- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 6, 2004


Riesling isn’t a varietal that most American wine drinkers associate with Australia. Shiraz, yes. Chardonnay, certainly. And cabernet, maybe even semillon — all grapes that yield full-flavored, rich, powerful wines. But Riesling, arguably the most delicate and nuanced of the world’s great wine grapes? And from Down Under?

The answer, emphatically, is yes. The very best wines made from this wonderfully expressive grape hail from the Mosel and Rhine valleys in Germany; from Alsace in northern France; and from Australia, where vintners there have crafted sumptuous dry Rieslings for generations.

These wines, treasured there, only recently have begun to be discovered here. Because they provide seductive warm-weather sipping, spring and summer are the perfect times to sample them.

Good Riesling, whatever its origin, is a wine that few Americans drink. That may be because its icy-cool character is so unlike broad, expansive chardonnay — our favorite white wine. However, as the newfound popularity of Italian pinot grigio suggests, plenty of American wine drinkers want to try something different.

Aussie Riesling tastes crisp and refreshing but also vivid and complex. It’s a newcomer well worth getting to know.

Riesling was first planted in Australia by German-speaking immigrants from Silesia, most of which is now part of Poland, who brought it halfway around the world along with their brass bands, wursts and Lutheran Bibles. Many settled in the Barossa Valley, north of Adelaide, where they dominated the wine industry for generations.

Riesling, sourced from the Barossa, soon was planted elsewhere in the country — from New South Wales to Victoria to Tasmania. For more than a century, until the late 1980s, it was the most widely grown white grape in Australia.

All that has changed, and changed quickly. Due to the demand of the export market and a correspondent surge in plantings, chardonnay now is the most popular Aussie white varietal, accounting for the vast majority of premium white production. Riesling today occupies only about 4 percent of total grape planting.

For savvy consumers in Australia and abroad, though, that’s all to the good. For while the volume of Riesling production has fallen, the quality has risen — all because the vines now are planted in more appropriate places. The Barossa, for instance, turns out to be too hot for high-quality Riesling. So while most producers there still make and sell the varietal, they now tend to use grapes sourced from cooler regions, particularly the Eden Valley to the east and the Clare Valley to the north.

Those two areas produce the country’s most renowned Rieslings, setting a stylistic standard that producers elsewhere emulate. Wines from Clare tend to be tighter and more focused, while those from the Eden Valley often have more floral aromas and spicier flavors. Wines from both places, however, are distinguished by a tantalizing citrus (primarily lime) character. That distinctive taste makes virtually all the top Down Under Rieslings special.

Less flowery than German renditions but lighter than those from Alsace, good Australian Rieslings have a home-grown identity all their own. The taste of lime may be their most distinctive feature, but their impeccable purity is equally important.

No matter where the grapes are grown, the Aussie style calls for absolutely no oxidation, low-temperature fermentation in stainless steel and early bottling — all so that the finished wine delivers nothing more (and nothing less) than the unsullied flavor of the grape.

These wines can be delicious when young. Lean and crisp, they taste wonderfully refreshing, and their vivacious acidity proves a delightful antidote to heat and humidity. (Keep that in mind come our East Coast summer.) And they’re even better with age.

Time in the bottle softens the acid, allowing subtleties to begin to express themselves. The wines then develop hints of stone fruits, marmalade, honey, buttered toast and that elusive “petrol” quality that sounds so odd but smells so good in great Riesling. With five, 10, maybe even 20 years of aging, Australian Rieslings can evolve into some of the most nuanced and complex white wines in all the world.

American wine shops are awash in Aussie chardonnay, but even good stores will carry only a couple of Down Under Rieslings. As a result, getting these wines may require a special order. Take the trouble. They’re that good.

The following eight wines (with importers identified in parentheses) are listed in a rough order of preference, but all are highly recommended. They come with screw-cap closures, something that has become very chic in Australia.

Mount Horrocks, Clare Valley, 2003 ($25). Very firm but also very expressive, with delicate notes of honey, peach and straw peeking out from behind the tangy citrus fruit. Delicious when opened. Even better the next day, suggesting that this wine should age effortlessly for many years. If you buy it to drink young, try decanting it. The interaction with oxygen will simulate the effect of bottle age. (Australian Premium Wine Collection/USA Wine West)

Plantagenet, Mount Barker, 2003 ($15). From the Great Southern region of Western Australia, about 200 miles south of Perth, this wine tastes extremely fresh and lively. Marked by bright lime flavors and plenty of vivacious acidity, it also improved with exposure to air, as it displayed ever more nuances. Definitely another keeper. (Robert Whale Selections)

Wynns Coonawarra Estate, Coonawarra, 2002 ($13). I don’t know how the folks at Wynns do it. Coonawarra, home to some of the richest and most voluptuous Aussie reds (including those made by Wynns) ought to be too hot for Riesling of this quality. Yet the wine, although softer than the Mount Horrocks or Plantagenet, tastes bright and fresh, with good acidity and an expansive finish. It won’t age as long as some, but it’s mighty tasty right now. (PWG Vintners USA)

Jacob’s Creek Reserve, South Australia, 2003 ($12). A blend of fruit from the Barossa, Clare and Eden valleys, this wine shows peach and pear flavors in addition to the more ubiquitous citrus ones. It’s fairly soft on the palate but very long and finely balanced. An excellent value. (Orlando Wyndham)

Penfolds Reserve Bin, Eden Valley, 2002 ($20). Citrus zest and green apple flavors come to the fore in this fairly soft but still well-structured wine. It entices with a gentle, floral-scented bouquet and has plenty of acidity to ensure longevity. (PWG Vintners USA)

Pikes, Clare Valley, 2003 ($19). Bright and fresh, with crisp, almost snappy flavors and an evocative undertone of mineral-tinged acidity. The structure is cool and steely, but the flavors and aromas prove refreshingly appetizing. (Australian Premium Wine Collection/USA Wine West)

Yalumba, Y Series, South Australia, 2003 ($11). Not as subtle or multilayered as the very best renditions, this Riesling nonetheless tastes bright and focused, with lime and other citrus flavors following a delicately floral bouquet. (Negociants USA)

Wolf Blass, Gold Label, Clare Valley (65 percent) & Eden Valley (35 percent), 2002 ($13). The floral Eden Valley fruit, married with the limy Clare Valley grapes, yields a complex, expressive wine with more than a hint of “petrol,” especially in the aroma. (Beringer Blass Wine Estates)

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