It’s not just Grange that cellars well. Leading Australian wine writer HUON HOOKE champions the ageability of Australian white wines – Chardonnay as well as Riesling, screwcap as well as cork.
Several years ago, about the time Clare Valley winemakers moved en masse to screwcaps for their new vintage Rieslings, I was judging the Clare Valley Wine Show, chaired by former Southcorp chief winemaker Ian McKenzie. In the aged Riesling class of about 35 wines ranging from two to 13 years old, McKenzie became so frustrated with cork taint and oxidation that he ordered two bottles of every wine be poured from the outset. This problem image is a shame, since it is my belief that Australian white wines are undervalued for their ageability. Careful cellaring brings out the best of potential complexity and mellowness in delicate dry whites but, frustratingly, age also multiplies the taint risks associated with cork. Screwcaps have eliminated those issues.
It is a great relief to us judges but the payoff to consumers is even more immense. Wine lovers are tasting delicate, dry Australian white wines as they have never tasted them before. Riesling Screwcaps aren’t my only reason for optimism though. Clare is full of producers doing great things. And though not every vintage in Clare is a great ageing vintage for Riesling, 2002 is probably the first great one since the valley moved into screwcaps in 2000. And the wines look wonderful: Petaluma promises to live for 20 years and pose a serious threat to the 1980 as the best-ever made.
Grosset’s Polish Hill and Watervale are also beautiful, ageing slowly and gracefully. Clare’s Riesling grand-daddies are Leasingham and Leo Buring: the former releasing its reserve Riesling at five years old. Taylors (Wakefield Estate in Europe) also releases a very fine mature Riesling under the St Andrews label. Other great names are Pikes, Mitchell, Knappstein, Tim Adams, Pauletts, Jim Barry, Mount Horrocks, Annie’s Lane Copper Trail and Wilson Vineyard, joined more recently by Neagles Rock, Kilikanoon, Kirrihill, O’Leary Walker and Penna Lane.
South Australian Riesling lovers enjoy debating whether Eden Valley or Clare had the better vintage: 2003 was lauded as better than 2002 by some in Eden Valley – especially Yalumba, whose Pewsey Vale, Heggies and Mesh are leaders.
The Contours, made from the oldest vines contour-planted in the 1960s, is a great semi-aged Riesling released at five years. It vies with Peter Lehmann Reserve (also Eden Valley and also released at five years) for the mature Riesling honours. Other great names here are Henschke, Orlando (Jacob’s Creek Steingarten and St Helga), Grant Burge (Thorn Vineyard), Hewitson, Penfolds and the revitalised Mountadam, with newcomers Maverick, Torzi Matthews, Poonawatta and Radford Dale also turning in superb Rieslings.
And we mustn’t forget South Australia’s other great Riesling region, Adelaide Hills which, despite a shorter history, has fine Australian white wines in Ashton Hills, Geoff Weaver, Henschke Green’s Hill, Longview, Chain of Ponds and Shaw & Smith (which also makes Egon Müller’s lovely Kanta, in a more European style). Of the vintages since 2003, the 2005s in all three regions are great, while ’04 and ’06 are very good. The taste of young Riesling ranges from straw-like, lightly floral, minerally and lime-juicy in Clare to hyper-intense flowers and fruits in the cooler parts of Victoria and Tasmania. The cooler the climate the more aromatic and balanced the wine – and, often, the more seamless the acidity, as the likelihood of acid lessens as we move into cooler sites.
Australian Riesling is generally dry or near-dry, but a few grams of residual sugar is often retained. As a generalisation, bottle age brings a deeper gold hue, a more expressive, multi-layered bouquet of toasted bread, roasted nuts, honey and hints of butter or vanilla. The better the wine (or vintage), the longer it retains primary fruit while building these tertiary aromas. Petrol or kerosene hints are usually not desirable, and in general the more successful the vintage, the less ‘kero’ the wine is likely to develop.
Mention must be made of Tasmania’s glowing track-record for Riesling (Pipers Brook Vineyard has been doing it since the early 1980s, and many others have followed in the past decade). Or the Victorian outposts that have been making ageworthy Riesling for years (Knight’s Granite Hills, Delatite, Mitchelton and Tahbilk, Seppelt Drumborg Vineyard, Crawford River, Best’s Great Western). And Western Australia’s Great Southern, where the Porongurup Ranges (Castle Rock, Howard Park) and Frankland subregions yield tight, crisp ageworthy Riesling. In Frankland, Frankland Estate’s trio of single-site wines stand out, as do Houghton, Ferngrove and Alkoomi.
Though Hunter Valley winemakers would dispute this passionately, Semillon is Australia’s second most important variety, after Riesling, for ageworthy Australian white wines. I base this mainly on sales, but for quality and individuality, a strong argument could be mounted that Semillon has the drop on Riesling. If you can show me a dry 100% Semillon from anywhere in the world that beats the Hunter, I’d love to see it. The analogy of a beautiful butterfly emerging from its ugly chrysalis has often been used to describe Hunter Semillon’s metamorphosis over time – but that is to damn the young wine with faint praise. Young Hunter Semillon is better today than ever, thanks to renewed passion from winemakers, better management of sulphur dioxide, a more sensitive approach to the addition of acid, and improvements in pressing/draining technology.
Young Australian white wines are less likely to be as hard, tart, sulphurous or unapproachably austere as they may once have been. Bottle-age is no longer necessary to enjoy Semillon: indeed, young Semillon, drunk within a year or two, is one of the world’s great seafood wines. It can be simple, yes, but so is good young Soave. It’s refreshing, crisp, dry, low in alcohol (10%–12%), uncluttered by oak, and has a delicious range of lemon/citrus and green-herb notes. With age, Semillon really comes into its own.
After five-plus years, the same wine will have softened and filled out slightly, beginning to display secondary aromas of straw/hay, toast and nuts. With yet more age, the colour will deepen and the bouquet become more ample, building honey and beeswax complexities perhaps with a hint of vanilla and roasted hazelnut. The body will fill out more although it remains delicate, but as a mature drink it goes with richer foods such as poultry, richly sauced fish and crustaceans.
My top Semillon producers of Australian white wines :
Tyrrell’s, Mount Pleasant, Brokenwood, Meerea Park, Keith Tulloch, Scarborough, Mistletoe, Tower Estate, Thomas, Capercaillie, Gartelmann, Allandale, Pothana, Colvin, Saddler’s Creek, Bimbadgen, Glenguin, Margan, De Juliis, Poole’s Rock, Tulloch, Drayton, Krinklewood, First Creek, Wyndham Estate, McGuigan, Warraroong, McLeish Estate, and Hungerford Hill (Hunter), Peter Lehmann (Eden Valley) and Coolangatta Estate (Shoalhaven).
Henschke and Jim Barry Wines have staged public tastings comparing cork and screwcap-sealed bottles of the same Riesling, both with stark results. The Jim Barry 1999 Lodge Hill Riesling consistently presents under screwcap as fresh and alive, with a paler colour and far more primary fruit, as well as appropriate bottle-aged character. Cork-sealed bottles, in contrast, present as ‘very advanced’, says Peter Barry. ‘It has plenty of aged character but lacks primary fruit.’ Stephen Henschke is one of the staunchest supporters of screwcaps and other alternative wine bottle closures. In 2006, he showed me two vintages of Henschke Julius Eden Valley Riesling: the
1996 and 2001.
In each case, a bottle under cork was compared to the same wine under screwcap. In each case the screwcapped wine was far superior, showing beautifully complex aged character and mellowness, giving the lie to those flat-earthers who maintain wine doesn’t age under a screwcap. The cork-sealed 1996 was golden-brown and oxidised; the 2001 simply dull and flat with nothing like the fruit or charm of the screwcapped bottle. The Julius tasting was yet more evidence that screwcaps protect wine from tainting and oxidation due to cork failure, while cork is a lucky dip – especially with aged whites. The downside of screwcaps is the possibility of reductive or sulphide-like odours. But every winemaker I’ve asked believes this is rare, and even when it does occur, it is such a minor issue as to pale into insignificance beside the benefits of screwcaps.
These benefits are equally felt with Semillon. Iain Riggs of Brokenwood has written in the Decanter Letters pages that TCA and other taints are not the main cause of winemakers’ dissatisfaction with cork. It is random (or sporadic) oxidation. Riggs says that while packing Brokenwood’s five-year-old ILR Reserve Semillon for market, 30% of bottles are discarded because of unacceptably dark colour – a sure indicator of premature oxidation. Along with Bruce Tyrrell of Tyrrell’s and Phil Ryan of Mount Pleasant, Riggs is adamant that the freshness and consistency of screwcaps will make a huge difference to Semillon’s acceptance. Says Riggs: ‘Even a tiny degree of oxidation flattens a young Semillon; it tastes dull.’ Ryan adds: ‘When you look at the economics of throwing out at least one-third of a five-year-old Elizabeth Semillon before release, it’s a no-brainer.’
SEAL OF APPROVAL: SCREWCAPS FOR AGEING
‘If anyone can show me a dry 100% Semillon that beats the Hunter, I’d love to see it’