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Australian Riesling: Better than Old World?

The best Riesling in the world? South Australia delivers a style that the northern hemisphere just cannot match, argues MARY DOWEY. The only question is whether Clare or Eden is king…

As a long-term fan of Australian Riesling, I’ve led a double life. It’s been easy to convert consumers to their charms (and I have, endlessly). But among wine trade sophisticates given to extolling the ‘obvious’ superiority of European

Rieslings, I’ve tended to play down my pro-Australia bias, as you might a not-quite-respectable love affair.

Those juicy, lime-fresh antipodeans were charming, but maybe they were just a bit simple? Well, I’m not going to hide my allegiance any longer. On a recent visit to Australia, an array of wines running back through 30 vintages provided compelling proof of the country’s flair for refined, complex Riesling to match anything the Old World can offer.

Witness the fact that European Riesling virtuosos such as Loosen from Mosel, Bürklin-Wolf from Pfalz, Dönnhof from Nahe, Deiss from Alsace and Pichler from Austria have all visited the Clare Valley, the centre of Australian Riesling. ‘They wanted to see what we do to achieve our level of quality,’ says top producer Jeffrey Grosset.

While Australia delivers wonderfully diverse Rieslings, from delicately peachy in Great Southern to light and zippy in Tasmania, it is the intensely citrussy, ageworthy wines of the Clare and Eden Valleys in South Australia that have largely defined the Australian model, and attracted the most attention. Within striking distance of Adelaide, and an hour or so apart, the two regions have a good deal in common.

Both are narrow strips, about 35km long and 10km wide, formed from ancient seabeds pushed up to an altitude of 400m to 550m. Both have an English heritage, with John Horrocks establishing the first vineyards in Clare in the 1840s and Joseph Gilbert planting the first vines in the Eden (yes, they were Riesling) in 1847.

Far more significant is the fact that both areas have extremely cool nights. ‘This is the key to great Riesling,’ says Louisa Rose, chief winemaker at Yalumba, whose Pewsey Vale vineyard dates from the Gilbert era. ‘Daytime temperatures are not important.’ Maybe not, but Clare’s extra dose of sunshine has a marked impact.

There is a softness here, almost a Mediterranean feel, that is missing in windswept Eden. Olive groves alternate with the vineyards that tumble over Clare’s hillsides, dotted with small sandstone wineries.

The Eden Valley, more exposed, cooler and wetter, is not so much a valley as a ridge of windy hills along the eastern side of the Barossa. Vineyards are sparse among tracts of open countryside that look like English parkland with livestock, oaks and elms.

Celebrating difference

The Riesling styles of the regions reflect these climatic variations. The Clare Valley wines have riper fruit, showing not just fresh lime exuberance but hints

of lime cordial and sweet grapefruit, too, with a vigorous burst of acidity in the mid-palate, and tangy minerality.

While citrus and mineral tones are also important in Eden Valley wines, they are more restrained, leaner, with a more subtle acidity – rather like sucking on a wet stone. ‘Clare Riesling is more generous in youth,’ says Andrew Wigan, chief winemaker at Peter Lehmann, whose Rieslings span Eden and Barossa. ‘Eden is tighter and more mineral, but that probably means it ages better.’

Soils in both regions tend to be poor, helping to ensure finesse and intensity of flavour. Although Clare has some red clay over limestone – Watervale, famous for its ripe, floral Rieslings, is one example – its steeliest, most focused wines come from the Polish Hill River where thin topsoil strewn with slate fragments sits on a base of solid rock.

Eden’s more varied soil profile encompasses schist, sandy and clay loams and ironstone gravels. Common to both is the kind of slate-like minerality that delivers rippling vibrancy on the palate. Clare and Eden share the same hero: John Vickery, who made exceptionally long-living Riesling in both regions under the Leo Buring label in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Since then, Clare has moved a little more quickly than traditional Eden.

The mid-1970s to the 1980s saw a new wave of Riesling fanatics set up small wineries in Clare: the Mitchells in 1975, the Knappsteins in 1976 and Grosset in 1981. The 1979 first vintage of Petaluma Hanlin Hill Riesling was a major Clare milestone.

Brian Croser’s aim with this cool, contoured vineyard was to take Australian Riesling forward in an exciting new style – lusciously ripe, extremely pure and built to live for decades. Since then, Clare’s key producers have experimented with canopy management to give grapes increased protection from the sun, resulting in more refined wines over the past decade. And 16 of them adopted screwcaps from the 2000 vintage, a move which has had very positive consequences for Australian Riesling as a whole, keeping the wines much fresher for longer.

Eden has changed less. With only a tiny handful of wineries in the valley itself, the vineyards are mainly in the hands of local growers – many sixth- and seventh-generation Barossa Deutsch stalwarts rooted to tradition. ‘We keep trying to persuade them to lift the vines up a wire higher and adopt spur-pruning rather than cane-pruning for more even ripening,’ explains Lehmann’s vineyard manager Peter Nash. ‘But a lot of them are very set in their ways.’

As for vinification, the focus has been on reduced skin contact and cooler ferments. With the exception of Robert O’Callaghan of Rockford Wines, who makes his Riesling from 80-year-old vines in a fuller, more traditional style, most winemakers here minimise skin and juice contact and favour low temperatures for delicacy and purity of flavour.

The result of this rigour? Wines which combine generous, pristine fruit with the limpidity and elegance of their European rivals. Interest in organic and biodynamic methods is also growing. Henschke in Eden Valley will be certified organic within three years and is embracing biodynamic techniques for better insect control and improved water retention, as is Andrew Mitchell in Clare.

Warming up

Climate change is another topical issue. What if South Australia becomes too hot for Riesling? After a string of drought years, relieved only slightly by rainfall in 2008, producers in both Clare and Eden are planting white varieties such as Fiano, Albarino and Pinot Gris.

On the plus side, the success which has greeted museum releases such as Pewsey Vale Contours and Lehmann Reserve (to be called Wigan from the 2003 vintage) makes it likely that more top wines in both Clare and Eden Valleys will be held back so that Riesling fans can savour the smoky, honeyed depth that is fostered by an extra five or six years in bottle.

We may also see more Clare-Eden blends, such as the appetising Wakefield Jaraman Riesling. When a visiting group of Masters of Wine enquired of Andrew Mitchell why Clare producers choose to make the kind of Riesling they do, he replied: ‘Because we can.’ A feisty and wise response, which holds good for Eden Valley, too.

Written by Mary Dowey

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