Big value in niche rieslings

The International Riesling Challenge, held in Canberra in October, reminds us that riesling remains our best value-for-money white wine variety. The results catalogue is packed with delicious, potentially long-lived wines available at modest prices. However, riesling remains a niche variety, ignored by the vast majority of drinkers, despite the decades of praise heaped on it.

In a recent presentation, James Halliday said that before the mid eighties “more bottles of (true) riesling sold than all other major white varieties combined”. Between 1976 and 1986 Australia’s riesling production grew rapidly, then dipped slightly over the next decade and half, before growing modestly over the last few years to reach 36,900 tonnes in 2009. However, viewed on a graph, the riesling-production story looks near enough to a 20-year straight line – under a soaring rocket called chardonnay, that peaked at around 400 thousand tonnes.

But as we saw last week, that rocket ran out of thrust in 2004 and finally lost its number one position earlier this year to sauvignon blanc, led by the New Zealanders with seventy per cent of the still rapidly growing sauv blanc market.

But even in decline, chardonnay still accounts for a quarter of all bottled white wine sales in Australia by value. While riesling might appear to be holding its own in absolute volume, its dramatic loss of market share since the burgeoning of chardonnay in the eighties and sauvignon blanc this decade remains something of a mystery.

Dramatising riesling’s niche status is the rapid rise this decade of pinot gris (aka pinot grigio) in our production figures. In 2009 Australian vignerons harvested 40,500 tonnes of it – a little ahead of riesling’s 36,900 tonnes. This is probably fashion driven as from my experience the ratio of mediocre to good pinot gris runs at about ten to one – the opposite of what you’d expect of riesling.

But riesling’s stubborn refusal to become popular, galling as that might be to its spruikers, is surely one of the reasons we pay comparatively little for often stellar quality.

For example, among the Riesling Challenge’s gold medallists in the Australian dry categories, prices range from as little as $15 (probably $10 on special) to around $45, with the majority somewhere in between.

The judges awarded nineteen gold medals in these classes, the majority of them to currently available wines and with a sprinkling of harder-to-find back vintages.  The latter simply prove riesling’s durability – and the rewards that come from cellaring.

If the results don’t fully reflect the diversity of styles we make across the continent, the judges nevertheless spread their favours reasonably widely. Not surprisingly, the classic Clare and Eden Valleys (neighbours on South Australia’s Mount Lofty Ranges) dominated with fourteen gold medals. But Canberra scored two golds, Tasmania one, Coonawarra one and Mansfield, in Victoria’s Upper Goulburn region, one.

The full honours roll makes a great shopping list. The prices given below are either cellar door or current retail prices found online. Some of the wines may not be released yet; and older ones may no longer be available, although it’s worth Googling the wineries and asking.

Canberra gold medallists
Helm Premium Riesling 2009 $45
Shaw Vineyard Estate Winemaker Selection 2008 $22

Coonawarra gold medallist
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Riesling 2008 $17–$20

Upper Goulburn gold medallist
Delatite Riesling 2008 $23

Tasmania gold medallist
The Wine Society Tasmania Riesling 2007 (2009 currently selling at $16.99)

Clare Valley gold medallists
Jim Barry Watervale Riesling 2009 $14–$17
Knappstein Ackland Vineyard Watervale Riesling 2009 $32.95
Tim Adams Clare Valley Riesling 2009 $20–$25
Sevenhill Clare INIGO Riesling 2008 price not available
Richmond Grove Watervale Riesling 2008 $14–$20
Cardinham Estate Clare Valley Riesling 2003 (2008 currently selling at $18)
Leo Buring Leonay Clare Valley Riesling 2005 (probably high thirties)

Eden Valley gold medallists
Poverty Hill Eden Valley Riesling 2009 $18–$22
St Hallett Eden Valley Riesling 2008 $16–$20
St Hallett Eden Valley Riesling 2005 (hard to find, go for the current release)
Peter Lehmann Wigan Eden Valley Riesling 2004 ($40 at cellar door)
Jacob’s Creek Steingarten Riesling 2007 $28–$32 (officially ‘Barossa’ but sourced from elevated, cool, southern Barossa sites skirting the Eden Valley).

Multi-region gold medallist
Jacob’s Creek Reserve Riesling 2009 $15–$18 (region not given but generally a blend of very good predominantly Clare and Eden Valley material).

Copyright © Chris Shanahan