The Riesling Revolution

By Nick Stock


Ladies and gentlemen, the Riesling revolution will not be televised. Sauvignon Blanc reality TV is on every screen and we could waste our lives waiting for that to change. If you were lucky enough to attend the 2004 Frankland Estate International Riesling Tasting in Melbourne earlier this year you’ll know the feeling I’m talking about. With just 0.63% of the global vineyard area planted to Riesling, fans of this most noble white grape are perhaps better off quietly enjoying the stuff and the value it represents.


MC Stuart Piggott, self-proclaimed Riesling advocate, assembled many top European producers for the tasting, drawing on Austria, Germany and France, (many of whom attended personally), presenting an incredible array of wines, 37 in all, with 8 Australian wines in the line-up.


Piggott really focused the show on stylistic territory, concentrating a great deal on winemaking, perhaps by default placing the disciplined Australian style in an unstated second-rate position. As Clare producer Jeffrey Grossett remarked, “I felt like I was the fish for a while there”. It was however a celebration not a competition, although most available airtime was devoted to showcasing the new-wave dry wines of Germany and Austria. Grossett is dismissive of what he sees as this “new fashion” that style and character are more important than purity and typicity. “It’s a trend that’s going to happen for the next few years and I just think its crap,” he stated adamantly. It is however a trend with a strong toehold in both Germany and Austria and there are probably a few more Riesling ‘experiments’ happening in Australian wineries in 2004 than we think.


The move toward the pristine Australian Riesling style as we currently know it, started in the 1950’s when the likes of Yalumba, Orlando and Leo Buring started to make Riesling with temperature controlled fermentation in stainless steel and sterile bottling. Technology weighed in and delivered cleaner, fresher, purer wines, particularly Riesling. French, Austrian and German Riesling producers have a considerably longer history of production and stylistic evolution.


Our evolutionary wheel is however turning. As more producers are exposed to different styles, curiosities stir and there’s hearty exchange between different sides of the globe, both privately and at events such as the Frankland Estate tasting. Our technological understanding is as important to old world producers as their techniques and traditions are to us.


Whilst Grossett believes the fashion in German wines will pass, he is looking to evolve his own wines in a measured, considered way. “We’re chasing mouthfeel in our wines, looking at higher solids in our ferments” he says. Importantly he adds that this has only been made possible with greater control and changes in the vineyard. It is viticultural effort, bringing improved fruit quality, which allows the introduction of other changes in the winery.


This has parallels in the approach of German producer Georg Breuer. Skin contact is an important part of his style but he stresses that this is always dependent upon skin quality. The best grapes with the best quality skins receive the most contact, up to 18 hours. The most important work has been done in the vineyard, creating room to overlay a wider selection of techniques in the winery.


In Australia, skin contact is associated with low-quality Riesling wines, usually made from machine-harvested fruit, in which juice and skin contact is not necessarily sought by the winemaker, but an economic reality. These wines can develop quickly into oily, deeply coloured wines with trademark kerosene aromas derived from phenolic compounds extracted from the skins. So while techniques can be exchanged between producers, the most important part in the process is understanding when to deploy them and, perhaps more importantly, when not to.


Andrew Hood is responsible for a fair slice of Riesling production in Tasmania, making a number of wines for others, as well as his own Wellington label.  He views botrytis management and ripeness as the most important factors in Tasmanian Riesling production. Indeed, there are some serious challenges with botrytis for him in 2004. He considers that vineyard management and climatic factors are more important than soil in the Riesling equation. Hood is clear in his position that botrytis interferes with the pure expression of Riesling.


Conversely, Alsatian cult producer Olivier Humbrecht of Domaine Zind-Humbrecht believes that botrytis is a condition that highlights the character of the site, an essential part of the ‘terroir’. He occupies a fairly edgy position: all-biodynamic, and fermentation occurs with the activity of indigenous, non-cultured yeast. His attitude is not far removed from Germany’s Reinhard Lowenstein in that fermentation starts where and when it likes and finishes when it finishes. This is part of their version of purity of expression. Great Zind-Humbrecht wines are just that, but they have become as renowned for inconsistency as they have for greatness.


Are we being too safe in Australia, perhaps painting ourselves into a puritanical corner, which is now pretty hard to step out of? Grossett vehemently dismisses this suggestion but Hood partially concedes that perhaps we are a bit conservative in some ways; too safe with a single-track approach to the variety, although he too puts himself in the hi-tech camp.


Hood seeks stylistic variation working with a limited set of variables, Riesling character, sweetness, acidity and alcohol. His Wellington Iced Riesling borrows from the German Eisweins in which super-ripe grapes are frozen on the vine, water is bound as ice and the sugars are concentrated as a result. Hood uses chilling equipment to produce the same effect and can barely supply the demand for this delicious drink. Inspired by the zippy, high-acid, high-sugar wines of German Ernie Loosen, he’s also made a wine after the German Kabinett style, running at around forty grams of residual sugar, hence the name FGR. The first release was received with gushing media praise and sold out in a flash: one to watch out for.


Getting back to natural fermentation with so-called ‘wild yeast’, many believe with Riesling there is everything to lose and little to gain. We’re pretty used to hearing these words when talking of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but you’ll get some pretty strange responses when Riesling’s mentioned in the same sentence. Hood places considerable importance on consistency and feels the purity of varietal flavour is jeopardised by natural fermentation. Grossett’s attitude is similar and he feels these are distractions from the real issue of fruit quality and pure Riesling character.


Jasper Hill’s Ron Laugton has very different ideas though. His well-known Shiraz has been naturally fermented since 1990 and for him Riesling was the final frontier. He acknowledges a leap of faith was needed and took the partial plunge in 2002 when he separated the fruit into two parcels, inoculated one and let the other go through unaided. He liked the results, and in 2003 the whole lot was left to its own devices. “I don’t know why I was so worried, the finished wine is superior and the behaviour of the ferment was much better in the uninnoculated wine,” he says. Having tasted the 2003 Jasper Hill Riesling, I’d say there is certainly an improved texture. It’s more layered and complex, more complete if you like, a better wine perhaps.


Laughton considers that adding cultured yeast is a substantial intervention, sacrificing character and bringing a far from pure expression. His philosophy is of minimal intervention both in the vineyard and winery and his definition of purity and  ’terroir’ touches issues many winemakers consider outside of the scope. That’s another discussion for another time.


While I am not suggesting that we have any need or desire, to copy, emulate or mimic the styles of other Riesling producing nations, it is important that we are evolving and pushing our own envelope in a range of directions. Philosophies will determine the range of outcomes, but for Riesling lovers it’s good news that stylistically there are diverging opinions and a growing range of styles as a result. It’s over to you the Riesling drinker, now. You buy the wines and ultimately you’ll decide who’s getting it right and who’s not.