Discovering the Underappreciated Gem: Australian Riesling

By | 6 May 2024

The first chapter of Ken Gargett’s comprehensive two-part analysis of the distinguished white grape variety’s past, present, and future in Australia.


Ken Gargett

Although Riesling may still be striving for mainstream acceptance, it has demonstrated its potential to produce exceptional wines in Australia, as Ken Gargett explains, condensing the history and contemporary trends of this exceptional white grape variety across the country’s wine-growing regions. The second part of his analysis, which focuses on his favourite producers and wines, will be released tomorrow

When an Australian winemaker is queried about their preferred wines, it is highly probable that Riesling will figure in their response. They might even suggest that Riesling is the future, that the Riesling Renaissance is in high gear, and that it won’t be long before the world begins flocking to local wineries to get their hands on this rising star.

Australian Riesling may be unrecognized despite being a fantastic representation of the variety, but whether it’s undergoing a revival is still ambiguous. Despite having staunch admirers, some wine consumers simply won’t give it a try. History definitely plays a role here, along with the availability of other great options. A surge in interest for Pinot Gris is having a significant impact too. The phenomenon of Australian wines being overshadowed, such as Western Australia’s Classic Dry Whites (Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc blends), local Savvys, Hunter Semillon, and Riesling all over the place, can be linked to the popularity of New Zealand’s Sauvignon Blanc.

In 2011, Brian Croser delivered a speech entitled “Riesling: The Noblest White,” stating, “Even though Riesling’s market share is declining, it has consistently won the admiration of key influencers in the fine wine world and garners an inordinate amount of positive press. Unfortunately, none of this translates into mass-market sales.” Jancis Robinson supports this, claiming, “Riesling is clearly one of the greats, potentially the wine variety that produces the finest white wines of all.” Why then isn’t it stocked in every wine enthusiast’s fridge? Why is it snubbed by those who aren’t in the industry? The notion of it being “caviar to the general”, as put forth by Shakespeare’s Hamlet, comes to mind.

Regrettably, unlike Chardonnay , which can produce wines ranging from satisfactory to exceptional under nearly any circumstance, Riesling is more finicky. According to Croser, “Riesling lacks the widespread geographic range of Chardonnay needed for the creation of branded mass-market wines.” His statements from over a decade ago still hold true. He admits that it’s not just about the terroir and viticultural management, but handling as well. “Riesling needs gentle handling, minimal phenol extraction, cool anaerobic fermentation and storage, and it doesn’t respond well to oak treatment. Australian vintners have paved the path in coaxing the best from their Riesling grapes.” This has resulted in Australian Rieslings being noticeably different from those in Germany, New Zealand, and Oregon, among other places.

Australian Riesling has faced challenges for decades. Historically, any white wine made in Australia could be labelled as Riesling, even if it didn’t contain the grape variety itself. Some winemakers were even using the term “Riesling” to simply denote white wine of any type. It came to a point where traditional Riesling winemakers had to label their wines “Rhine Riesling,” to stand apart from their mislabelled counterparts. Initially, many wines marked as “Riesling,” did include a certain percentage of the authentic grape, albeit lower-quality ones. Cheaper wines, in fact, were more likely to include varieties like Trebbiano, Crouchen, Sultana, Ondenc, or Muscat instead. “Riesling” was sometimes used to denote other grape varieties like Semillon or Crouchen.

It’s suggested that Mitchell, located in the Clare Valley, was the first to label its wine only as “Riesling” as per Huon Hooke. Jeffrey Grosset’s campaign, which started in 1984, helped change this, and by the early 1990s, false labelling started to decline. This paved the way for an agreement with the EU in 2010, enforcing correct labelling.

The origins of Riesling in Australia are uncertain. Some believe it might have first arrived with the First Fleet in 1788. By 1791, a German named Phillip Schaffer had planted vineyards in his land grant of 140 acres on the Parramatta River’s north bank. Renowned family, the Macarthurs, purchased Schaffer’s property by 1812 and established vineyards where Riesling was believed to be planted early on. However, it remains unknown if Schaffer was the original source of the Riesling vines.

Many speculations suggest that James Busby, who brought many grape varieties to Australia in 1832/33, included Riesling. But Andrew Caillard, author of the comprehensive history ‘The Australian Ark’ (2023), suggests that a grape called “raisin vert” from Bas Rhin (Alsace) that Busby imported was likely a pineau variety instead of Riesling. In his view, the first Riesling cuttings were brought to Australia in 1838 by Johann Stein and other German vine-dressers from the Rheingau, hired to manage the vineyards at Camden.

By 1843, vine cuttings were being advertised in the Sydney press by the Macarthurs. Among those who purchased several Riesling cuttings was George Austey from Adelaide. This was followed by deliveries to both Victoria and Tasmania. Journalist Ebenezer Ward, who worked for South Australian Advertiser and Melbourne Age, is credited with providing details about the origins and early success of Riesling. His articles included “Vineyards and Orchards of South Australia, 1862” and “Vineyards of Victoria in 1864.” Ward visited 42 South Australian vineyards, 11 of which were producing Riesling. He also toured 71 vineyards in Geelong, Ballarat, and Bendigo, Victoria, 21 of which had Riesling plants.

Few regarded the 1852 Riesling from Pewsey Vale and the 1857 Riesling from Evandale very highly. Ward commented on the matured, fragrant, delicate, and pure Riesling from Pewsey Vale and Evandale. He concluded, “Riesling was identified consistently and very early in Australian viticulture as the superior performing white grape variety among the hundreds imported.”

The Minchinbury winery, located at Sydney’s edge, was forced to sell in 1895 due to the prevailing depression. Here, fine Rieslings had been produced under Dr Charles McKay’s leadership. James Angus, a railway construction contractor, purchased it. In 1902, he hired Leo Buring, a young “champagne” maker from Great Western, who would become an iconic name in the Australian wine industry, notably for Riesling. John Vickery, associated with Leo Buring and Chateau Leonay, is often considered Australia’s king of Riesling, with Jeffrey Grosset seen as his worthy successor. Phylloxera ruined the Minchinbury vineyards in 1898, but they were subsequently replanted on grafted rootstocks.

In 1912, Penfolds bought Minchinbury for £50,000 (approximately between A$6 million and A$7 million today). They soon had cellar space for 1.25 million bottles and over 400 acres (160ha) of vineyards. Buring worked with them till 1919, after which he consulted for different wineries. He was a director of Lindeman’s from 1923 until he established his own company, Leo Buring Pty Ltd, in 1931. These all eventually came under what is today Treasury Wine Estates. In 1978, soil erosion finally led to the vineyards’ closure.

Whether one perceives either John Vickery or Jeffrey Grosset as the king of Riesling in Australia, Brian Croser is another noteworthy name. Founder of Petaluma and now Tapanappa, his 1979 Petaluma Riesling redefined public perception of Riesling with its enhanced aromatics. It quickly became a favorite white wine. He described this wine a dry, late-harvest style. Soon after this revelation, a slightly sweeter Riesling produced and sold in vast quantities by Wolf Blass gained immense popularity.

Australians in the late 1970s had a preference for white wine, consuming four bottles for every one of red.

It’s easy to overlook the reigning position Riesling once held in Australia. Prior to the 1970s, Riesling was the predominant grape variety in Coonawarra, even surpassing Cabernet Sauvignon. Remarkably, during the 1970s, many Shiraz and other red grape types were supplanted with, or grafted over to, Riesling. Riesling production continued to surpass that of Chardonnay until 1991 in South Australia. Chardonnay made a late appearance on the Australian varietal scene, with Riesling yielding 41,522 tonnes and Chardonnay yielding 38,767 tonnes. The fluctuating price of Riesling grapes reflected its impending decline. In 1989, Riesling was $600/tonne, whereas Chardonnay fetched $1,590/tonne. Fast forward to 2022, Chardonnay was priced at $517/tonne and Riesling had appreciated to $1,171/tonne. Current production levels highlight the current disparity. Riesling production has nearly halved from the 1991 figure, at 20,822 tonnes in 2022, whereas Chardonnay production has ballooned nearly tenfold, to 358,007 tonnes.

Croser lauded Riesling’s adaptability in Australia in favourable terroirs, a point also made by James Halliday. Croser cites the classically moderate alcohol (12–13%), dry (<7.5g/l sugar), moderate acid (7g/l) Eden Valley and Clare Valley Rieslings among others. However, he also acknowledges a fresh wave of Rieslings from cooler climates in Adelaide Hills, Tasmania, and New Zealand. These new Rieslings, harvested fully ripe at lower sugar levels, tend to have higher acidity and lower pH than their traditional Australian counterparts. They also likely reflect the fruit-enhancing effect of botrytis, leading to lower alcohol and higher residual-sugar levels. For Croser, these wines are indeed delightful, offering lower alcohol, which suits modern lifestyle demands. He suggests avoiding this style in traditional warmer Australian regions that produce dry Riesling, such as Clare, Eden Valley, or Canberra.

Many renowned names from the early days of Australian wine regions produced — and still produce — excellent Rieslings. They’ve been supplemented by a host of new players. Consequently, Australia ranks among the top five Riesling producers globally, trailing Germany in the number one spot. Most of the wines are clean, fresh, without oak influence, often exceedingly dry and many have exceptional aging potential. Riesling also contributes to sweet wines, yet plays a scaled-down role nowadays. It was formerly frequently used as a blending component, producing a common style—Traminer/Riesling, which has lost popularity in recent times.

Australia’s climate is often misjudged as not suitable for Riesling cultivation. But Riesling has shown exceptional growth in areas with a high heat index during the growth period, barring certain maritime regions. According to Croser, Riesling thrives in warmer weather if the diurnal range is large and the night is cool enough to maintain acidity and delicacy of fruit quality. Analysing globally acclaimed Riesling terrains, cool regions show low to moderate daily ranges, and successful Riesling terrains are warm to hot regions with high daily ranges, showing a strong correlation.

Acidity perception can be an issue. Many winemakers believe high acidity is desirable. In New Zealand, sweetness often counterbalances this, whereas Australian wines are often bone-dry, leading to acidity dominating the palette. Taking this into account, 2022 vintages from regions like Clare and Eden Valleys, which were excellent but cooler, hence resulting in high acidity, disrupted the balance of some wines. That said, the year was impressive overall, according to judges Steve Pannell and Stuart Piggott at the Clare Wine Show. While it is said that Riesling wine makes itself, competent winemakers need to monitor acidity levels; balance, elegance and freshness take precedence over high acidity. However, acidity can contribute to graceful ageing—an essential factor in quality Riesling. It is a fine line.

Croser asserts that climate, geology and soil play crucial roles in Riesling cultivation. Remarkable Riesling terrains, most located on ancient hard rocks like Cambrian and pre-Cambrian gneisses, schists, slates, and granites are found along Rhine and Mosel (Germany), Danube (Austria) and in major Australian Riesling terrains. There are instances of successful Riesling cultivation on Jurassic and post limestone-based soils in Germany, Alsace, Clare Valley, and in Waipara, New Zealand.

Clare Valley (South Australia) is generally viewed as the top Australian Riesling region, closely followed by Eden Valley. Western Australia’s Great Southern region has also displayed superior quality. While Tasmania’s Riesling wines offer exciting flavours, their scarce volume often restricts its availability outside the island. Given the high acidity of Tasmanian Rieslings, we get to taste some notably sweet samples, just like the limited production of Riesling from New Zealand. Superlative examples have also been produced in regions like Henty and Canberra, where Riesling usually does not get much attention.

South Australia outstands in Riesling production, holding approximately 70 percent of the nation’s total. The leading region in production is Clare Valley with 4,800 tonnes, followed by Eden Valley and Langhorne Creek, each contributing around 2,400 tonnes. Further, with around 2,100 tonnes each are Padthaway and the Riverland. In the present scenario, Australia possesses approximately 7,400 acres (3,000ha) of Riesling planted on sale lands. Globally there are around 150,000 acres (60,000ha) of Riesling plants.

According to 2022 statistics, 242 Australian producers distributed Riesling to 71 diverse markets, reaching a total of 3.6 million liters worth A$18.6 million. This shows a decline since 2017, where 6.8 million liters worth A$25 million was exported. Among them, the US, UK, and Canada are the key export markets, with the USA holding the top position for almost two decades. In addition, there are increasing exports to Japan while exports to South Korea have been skyrocketing. However, this surge might have also been propelled by zero tariffs on Australian wine, as observed in China’s case. Nevertheless, several esteemed names are crafting outstanding Riesling, amid a market dominated by Chardonnay and flooded with Savvy (both local and from New Zealand), and competent though rarely exhilarating Pinot Gris/Grigio is also on the rise. Although many have been predicting the Riesling Revival, it is essential to accept the deep-rooted interest for this splendid white variety, knowing it will never take over.

The inability of Riesling to capture a larger portion of the white-wine market is slightly confusing, given its extraordinary value. Particularly in Germany, the most exquisite and rarest Rieslings have been priced high. Leading producers include Egon Müller, Dönnhoff, JJ Prüm, Robert Weil, and others. In contrast, Australia offers excellent drinking in the A$20–30 range. Though, there has been a slight price rise, but it remains a struggle. Comprehensively, the market might not seem right but it does not essentially mean that it has to make sense.

Unlike other Riesling-producing countries such as Germany, the majority of Australian Riesling is dry, even bone-dry. The sweeter styles now cover a much smaller market share and are considered unique. Standard terminologies such as “Spatlese” and “Auslese” are now banned. “Late harvest” carries some interest but never really garnered much popularity. Though people might discuss dry but opt for sweet was once applicable, today, they certainly prefer to buy dry. Furthermore, many consumers who falsely perceive that most Rieslings are not dry, limits the appeal of Riesling, based on past experiences with overly sweet Rieslings.

While there are some fine examples of botrytis Riesling, the middle ground seems to have disappeared. The unofficial cut-off for “dry” Riesling was 7.5g/l RS, but this came from an arbitrary level set for the wine-show system. The vast majority of quality Australian Riesling would be considerably drier than this—4g/l RS or less.

While there is certainly a degree of interest in Rieslings of varying levels of sweetness, the trend in recent years has been much more focused on specific terroirs, regional and subregional styles, and what are seen as reserve bottlings. A reserve bottling might be from a single vineyard or even from a single parcel of vines, or it might be the producer’s premium Riesling, wherever it hails from. Expect these to be destined for long aging. While the prices will certainly exceed those for standard bottlings, they are still astonishingly cheap by comparison with reserve bottlings and top wines from other grape varieties. A few of the best examples are Pike’s The Merle, Tim Adams Reserve, Jim Barry’s Florita, Grosset’s G110, and O’Leary Walker’s Drs’ Cut, but there are many others. Some of these are released as young wines, along with the regular bottlings, while others are given additional time in the cellar. Examples of the latter are Peter Lehmann’s Reserve and Pewsey Vale The Contours.

There is also much more of a focus on single-vineyard or subregional Riesling these days. Examples are the Grosset Springvale and Polish Hill, O’Leary Walker’s Watervale and Polish Hill River, and from Frankland River Estate, the Estate Riesling as well as site-specific examples such as its Isolation Ridge Riesling and Poison Hill Riesling; its Alter Weg Riesling is a niche production effort, fermented in older oak, while its Smith Cullam is its premium release. Nothing is simple these days.

As yet, the world seems woefully unappreciative of great Aussie Rieslings. Sure, we all have friends who insist they are fans, but in reality, most of them drink little and cellar less. The Winesearcher site regularly publishes Best Value, Most Expensive, Most Wanted, and other such lists for each grape variety. I’ve trawled through all these lists over many years, and if there was an Aussie Riesling that made any of them, I must have missed it—with the single exception of the Peter Lehmann Wigan making the Top Value list. I suppose Australians can at least be grateful our Rieslings don’t make the Most Expensive list. Winesearcher’s latest Best Value Australian Wines list does have five Rieslings in the top ten, though the previous year it had seven.

For those exploring the delights and complexities of Aussie Riesling, it’s essential to recognize that you won’t come across Alsace equivalents, German copies or Oregon replicas here. Nowadays, Australian Riesling is mostly dry or near-dry, presenting clean, bright, fresh wines with high acidity. Whilst there are fantastic late-harvest and botrytis-infected Rieslings, the term “Riesling” in Australia typically denotes pristine, vibrant, dry wines. The advent of the screwcap only amplifies this trait, as arguably no grape variety has benefited more from it.

The endless discussion regarding the use of cork versus screwcap emerged a couple of decades back. Australia spearheaded the transition to screwcap usage, a move which New Zealand promptly adopted. Clare Valley’s Riesling producers were at the forefront of this shift around the turn of the century. An unsuccessful attempt in the late 1970s/early 80s to implement screwcap did improve wine quality, but the public didn’t respond well. By 2000, however, local Riesling producers pushed for either all or half their bottles to use screwcap. Support for the screwcap presentation was resounding and its usage quickly spread to other varieties and regions. If there is an Australian Riesling still being sealed with cork, it is currently beyond my knowledge.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *