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A Surprise Standout: Aussie Riesling
By W. Blake Gray
Aug 13, 2013
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"Where is this Riesling from?"

It's like the high-school class of your nightmares.  We're all sitting nervously in an auditorium, hoping not to be called on -- and we're all wine "experts."  Master Sommeliers hedge like crazy:  "I think it's Old World, though it has some New World characteristics."

This scene repeated itself over and over in July at Riesling Rendezvous, a major international conference held recently in Seattle.  He thinks it's German, but it's from Canada.  She says it's definitely New World, and it's from Austria. 

Only one country's Rieslings were as consistently distinctive as they were delicious, and though they were so distinctive that they were the easiest ones to guess about regarding location, it might still be the last country you'd guess:  Australia.

Riesling is more popular in Australia than you might realize.  It was first planted in 1838 and was the most-planted white grape there until the 1990s.  Australians drink a lot of Riesling during the hot summer months, so there hasn't been a huge need to export it. 

"Australian Riesling is a massive category," says Peter Bentley, sales and marketing manager for Pikes in Clare Valley.  "You take it for granted because we grow up with it.  I grew up in Yarra Valley and we grew up drinking Clare Riesling."

Thus it developed in its own ecosystem:  Without being a major part of the world market, Australian Riesling found its own style.

And what a style.  The Aussies like their Riesling dry, and they have the sunlight and warmth to make that happen without leaving in teeth-melting acidity, as historically would been the case in Germany. 

"If you look at the heat units, you'd think Clare Valley is too hot for great Riesling," says winemaker Neil Pike.  "But we get the great diurnal variation.  And there's no disease or pest pressure here, so we don't have to spray."

Pikes Clare Valley Rieslings, as well as the Rieslings from nearby Jim Barry Wines, are crisp, they're citrusy, and they leave you wanting another glass.  If you like dry Riesling, these are some of the best in the world.

"The fact that got me into Australian Rieslings is that they are so identifiable," says Chuck Hayward, a fine wine buyer for online merchant JJ Buckley.  "They taste like the lime on top of a margarita.  I think it might be because they don't have many different clones.  But you can't mistake Clare Valley Riesling."

What I also learned at a recent tasting -- a 10-year vertical of Pikes Dry Riesling -- was how well these wines age. 

This may be immaterial.  People don't cellar most wine anyway.  If they age anything at all, it's red wine, not dry white wine.  Put a screwcap on it and say it's from Australia, and I'll bet there aren't 100 bottles of this stuff existing in US wine cellars.

But there should be.  These wines are good when young:  Vibrant, taut, refreshing.  When they get 10 years old, they're amazing.

Tom and Sam Barry brought a variety of older Jim Barry Rieslings to Seattle to pour for winemakers from Germany, Austria, and the rest of the world of Riesling, and they were among the stars of the show. 

And then Pike took his wines on the road a week later, showing sommeliers what they might end up with if they have the cellar space to put them away.

Wow, were these beautiful.  They stay pretty taut for about five years after the vintage date.  Then they start to develop secondary aromas and flavors:  Smokiness, apricot skin. 

By the time they're 10 years old, they've still go the vibrant lime fruit that makes them so easy to drink, but they also have plenty of smokiness and a mouthfeel like quince jam.  The finishes are long, with enough freshness to make you crave another sip.

Pikes makes a reserve Riesling, "The Merle," that's fabulous after it gets seven years of age.  Unfortunately, most bottles are probably drunk long before that, when the wine is tightly wound and plenty acidic.  "You can understand why Joe Average is not going to understand that wine," Pike says.

For drinking right now, Pikes Clare Valley Riesling, the main one, that's a $20 wine.  It also ages beautifully, but it's more approachable on release.

"It's not unusual to see these wines drinking well for more than 20 years.  And it's still just $20," Pike said.  "It's one of the world's great wine bargains."

Not that the world outside Australia notices. 

"I've been coming here to the US for 12 years and the category of Australian Riesling hasn't really matured," Bentley says.  "I just came from back east and everybody loves the wine, but they're not ordering it because they say they can't sell it."

Not good news for Pikes, but maybe it is for enophiles:  There's more Australian Riesling sitting around warehouses unconsumed, waiting for an enchanted evening in 2023.