Australian Riesling: No One Formula for a Great Wine

 


Those who know Riesling intimately, and drink it often, can argue that the top Rieslings are some of the greatest white wines in the world. It is interesting to think about its greatness in comparison to another top white variety – Chardonnay. Chardonnay is a chameleon, having a great affinity for expressing winemaking techniques and terroir while never having a distinct varietal dominance on the nose. Alternatively, no matter where it is grown, how it is vinified, be it sweet, dry or sparkling, Riesling will always let you know, to some degree, that it is there. Germany is Riesling’s traditional home, and over the past decade German Rieslings have made a name for themselves in top wine drinking cities, such as New York City and London, among wine drinkers who do not mind tackling the complicated German wine classification system. The wines can be delicate with little extract, sweet palate, low alcohol and have a mineral driven nose such as found in the Mosel; or they can be big, textured with moderate alcohol and honey and ripe peach flavors as found in the Pfalz. There are the great Riesling sweet wines of Germany that make viscous wines at high sugar levels, such as their Eiswein (Ice Wine), displaying pristine tropical fruit, and their TBA (Trockenbeerenauslese), showing dried fruit flavors and spice that hints to the noble rot.
At one time it was common for German Rieslings to be fermented in large oval casks (called Fuder) which helped to soften the harsh acidity and restrain the pronounced aromatics. As pure fruit flavors became more popular, German winemakers decided to use more protective practices with stainless steel. But what is interesting is that it seems winemakers are starting to go back to using Fuder, or have decided to use smaller barrels (such as barriques) while adding lees stirring (battonage) to their practices. These practices, with barrels, help to restrain the fruit flavors and soften the incredibly high acidity, which gives German Riesling an intense energy and ageability that makes these wines very exciting. Many consider German Riesling as the benchmark to judge all other styles around the world. 
 
A New Hope for Riesling in the New World
 
Even though German Riesling has already established a niche following in major cities in the US, Riesling in general has just started to gain a wider acceptance due to US production of the variety. 
 
California has had mediocre success with off-dry Riesling. Oregon has a more suitable climate, but they have placed more focus on other varieties. In Washington State, Chateau Ste. Michelle has been championing Riesling for 40 years, and they formed a partnership with Dr. Loosen, from the Mosel, Germany, to make their Eroica Riesling series. But there is no other place in the US that is placing the majority of their focus on Riesling like New York’s Finger Lakes. 
 
Most winemakers in the Finger Lakes agree that the main variety they can count on is Riesling. Riesling is known as a hearty variety that can survive the toughest winters, and it can even thrive in extremely cold environments. 
 
Finger Lakes’ winemakers will ferment their wines at low temperatures in stainless steel creating wines that give pretty, fruit flavors. The Finger Lakes produce Rieslings with crisp acidity and a very light body. They will range from dry to sweet and everything in between. These wines represent the greatness of Riesling with a US spin on it – mouthwatering, fruit focused wines.
 
Australia Redefining Great Riesling 
 
Australia gained commercial success in the US mainly by establishing brand Australia with ripe, fruit forward affordable red wines. It was a great way to quickly establish Australia wines in the US, but it has also had a downside - many wine drinkers do not realize that Australia is a big, vast country with the ability to produce high quality wines of various styles. 
 
Australia has been producing premium Riesling for several decades – actually, their top regions for Rieslings have had vines there from the 1840s, with Eden Valley (in South Australia) having some of the worlds oldest Riesling vines. There is also the Great Southern region (in Western Australia). In general, Western Australia’s wine style is a completely different animal than the South Australian wines found on the US market. And let us not forget Tasmania, which is an island that is part of the Commonwealth of Australia.
 
In South Australia, the regions of Clare Valley, Eden Valley and Barossa Valley have a Mediterranean warm climate that is moderated by cooling breezes and/or higher altitudes. The Great Southern and Tasmania both have a significantly cooler climate than the previously mentioned regions. Even though there will be more intensity of acidity from the regions of the Great Southern and Tasmania, most Australian wines shared a lifted lime note that can range from lime blossom to lime zest. 
 
Australian Rieslings are typically produced using protective methods, such as fermenting in temperature controlled stainless steel and will spend no time in oak. Commonly, Australian Riesling will be dry (there are some medium dry exceptions) with a moderate alcohol level and light body.
 
The top Australian, German and Finger Lakes’ Rieslings all have some degree of minerality. But even though the top areas of Australia will have fresh acidity, the acidity will have a softer quality. There is also a bright high note of citrus that is more prevalent in Australian wines.  
 
The Rieslings in Clare Valley are known to be some of the finest in Australia. This is odd considering it is not a cool climate region. But the high altitude plantings with cool nights and low rainfall help to make this a great Riesling wine growing area. Of course like any area, there are some better vineyard sites than others. Watervale and Polish Hill both have great reputations, and I have a personal fondness for the lovely finesse, linear body and underlying flinty minerality often found in wines from Polish Hill. Because of the lime zest, sometimes kaffir lime, deliciousness of these wines, it makes one want to drink them immediately on purchase, but the top wines age beautifully becoming brioch and honeycomb flavored liquid gold. 
 
A unique winery in Clare Valley, called Mount Horrocks, makes a “cordon cut” Riesling that is produced by hanging vines partially cut so that the grapes are encouraged to shrivel - concentrating their juice. This creates lush sweet wines with candied citrus flavors. 
 
When I think of Eden Valley, I think of lime blossom. Eden Valley Rieslings are intoxicating on the nose. 
 
The overall warmer weather of Barossa Valley produces Rieslings that reach their peak sooner. They have good generosity of rich fruit and round acidity that have had successful mass appeal by producers such as Jacob’s Creek.
 
The Great Southern, in Western Australia, has a significantly cooler climate and produces Rieslings with an interesting dried herb note and intensely mouth watering palate – I love these wines, and know they are not to everyone’s liking, but they are unique and truly show the diversity of sense of place in Australia. Unfortunately, Western Australian wines are difficult to find in the US market. 
 
Tasmania is starting to make a global name for itself as a sparking wine producer. The cool climate helps them to make very delicate Riesling wines. There have been some interesting producers of Riesling emerging from this region and it is a region to keep your eye on. 
 
I am fascinated by Australian Riesling. Don’t get me wrong, I worship German Riesling, and I love drinking my fair share from Alsace, Austria and the Finger Lakes as well, but I love that Australian Riesling defies the odds. Riesling is a distinctive variety that came from a distinctive place. On paper, Clare Valley is not the ideal place to make Riesling. But Clare Valley not only shows us they can make drinkable Riesling, they make Riesling that can compete on the international stage. It reminds me that some things that don’t look so great on paper may end up being the next big thing (or at least well respected among a small group of knowledgeable consumers) – greatness is not so easily defined and that’s why there is no one formula for a great wine. 
 
Bottle Recommendations:
2013 Glaetzer-Dixon überblanc Riesling, 80% Tamar Valley, 20% Coal Valley, Tasmania

Cathrine Todd is a Freelance Wine Writer in New York City. She was shortlisted for the Roederer 2015 Emerging Wine Writer of the Year, and her blog was a Wine Blog Awards' finalist for Best New Wine Blog. Visit her at www.damewine.com and on Twitter @damewine

Mentioned in this article

Comments

  • Hello Catherine, nice article. A couple of comments from the Mosel: battonage is very, very rarely used in making Riesling in Germany since we want to keep the delicacy and freshness of the wines. Also, harsh acidity is a memory of the occasional "off" vintage in times long gone. In the last decade, preserving acidity and keeping alcohol levels down have become the real challenges. The trend back to Fuders ( 1000 liter barrels ) is indeed catching on but barriques have not been used in the past and are very rarely used for Riesling in Germany since we don't want to put oaky make-up on a pure, pretty Riesling face.

    May 05, 2016 at 11:09 AM


  • Hi Johannes-Selbach, thank you for the clarification on German Rieslings. It is much appreciated. Yes, Germany Riesling will always be the benchmark for all other Riesling wine producing regions. And yes, Riesling does have a pretty face!

    May 05, 2016 at 1:08 PM


  • Snooth User: DG7
    1984098 32

    Good article, with the bizarre and ignorant omission of Ontario and B.C. Rieslings. I don't know why anyone writing on the topic would not include these in the 'survey' at the front of piece, especially as both areas, Ontario particularly, have a signature style, mature vineyards and scads of international awards to their credit. If you don't believe a Canadian, speak with Matt Kramer, Ian d'Agata and others to learn more. Shameful.

    May 05, 2016 at 1:09 PM


  • Snooth User: FionaG
    1737004 18

    Heads up... Tasmania is a state of Australia... Australia is part of the Commonwealth of Nations, with Queen Elizabeth as its head.... the writer, if writing for an award, needs to do research properly.

    May 05, 2016 at 1:36 PM


  • DG7 you make a great point and there are a couple of big omissions. But the issue is that I don't get a chance to taste that many Rieslings from Canada because they are only available in a few places. And even the stores that have them seem to always be out of them. So difficult to talk about wines that I have only been given the opportunity to drink a couple of times. But I know their reputation and yes, I hope to be able to taste more, and perhaps I just need to keep an eye out for trade events that showcase Canadian wines here in New York City. I'm curious, what is their signature style and which ones would your recommend tasting?

    May 05, 2016 at 1:43 PM


  • FionaG Great catch! Yes, it should be "island state" and yes, of course I know Australia is part of the Commonwealth of Nations but Australia as a whole can be referred to as the Commonwealth of Australia "Constitution of Australia". ComLaw. 9 July 1900. Retrieved 5 August 2011.3. It shall be lawful for the Queen, with the advice of the Privy Council, to declare by proclamation that, on and after a day therein appointed, not being later than one year after the passing of this Act, the people of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland, and Tasmania, and also, if Her Majesty is satisfied that the people of Western Australia have agreed thereto, of Western Australia, shall be united in a Federal Commonwealth under the name of the Commonwealth of Australia." Since I am focusing on wine there is no need for me to also go into the fact that Australia is also part of the Commonwealth of Nations because it has nothing to do with talking about Rieslings from Australia. Wine should be fun so lets have some fun. What do you think of Australian wines? Do you like them?

    May 05, 2016 at 2:03 PM


  • Snooth User: Zuiko
    Hand of Snooth
    540750 839

    Nice educational article. Germany doesn't have much competition from the US regarding Riesling. The best have been from Ch Ste Jean many years ago, Arrowwood, Wente hand written label wines, Navarro and Montinore (Oregon).

    Tasmania sounds promising.

    May 05, 2016 at 5:31 PM


  • Snooth User: Bassethorn
    342984 10

    As an Australian and a desperate seeker of great riesling I thought your article summarised the range available very well. Obviously living here I know I can seek out lovely rieslings from other areas: look up and try if you can these: Drumborg, Delatite, Freycinet (Tasmania) to name some favourites. Oz rieslings are mainly dry but with crisp acidity and flavours often in the citrus spectrum. No timber is used. I appreciate the interesting appraisal of rieslings from Great Southern; Frankland River being the place to watch.

    May 05, 2016 at 6:08 PM


  • Snooth User: Sidoc
    359681 7

    As another Australian I'd urge you to try Rieslings from the Canberra district - Clonakilla, Helm, Ravensworth, and Eden Road as a start. Cool climate, high altitude makes perfect sense why the variety thrives around Canberra. They may be hard to find in the US market but this region is becoming known around Australia as a high quality Riesling destination.

    May 05, 2016 at 9:27 PM


  • Snooth User: BradoP
    1372401 181

    Good to hear the Great Southern and Tasmania actually being talked about outside of Australia. I think you have done a pretty good job of giving a basic insight to Riesling in those regions. The Canberra region is also producing some cracking Riesling these days as well. Again cooler and crisper than Clare and Eden. Riesling and Semillon are Australia's best value wines where you can get exceptional quality for much cheaper than other varieties. Lucky people are more concerned about the regions you didn't include or the wine making techniques that you should or shouldn't have written about. Otherwise the prices might start going up.

    May 06, 2016 at 1:25 AM


  • Great article and very interesting. I live in Pennsylvania and can only buy what is offered at state stores and only the larger ones have any real selections but I have been pleased with Dr. Konstantin Frank 2014 Riesling from NY.

    May 06, 2016 at 3:15 PM


  • Zuiko thanks for the nice feedback and for the recommendations for Oregon.

    May 06, 2016 at 5:39 PM


  • Bassethorn I was hoping an Australian would give me feedback and I really appreciate you taking the time to make these suggestions - I will certainly seek them out.

    May 06, 2016 at 5:41 PM


  • Sidoc I am so happy to hear from Australians. I must admit I am not that familiar with Canberra and I will see if I can find these wines in the US.

    May 06, 2016 at 5:43 PM


  • BradoP Yes, I really need to look into Canberra Rieslings. I just looked on wine-searcher and it seems we have Eden Road and Clonakilla in the US. I am actually a great fan of Hunter Valley Semillon and I have found some with a decent amount of age here in New York City and they are liquid gold - they certainly give you a lot of bang for your buck!

    May 06, 2016 at 5:49 PM


  • Wine Down-Weekend I love Dr. Konstantin Frank wines and yes, the 2014 is stunning. I was lucky enough to go to a Wine Bloggers Conference in the Finger Lakes last year and tried so many of the wines there. It is a beautiful place making beautiful Riesling wines.

    May 06, 2016 at 5:52 PM


  • Snooth User: pacman41
    531332 14

    Great write up on Aussie Rieslings. No need to quote 1900 Australian Statutes to defend your article. Our own government here in Australia recently left the State of Tasmania off a published map of Australia. I often wonder what some critical contributors do for a living.

    May 07, 2016 at 8:56 AM


  • Pacman41 Thank you!

    May 07, 2016 at 9:46 AM


  • Thanks for the article. Some great WA Rieslings that need more publicity, created by Pioneers. They need all the help they can get in putting over their particular style.

    Jun 01, 2016 at 10:53 AM


  • Peter-Walker Yes, I would like to try more WA Rieslings. Thanks!

    Jun 11, 2016 at 9:54 AM


  • Snooth User: amour
    Hand of Snooth
    218530 2,203

    GOOD ARTICLE, Catherine-Todd!
    Yes; WINE SHOULD BE FUN!

    Feb 17, 2017 at 8:08 AM


  • Thanks @Amour! For some reason I didn't see your comment earlier but wine should be fun! We already have enough turmoil in the world as it is.

    Oct 04, 2017 at 5:43 PM


Add a Comment

Search Articles


Best Wine Deals

See More Deals





Snooth Media Network