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Clare & Eden Valley Riesling

‘one of those special years' …and if Australia’s Riesling king Jeffrey Grosset said that about the 2009 vintage in Clare and Eden Valleys, you better believe it, says Tyson Stelzer

When the Clare and Eden Valleys were hit by a record heatwave in early 2009 – 12 days over 35°C – some commentators were quick to write off the entire Riesling vintage before the grapes even started ripening. How is it then, that some vintners made wines to rival the greatest of the decade while others got theirs so wrong? And what are we to make of the rise of the medium-sweet style?

It always seems a simple task to pin down the nature of the vintage in Clare and Eden Valleys. Always, that is, until 2009. If there’s a season that exemplifies the full diversity of these otherwise fairly consistent regions, 2009 is it.

After 2008’s devastating mid-vintage heatwave, the biggest surprise of 2009 for most Riesling winemakers was that the heat had no influence on their wines. Rain in August and December saved the day for both Clare and Eden, providing moisture to sustain vines and strong leaves to protect fruit and, most importantly, prolonging the growing season. Assisted by cool conditions in December and January, veraison (colour change and ripening) was delayed until after the heat, meaning that in most vineyards, the fruit was immune to heat damage.

To grasp the style of the 2009 Rieslings, the vintage’s defining feature was not the heat – but the cool. The heat subsided in early February, making way for very mild days and those classic cool nights that sustain these wines’ signature acidity. February was mild in the Eden Valley, while the Clare Valley was three degrees below average, making it the coolest since 2005, even accounting for the heatwave.

Such conditions made for slow sugar development while sunny days encouraged flavour ripeness. Winemakers faced the dilemma of harvesting grapes with ripe flavours but lower sugars and higher acidities than usual. Should they harvest on intuition, when the flavours were right, or by the book, on acid and sugar measurements?

This was the decision that would make or break the vintage. Those who followed the recipe spoilt the broth. Jeffrey Grosset describes his decision to pick his Springvale vineyard in the Clare Valley three or four days early as ‘a bit controversial’. He explains that ‘if we were picking on analysis we would have picked later, but the flavours were right’. These fruit flavours tend to come early in the cool conditions of the very best years, and ‘2009 was one of those special years’. He names 1985 as the closest comparison: ‘a cool year that has aged well’.

Hallmarks of greatness

The standout Clare Rieslings of 2009 are characterised by the classic cool-vintage signposts of restrained alcohol, nervy lime fruit, fragrant lemon blossom and great minerality. Prolonged flavour development has given great persistence and linearity. These are highly strung, fresh wines that promise great longevity.

In Clare’s warmer south, vineyards more advanced in their development required special treatment following the heatwave. Diligent winemakers hand-harvested in multiple passes, marking out specific rows – even vines – to be picked earlier. Some used different yeasts and cooler fermentations to restrain more generous wines. ‘Some people fell into the trap of making Riesling as they would in any other year,’ explains Skillogalee winemaker Daniel Palmer, ‘and those wines show some early development’.

The need to pick earlier was even more pronounced in Eden, says Grosset, who makes his Mesh Eden Valley Riesling with Yalumba’s Robert Hill Smith. ‘The flavours were obvious and generous, even tropical a week before they had reached typical sugar levels,’ he says. Peter Munro, who makes Riesling from both regions for Leo Buring, describes 2009 as a classic season for Eden, with cool, even weather before and after the heatwave giving ‘rapier-like acidity and fruit intensity.’

Eden Valley vintages are showing more seasonal variability in recent years, says Yalumba winemaker Louisa Rose, who likens the late-ripening 2009s with classic vintages of the past; the antithesis of the early 2007 and 2008 vintages. ‘The 2009s are a bit finer, with good natural acidity and lovely flavours,’ she says. These are wines of profound purity, lifted perfume and incredible longevity; the equal of all but the greatest 2002s.

Grosset advocates that 2009 was not a year where a winemaker in either region would want to be working by analysis or recent history. With no rain threatening the end of harvest, makers could pick as late as they wished. This proved to be a mixed blessing, with some waiting for sugar levels to rise to usual levels, thereby making wines lacking in tenacity, displaying overripe tropical fruit flavours.

Sweeter styles

These abominations aren’t to be confused with the medium-dry and medium-sweet Rieslings increasingly establishing a presence in Clare and Eden. Each vintage brings new examples of these lower alcohol wines, typically with 15g/l to 40g/l of residual sweetness, picked earlier to emphasise lime and green apple flavours, higher acidity and more structured minerality. There’s nothing new in these styles, established by the famous Leo Buring Spätleses of the early 1970s (to this day some of Australia’s most ageworthy Rieslings) – we’re just seeing more of them.

The challenge for the revival of this style lies in its proper communication, and a number of winemakers have been remiss in giving any indication of style on the label. ‘I worry that we are confusing the consumer because we’ve been going on about dry Riesling for a long time,’ says Rose, whose medium-dry Pewsey Vale Prima Riesling (see right) has a clear back-label explanation.

Buring’s new Medium-Sweet Riesling says it all in its name, as well as using The International Riesling Foundation Riesling Taste Profile, which places the wine on a scale of ‘dry’, ‘medium-dry’, ‘medium-sweet’ and ‘sweet’, according to perceived sweetness based on sugar and acidity.

The 2009 Clare Rieslings of KT and the Falcon span the full range from dry to medium-sweet, with residual sugars printed on the back labels. ‘If we’re trying to capture the market’s attention with Riesling as an industry, we have to offer some diversity and present it in all its guises,’ says winemaker Kerri Thompson. As with all sweet wines, the key to this style is more about acidity, making the structured minerality of the cool 2009 vintage the ideal framework in which to present these sweeter styles.

The best 2009 Clare and Eden Valley Rieslings are classic keepers. Discerning buyers will be rewarded with some of the most compelling wines of the decade – and some of the best value.

Written by Tyson Stelzer

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