extended bottle agein

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2003 & 2007