This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.
Here's a burning question: where in the world grows the most Riesling? Easy peasy. Germany of course. Its recently revitalised winescape, burning with young, ambitious, well-travelled winemakers, grows more than 20,000 hectares or 50,000 acres of Riesling vines, more than 60 per cent of the world's supply. But Australia is in second place, ahead of Alsace in France and Austria, both of which are famous for their Rieslings.
Perhaps more important than the quantity of Australian Riesling however is its quality. With its predominantly dry, full bodied, very direct and often rather citrus fruited style, and some good examples at around £8/$16 a bottle, I would argue it has won more modern wine drinkers over to Riesling than German Riesling which, in similar dry styles, is not widely exported and in fruitier, lighter form seems to be an acquired taste.
On the face of it one might imagine Australian vineyards were a bit too hot for Riesling. But this is the variety, imported by settlers escaping religious persecution in Silesia in the 19th century, that was the dominant Australian white wine grape until Chardonnay wrested that crown not much more than 15 years ago. Today, Riesling vines have been systematically replaced by Chardonnay in the country's hotter, less suitable areas, such as the sweltering inland irrigated vineyards that supply the ocean of wine labelled South Eastern Australia and the sun-baked floor of the Barossa Valley, which tend to ripen Riesling too fast to develop any flavours of real interest. But at the same time Riesling vines have been planted in many of the country's more recently developed, cool climate wine regions, which apparently constitute a surprising half of all designated wine appellations in Australia.
This has added some new and exciting styles of Riesling to what Australia has to offer. Until recently virtually all fine Australian Riesling came from either the Clare Valley or the Eden Valley in South Australia. In terms of latitude Clare Valley north of Barossa looks too hot for Riesling but cool air drawn in from the ocean reliably chills the evening air so that in many households fires are lit at night eight months of the year. This is where Australia's acknowledged King of Riesling Jeffrey Grosset is based. He produces his two flagship Clare Rieslings, Polish Hill from the north east of the region and Watervale from the classic Clare Valley heartland. The Watervale bottling tends to age rather faster but Grosset Polish Hill Riesling could age up to 15 years in bottle even when Grosset used corks. Now he has virtually single-handedly led first Clare Riesling makers and then more and more winemakers throughout Australia into bottling both whites and reds under screwcap, so we can expect his Rieslings to last even longer to judge from early indications of how wines age under screwcap.
If Clare Rieslings when young are steely, sometimes to the point of austerity, they develop a rather lime-like, very refreshing fruit quality with age and can eventually become quite toasty. There are so many good Riesling producers in Clare that it is almost invidious to name names. Leasingham, Petaluma and Leo Buring are top performers with a long track record but there is a host of reliable newer names.
Eden Valley Rieslings, of which Yalumba and Seppelt were early exponents, can be rather more floral and overtly fruity but still with the dry finish that makes these wines so great with food, especially spicy, Asian-inspired salads and stir fries. Eden Valley Rieslings too can continue to develop in bottle for years.
But in my recent tastings of Australian Rieslings I have been impressed by different styles emerging from other, distinctly cooler regions. Great Southern, the southernmost tip of Western Australia incorporating such areas as Frankland River and Mount Barker, has its own distinctive and delicious, almost herbal, style of dry Riesling, pioneered by the likes of Plantagenet, Frankland Estate and Howard Park but now available in 560 UK supermarkets as Tesco Finest Tingleup Riesling 2006. Rather drearily labelled, this is cunningly named. Virtually every other place name down here seems to end with an 'up' but Tingleup is nowhere to be found on a map. It's just a clever allusion to what a good Riesling does to the palate.
Tasmania, also influenced by the Antarctic, clearly also has great potential for Riesling, as relative newcomers Tamar Ridge have shown, as have the cool Adelaide Hills where Egon Müller, who makes Germany's most expensive Rieslings in the Saar Valley, has chosen to base his Australian operation. And then there are, as ever, isolated spots in the state of Victoria, notably in Henty in the far south west, which seem to have the magic touch for seriously racy Riesling.
CLASSIC AUSTRALIAN DRY RIESLINGS
(in descending order of price per duty paid bottle)
Grosset Polish Hill Riesling 2005 Clare Valley
From £15.99 Bennetts, Noel Young, OzWines. The 2006 is even better.
Crawford River Riesling 2001 Henty
£150.96 a dozen Justerini & Brooks
Pewsey Vale, The Contours Museum Release Riesling 2000 Eden Valley
£11.95 Averys, possibly Premeir Vintners and Selfridges. Berrys have the 1999 at £13.95.
Kilikanoon, Morts Reserve Riesling 2006 Clare Valley
£80 a dozen in bond Uncorked EC2
Petaluma, Hanlin Hill Riesling 2005 Clare Valley
£9.99 Oddbins (mid Oct) and Bibendum, £11.25 Noel Young
Plantagenet Riesling 2005 Mount Barker
£9.25 Philglas & Swiggot
Peter Lehmann Riesling 2005 Eden Valley
£7.99 Noel Young, also T Wright of Bolton, Abbey Wines, Taurus Wines, Cheers, Wines of the World
Tesco Finest Tingleup Riesling 2006 Great Southern
£7.99 Tesco – 560 stores
Leasingham, Magnus Riesling 2005 Clare Valley
£7.95 Revelstoke Wine Co, £8.50 Drinks Direct. The 2006 is very good too.
See also full tasting notes, scores and suggested drinking dates for more than 60 Australian Rieslings.