Riesling has enjoyed a second renaissance in the Clare Valley since the mid-1990s. Its much-loved intense, limey character is all down to the terroir, says JAMES LAWTHER MW

Riesling has enjoyed a second renaissance in the Clare Valley since the mid-1990s. Its much-loved intense, limey character is all down to the terroir, says JAMES LAWTHER MW

Australians are less voluble than Europeans when it comes to the notion of terroir, but how else do you explain one of the country’s great wine styles, Clare Valley Riesling? Ostensibly produced in a ‘hot’ zone, as designated by Professors Amerine and Winkler in their system of heat summation, the zestiness and persistence of the wines, quality of fruit and ageability, belie this data. Site and vineyard are the keys to the conundrum.

Clare Valley Riesling has a defined and engaging style, although a variable nuance can be accorded by different sub-regions and winemakers. Dry, intense and full of lime and citrus fruit character in youth, there’s an early generosity on the palate that sets it aside from Eden Valley Riesling (South Australia’s other classic Riesling region), a leaner, more restrained wine. With age the wines take on a golden-yellow hue, often retain the lime character and develop a delicious buttered toast, almost butterscotch flavour.

How Riesling arrived in the Clare Valley is also a bit of an enigma. The first vines were planted by Englishman John Horrocks in 1840. By 1897 there were 580ha (hectares) under production, but at this stage there is little mention of Riesling.

It wasn’t until the 1950s that Riesling began to be taken seriously. The realisation that the success of Quelltaler (one of the region’s oldest existing wineries) Hock in the early 1900s was based on it being made from Riesling may have been the secret inspiration for a number of producers. The likes of Leasingham (originally the Stanley Wine Company), Tim Knappstein and Leo Buring helped put Clare Riesling on the map in the 1960s and 1970s.

By 1984 Riesling was the principal grape variety in the Clare Valley with 748ha planted, well ahead of Shiraz. But the surge for red varieties and Chardonnay in the late 1980s saw Riesling surpassed and it is only since the mid-1990s that a second renaissance has been under way. The present situation (2000 figures) shows 610ha planted (with almost three times as much Shiraz), and Riesling now in short supply, and it is forecast to get worse.

Approximately 140km north of Adelaide, Clare Valley is in fact a plateau with three parallel ranges of hills and valleys running north-south: (from west to east) Skillogalee, Clare and Polish Hill River. The climate is hot during the growing season but there is an almost permanent breeze and cold nights. Vineyards are sited between 350 to just over 500m above sea level. Soils are another important feature. Clare is known for its red-brown loam over limestone or terra rossa soils but soils vary. In the south around Watervale the limestone content is greater, water retention better and the wines zesty and more consistent. In the east at Polish Hill River the soils are mainly loam and shale, irrigation a prerequisite and the wines tauter and minerally. In the north, around the town of Clare, soils are more variable with loam, clay, limestone and pockets of shale, the climate warmer and the wines fuller and perhaps more powerful.

Given the general level of expertise in winemaking, what sorts the leading producers from the rest is the vineyards and access to top-quality fruit. Petaluma has consistently been one of Australia’s top Riesling producers mainly due to the quality of fruit from the company’s Hanlin Hill vineyard in the northeast of Clare. Acquired in 1981 but originally planted in 1968–69, the vineyard sits at an altitude of 509m. The soils are poor shale and loam and the 28ha of Riesling vines low yielding. Only Hanlin Hill fruit finds its way into Petaluma Riesling and then after selection. Only the free-run juice is used to produce the wine.

Another to set great store by the nature of the vineyards is Jeffrey Grosset. The uncrowned king of Clare Valley Riesling, Grosset is a native of the region with an in-depth knowledge of the land. He has set a benchmark with his fine Watervale and intense, long-ageing Polish Hill Rieslings. Seventy percent of the fruit comes from vineyards that Grosset either owns or manages. He is now trying to increase his vineyard holdings and recently bought 64ha of land to obtain the 4ha he has delimited as a favourable vineyard site!

Small is beautiful

The Clare Valley is home to a number of good small and medium-sized producers and like Grosset these are in the front line when it comes to Riesling. Jeffrey Grosset’s partner (in life), Stephanie Toole, bought the Mount Horrocks brand in 1993. The initial wines were average in quality but since changing her fruit supply the Mount Horrocks Watervale Riesling has been transformed into a rich, exuberant wine. The grapes are hand picked and sourced from respected growers Peter and Yvonne Peglidis who have a 25-year-old, unirrigated vineyard that is tended with devotion. Mature, low-yielding, dry-grown, hand-picked vineyards can also be found at Mitchell’s and Skillogalee.

Mitchell’s was established by Andrew and Jane Mitchell in 1975 and grapes are sourced from their own vineyard in Watervale. Their Riesling is closer to Grosset in style, restrained and structured, and developing with at least five years’ bottle age.

Skillogalee is a more forward-drinking wine and its owners, Diana and David Palmer, are newer to the region as they bought the property in 1989. The vineyard, however, was established in 1970–71 at an altitude of 500m and forms the basis of their success. Irrigation can be a plus in certain regions of the Clare Valley as demonstrated by the Pikes at their winery in Polish Hill River. Brothers Neil and Andrew Pike started in 1984 and now grow 60% of their own fruit. ‘Most of the vineyard is irrigated as the soils are thin and poor and we get better canopy management,’ explains Neil Pike. Their regular Riesling is produced from Polish Hill River and Watervale grapes, with a little from growers near the town of Clare, and is always fresh and packed with limey fruit. The minerally Reserve comes from a single block off the estate.

The large corporations are of course in evidence, and none more so in the last few years than Orlando Wyndham with its Richmond Grove Watervale Riesling. John Vickery, the architect of the magnificent Leo Buring Rieslings of the 1960–70s, was plucked out of retirement in 1994 to oversee the project. A proportion of the grapes come from the old Florita vineyard in Watervale that originally provided fruit for the Leo Buring

Clare Valley Rieslings

Clare Valley Riesling producers have gone a step further by bottling many of their wines with screwcaps. The initiative has been taken by the same producers that are perfectionists in the vineyard and cellars so, even if initially you are uncomfortable with the idea, don’t be afraid of the wines. Clare Valley Riesling is all about fruit.

James Lawther MW is a contributing editor to Decanter.

Written by JAMES LAWTHER MW