Rieslings of Europe point the way to better Australian wine

Riesling has had a serious reputation problem in Australia, borne out by many examples of lazy wine-making and poor site selection. A Cook’s tour of riesling in its ancestral European home might shed a little light on where we have it right and wrong.

The character of riesling is a little unique for white wine, in that it ripens slowly, can reach good levels of natural sugars but doesn’t lose its naturally high levels of acidity in cooler climates.

Riesling is a cool climate grape variety of ancient German origin along the Rhine valley. While it is said to be first recorded by Pliny in the first century AD, in modern times the historical record of riesling goes back to at least 1435 in its ancestral home. Being a cool climate vine, Jancis Robinson MW recites in her book ‘Vines, Grapes, and Wines,’ a tradition amongst the Germans is that the riesling vine loses its character completely in the warm lands south of the Bodensee (the Rhine river lake that sits at the borders of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland at 47 degrees North). In these warmer climates, it loses its intensity, acid balance and becomes flabby and bland.

The flavours of cool-climate riesling are often described as lime/citrus acidity, floral notes, and some minerality (once denounced by a former QLS General Counsel when described as ‘quartzy rocks’ – “Who has ever tasted quartzy rocks?”, he said). The bracing flavour elements can be accompanied by the honeyed texture of the sugar levels depending on how ripe the grapes are permitted to get.

So, in its ancestral home, the goal of riesling is to ripen the grapes enough to balance the zing of natural acidity with enough sugar for the resultant wine to appear dry, ie neither sweet nor acidic. In good years with high levels of natural acidity, they will make wines with high degrees of natural residual sugar, even sometimes leaving the berries to become affected by botrytis to lower the water levels in the juice. In Germany, wines with sugar from natural ripening come under the quality labelling of Prädikatswein and may not have sugar added in the process of winemaking (known as chaptalisation) as is permissible in the basic Qualitätswein labelling. Chaptalisation is often used to achieve that elusive balance between acid and sugar when the cold climate can not naturally ripen the grapes fully.

In Germany, the main focus of riesling growing is along the Rhine and Mosel rivers where the flowing water tempers the climate and acts somewhat to relieve frosts. The Rheingau growing region with perfect south-facing slopes, for example, sits at 50 degrees North.

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In France, they only permit a German variety like riesling to be grown within 50km’s of the border (such is the regard for varieties which are not native to France). This has left the stronghold of French riesling being the Germanic enclave of Alsace. This territory sits on the western bank of the upper Rhine river on the border with Germany and has been traded between the two countries a number of times. In terms of winemaking, the rieslings of Alsace are local stars and sit in the Alsace trio of fine white wines: Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Pinot Gris. Here the riesling is a little different from across the border in Germany and is more textural in the mouth, sometimes referred to as oily but really it is just more viscous and richer on the palate. Many accustomed to Australian riesling styles baulk at the products from Alsace as the focus on full-body over sharp acid can be a little confronting. Alsace sits at 48 degrees North.

In Austria, the Wachau valley sits along with one of the great rivers of Europe, the Danube, and has a winemaking tradition going back to its Roman occupation. The official crafting of the wine region came much later in the thirteenth century. Here Riesling and Grüner Veltliner grow, as the wines do on the Rhine, on the steep slopes of the river and the water ameliorates the extremes of the climate. Warm summer days and cool nights ripen the grapes well and resemble some Australian growing conditions. A renaissance of quality Austrian winemaking has taken hold and excellent examples of taunt and bracing rieslings exist closer stylistically to our antipodean examples as a result. Wachau is a place to be more explored and sits at 48 degrees North.

Riesling is also made in the northern parts of Italy such as in South Tyrol and further south, but the German warning of the Bodensee starts to take hold here and the climate starts to become unfavourable much below 46 degrees North.

Turning to the other side of the world, Australia has riesling planted from the Granite Belt to the tip of Tasmania, from the Margaret River to Hunter Valley and almost everywhere in between. Riesling became a staple of antipodean vineyards courtesy of German immigration to the new South Australian colony in the 1800s. Industrious settlers selected the best sites they could in the new hot southland to plant the best vine of their homeland and set to making wine.

Climatically Australian riesling sites are rich and diverse with varying degrees of cool climate. While very imperfect as a direct comparison with Europe the marker of latitude gives an interesting comparison:

  • Granite Belt is 28 degrees South,
  • Hunter Valley is 32 degrees South,
  • Watervale in the Clare Valley is 33 degrees South and the Eden Valley is 32,
  • Yarra Valley is 37 degrees South, and
  • Australia’s most southerly vineyards in the Huon Valley in Tasmania are 43 degrees South.

Compared to its native home, Australian rieslings are generally grown in much warmer climates suited to other varieties. That is not to say that careful work in the vineyard and winery can not produce great rieslings in Australia and we certainly do. But, like so much of Australian winemaking, it is the battle of working against nature to produce something similar but slightly different from the original model. In the case of riesling, it simply doesn’t always work and there can be few successes to come from riesling grown in the warm vineyards of Rutherglen, the Riverland, the Hunter Valley, the Barossa, Coonawarra or myriad other less suitable sites. But transported tradition is a powerful force and we persist in keeping a riesling in the stable of wines in too many places.

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Is it little wonder then riesling has some problems with its reputation? Perhaps it is time to consider growing riesling only in the cool places in Australia where it can truly shine?

The Tasting

Three different rieslings were examined from across three major European sites:

Volratz riesling 2018 Qualitätswein Rheingau 12.5%
The colour of crystal clear light pine floorboards, newly sanded. The nose held a quartzy rocks minerality, layered with lime and ripe summer stone fruit. The palate was a forward lime acid attack with some balanced sugar carry into the long palate with a touch of honey sweetness. Balanced, tight, and delicate with drive.

Dopff au Moulin riesling 2018 Appellation Alsace Contrôlée 12.5%
Light straw yellow in colour and on the nose was an almost oily floral grape sweetness, akin to fresh-cut Thomson seedless grapes at the local grocer packed into old wooden crates. The palate was mouth-filling with a note of ripe white stone-fruit and a mid-palate of rising honey. The mouthfeel was vicious and underscored by minerally elements and grapefruit citrus tang. Body and substance filling out the flavour profile.

Domäne Wachau riesling Federspiel 2018 Qualitätswein aus Osterreich Trocken 12.5%
A green fresh cut straw colour and had a nose of floral and mineral notes. The palate was jam packed with racy citrus acid with a core of mineral body rising in the mid palate to form a bracing rich tone with a lingering hint of green gage plum picked fresh from the tree a week too early. It packed a punch reminiscent of a young riesling from Watervale or the Eden Valley without any trace of the famous South Australian petroleum tones. Bracing, dry and fine boned wine that hit all the right marks.

The three wines showed different faces to the riesling and there was some division of the preferred offering given individual tastes. But, for me, the standout was the punch of the Austrian wine.

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Matt Dunn is Queensland Law Society General Manager, Policy, Public Affairs, and Governance.

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