Book review — “Riesling in Australia”

Riesling in Australia – the history, the regions, the legends, and the producers
Ken Helm and Trish Burgess. Published by Winetitles, South Australia, 2010. $49.50 plus postage at Winetitles.

Spike Milligan might have called “Riesling in Australia” a book of bits, or a bit of a book. Written by Ken Helm and Trish Burgess, the 144-page book – subtitled “The history, the regions, the legends, and the producers” – is largely a series of vignettes about riesling, told by third parties.

Over a period of three years Helm and Burgess pulled together material on a wide spectrum of riesling topics, in varying levels of detail. The first five chapters cover the grape’s origins and Australian history, its performance in a number of Australian regions, how it’s grown, the science behind its flavour and consumer and media perceptions of it.

Chapter six, the longest in the book, sketches twenty “Legends of Australian riesling”, including Helm, and their reminiscences, recollections and reflections.

The book concludes with a description of riesling events around the word, a table of Australian riesling producers by state and region and colour reproductions of Wine Australia’s regional maps.

The structure makes it, perhaps, more of an interesting reference book than a cover-to-cover read. It seems pitched at the riesling faithful rather than potential converts, something the variety sorely needs.

While riesling true believers and the trade might be the main audience targeted by Helm and Burgess, its appeal might have been widened with the addition of a little more narrative connecting the interesting material.

For example, one of the books many photographs, labels, memorabilia and period advertisements is a double-page advertisement, from way back in 1979, spruiking the virtues of Stelvin screw caps.

Now, if you’re not seeped in wine lore you won’t know the pithiness of this ad. There’s no caption or explanation helping readers connect the dots. Later in the book riesling legend John Vickery describes the acceptance of screw caps as “the most significant event in the improvement in quality of Australian rieslings”.

Screw cap’s success in Australia dates from the 1998 vintage of Vickery’s Richmond Grove Watervale and Barossa Rieslings, followed in 2000 by a group of Clare Valley Riesling makers. So how does this connect to an ad appearing in “Family Circle” in 1979?

The old ad marks the industry’s early push to replace cork with screw cap for quality reasons. Consumers didn’t buy the story at the time, and the effort failed.

But the screw-cap-sealed Pewsey Vale rieslings of that era matured beautifully, providing the impetus – and confidence – winemakers needed to try again, successfully, twenty years later.

Riesling has been all the better for it ever since. The story deserves a chapter of its own. And perhaps because the book speaks to the converted it glosses over the variety’s lack of commercial success in Australia.

A chapter on riesling viticulture, by Louisa Rose, Chief Winemaker for the Yalumba Wine Company, laments riesling’s perennially niche status. It sat doggedly at around two per cent of the national crush from 2005 to 2009, writes Rose. Adelaide Hills winemaker, Stephen George, states the position more starkly and personally. Why does he put so much time and effort into riesling when he wonders each year if he’ll be able to sell it?

That the challenge facing riesling is one of perception and consumer acceptance, not quality, is acknowledged in the book. But, like the screwcap story, it’s a theme that might have been elaborated, and used to convert the doubters.

This failure to elaborate on major themes is part of a general lack of narrative connecting the various sections of the book. But these are minor quibbles when we look at the depth and range of material assembled by Helm and Burgess. They acknowledge it as a reference work and a “guide on winery trips”, targeted at students of oenology, viticulture, winemakers and wine consumers – probably in that order.

For the general reader with an interest in wine, the most interesting section may well be the vignettes of leading riesling makers, published in alphabetical order.
Sifting through these, much of the story of modern Australian riesling emerges. Again, from the perspective of those not seeped in wine lore, this may seem fair and reasonable. But the section begs some narrative perspective. The makers contributed different things at different times.

How much more exciting might this section have been with an overview from the authors – explaining the significance of the early work done by Colin Gramp and Guenter Prass at Orlando and the extraordinary rieslings made by John Vickery at Leo Burings from the 1960s. These inspired the next generation of winemakers; and a tasting of Vickery’s old rieslings in 1997 led directly to the modern adoption of screw caps in 1998.

For committed riesling drinkers, makers and grape growers, Louisa Rose’s chapter on viticulture and Dr Leigh Francis’s chapter on riesling flavour are highlights.

Hopefully the book will spark lots of commentary and create new interest in riesling. Helm in particular has been a tireless promoter of the variety, and the Canberra district. We, the converted, love our rieslings and the comparatively low prices niche status brings. One day, maybe, the word will get out. And it will if Helm and Burgess have their way.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan