Pushing the Envelope with Riesling

It’s been difficult to avoid drinking riesling this summer – not that you’d want to avoid it! This week (6-7 February) sees the Frankland Estate International Riesling Tasting returning to Sydney, and there are several other riesling events: Summer of Riesling, Wrapped In Riesling and the Great Southern Riesling Tasting.

It’s a good excuse to have a look at what’s happening in riesling trends. After all, riesling is somewhat less than fashionable, and sales have been flat for years, while it remains the darling white grape of winemakers, merchants and writers. Indeed, it’s almost as though winemakers have thumbed their collective noses at the unheeding public and decided to indulge their passion for riesling regardless. They continue their quest to improve their wines, at the same time adding new styles.

The off-dry trend has been with us for a few years now. It was kicked off by Tasmanians such as Frogmore Creek with their FGR (tastings) and similar wines. FGR stands for Forty Grams Residual (or, in the privacy of their own cellars, F’ing Good Riesling), which means there’s a substantial amount of residual (unfermented) sugar in the wine, the model being German Kabinett and Spatlese-style rieslings. Perhaps the most subtle and delicate of these so far is Grosset’s Off-Dry Riesling (tastings), but there are many others. Tasmania’s Pressing Matters is one of my favourites, producing riesling at four different sweetness levels, from dry up to very sweet, and labelled R0 (tastings), R9 (tastings), R69 (tastings) and R139 (tastings) (grams per litre of sugar).

Off-dry wines make wonderful aperitifs or refreshers, and go with different foods from dry rieslings. They’re especially useful paired with spicy Asian dishes, such as Thai fishcakes with chilli sauce. Off-dry wines also have the potential to win back some drinkers who’ve reacted against the sometimes hard, tart and forbidding, traditional bone-dry riesling style.

Perhaps the next biggest trend is the quest for texture. Traditionally, Australian riesling was fermented as clean, filtered juice with very little phenolics (skin tannins): very delicate, refined and built on acid. Some winemakers now deliberately leave some solids in the juice, and refrain from fining it after fermentation. By texture, they mean mouth-feel: weight or density on the palate. Rieslings in Alsace and Austria have been like this for a long time: Australians in the past have followed the highly refined Germanic model more than the Alsace or Austrian model. Try a high-end Austrian riesling of the Smaragd or drier spatlese style and you’ll find it’s weightier, richer and less high-toned aromatically than a dry German or Australian riesling. Fleshy compared to racy.

Hand in hand with this is the fashion of copying the old-world habit of fermenting or maturing riesling in large, seasoned oak barrels. Because of their size and age, they don’t impart oak flavour to the wine. They simply permit a small quantity of air to enter, a very gentle and slow oxidation process, resulting in a ‘maturation effect’. This can result in more aroma and flavour complexity as well as slightly softer, richer texture.

Ambient yeasts (instead of winemaker-introduced pure cultured yeast) can also give a pay-off in texture and, arguably, flavour complexity. And in keeping with the trend throughout winemaking of all grape varieties, there is a trend to avoid or at least minimise acid additions – again with important textural implications. Those of us old enough to remember the ‘battery acid’ white wines of the past do not miss them! Earlier harvesting is one way to retain as much natural acid as possible, but vineyard site selection, and better attention to viticulture – especially vine canopy management – can also help retain acidity.

All these changes are positives in terms of ‘naturalness’. Minimal intervention is the most significant wine trend of the early 21st Century. Adding to the wine – and taking away from it (in terms of filtration and fining) — as little as possible is a concern of most winemakers today. Frankly, all wine is natural, but some wines are more natural than others.

If you want to try some of more exciting cutting-edge Australian rieslings, produced with some or all of the above techniques, try any of Kerri Thompson’s Clare Valley wines under the KT label (Peglidis; Churinga; Melva tastings). These are single-vineyard wines, too, adding another level of interest. They’re all lees-aged, and Melva is the let-it-all-hang-out wine: off-dry, barrel-fermented by ambient yeasts in eight-year-old oak, and bottled unfined. “I made my first off-dry wine in 2005 and it’s taken this long to really get it established in the market. Now, I can’t supply the demand,” says Thompson.

Frankland Estate are also experimenting with oak and other techniques. Their single-vineyard wines, 2011 Isolation Ridge (tasting), Netley Road (tastings) and Poison Hill (tastings), are outstanding.

Others using barrels and doing experimental things with riesling include Jamsheed (tastings), Vinteloper (tastings), Xabregas (tastings) and Mac Forbes (tastings).

More and more winemakers are making single-site wines because riesling expresses its vineyard terroir so well – arguably better than any other grape.

And of course, the best thing about riesling being out of fashion is that it’s not expensive. Consider this: the top Australian chardonnays are around the $100 mark (Leeuwin Art Series (tastings), Penfolds Yattarna (tastings), Cullen Kevin John (tastings) and Bindi Quartz (tastings) are all between $75 and $130) but our costliest riesling is Grosset Polish Hill at $45.

Most of our top rieslings are $20 to $25. Great food wines, great cellaring wines, great to drink young or mature. Great bargains!

First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Living – 7 February 2012. 


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