Golden Child Wines winemaker James Hamilton.

“Is it sweet?” asks the punter. Dilated pupils and furrowed brow betray a face stricken with fear, as if the smallest amount of sugar would despoil them of teeth. A response of “no” sees a relieved exhalation and face muscles relax. Crisis averted. A response of “yes” results in a more complex discussion. Such has been riesling’s lot, but change is afoot.

For a long time, many Australian wine drinkers held a ‘once bitten, twice shy’ mindset around off-dry and sweet riesling, marred by the memory of cloyingly sweet and viscous wines attaching themselves to the mouth and refusing to let go. We’ve been hurt before and in a sense, Australia’s sweet riesling story shares parallels with our chardonnay story. The overripe, oaky and flabby chardonnay wines of the 1990s put many people off well into the 2010s despite the marked evolution in style, balance and overall quality. Our cool climate regions are still young in the context of the greater wine world, and while the evolution has been vast, these things take time. 

Not so long ago, there weren’t nearly as many imported rieslings in the Australian market as there are today. Balanced, mineral and detailed examples of off dry and sweeter rieslings from experienced regions and producers weren’t readily available for winemakers and consumers to experience, understand and fall in love with. Instead, wine drinkers were predominantly exposed to cheap, bulk and largely unbalanced Australian iterations, resulting in an enduring dislike of sweeter styles. 

Today, restaurants and retailers have unprecedented access to imported off-dry and sweet riesling, ranging from the revered and iconic to the obscure and esoteric. The flow-on effects for makers, trade and drinkers are better education, higher appreciation and greater understanding. As such, wine drinkers are more sophisticated and authoritative on this category than ever before. 

That said, there’s still a huge section of the market who turn their noses up at residual sugar riesling, defaulting to dry. So, how do we help a larger audience understand, appreciate and derive joy from these sweeter styles?

At the risk of perpetuating one of life’s great platitudes, it’s all about balance. Residual sugar’s counterpoint in wine is acidity and, as such, where there is sugar, there must be acidity sufficient to balance it. Too much acidity and the wine will be austere; too little and it’ll be cloying like the aforementioned wines of a time gone by. Analogically speaking, imagine the brief sighting of a chic and seductive naked body before it disappears from view. It’s there, then it’s not; and what are you left wanting? It’s a similar story with residual sugar in riesling, your palate should be teased with sugar before it’s taken away by a wash of fresh acidity, leaving you salivating and wanting for more. 

The understanding of this balance is particularly important in Australia, where high-quality dry riesling has dominated the grape’s success, resulting in any detection of sugar raising undue alarm. In fact, many of these dry wines contain a barely discernible amount of residual sugar; perhaps to add some viscosity, to balance rapier like acidity, or to add some aromatic lift and complexity.

The famed K1 Vineyard in autumn. 

Of course, Germany is riesling mecca, with the grape having first been recorded there in 1435 as Riesslingen. The famed Mosel region is one of 13 Qualitätswein (Quality Wine) regions concentrated in the country’s west and takes its name from the Mosel River. The river snakes its way through the Vosges Mountains in France’s north-east, before crossing through southern Luxembourg and into western Germany, eventually joining with the Rhine on its way to the North Sea. 

It’s along the Mosel, and its tributaries the Saar and Ruwer, that some of the most important riesling vineyards reside, producing fruit for the most electric, mineral and ageworthy iterations of off-dry and sweet styles. At their apex, the minerality of these wines shoots through you like a lightning bolt, like a shot of adrenaline. It’s easy to understand the fanaticism and addiction once you’ve experienced the high. 

Mosel producers’ biggest challenge is simply getting the fruit sufficiently ripe. It’s a cold, continental and northerly region that sees long, cool growing seasons and wet summers, before the rain decreases in autumn making way for long sunny days. 

Due to its uncompromising latitude, the region’s success relies on meticulous viticulture, back-breaking labour, and several natural factors banding together to make quality grape-growing viable. The vines are rooted into poor blue or red slate soils for drainage and heat retention, on steep south and southwest facing slopes for sun exposure. These slopes plunge downward to the rivers at gradients of up to 68%, resulting in dangerous and labour-intensive hand harvesting being the only option – bearing in mind pickers do several ‘passes’ on each vineyard to obtain fruit at different levels of maturity. 

The vital river systems provide sun reflection to maximise heat and minimise frost. Vines are trained to encourage sun exposure, with high canopy management allowing greater ripeness and air flow. In short, it’s immensely complex, and yet producers continue the fight in the knowledge that the resultant wines can be some of the best on earth. 

Mosel River reigns supreme in the German wine region, as does riesling.

The challenges the German producers face exist conversely in Australia. Our warmer climate and higher sunlight hours result in ripeness seldom being an issue, whereas the retention of sufficient natural acidity for balanced off-dry and sweet riesling is of primary concern.

Tessa Brown and Jeremy Schmölzer from Vignerons Schmölzer & Brown (vsandb.com.au) in Beechworth are proponents of off-dry and sweet Australian riesling, with their Obstgarten (German for ‘orchard’) wine made in off-dry and sweet styles. The fruit comes from vineyards high up in the Victorian highlands at around 800m above sea level (said to be the highest in the state), where the grapes ripen late and retain high natural acidity, making them suitable for production in sweeter Germanic styles. They believe that site selection is key in Australia. 

“Residual sugar riesling really needs high natural acidity – well over 8 grams TA (tartaric acid) and preferably in the 9s or even 10s,” says Brown. “This can only really be achieved when grown in cooler sites like Tasmania, and either quite elevated or cold coastal mainland Australia sites such as Whitlands, Henty, Frankland River and Tumbarumba. Also, a little bit of botrytis (2-5% on fruit) isn’t the enemy – this goes on to make glycerol, which rounds the mouthfeel and also helps temper acidity.”

When asked of Australia’s understanding of, and interest in, off-dry and sweet riesling, the pair are optimistic. “It is definitely evolving,” says Schmölzer. “We see retail becoming more interested in stocking a few lines of Australian residual sugar riesling and the feedback is that people are starting to ask for it. It may be from a flow through of the huge shift to the lower alcohol and fresher wine styles. We also now get customers proactively seeking us out for these wines on the website, so there is certainly a positive evolution albeit off a small base”.

Mac Forbes has faith in the sweeter style of German rieslings.

Notable Yarra Valley-based producer, Mac Forbes (macforbes.com) makes riesling from granite sites high in the Strathbogie Ranges with varied levels of residual sugar. He sees the need for a shift in the narrative. 

“All we can go on is our experience with consumers embracing balance,” he says. “I think the conversation around sugar can be interesting, but it is secondary to balanced wines. Good wines with residual sugar are not overtly sweet.” 

Food matching with these wine styles is something of a moot point. The go-to foods to pair with residual sugar riesling are reductive and unimaginative in the eyes of some, Forbes among them. “I think we still fall into broad simplified statements around riesling styles and even the terrible food associations,” he says. “Why is spicy Thai always associated with residual sugar? When fatty foods (think German sausage) are paired with high acid, high residual sugar riesling, it’s considered a dream. We need to continually encourage greater examination of what brings us pleasure and how broad riesling styles can reach”.

John Hughes from Rieslingfreak (rieslingfreak.com) makes riesling from the Clare and Eden Valleys in South Australia, ranging from dry to lusciously sweet. As his label’s name suggests, he’s long been flying the flag for the variety’s versatility, and believes there’s safety in numbers. “I would love for the riesling producers of Australia to further embrace the sweeter styles . The [more] producers exploring the boundaries of riesling, the greater support I believe we would gain from the sommeliers and consumers.”

With countless high-quality examples of off-dry and sweet riesling available in Australia, why not capture a glimpse of that chic and seductive naked body, watch it disappear, and then go back for more?  

Rieslingfreak, in South Australia, where testing the boundaries of riesling is essential.

Wines To Try

2019 Vignerons Schmölzer & Brown Obstgarten K Riesling, King Valley, A$39
Aromas of lemon blossom, elderflower, apricot, subtle mandarin, crushed green apple, wet stone and hay. Classy and pure. Makrut lime, lemon juice and lemongrass come out with air and temperature. Medium bodied, the palate shows Meyer lemon, red apple, cumquat, mandarin and underripe peach. A beautiful wash of bright apply acidity fans the fruit through the back palate, supported by a present and integrated phenolic frame on to a long and refined close. Power and finesse.

2021 Mac Forbes RS98 Riesling, Strathbogie, A$42
Pale straw colour. Restrained aromas of melon, subtle green apple, spiced cumquat, kiwifruit skin and honeydew. The palate is wonderfully viscous and bright with melon at the fore, followed by green apple, lemon sorbet, mandarin juice and subtle ginger. The acidity guillotines the sugar the very moment the wine leaves your mouth, leaving waves of flowing acidity carrying the melon and kiwifruit skin notes long through the palate.

2020 Dönnhoff Oberhäuser Leistenberg Riesling Kabinett, Mosel, Germany, A$49
Aromas of lemon juice, lemon rind, taut green apple, elderflower, wet stone and subtle quince. The palate brims with fresh apple juice, Meyer lemon, honey and quince paste. Beautiful presence, poise and balance. The acidity is seamlessly integrated and lovely grippy phenolics carry off all of the above. cellarhand.com.au

2020 Dr Loosen Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese, Mosel, Germany, A$66
Aromas of green apple, melon, lemon juice, quince, subtle ginger spice and white peach. The palate has lovely fruit purity, with melon, green apple, lemon, underripe apricot and quince paste. All underpinned by flinty wet stone minerals before a citrus and apple-drenched acidity rolls through to a salivating close. cellarhand.com.au

2020 Fritz Haag Juffer-Sonnenuhr Riesling Auslese, Mosel, Germany, A$100
Aromas of ripe nectarine, gentle smoke and spiced cumquat make way for pear, ginger, melon and peach. The palate is juicy, full-bodied and refined, with peach, pear, nectarine, cumquat and honeycomb - all braced by pronounced and puckery acidity pulling the fruit notes long. Full of charm. vintageandvine.com