Winemakers love riesling, but can they bring this under-appreciated varietal back into fashion?
It's difficult to avoid drinking riesling this summer - not that you'd want to avoid it.
This week, the Frankland Estate International Riesling Tasting is 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 reason to have a look at what's happening in riesling trends. After all, the varietal is somewhat less than fashionable and sales have been flat for years, even though 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 while adding new styles.
The off-dry trend has been with us for a few years. It was kicked off by Tasmanians such as Frogmore Creek with its FGR 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 is Grosset's Off-Dry Riesling but there are many others. Tasmania's Pressing Matters is one of my favourites, producing riesling at four different sweetness levels, from dry to very sweet and labelled R0, R9, R69 and R139 (grams per litre of sugar). Off-dry wines make wonderful aperitifs or refreshers, and go with different foods. 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 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.
In the past, Australians 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.
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 move 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 - and taking away (in terms of filtration and fining) - as little as possible to the wine is a concern of most winemakers today. Frankly, all wine is natural but some wines are more natural than others.
What the smart money is buying
IF YOU want to try some exciting, cutting-edge Australian rieslings, try Kerri Thompson's KT range of wines from the Clare Valley. Single-vineyard wines, they are called Peglidis, Churinga and Melva. 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 demand,'' Thompson says.
Frankland Estate is also experimenting with oak and other techniques. Its single-vineyard wines, 2011 Isolation Ridge, Netley Road and Poison Hill, are outstanding. More and more winemakers are making single-site wines because riesling expresses its vineyard terroir well.
And, of course, the best thing about riesling being out of fashion is that it's not expensive. Consider this: the top Aussie chardonnays are about $100 (Leeuwin Art Series, Penfolds Yattarna, Cullen Kevin John, and Bindi Quartz are all between $75 and $130) but our most expensive riesling is Grosset Polish Hill at $45.
Most top rieslings are $20-$25. Great with food, for cellaring, to drink young or mature. Bargains.
KT wines' stockists: Five Way Cellars and the Australian Wine Centre. Frankland Estate stockists include Annandale Cellars and Cremorne Cellars.
TUMBARUMBA'S COOL CHANGE
Jason and Alecia Brown of Moppity Vineyards in the Hilltops region have bought the largest vineyard in the Tumbarumba region, Tralee. It is a massive confidence booster for the region, which has great potential but languishes because it lacks wineries and most vineyards are family-owned without a younger generation to take over. The 71-hectare vineyard, planted in 1993, is mostly chardonnay and pinot noir and will ensure Moppity's supply of top-quality cool-climate grapes. In the past, Tralee chardonnay has gone into Penfolds Yattarna. Moppity has made Tumbarumba chardonnay, a gold medal winner at the Sydney Royal Wine Show, since 2008. Tralee's excess fruit will be sold to McWilliam's, which has a well-established Tumbarumba brand for white wines, Barwang. Jason says the next challenge for the 800-metre altitude vineyard is to make top pinot noir table wine. "Tumbarumba is teetering on the brink: it's poised for greatness but has no succeeding generations,'' he says. ''It has a climate almost identical to Central Otago, so should be able to produce some of the best pinot noir in the southern hemisphere." However, he says it will take a while to introduce the best clones. His new brand, Coppabella, will debut later this year with a 2012 chardonnay.
When Len Evans planted gamay in the vineyard around his Hunter Valley home, Loggerheads, many in the region thought he'd lost his marbles. But one person thinks the idea had merit. Former Capercaillie winemaker Daniel Binet, now winemaker for Ballabourneen, has bought the grapes and made Ballabourneen Gamay Noir 2011 ($25), a very pleasant light- to medium-bodied red for early drinking. "I definitely see this as a serious red," Binet says. Having had three vintages' experience with gamay, Binet reckons Evans was right. And I agree that it's a good wine to chill down in the warmer weather, perhaps with an ice-block thrown in.
TAMAR BEST AT SHOW
Tasmania's Tamar Ridge winery, owned by Brown Brothers since 2010, has taken out one of the most coveted awards for Tassie wines: the trophy for best three-year-old pinot noir at the 2012 Tasmanian Wine Show. The winner was Tamar Ridge Kayena Vineyard Reserve Pinot Noir 2009 ($55). Chief winemaker Tom Ravech wins the prize of a free trip to Burgundy where he will research winemaking techniques.
Iconic McLaren Vale winery d'Arenberg is celebrating its centenary this month and is releasing a new sparkling wine to commemorate the occasion. Named Dadd, it's a non-vintage chardonnay, pinot noir, pinot meunier from the Adelaide Hills, priced at $28. Why Dadd with two 'd's? In typical d'Arenberg style, fourth-generation winemaker Chester Osborn says it's a nod to his forefathers. "My great-grandfather bought the property in 1912 and together with my grandfather planted more vines which we still use to this day. My grandfather also built the winery and my father created the red stripe and the d'Arenberg brand. Each of these Dads deserve recognition. That's why [it has] an extra d."