Is the market waking up to Riesling? If so, Eden Valley should be at the forefront of the revolution. CATHARINE LOWE reports
Winemakers love it, the trade encourages it, journalists write columns about it. It’s given the status of being possibly ‘the finest white grape variety in the world’ in Vines, Grapes and Wines, and wineries have put their confidence in it with screw cap releases: but is the consumer buying it? Are we hearing those much wanted words: Riesling Revival? If not, it is not for lack of trying by those in the cooler climes of South Australia’s Eden Valley. The ‘Valley’ sits at 400–550m, a cooling wind prevails and hills are often exposed on steepish gradients. Such a climate gives a longer ripening time, adding a steely restraint and elegance to the wines. Eden Valley Rieslings justifiably vie with those from Clare Valley. In youth, they are deliciously lime scented, floral and minerally. They are considered more austere, steely and floral than their Clare counterparts, ageing well and gaining complexity over the course of 10 years or more. ‘There is a small bandwagon of Riesling lovers who know they are on to a good thing. The hype is there, but the sales are not so much,’ says Richard Sheedy, general manager of Elderton. ‘A lot of people still think that Riesling is a cheap sweet wine. I think there is a slow shift back to the premium Riesling market.’
‘The market is a bit static,’ adds Geoff Schrapel of Bethany. ‘Riesling is a poor cousin to Chardonnay, and it takes time for people to understand this very dry style.’
EU imports do little to raise a cheer, suggesting a reversal rather than a revival – the three million litres imported in 1998–99 plummeted by half to just 1.5 million litres the following year. First to be planted with Riesling was the Pewsey Vale vineyard in the 1840s, and the Henschke family has been making wine near Keyneton since the 1860s. There’s been a resurgence since the 1960s, when Yalumba replanted Pewsey and took on Heggies, and the likes of the Wynns at Mountadam and Jim Irvine moved into the area. Until 1990, Riesling was the most widely planted white wine grape variety in Australia, then Chardonnay took over. Known as Rhine Riesling for some time, it has suffered in Australia due to a relaxed labelling that allowed any cask of sweet white wine to bear the name Riesling – it is only in 1999 that this has been halted.
A measure of confidence in this grape is the move in the industry to ditch the cork and use Stelvin, a screw cap closure made of a bonded circle of foam and foil that
eliminates the chance of spoiling – a distinct possibly with this delicate, aromatic grape. Fourteen vignerons in the Clare Valley set the scene for the 2000 vintage, and many producers in the Eden Valley have been experimenting, and will be using it for 2001’s releases.’Riesling is so delicate that it shows up any faults,’ explains Stephen Henschke, who’s been bottling his Museum Release in Stelvin since 1996. ‘You get a much fresher bouquet than with cork.’ The only thing holding Henschke back from wider use was that he could only get Stelvin with bright green glass bottles, but that has now been solved, Stelvin will be used from the next vintage. A comparative tasting of Henschke Julius Eden Valley Riesling 1996 closed both with cork and Stelvin showed far more bouquet with younger, tighter fruit on the Stelvin bottle. Similarly with the 1999, the bouquet was flatter on the cork-sealed wine, and on the palate, it appeared more mature, with a little more body weight and a little less fruit. The difference was less perceptible on the most recent release, Julius EV 2000.
‘From a winemaker’s point of view, Stelvin is very important, as we know the wine will age well,’ says Peter Taylor, Penfolds group winemaker. Taylor would like to see Penfolds 2001 Rieslings in Stelvin (if not the Semillons as well). Mildara Blass’s 2001 Gold Label Riesling will be in Stelvin and white winemaker Wendy Stuckey says: ‘I just wish we had done this some years earlier.’ Thirty years ago, Yalumba were the proponents of Stelvin-bottled Rieslings from 1971 to 1983 but found the market hostile and backed out as sales dropped. It has again been bottling a small parcel from the Pewsey Vale in Stelvin, but was more reticent than many of the wineries. ‘We are putting a few aside,’ says white winemaker Louisa Rose, ‘but we aren’t yet planning a full-scale release – we got our
fingers burned the first time around with Stelvin.’ However, it does mean that an important library exists for those sceptical of Stelvin’s ability to age: Yalumba’s Rhine Riesling 1981 bottled with Stelvin was a rich golden colour with a lovely rich lemon peel, melted brown sugar and a hint of diesel on the palate; a well preserved wine. The Heggies Riesling 1981 was richer than the Yalumba, a weighty palate, hint of kerosene, dry orange/lemon peel, and still good acidity. ‘Stelvin is the big thing of the future, possibly one day to be used on reds as well,’ says Schrapel. For the moment, Bethany is selling a half case of Riesling Eden Valley 2000 to 1995 from Trial Hill, a two-hectare plot. Eden Valley Rieslings have naturally good acidity and little, if any, is added, according to Craig Stansborough, winemaker at Basedow and Grant Burge. ‘It’s a winemakers grape, it’s a joy to make, it’s pure winemaking,’ he enthuses. ‘You have to get it right in the vineyard and there is only a window of a few days to do it in.’ Back to Jancis Robinson MW’s who’s who of grapes. There is more than a grain of truth when she writes: ‘Arguably the world’s most undervalued grape…’
Yalumba Pewsey Vale 2000
Very ripe lemons and limes, and floral notes. Crisp, minerally and limey on the palate. Medium weight, well structured, elegant wine.
Yalumba Heggies Riesling Eden Valley 2000
More green apples and aromatics from this vineyard, with an attractive mineral edge, good structure.
Peter Lehmann Riesling 1993
A fabulous year. Crisp flinty lime nose, beautiful crisp fruit, hint of light honey, good acidity and mineral complexity. Still remarkably youthful. PLW
Peter Lehmann Blue Eden 2000
With a label bearing the insignia of a snake, this will retail at $20 in Australia. Crisp, fresh floral and mineral, with a pleasant softer ripe lime on the palate. Good weight. PLW
Grant Burge Eden Valley Riesling 1994
Ripe limes and honey with creamy vanilla on the palate.
Grant Burge Eden Valley Riesling 1999
Delicate limey crisp wine, minerally, and good steely acidity.
Henschke Rhine Riesling 1990
Classic flinty nose, with quite heavy mouth weight, minerally, limes, a hint of diesel on the palate, showing some development.
Elderton Riesling 2000
White pear aromas and floral palate, with lovely body, pear, white grapes and elderflower on the palate.
Miranda, Rovalley Ridge, Eden Valley Riesling 2000
Lovely crisp floral white flowers. Touch of glycerol on the palate, good weight.
Basedow Riesling 2000, Eden Valley
Very steely. Ripe apples on the nose, good weight, with crisp mineral lime and apple.
Penfolds Eden Valley Riesling Reserve 2000
Delicate with a lovely ripe citrus, lime and a steely acidity.
Mildara Blass Gold Label Riesling 2000
Delicate honey, floral characters on the nose, with ripe fruit shining through, medium weight, and mineral lift to finish.