Riesling misses the boom but won’t go away

The sheer quality, value and long cellaring ability of Australia’s 2007 rieslings presents a great buying opportunity for drinkers. But before presenting several gems from recent tastings, it’s interesting to reflect on this noble variety’s undeserved niche status.

It’s a darling variety amongst winemakers and the converted. It attracts critical attention completely out of proportion to its overall popularity — and dramatically out of whack with its production figures.

Measured by hectares-in-the-ground against other varieties, riesling missed the boom that so dramatically changed Australia’s vinous landscape in the decade from the mid nineties.

And my, how that export-driven landscape changed in ten years. In 1996 sultana, the plainest of all wine grapes, was our most widely planted variety at 15,195 hectares. It left chardonnay and shiraz vying for second place on 13,713 hectares and 13,410 hectares respectively – with riesling well behind on 3,423 hectares.

By 2006 sultana was out of the race and shiraz had taken the crown as our most planted variety. The area planted to shiraz had grown by 207 per cent to 41,115 hectares – eclipsing even chardonnay’s dramatic 127 per cent surge to 31,219 hectares. Riesling, meanwhile, grew by a paltry 29 per cent to 4,400 hectares while Australia’s total vineyard plantings swelled 91 per cent from 88,474 to 168,971 hectares.

But the riesling fixation only grew – attracting almost as much attention, as far as I can gauge, as our number one variety, shiraz.

The riesling buzz, I believe, rests on its sublime quality, extraordinary cellaring ability and its suitability to Australian conditions. It’s been here since the first half of the nineteenth and survived for many reasons, including good luck, but perhaps mostly because winemakers loved it and wouldn’t let go.

In 2006, wine industry veteran, Phil Laffer, wrote in The View From Our Place, ‘We were lucky as an industry that we didn’t lose all those riesling vineyards when the chardonnay boom began in the 1980s. Private growers pulled out nearly all of their riesling – they just couldn’t get the price for their fruit. But proprietary winemakers such as Orlando, Lindemans, Leo Burings, Hardys, Yalumba and Penfolds in particular, hung on to their riesling vines.

We are as a company, and as an industry, surrounded by remarkably good riesling vineyards. And in Australia we have a history of making very good, long-lived riesling. With the superb fruit that we have, that’s just a case of being very careful all the way from the vine through to the bottle.’

While Laffer rightly ties riesling’s survival and reputation to its Barossa-Clare-Eden Valley heartland, the variety now makes its mark across Australia in a diversity of styles, reflecting the climates and sites where it’s grown.

Within riesling’s generally floral/aromatic theme, these variations can be subtle or dramatic – and can be appreciated in the terrific 2007s now coming into the market.

I’ve reviewed several of these, mostly from Canberra, in recent Sunday Times’ columns. But two weeks back, with the help of an enthusiastic wine mate, I judged twelve 2007s, including some of Australia’s most respected labels.

Now, judging young rieslings is difficult. You only have to look at wine show results to see that judges struggle with the new releases while generally nailing it with older wines. Why is this?
I think it gets back to the delicacy and subtlety of young riesling. The more of them you line up, the harder it is to differentiate one from the other. From my observation, in big shows, like Canberra’s recent Riesling Challenge, the simpler, fruitier wines tend to outscore more subtle and restrained, but ultimately better, wines.

In this year’s Challenge, for example, the delicious Leo Buring Clare Valley Riesling 2007 scored 55.5 points out of 60 where it’s more expensive and, to my palate, far superior cellar mate, Leonay Eden Valley Riesling 2007 scored just 45.5. There were other similar examples from Tasmania and Western Australia where cheaper, commercial wines outscored more expensive, premium cellar mates.

Given the numbers of wines (135 in this instance), their delicacy, and the time taken to judge – an average of two minutes per wine from my wine show experience – it’s not surprising that we see such anomalies, even from the most experienced palates.

In our little Chateau Shanahan tasting, therefore, we took our time – about an hour and a half to taste twelve wines. We sniffed, tasted and spat for first impressions. Then, wine-by-wine enjoyed a little sip – because it’s really only in the drinking that you can see all a wine has to offer.

And what we found, amongst the delicacy, were lovely style differences ranging from the ultra finesse of Tasmania’s Bay of Fires to the very rich, but still delicate, Petaluma Hanlin Hill Clare Valley.

These contrasting styles were, in a sense, our bookends – representing the opposing ends of the style spectrum – with the other wines falling somewhere between.

I’ll be reviewing the wines in my Sunday column in coming weeks, but one, in particular stood out – Bay of Fires Tasmania Riesling 2007 ($30).

It stood out because it was so different from the other wines – a difference created largely by Tasmania’s climate.

As part of the Hardy Wine Company Group, Bay of Fires sources fruit widely within Tasmania. And winemaker Fran Austin says fruit for the 2007 came from a single block within contractor vineyard at Rokeby, a particularly cool site, near Hobart,

Fran believes that the very cool growing conditions concentrate riesling’s aromatic intensity. This, in combination with high natural acidity and modest alcohol content, gives the wine a tremendously appealing aroma and the most delicate, yet delicious flavour imaginable.

And for once a professional judge’s palate aligned with those of consumers – and that’s not all that common. After the tasting, I put the top four wines to a table of people aged 21 to 56. All five preferred the Tassie riesling but couldn’t share our excitement over the benchmark Grosset, Mount Horrocks and Henschke wines.

Perhaps that says something about why riesling doesn’t cut the mustard with all drinkers. It also says that rieslings from really cool climates, like Tassie’s, might have what it takes to lure more drinkers into the fold.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2007