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Swirling in a world of riesling

Much anticipation. Arriving exactly on time. Already a gaggle of eager tasters are ahead of us, raring to go.

riesling This Magnificent Life
Here’s where the magic begins…

We are in. Exhibitor Catalogue in one hand, tasting glass in the other. Through the vestibule and there it is, spread before us: all the world of riesling (well, a substantial part of it, with a Southern Hemisphere bias). A veritable Riesling Riot has taken over one of the elegant spaces in Sydney’s Town Hall.

You may have noted a certain amount of enthusiasm in our step.

riesling This Magnificent Life
Are you ready? Tasting glasses sparkling with anticipation

Yes, at TML we love riesling. Not everyone likes the many styles of wine this grape produces, however we did note on the wall behind the table at Rieslingfreak (do you think they may be enthusiasts?) a poster with a quote from Jancis Robertson MW, probably this planet’s most respected wine commentator: “Riesling is the greatest white grape in the world.”

riesling This Magnificent Life
Very hard to argue with Jancis

While reading this, we happened to be standing next to one of this country’s most respected wine communicators and we exchanged glances and a few words, one of which was chardonnay. We’re sure he was swirling glasses of Cullen, Tolpuddle, Bannockburn and Montrachet in his mind. As we were.

riesling This Magnificent Life
In the beginning. The World of Riesling before the crowds arrived

But we’ll leave that discussion for another occasion as this is Riesling’s Day.

Some riesling history

The grape is now grown in many countries, but you would have to say riesling’s home turf is in the Rhine and Moselle valleys in Germany. Well not turf, as much as formidable rocky slopes. Intricate windings of steep river banks, the most treasured vines thrusting their bunches towards the patchy southern sunlight. This is about as far north as grape vines are comfortable so every sunbeam is a bonus.

For hundreds of years these valleys have produced dry, semi dry, sweet and super sweet wines from the same grape. Levels of sweetness rise from the standard riesling through kabinett, spatlese, auslese, beerenauslese, trockenbeerenauslese and eiswine.

Yes, they are a mouthful.

It would require years of study to master the wines and the language.

riesling This Magnificent Life
One of the most famous names from Alsace

Riesling also makes exceptional wines just over a couple of borders in Austria and France, notably the Wachau and Alsace districts respectively.

The New World

Australia has a long history of experience with this noble grape, despite some fiddling with the correct identification and naming in the seventies, when semillon might be labelled riesling, crouchen had been called Clare Riesling, and sometimes the grape was superfluously named Rhine Riesling.

In the USA, riesling came with German migrants also in the 19th century, more popular in the lakes of the North than in California. Today in Washington State, Chateau Ste. Michelle is one of the world’s largest riesling producers and celebrates the German style working with the legendary Dr Loosen.

Some impressions on the day

Our catalogue listed some 50 exhibitors and over 250 wines. Mostly Australian, but good representations from Riesling Powerhouses Germany, Austria, Alsace and New Zealand.

riesling This Magnificent Life
Ken, the father of the International Riesling Challenge …

Home grown Riesling Hero Ken Helm was there, showing his own distinguished Canberra wines while talking up the famous International Riesling Challenge he founded 19 years go. The 2018 Challenge will be on the 15-20 October in the ACT.

riesling This Magnificent Life
…and his delicious Canberra wines
We couldn’t taste them all

As always at a large tasting such as this you are torn between greedily swallowing a newly discovered favourite as you chat to its maker, or spitting out the year’s work of the person you are facing. But winemakers understand that. An upright critic is preferable to a falling down one.

riesling This Magnificent Life
And one of the Clare’s top makers

We did indeed enjoy some old favourites from our traditional favourite districts in the ranges north of Adelaide. The names with impeccable track records: Grosset, Pikes, Knappstein, Killlkanoon, Jim Barry, Mt Horrocks, Taylors, Kirrihill and Sevenhill from the Clare Valley.

riesling This Magnificent Life
Delicious representative of Eden Valley

Henschke, Pewsey Vale, Grant Burge, Poonawatta Wilson and Thorn-Clarke from the Eden Valley.

Rieslingfeak, newish on the block, shared delightful wines from both Clare and Eden.

As did Undoubted Legend John Vickery, the man behind the superb and long lived Leo Buring White Label wines from back in the seventies, who today showed us one gem from each district.

riesling This Magnificent Life
A perfect pair from the great man

What is the difference between Eden and Clare? The overlap in character can be imprecise; but Eden is generally cooler so can often show more steely nerviness and crisp acids. Clare is more generous with lemony/lime occasionally nudging into subtle tropical flavours.

Other districts presented with a very strong showing from the south of West Australia including Howard Park, Plantagenet and Frankland Estate.

riesling This Magnificent Life
Our smallest state punches well above its weight

Joseph Chromy shone for Tasmania, as did Robert Stein from Mudgee.

The Visiting Team

Germany was leading the charge with representation from the distinct districts Rheingau, Mosel, Nahe, Rheinhessen and Pfalz.

Overall, and again a very slender comparison, Australian wines exhibit a more welcoming fullness in the flavour of the fruit, but the Europeans have certain complexity and authority that befits their senior role. They have more precise mastery over the wines which have higher levels of sweetness.

Why you should examine the riesling repertoire

Riesling has long been a favourite white of wine writers for it’s delicacy and purity. Over the years they have despaired as the buying public ignores their words and heads for the more obvious flavours of chardonnay and sauvignon blanc. In the 80’s there were about the same number of hectares of riesling planted in Australia as chardonnay. Today chardonnay is ahead by about six to one.

riesling This Magnificent Life
One of the pioneers. A familiar and famous wine

But as long as Australia’s thousands of kilometres of coastline serves up plates of magnificent fish and seafood, we will have a wealth of dedicated riesling producers who will ensure us a steady supply of the perfect accompaniment.

riesling This Magnificent Life
Almost as much paperwork as wine. Much appreciated

Riesling, with its natural acidity protected under screwcap as are almost all Australian examples, can be very long lived. Steely citrus softens into delicious nuances, lightly toasty and honeyed, after five or ten years.

The exhibitors noted above have websites, and you can find them all together if you click Riesling Riot.

Better still, raid your bottle shop, pour country against country, valley against valley, and round out your palate knowledge with one of the truly international whites.

You may get to love it as much as we do.

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Ian MacTavish

Mr MacTavish is a celebrated writer and one of Australia's more respected Wine reviewers, appearing regularly in national magazines, in print and on line. So far, he has never been heard to say 'no' to a wee dram.

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