Richmond Grove sells historic riesling

John Vickery, joined Leo Buring as winemaker in 1955, then made Richmond Grove riesling in the former Buring winery, Chateau Leonay, from 1994

An old wine-drinking mate, Mike Bond, recently told me about a stash of glorious old rieslings on sale at Richmond Grove. The Barossa winery makes some of Australia’s finest rieslings – much loved at Chateau Shanahan as they’re comparatively cheap and drink beautifully for many years. We’re currently enjoying Richmond Grove Watervale rieslings 1999 and 2002, purchased at less than $10 a bottle on release.

Richmond Grove’s website currently offers Watervale rieslings from1996 to 2011 (only the 2001 is missing), Barossa riesling 2000 and Eden Valley riesling 2002. It’s a distinguished line up and a rare opportunity to buy perfectly cellared white direct from the maker.

Though Richmond Grove made its first rieslings only in 1994, their pedigree stretches back to the earliest days of fine riesling production in Australia. The rieslings flow from the distinct winemaking traditions of Orlando and Leo Buring – represented by winemakers John Vickery, Phil Laffer and Bernard Hickin.

But the story goes back even further to Ray Kidd, former head of Lindemans, Leo Buring (1876–1961), Buring’s Chateau Leonay winery, on the outskirts of Tanunda in the Barossa Valley, and the Florita vineyard, located at Watervale in the southern Clare Valley.

In the 1940s wine merchant Leo Buring purchased the Florita site at Watervale, towards the southern end of South Australia’s Clare Valley. He planted the sherry varieties, pedro ximenez and palomino, and, believes winemaker John Vickery, a little crouchen (known then as Clare riesling), trebbiano and shiraz – but not riesling.

After graduating from Roseworthy wine college, Vickery joined the ageing Leo Buring as winemaker at Chateau Leonay. He made both table and fortified wines and recalls “a terrific flor sherry solera” Buring had established using flor yeast cultures pirated from Spain’s Xerez region.

Buring sold the wine, grown on the Florita vineyard, under the Leo Buring Florita Fino label – probably the first wine to bear the vineyard name.

Buring died in 1961 and in 1962 Lindemans purchased the Buring business, retaining John Vickery as winemaker.

By now table wine consumption in Australia was on the move, sparked by a string of so-called “pearl” style light, sparkling table wines, including Orlando Barossa Pearl and Leo Buring Rhinegold, and the arrival of crisp, fruity whites, also pioneered by Colin Gramp at Orlando in the fifties.

To take on Orlando in the booming riesling market, Lindeman head, Ray Kidd, replanted the 32-hectare Florita vineyard almost entirely to riesling – leaving about one hectare of crouchen as the only other variety.

By the 1963 vintage, with new protective winemaking equipment in place at Leonay, Vickery was poised to make the great Leo Buring rieslings – many from the Florita vineyard – that earned 50 trophies and 400 gold medals by 1997. Under Kidd, Lindemans re-released many of these as magnificent aged wines in the late seventies and early eighties.

In 1986, Philip Morris trimmed Lindemans down for sale, selling the prized Florita vineyard to the Barry family. Vickery and winemaking boss, Phil Laffer, later parted with Lindemans following its acquisition by Southcorp.

Laffer joined Orlando as head winemaker. Orlando purchased Chateau Leonay, made it the headquarters of Richmond Grove (formerly of the Hunter Valley) and installed Vickery as winemaker.

From 1994 Vickery returned to riesling making, sourcing fruit for Richmond Grove Watervale from his much-loved Florita vineyard. The wheel had turned full circle. He also produced a Barossa riesling, a blend of material from the Eden Valley (part of the Barossa zone) and Jacob’s Creek, on the southern Barossa Valley floor.

Vickery’s early work with Lindemans and Leo Buring shaped modern Australian riesling making. But he had more to give. In 1997 he hosted riesling tastings that hastened the biggest revolution ever in Australian winemaking – the adoption of screw caps.

In separate events for the trade and wine media, Vickery presented decades of glorious old rieslings he’d created. But cork had taken its toll, Vickery noted, tainting wine with the musty flavours of trichloroanisole or failing as a barrier against air. Vickery told us he’d opened up to six bottles of some older wines to find one good one. He urged the industry to return to the screw cap.

Following the tastings, Richmond Grove agreed to supply Coles-owned Vintage Cellars 1,000 dozen each of Watervale and Barossa riesling from the coming 1998 vintage under screw caps.  The two companies shared the risk of re-introducing a time-proven seal that had, however, been completely rejected by consumers twenty years earlier. (At the time, I headed Coles Myer Liquor Group’s tasting panel and marketing communications and creative department).

But this time drinkers believed the winemakers. Vintage Cellars sold its stock quickly. And Richmond Grove found itself overwhelmed with demand from other retailers. Two vintages later, a group of Clare riesling makers, including Richmond Grove, launched a screw-cap campaign. And now more than 80 per cent of wine sold in Australia wears the cap.

Some of the older rieslings offered by Richmond Grove predate the screw cap. But winemaker Bernard Hickin says they eliminate low-fill cork stock. And, in any event, there’s plenty of screw-cap sealed stock to chose from, including those magnificent 1999 and 2002 Watervales. Hickin says they cellar the wine in excellent conditions, always under 18 degrees, but generally around 15 to 16 degrees. This is a unique buying opportunity.

John Vickery retired and still lives in the Barossa Valley. Phil Laffer, now in his early seventies, plays an international winemaking role for Pernod Ricard, Richmond Grove’s parent company. Bernard Hickin took over from Laffer, heading Pernod Richard’s Australian winemaking (Jacob’s Creek and Richmond Grove included). Rebecca Richardson replaced Hickin as group white wine maker. And Don “Mr Aromatics” Young took charge of the group’s aromatic white wines, including Richmond Grove riesling.

Richmond Grove sourced riesling grapes from the Barry family’s Florita Vineyard from 1994 to 1998 inclusive, then moved onto to other contract growers in this prime Clare Valley sub-region. Barossa Riesling proved difficult to sell. Richmond Grove discontinued its production after the 2000 vintage – this magnificent wine was still available at cellar door when I wrote this article.

Why drink old riesling
We drink aged riesling for the same reason we drink young riesling – it’s delicious, and interesting. Over time the colour changes from a pale lemon colour through pale and then deep gold – often green tinted. As young wines they offer pure, shimmering lemon or lime-like fruitiness and racy acidity, in some cases quite austere. As the colour deepens slowly with age, the aroma takes on a honeyed or toasty character, adding complexity to the still-intact varietal fruit. The palate becomes more mellow and richer, reflecting the aroma. It’s a thrilling combination of age with freshness, reliably captured under screw cap, less reliably with cork.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2012
First published 27 June 2012 in The Canberra Times