Appearances can be deceiving. On one hand, riesling is the most joyfully uncomplicated of grapes. What you see is what you get: the wine often tastes just like the fruit it’s made from, because it’s so often made simply – fermented cool to preserve aromatics, bottled pretty much as soon as fermentation has finished to preserve freshness. It’s the most thirst-quenching of white wines, too, thanks to its high acidity, like biting into a crisp, cold green apple.
But it’s not all about instant gratification and open-throated quaffing. Riesling has other qualities, too, qualities that make hard-core wine geeks worship at its feet.
The same high acidity that gives riesling its mouth-watering deliciousness as a young wine also gives it the capacity to age superbly. The best rieslings, both the bone-dry versions and the great sweet wines – made from grapes infected with noble rot, botrytis cinerea – can develop in the cellar for decades.
In the world of white grapes, riesling is also unmatched in its ability to translate terroir into taste. As winemakers in Germany – and, later, Austria and Alsace – have known since the Middle Ages, if you plant riesling on two subtly different soils you will get two markedly different wines. As a result, the landscapes in these traditional regions are now an intricate patchwork of tightly woven vineyards, each defined by how the riesling grapes that grow there express the unique qualities of the land.
Riesling is historically important in Australia. When many of this country’s early vineyards were being planted in the mid-19th century, the finest German rieslings were as highly prized as fine Burgundies and top clarets from Bordeaux. As a result, growers such as Joseph Gilbert at Pewsey Vale in South Australia’s Eden Valley planted riesling and developed a great reputation for its quality.
Australian riesling lost its way for a while towards the end of the 20th century, when the word was used generically on labels: plenty of sweet, cloying ‘riesling’ was sold in cheap bottles and casks, yet without a single riesling grape. Thanks to changes in labelling laws and the persistence and advocacy of top producers, proper riesling has regained its quality reputation and is enjoying a renaissance.
Thanks to its long history here, a well-defined classic style of Australian riesling has evolved: dry, intense, citrusy, age worthy. Whether you’re in the Clare Valley or Eden Valley in South Australia, Great Southern in Western Australia or Henty in Western Victoria, the Canberra District or Tasmania – the grape does well in diverse regions across the country – most of the rieslings you try will be in this dry style.
A few vignerons are also beginning to push the boundaries further with riesling, moving beyond the classical, searching for new expressions of the grape.
More naturally inclined winemakers, such as Tom Shobbrook in the Barossa, have made really intriguing skin-contact rieslings, introducing extra layers of texture and complexity to the wine. Some, like Moores Hill in Tasmania, have used riesling as the base for a particularly fruity, crisp sparkling wine. Others, such as John Hughes of Rieslingfreak are wild fermenting riesling and maturing it in big oval barrels called foudres.
Like all the best examples of the riesling grape, these wines are delicious now but are also destined for a long, rewarding life in the cellar.
2017 Prinz Kabinett Trocken, Rheingau, A$40
The Rheingau region is thought to be the German birthplace of riesling, and is home to venerable producers such as the medieval Eberbach Abbey, where Fred Prinz worked before starting to produce his own deliciously grapey rieslings such as this.
Imported by heartandsoil.com.au
2019 Grosset Polish Hill Riesling, Clare Valley, A$65
Jeff Grosset is Australia’s best-known riesling maker, and his top wine, Polish Hill, is arguably the country’s best. The wine has enjoyed a run of great vintages recently, culminating in 2019: thrillingly vital and complex, it floods the mouth with flavour.
2009 Frankland Estate Museum Release Isolation Ridge Riesling, Frankland River, A$65
To celebrate its 30th birthday, Frankland Estate has raided the cellar and re-released this riesling, which is beginning to develop classic bottle-aged characters, the fresh lime-leaf of youth giving way to savoury depth and complexity.
2014 Riversdale Estate Botrytis Riesling, Tasmania, A$35/375ml
It’s not hard to see why this is a multiple trophy winner at the Hobart and Tasmanian Wine Shows for Best Sweet Dessert Wine and Best Sweet Wine, respectively. It has beautiful purity of luscious golden riesling fruit and marmaladey botrytis influence, all balanced by crystalline acidity.