Riesling has a long history, and there are several written references to the variety dating from the 15th century in Germany.
Riesling was sometimes claimed to have originated from wild vines of the Rhine region, without much support to back up that claim. More recently, DNA fingerprinting by Ferdinand Regner indicated that one parent of riesling is gouais blanc, known to the Germans as Weißer Heunisch, a variety that, while rare today, was widely grown by the French and German peasantry of the Middle Ages. The other parent is a cross between a wild vine and traminer. It is presumed that the riesling was born somewhere in the valley of the Rhine, since both Heunisch and Traminer have a long documented history in Germany.
Riesling is an aromatic grape variety displaying flowery, almost perfumed, aromas as well as high acidity. It is used to make dry, semi-sweet, sweet, and sparkling white wines. Riesling wines are very rarely blended and are seldom oaked.
Riesling is considered one of the grape varieties that best expresses the terroir of the place where it is grown. It is particularly well suited for slate and sandy clay soil.
In cool climates, riesling wines tend to exhibit apple and tree fruit notes with noticeable levels of acidity that are sometimes balanced with residual sugar. A late-ripening variety that can develop more citrus and peach notes is grown in warmer climates (such as Alsace and parts of Austria).
The public’s perception – or misconception – that riesling is always sweet has dogged its progress throughout the world. In the 1970s many white wines containing various grape varieties were mislabelled as riesling. This was partly in response to the white wines from overseas labelled ‘Rhine Riesling’ and partly because consumers weren’t aware of the qualities of individual grape varietals. Styles and brand names such as ‘Porphyry’, ‘Moselle’ and ‘Hock’ were more important than what was in the bottle. The impact of technology on creating fresh, vibrant styles changed consumer perception to the extent that riesling has (largely) shaken off its image as a sweet wine.
When it comes to Australian riesling, the most common comment you’ll hear from winemakers is to ‘let the grapes do the talking’ – a very minimalist way of thinking. Riesling’s clarity, freshness and purity don’t need manipulation or enhancement in the winery. The delicacy of citrus, white flowers and crisp fresh tropical fruit need nothing more than time to ferment to a level of dryness chosen by the winemaker. Riesling is the wine that winemakers love to drink. And it’s one of Australia’s most underrated white wine wines, which makes it a collector’s dream as it provides an affordable taste of greatness.
Australian riesling is often noted for a characteristic lime note that tends to emerge in examples from the Clare Valley and Eden Valley in South Australia. Riesling’s naturally high acidity and pronounced fruit flavours give wines made from the grape exceptional ageing potential, with well-made examples often developing smokey and honey notes.
Riesling’s history in Australia
The foundation of Australian riesling came in 1817 when vines were imported by John Macarthur and in 1833 by James Busby, today remembered as the ‘father of Australian wine’. The mid-season ripening variety riesling soon found a home in areas of Australia that would become known for producing classic wines: Clare Valley, Eden Valley, Adelaide Hills and parts of Victoria.
Silesian settlers were the first to start making riesling. Barossa Valley settler William Jacob bought land in the south of the valley called Jacob’s Creek. Bavarian immigrant Johann Gramp recognised the value of the land and planted vines at Rowland Flat, making a dry white riesling labelled as ‘Hock’. By 1850 Eden Valley pioneer Joseph Gilbert had planted riesling in an area of the Barossa Ranges that would become known as Pewsey Valley, one of Australia’s first high-altitude, cool-climate vineyards. In 1961 after years of neglect, Pewsey Vale’s then owner, Geoff Angas Parsons, paid a visit to his friend Wyndham Hill Smith of Yalumba and proposed that they restore the vineyard entirely to riesling and vines were replanted on the contoured Eden Valley slopes. In the 1930s, winemaker and businessman Leo Buring became known for his rieslings and in the 1960s winemaker John Vickery created a crisp, tangy style of Eden Valley riesling under the Leo Buring Label (bottled as ‘Rhine Riesling’). This drier style reflected the shifting tastes of Australian consumers.
No history of Australian riesling would be complete without mentioning Jeffrey Grosset, owner and winemaker at Grosset as well as co-winemaker at mesh. Grosset was behind the push to restrict the use of the word riesling to wines made exclusively from that grape (or containing at least 85%) and he was instrumental in implementing Australia’s screw cap revolution.
The success of this push is clear: in 2016, 98% of white wines in Australia and New Zealand were sealed with screw caps. Grosset led a group of 13 Clare Valley winemakers who banded together to import screwcaps from France to bottle their entire 2000 vintage rieslings. ‘This has been the most significant contribution to wine quality in recent times, certainly at least half a century,” says Grosset. ‘It has made the ageing of all wines more reliable, not just riesling, so at least now, if the wine is not very good it’s most unlikely to be due to the closure.’
The Australian-specified screw cap design adopted back in 2000 set the standard that virtually all screw caps follow today. ‘We’re certainly delighted to have played a crucial part in this universal acceptance. It’s one big quality issue solved!’ While there is wide international acceptance of the screw cap, some countries and cultures are reluctant to buy wines unless they’re sealed under cork. Grosset identifies an opportunity to take the lead in educating these markets about screw cap closures. ’We (and the New Zealanders) would reap huge benefits and our innovative approach generally would be much better appreciated – this is an opportunity we shouldn’t miss.’
When it comes to food matching with riesling, simplicity, delicacy and freshness are key. For crisp, dry riesling with clear lemon-lime characters, fish, shellfish and crustaceans are perfect partners, especially served with a touch of lemon, capers, butter sauce or Asian-inspired dressing. Asian dishes with a touch of chilli respond beautifully to off dry riesling, helping carry the heat across the palate. Riesling with a sweeter profile makes a great partner to rich pate or ripe, soft cheeses, providing a foil to the creamy richness, cutting through the fat and leaving the palate ready for another bite. Mature or sweet botrytised riesling sings alongside a pungent blue or soft white-rind cheese. Riesling can also come to the table as a perfectly acceptable dessert wine with light flavours in fresh fruit salads, sponges and fruit tarts.