Jim Barry Rieslings – great with spicy Asian food

Peter Barry has always been a straight-shooter. He tells it like it is and doesn’t mess around. So when he releases a new riesling in the now-fashionable semi-sweet style, he labels it Jim Barry Sweet Riesling tastings (Its full title is actually Jim Barry Lavender Hill Sweet Riesling.)

Other winemakers skirt around the sweetness issue with words like off-dry, late-picked, spatlese, kabinett and sundry numerical codes, but Barry gets right to the point. His other rieslings are dry, but this one is sweeter – it carries 24 grams per litre of residual (unfermented grape) sugar.

Why are wine producers so scared of putting the word ‘sweet’ on a label? Sweet does carry negative baggage in the wine world: it’s equated in the public mind with low quality. But Barry believes in being honest with the consumer.

The Jim Barry of the winery’s name is Peter’s late father. Today Peter’s wife Sue and their sons Tom and Sam and daughter Olivia are all involved in one way or another. Tom, an oenology graduate, is assistant winemaker at Jim Barry Wines. He and Sam have a riesling of their own, named Clos Clare (tastings), and Olivia is still at uni.

Peter admits to a lifelong love-affair with riesling. Today, the company produces 15,000 dozen bottles of it a year, with its Watervale and Lodge Hill brands and flagship riesling, The Florita (tastings) – the crème de la crème of which there are only 3-400 cases a year. Produced only in years when the quality is right (there was no ’06), it began in 2004 and is one of the great under-sung rieslings of Australia. The latest release, 2010 ($40 to $45 tasting), is pale coloured, fragrant, ethereal and ultra-refined; delicate, with a hint of rosewater and a seamless texture. A beautiful wine.

The Florita story is fascinating, and exemplifies why family entities make more sense than corporates in the wine business. Peter Barry relates the story.

It starts in 1946, just after the war, when Leo Buring bought land at Watervale and planted pedro ximines for sherry – the preferred wine of Australians at the time. He named the vineyard Florita, which is Spanish for ‘little flower’ – a reference to the sherry flor (or flower), the film of yeast that covers the dry flor sherry as it matures in its ullaged cask.

Public tastes shifted, table wine became fashionable, and in 1962 Buring’s winemaker John Vickery began to remove pedro and plant riesling. “He started to make riesling (wine), which began to be seen as the future of Australian white wine,” says Barry. Indeed, Vickery and the Leo Buring brand became almost synonymous with riesling.

“In 1986 Philip Morris (the tobacco company which owned the Leo Buring brand) had six years supply of riesling in its cellars, and no-one was drinking it – chardonnay was the new fashion. They decided to sell the Florita vineyard. My brothers and I went to the auction. I was 24. Mum said ‘You’re not allowed to buy it’. She said we already had plenty of vineyards. We told Dad he’d better buy it, and that would let us off the hook. It was during the vine-pull (when large numbers of vineyards were grubbed out in a government sponsored vine-reduction scheme). So it was a tough decision to make. Incidentally, we have never pulled a riesling vine out – we’ve only put them in!” Florita today has 30 hectares of riesling vines.

Southcorp owned the Florita trademark then, and although the Barrys began using the grapes immediately, they couldn’t use the name. “I had to wait eight years until the registration period was up, but then Southcorp renewed it for another 10 years, so I had to wait 18 years all told, and I registered the name Florita two days after it lapsed. Eighteen years is a long time to wait for a drink.”

The 2010 Lavender Hill Sweet Riesling (“In the good old days it would have been labelled moselle,” says Barry) was launched at a long lunch at Spice Temple, where no fewer than 11 Jim Barry rieslings were paired with 14 small courses. These included every Florita and there were three appearances by the Lavender Hill.

It was a kind of epiphany for me. I’m a believer that off-dry riesling is a good match with many spicy Asian dishes, but on this day, the dry rieslings won me. Part of the reason may be that the Lavender Hill was a fraction too sweet for many of the dishes offered, but the fact remains that the dry wines were stunning with the food. Admittedly, the kitchen had toned down the heat in the dishes, but there was still plenty of kick, and the famous Tingling Prawns – with their Szechuan peppercorns and green chillies – were surprisingly well looked-after by the 2010 Watervale Riesling. I hadn’t expected this dish to go with anything much, apart from beer.

Did I have a favourite match? The food, it must be said, was wonderful, and I had to tear myself away after a riveting and highly informative three hours. Hard to play favourites, but I probably had thirds of the fried squid with whole five-spice and dark chilli paste. The 2010 and ’09 Floritas dealt with this dish handsomely. Incidentally, Spice Temple’s very tight wine list of 100 wines includes 14 rieslings: more than any other white and twice the number of chardonnays.

First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Living – 19 April 2011. 


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