Canberra riesling — lining up the veterans

On Valentine’s Day, Canberra vignerons took the district’s white darling, riesling, on a date. Not a romantic, love-you, can’t-get-enough-of-you fling, but a forensic examination, under the stark spotlights inside Mount Majura’s squeaky-clean cellar.

Critics, show judges and increasing numbers of drinkers love our rieslings. But they’re enjoying mainly youthful, fresh, just-released wines, within months or maybe a year of bottling.

But it’s often said our rieslings require bottle age to soften their sometimes-austere acids and allow the underlying varietal flavours to emerge.

And it’s true that if you taste Canberra’s 2012 rieslings alongside those from the Clare Valley (a long-established specialist in the variety), our wines tend to be swept aside by Clare’s generally fruitier, softer versions.

Certainly I’ve rated Clare and some Eden Valley rieslings from this stellar vintage ahead of their Canberra counterparts – largely for this reason and in full recognition that the best Canberra wines may catch up or pull ahead in the years to come.

To some extent, then, we can only enjoy what’s before us in the glass now – not what might be there in two or ten years. But we can’t ignore riesling’s potential to blossom with age – nor the youthful austerity of Australia’s and the world’s greatest.

Germany’s great Rhine and Mosel river rieslings age in all their pristine glory for decades. They achieve this on the back of intense fruit flavour and the high acidity that makes them sometimes forbidding in youth.

Likewise Australia’s very finest rieslings tend to be slow out of the box, but to finish strongly. For example, one of Australia’s largest riesling makers, Jacob’s Creek, tends to win show medals in the year of vintage for its cheaper Classic Riesling. But the company’s flagship, generally begins hauling in the medals years after vintage.

The more established, austere but long-lived rieslings of the Clare and Eden Valleys can get away with austerity. Why? Because they have a proven capacity to age well – the best for decades.

If Canberra’s to match these wines in the market place, then our makers need to demonstrate how well the wines age – especially the driest, most acidic versions. Producers can’t expect drinkers to buy wine as an act of faith.

Hence, Canberra’s Valentine’s Day gathering looked at older Canberra rieslings – 27 wines in total, 26 dry; one sweet, the youngest five years old, the oldest 19 years.

Individual producers donated bottles from their own cellars, in Roger Harris’s case, literally displaying a life’s work.

The tasting comprised five brackets – four from individual producers, the final a mixed group. The wines weren’t masked and didn’t include any samples from other regions. So we could call it a Canberra-only benchmarking. I chaired the tasting. The format was: taste the five or six wines in each bracket in silence; call on the maker for comments about style, viticulture and winemaking; offer my own views; call for questions on comments from all tasters.

One big conclusion: the adoption of screw cap by Australian winemakers is one of the great quality breakthroughs of modern times. As the adoption began only from 1998 (and more broadly in Canberra from 2002), our tasting took in both cork- and screw-cap sealed wines. The tasting suffered only one screw-cap casualty (the maker, Roger Harris, called it his only dud bottle in eleven years), but most of the cork-sealed wines suffered, some fatally.

Makers said in some cases they opened several cork-sealed bottles to find one good one – a luxury most drinkers don’t have. Any tasting of older cork-sealed riesling, then, becomes a lottery. Indeed, the likelihood of cork damage, through taint or oxidation, prevents reliable assessment of older rieslings unless we’re dead lucky or have access to half a dozen bottles.

That caveat aside, the cork-sealed Brindabella Hills Riesling 1997 proved one of the most loveable wines of the night – maturing but still lively and fresh after 16 years.

We can also conclude Canberra doesn’t have a single riesling style. If fact, we could argue winemaker preferences probably outweigh the notion of terroir. That is, we have the right climate for riesling (arguably the biggest single factor in terroir). But, for example, winemaker preferences for complete dryness or including residual grape sweetness or picking grapes riper or less ripe strongly influence wine style.

We also observed a trend over the last 20 years to lower alcohol riesling – from a widespread realisation that riesling develops ripe flavours at comparatively low sugar levels. Alcohol levels still vary from maker to maker and from vintage to vintage – the 2012 vintage, for example, producing some of the lowest alcohol wines ever.

A couple of style differences I noted: Brindabella Hills makes soft, easy-drinking styles, a conscious decision by maker Roger Harris to suit his own palate. Clonakilla makes a richer style but with an assertive acid backbone, ameliorated in high-acid years like 2011 and 2012 by back-blending a small amount of unfermented grape juice. And Ken Helm opts for delicate, bone-dry, low-alcohol styles – his Classic slightly fuller and more approachable in youth; his Premium, minerally and austere as a youngster and probably the strongest contender in the district for an element of terroir.

Most importantly, within the individual style differences, Canberra’s best rieslings age deliciously – offering different characteristics as they age. The tasting didn’t include all of our top riesling producers. But the sample was wide enough and good enough to say Clare and Eden Valley have a challenger.

I rated many of the 27 wines very highly. In descending order of preference they were: Helm Premium 2005 and 2008, Brindabella Hills 1997, Clonakilla 2006 and 1997, Centenary Riesling 2008, Nick O’Leary 2008, Mount Majura 2008 and 2005 and Helm Premium 2006.

I rated each of these highly not just for freshness and drinkability now, but for potential to continue drinking well (with that big cork caveat hanging over the two 1997 wines, the only cork-sealed wines in the line up).

For a future masked tasting, Canberra makers should include aged rieslings, vintage for vintage, from the very best Clare and Eden Valley producers. This will help form an objective view of where we stand in relation to the acknowledged best. The best winemakers tend to build this very broad frame of reference.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2013
First published 27 February 2013 in The Canberra Times and