We take a closer took at the riesling region that revolutionised the way Australians drink wine.
May 30, 2023 4:00am
Clare Valley in South Australia is widely regarded as the home of Australia’s best riesling. And there’s no shortage of it. Measuring in at 5093 hectares of vineyards, Clare Valley is larger than the Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula and Tasmania’s vineyards combined.
Much of the credit belongs to the weather (or more specifically the diurnal temperature variation that sees warm days for ripening fruit combine with cool nights to capture acidity when grapes are sleeping). And yet, the true origin story for the country’s zippiest whites can be traced to a night at the local pub in 2000 when 14 Clare Valley winemakers met to plot the great cork-to-screw revolution.
It had been attempted before. In 1968 Stelvin screw top closures were trialled at Pewsey Vale, which were notoriously badly received. It wasn’t until the Clare Valley winemakers put their premium rieslings under screw caps that the wine-drinking public came to the party, without their corkscrews. “Globally, this was the first time a region has come together to champion change in a premium product,” Mitchell Taylor from Taylors Wines explains.
Of course revolution begins with turmoil and the push for this particular rebellion came as cork quality declined. Old data used at the time showed more than five per cent of all cork coming into Australia had some kind of fault – think of that as one bottle out of every dozen.
So when the majority of Clare Valley producers shifted away from cork in 2000, the stragglers were converted within 12 months. With freshness and quality control all but assured, Clare Valley producers then had the freedom to innovate and, in that spirit, have spent the past two decades diversifying the styles of riesling the Clare Valley produces. Sam Barry, third generation at Jim Barry Wines (alongside his winemaking brother Tom), clarifies: “You need to keep evolving. We’ve done this with riesling by creating a style that draws people in but also playing around with styles to keep people drinking it.”
Barry has witnessed much change in Clare Valley riesling throughout the generations. “Even just 15 to 20 years ago it was that very bone-dry, high acid, almost abrasive style. That made-to-cellar style no longer excites people – they want more fruit profile with an emphasis on drinkability.” And with Clare Valley having no shortage of natural acidity to create a framework for the fruit to work cohesively with, they’re now producing the best rieslings we’ve seen coming out of the region. Barry explains that the riesling revival is a similar story to Australian chardonnay, how the pendulum swung from richer to anaemic styles to now producing wines with excellent fruit expressions but balanced with acidity. “We’re picking on flavour, not just acidity, leaving a little more residual sugar. Even just two to three grams makes a huge difference in the mouthfeel of the wine.”
“We don’t want to plod along doing what we’ve been doing in the past. We’re about to release wines from 2013, which we’ve never released before after 10 years of cellaring in the winery.” Viva la riesling revolution.
Clare Valley rieslings to try
Showcasing the best parcels of fruit from its Polish Hill River site, The Merle is abundant in lime from the peel to the juice. Hints of green apple and saline minerality bring length to the palate.
Off dry rieslings are no longer the saccharine wines of the ’80s. The 2022 vintage has natural acidity, creating the perfect environment for a balanced and complex style. Winning multiple awards for his rieslings, John Hughes has said this vintage of No.5 is “the best he’s ever made”. Our summer drink.
Perfumed jasmine alongside waxy chamomile notes are prominent in this aged museum release riesling. The savoury expression that weaves its way through the palate shows the diversity of styles produced from the northern end of the Clare Valley. Sam Barry says 2012 is “one of the best vintages in the past couple of decades”.
Adelina’s Watervale riesling comes from two separate blocks of fruit, both of which were initially used for some of the legendary Leo Buring rieslings of the 1970s. The wine today is no less delicious, with pink grapefruit exploding out of the glass with lemon peel and makrut lime.
While O’Leary Walker makes beautifully aged rieslings, the foundation has to come from somewhere and we see this In the current release. Floral notes meet lime sorbet. The tightly wound core of acidity brings freshness to the aromatics.