Australian riesling, in all its diversity

The world of riesling is a diverse one, with styles ranging from bone dry to fruity to very sweet. The wines are produced in places as diverse as Germany, Washington state, New Zealand, even Michigan. All that diversity was on view last week at the Riesling Rendezvous in Seattle.

Riesling Rendezvous is a gathering of wine professionals sponsored by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates – which produces nearly 1.5 million cases of riesling under its family of brands – and the Dr. Loosen estate in Germany’s Mosel region. (Dr. Loosen is Ste. Michelle’s partner in the Eroica riesling project.) Seminars included blind tastings of dry riesling and of sweeter styles; a session on climate change and riesling; and a tasting of Alsatian wines. One seminar that I attended examined the diversity of Australian riesling. A serious tasting, yes, but delivered with typical Aussie irreverence, including a clip from a Monty Python sketch about Chateau Chunder.” (Google “chunder,” if you don’t get the joke.)

Australian wine journalist Mike Bennie kicked things off with a little historical perspective. Riesling was brought to South Australia in the mid-1800s by immigrants from Silesia, then part of Prussia and now mostly situated in Poland. Riesling became so popular that in the 20th century, it was common to label white wines as “riesling” even if they were composed of everything but. A lot of these faux rieslings were also quite sweet and cheap. “People got turned off riesling,” Bennie said.

So producers of true riesling started making them bone dry to combat the bad image. Bennie said there had always been wineries that made dry riesling – Jim Barry in Clare Valley has been making dry riesling since the late 1960s, for example — but the style really exploded in the mid-1980s to early 1990s. Now that the dry style has been firmly established, some winemakers are starting to experiment with other expressions – even a fermented-on-the-skins “orange” riesling. Nevertheless, most of the Aussie rieslings I tasted at the event were dry or barely off-dry.

The two best-known appellations for Australian riesling are Clare Valley and Eden Valley, both in South Australia, but there’s also excellent riesling made in Western Australia, Tasmania, the Canberra district of New South Wales and in some pockets of Victoria.

Grosset Polish-Hill

From Clare Valley, an outstanding example is the 2015 Grosset Polish Hill Riesling ($52), which is very dry, with racy lime and lime zest, wet stone and some weight. The 2012 Pikes “The Merle” Riesling ($40) is taut and racy, with lime, lime zest and floral notes. The 2012 Jim Barry “The Florita” Riesling ($45) is also fairly dry, though there’s a suggestion of underlying sweetness. (Both Pikes and Jim Barry also make very good, less expensive bottlings of dry riesling.)

jim barry

Pewsey Vale is top-notch riesling from Eden Valley, especially the reserve-level wine, called Contours. The 2010 Pewsey Vale Contours Riesling ($33) is very dry and racy, with lime, lime zest and a hint of petrol. The more affordable 2015 Pewsey Vale Riesling ($19) is zippy and delicious, but with a little less weight and complexity.

pewsey vale

Frankland Estate produces a range of rieslings in the Great Southern area of Western Australia, most of them dry. The 2015 Frankland Estate Isolation Ridge Riesling ($40) is racy, lean and a little smoky, while the 2015 Poison Hill Riesling ($30) is broader on the palate but has great tension.

Some interesting wines from Rieslingfreak in Clare Valley and Crawford River in Victoria were also poured, but they’re not available in the State. The 2015 Rieslingfreak No. 5 Riesling is labeled by the winery as off-dry, but it’s a good example of how difficult it is to classify riesling by the numbers. It’s 1.5 percent residual sugar, but the acidity is high, and the wine tastes very racy, with lime and wet stone flavors. The 2014 Crawford River Riesling is from Henty, which is the coldest region on the Australian mainland. It’s lean and taut, but has some weight and power.

For some true diversity, there was the 2015 Mac Forbes EB 22 Riesling ($30), from Strathbogie Ranges in Victoria. This is a riesling version of orange wine, a white fermented on the skins. Why did you make this wine, someone asked Forbes. His reply: “Why not?” It’s an interesting wine, though not for everyone: oxidative without tasting oxidized, with a eucalyptus note and the texture of a red wine.

At the seminar and other tastings during the event, many of the Australian rieslings that were poured were from 2015. Some may not yet be in U.S. stores.

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