New world Riesling: contenders or pretenders?
- Thursday 2 April 2009
Hugh Johnson wrote, in the foreword to my book Riesling Renaissance, that ‘There is an
international freemasonry of Riesling drinkers… we claim unique properties, magic powers almost, for this singular grape.’
This inner circle is now being swelled – and catered for – by a growing band of international winemakers. My personal love affair with Riesling has centred on the grape’s spiritual homes of Germany, Alsace and Austria.
It is here that the grape can reach unparalleled heights of finesse and concentration not
seen in other varieties: from bone dry to Trockenbeerenauslesen; from granite, slate or limestone; from early drinking to incredible ageing.
But can these same heights be reached by Riesling produced elsewhere, notably in the New World?
Australia’s Clare and Eden Valleys have already proved themselves admirable sources of
nervy, tight, dry Rieslings capable of beautiful drinking and some ageing. (I thoroughly enjoyed reading, in November 2008’s Decanter, Mary Dowey’s ‘compelling proof of [Clare and Eden’s] flair for refined, complex Riesling to match anything the Old World can
offer’, a case countered by Andrew Catchpole’s defence of Mosel’s title).
I have visited virtually every wine region in the world where Riesling is successful and my response to Dowey is that comparing Old World with New World Riesling is like comparing Shakespeare with Schiller.
Yes, there are other New World spots that offer such brilliance. But which are the regions to look out for? Many a grower and winemaker has a passion for Riesling but every producer in my selection below makes not only Riesling but other wines as well – unlike the almost exclusive commitment of growers in the Mosel.
So can regions which may appear unlikely sources of world-class Riesling produce similar excellence? For the purpose of this piece, my definition of ‘unlikely sources’ includes vineyards off the beaten track, with a difficult climate, a harsh terrain, poor soil and low yields.
It is in such environments that, as in its spiritual Old World home, Riesling sings of its place of origin. The following regions and growers should provide Riesling lovers with further reasons to be smug.
Today, 90% of New Zealand Riesling is from the South Island, where the grape is aided by a cooler climate. Central Otago is the furthest south and coolest wine region, allowing Riesling to ripen slowly and develop its subtle nuances of style.
Londoner Nigel Greening bought the Felton Road estate in 2000 and has just moved out
there permanently. Working with winemaker Blair Walter, he has converted the vineyards
to biodynamic methods, making the wines even more expressive.
Rippon (seen right) is, for me, the most beautiful vineyard in the world, facing north to Lake Wanaka with the backdrop of the white-peaked Southern Alps. The original vines were planted in 1972, the first in Central Otago, and the estate is biodynamic, run by Lois Mills and her son Nick, who studied viticulture in France.
The Waipara region is north of Canterbury, and Pegasus Bay was founded by Professor Ivan Donaldson. The climate is warm and damp, encouraging botrytis that gives the Rieslings a gentle richness balanced with fine acidity.
Nelson is northeast of Marlborough and the climate is warmer, with slightly more rain and an early spring, giving longer ripening. Tim Finn is an agricultural scientist and has, with wife Judy, quietly built the reputation of Neudorf Vineyards over the past 30 years.
Their Rieslings have great finesse and character in an Alsatian or German, rather
than New World, style.
German immigrants settled in South Australia in the 1840s, planting Riesling. It remained the most significant white variety in Australia until 1992, when it was overtaken by Chardonnay. By then, global warming had already encouraged the planting of Riesling in cooler-climate spots.
There are many Riesling producers in Victoria, but few great ones. John Thomson gave up banking in London to return to his family’s remote cattle farmstead, Crawford River, in Condah, 320km west of Melbourne.
In 1975 he planted Riesling vines close enough to the coast to benefit from the cool sea breezes. They are sensational, and have great longevity. In 2002, Southcorp, then Australia’s largest wine company, appointed Mac Forbes as winemaker in Europe to work
with growers in Portugal and Austria.
When the policy changed in 2005, he set up his own winery in the Yarra Valley. His Riesling grapes come from a cool climate single vineyard at 600m altitude in the Strathbogie Ranges further north.
The wines are pure, natural and refined, reflecting his nature and philosophy. Tasmania is famous for its apples but the vineyards were poor until Andrew Pirie, the first Australian PhD in viticulture, recognised the potential for Riesling.
He founded Piper’s Brook Vineyard in 1974 in the Tamar Valley. The company was sold to a Belgian firm in 2003 and the wines are no longer in the UK. Pirie went on to set up his own winery with a small estate and a second label, South, for grapes he buys from other growers.
As consultant, he is also involved in Tamar Ridge, which has some 200ha (hectares) of vineyards, 87ha of which are Riesling and recently planted.
Leeuwin is the only estate to have Riesling vineyards in Western Australia’s Margaret River, surrounded on three sides by the Indian Ocean, giving great freshness to the wines.
Howard Park has one winery there and another in Great Southern, where the Riesling grapes from contracted growers are picked by machine in the cool nights. Frankland is a large region with few vineyards.
Barrie Smith and Judi Cullum own Frankland Estate, are passionate about their Rieslings and, nailing their colours to the mast, have welcomed the owners of many famous German estates at their house 480km southeast of Perth.
As in many New World countries, the climate in the Cape is seen by some as too hot and the soil too rich for Riesling (though there are some fine examples from Stellenbosch).
The past two decades have seen plantings at higher altitudes, notably in Constantia and Elgin, where the powerful, cool Cape Doctor wind sweeps in from the Antarctic up the mountains.
Adam Mason, winemaker at Klein Constantia, has developed a lovely, modern, dry Riesling, while Hermann Kirschbaum, at Buitenverwachting next door, pursues a more traditional,
The Paul Cluver estate in coastal Elgin, further east, is acclaimed for both dry and dessert Rieslings
Luis Cousino, founder of Cousino Macul, visited Germany in 1863, and on returning to Chile, he imported Riesling vines from Alsace and planted a vineyard near Santiago in Maipo.
The vines there today are still the original clones, tended by winemaker Pascal Marty, who once worked at Château Lafite. It is rare for a Spaniard to be passionate about Riesling but Miguel Torres planted vines further south near Curicó and found it ideal for botrytised late-harvest wines.
German immigrants settled in Bío- Bío 320km further south, and planted Riesling. Here the diurnal temperature difference in summer is 17°C, enabling the grapes to ripen gently for elegant, subtle wines.
Cono Sur is a dedicated producer of Riesling, with grapes from Bío-Bío. Adolfo Hurtado makes excellent everyday examples for UK supermarkets as well as top-quality Rieslings
Oregon boasts many small wine estates and vineyards planted on the slopes of rolling mountains of varying terroirs. Adam Campbell runs the organic Elk Cove estate in North Willamette, making superb dry and botrytised Rieslings.
More than 1,000ha of Riesling are planted in Washington State, where the Columbia River and its tributaries are an endless source of irrigation in this desert area. Summer days can hit 30°C and nights can fall to 5°C – ideal for Riesling.
Many of the vineyards are relatively flat, with silt and sandy soil; others are steep with more stoney soils. The most famous Riesling in the US, Eroica, is a joint effort between Bob Bertheau, the senior winemaker at Château Ste Michelle, and Ernst Loosen from the Mosel.
The grapes come from some of the best cool vineyards in the State. There are a dozen
smaller independent wineries producing fine Rieslings, of which Rick Small of Woodward Canyon in Walla Walla must be the most enthusiastic.