Clare Valley Riesling in the spotlight
July is (theoretically at least) ideal Riesling weather. Especially crisp, dry, mouth-watering classic Australian Riesling. So what better time to take a look at five great examples from one of Australian’s premier Riesling regions – Clare Valley in South Australia.
Wine Australia hosted the tasting, which actually featured six producers. Unfortunately my first sample from Pikes had leaked. At least I had recently tasted the previous 2019 vintage of Pikes Traditionale Riesling (with two other cuvées, including Pikes’ top flight Merle – one of my April Wines of the Month). Clare Valley is specialist Riesling territory, so each producer makes at least two.
You will find my notes on the five vintages I tasted below, together with key pointers from the winemaker discussion, hosted by Justin Knock MW. You can watch the whole discussion here via Wine Australia’s Connect website (you will need to register to view the recording).
Although I couldn’t write up Pikes Traditonale Riesling 2020, let me share with you Steve Baraglia’s replies to two questions put to each producer. A food match? Fresh seafood – he recommended XO pippies (cockles), but added Riesling pairs with lots of different cuisines, including pork tacos with jalapenos or spicy Asian dishes such as spatchcock with ginger and soy. A favourite Riesling producer? Donnhoff, Nahe, Germany.
Incidentally, on pairing Riesling with food, Roger Harrow of Little Bedwyn fame is showcasing his peerless wine pairing skills over four weeks this month online on Wine Australia’s Connect platform (Conversations).
A tight, bright style
Knock attributes Clare Valley’s classic bone dry, tight, bright style to its drier, relatively short growing season (compared with Germany), with pronounced diurnal temperature variation of 13 to 15 degrees.
This style shows well young and ages well and, he added, the winemaking techniques to produce it are well understood, with limited experimentation. That said, the example shown by Mitchell deviates from the norm and sweeter styles are also made (see below).
In response to a question about acidification, Baraglia replied it really depends on the vintage, but some acidification will occur in warmer years. Still, he added, it depends on the balance of the vines. Stephanie Toole (Mount Horrocks) and Jeff Grosset (Grosset) both observed that they have not acidified for a long time now.
As for the latest vintages, Baraglia observed that 2021 and 2020 did not require acidification. He described 2020 as “a really good vintage” – quite mild early on, with a mild December. The vines remained healthy despite back-to-back heatwaves and January was mild and February was one of the coolest on record. In 2021, once again, there was great natural acidity in fact, at the start of the year, he thought it might be too high!
Maybe there’s been too much spoken about acidity
Knock observed that, 15 to 20 years ago Clare Valley Riesling the acidity “seemed almost perversely strong,” but has since become “a bit softer, more relaxed on acidity.” Asked what has changed, Toole observed that she had not added acid for more than a decade, which she attributes to the balance in the vineyard and protecting the fruit through drought conditions. She felt it was not about the acidity as such, adding “maybe there’s been too much spoken about acidity.”
I tend to agree with Knock, certainly for Toole’s Mount Horrocks label and Grosset, where I find a touch more palate weight than in the past – a sense of dry extract – to the mid-palate. Perhaps it means the acidity seems less strident?
Coincidentally or not, both Horrocks’ and Grossets’ vineyards are certified biodynamic. Referring to her “very small, very unique single vineyard site,” Toole observed only seven hectares out of 35ha are planted to vines. The rest is planted to trees. The winemaker plants around a thousand trees every year to improve biodiversity as part of her organic/biodynamic strategy. She believes soil and vine health have seen a definite improvement.
Asked if other producers are certified biodynamic, Toole replied she is one of two certified, although her vineyard manager reckons more growers and producers are leaning towards that.
Sweeter Riesling styles
Knock asked about the market challenges of sweeter styles. Baraglia observed because everyone loves a dry style, there is not enough Riesling planted at the moment to make more sweet styles. However, a range of styles – off dry to fully sweet – are made in Clare Valley,
Grosset Alea has around 8g/l of residual sugar, but would be regarded as dry in Europe, where it has won a dry New World Riesling award. To balance the residual sugar, Grosset now adds back some phenolics with press juice (whilst Polish Hill 100% free run). It means Alea has more extraction, weight and power with a touch of sweetness, he added. It’s all about balance, he said, not numbers. Mitchell also make an off dry style, fermenting a Riesling in a 3,000l barrel and releasing it after 9 years. It has 6-7g/l residual sugar.
Pauletts and Pikes make Kabinett styles. Pauletts has 27-28g and sits at between 10-10.5% alcohol. Pikes sits at about 40g/l of residual sugar and 8-8.5% alcohol.
For Toole, her biggest challenge with Cordon Cut Riesling (a beerenauslese style) is that she cannot make enough. She typically loses half the grape weight through the cordon cut process. In 2020 and 2021 when her Cordon Cut vineyard (in Auburn) had low bunch weights, it was challenging to get much volume. But the quality of the wine is fantastic so, despite all the heartache, making a dessert wine is worth it, concluded Toole.
Phenolics & kerosene (TDN)
There is some use of skin contact in Australia but, in the main, because grape skins are a lot thicker than their European counterparts in Australia, the practice is generally avoided in Clare Valley.
Knock asked Wakefield Estate’s Adam Eggins about how he avoids kerosene characters in a wine? Eggins duly delivered a masterclass at machine gun pace – it’s well worth a listen for WSET/MW students! Let me try and summarise it.
Eggins first pointed out that TDN (the compound responsible for kerosene or petrol characters in wine) can happen anywhere. It is not an Australian issue. It is 95% a viticultural issue, he said, tied up with a vine’s terpene/phenolic load or potential. “We don’t see lots in Clare Valley because we manicure the vineyards.”
The Goldilocks canopy
To manage TDN is to understand the climate, he added – “I talk about ‘El Niño’ and La Niña, because you have to understand what’s coming and adjust…canopy management is key.” He aims for “speckled light” so there is enough leaf cover to shade fruit. Vertical Shoot Positioning can be used to almost hide fruit from sun. Eggins’ dubs the ideal canopy a “Goldilocks canopy” – not too big (because this risks disease issues/ripening problems), but not too light, because you will run into problems if it is hot. Aspect can help too (it affects light interception and duration). You might have to pick early if a big heatwave is coming.
In addition to understanding the heat load versus the phenolic potential, Eggins said you also need to manage the challenges of water stress. Mulch, applying moisture before a heat event (if you have water), minimising soil compaction and attending to soil health can help.
In the winery, minimising negative phenolics is about using subtle ‘fine bone’ phenolics for length and character. With low yields, Eggins added, we have fruit weight and fruit sweetness, which translates into power. It can be easy to lose the balance point, he added and it can tip over with skin contact.
Paulett mentioned that water resource is key to any new plantings and Clare Valley does not have much. Inspired by the scientist James Lovelock’s Gaia theory, Grosset named his highest vineyard Gaia. He observed that, in the last 4 vintages, he has probably had the best run of vintages in 40 years (it is planted to Bordeaux varieties).
We’re heading in a direction in which we need to get control
Grosset is concerned about dry years when, he said, vines suffer at the start of the season. At budburst, said Grosset, “we need to top up [water] and we need high quality water so we can mitigate what’s happening and produce outstanding wine…we’re heading in a direction in which we need to get control and we are researching that now.”
Most Australian producers I have encountered have so-called heritage cuttings, so the clonal identity is unknown. Jeff Grosset has three clones, two from Geisenheim (GM 110, GM 198) and one local (156W), but observed, “for me, site is more important than the clone, even though you do see differences between clones.”
Site is more important than clone
On the clonal differences, Grosset said one Geisenheim clone has wings and (rather aptly) has a relatively lifted profile. The other Geisenheim clone is very tight-bunched, making it prone to botrytis, but this does not occur in Clare Valley (too dry); it has more persistence of flavour, but is not as upfront fruity.
Terroir, complexity and purity
Grosset had an interesting take on this. He observed, going back 40 years, there was not a lot of talk about terroir in Australia. “The way to do it was just to say taste the wine.” Grosset’s single vineyard sub-regional Rieslings from Polish Hill River and Watervale did just that.
The winemaker admitted that he stumbled across the original Polish Hill site after a colleague bought a run down cottage with some neglected Riesling out back on silt over shale over blue slate. “If you studied viticulture, it’s exactly the site you wouldn’t plant,” he observed wryly (it’s lean and tough viticulturally).
Grosset re-trellised the vines and discovered that they produced a smaller bunch – “more yellow than Watervale’s green and bright berries,” but the wine was quite limey, he said, as is typical from this region. The chief distinction was “the persistence – extraordinary, with a different shape of palate and not as fruity as some.” So he didn’t blend it, wanting to show off the expression.
Lick the rock, you can get that minerality coming through
Grosset eventually bought the neighbouring property which shared the geology and is doing everything he can to bring out its character – the purist expression. “If we can choose complexity or purity, I go for purity because I think it has enough character.”
Speaking about the flavours Polish Hill River’s hard bedrock and blue shale bring to the wine, Matt Paulett observed, “once you lick the rock, you can get that minerality coming through and the finger roots find that.”
The ageability of Clare Valley Riesling is well known. I attended a stunning extensive vertical of Jim Barry Rieslings a couple of years ago, reported in Issue 68 of The World of Fine Wine .
Pauletts 1983 Riesling – the first – is still drinking well
Two older Rieslings were shown (and you’ll see I’ve added my notes on a bottle of Grosset Polish Hill 2012 which I opened after the tasting). Matt Paulett from Pauletts showed the first, from 2018. Pauletts have produced an aged Riesling since 1997. Under the right cellar conditions, he observed Pauletts 1983 Riesling – the first – is still drinking well.
Asked how best to grow Riesling for ageing, he replied with lots of altitude (Pauletts vineyards are at the higher end of the spectrum, ranging from 480-546m). You need some nice hot, warm summer days (VSP trellising protects fruit, he added), balanced by cooling sea breezes at night from the Gulf of St Vincent 60km away. The resulting long slow ripening period is what builds great flavours and longevity in the fruit. It produces young pristine, vibrant lime citrus Riesling which, said Paullet, ages into a delicate, softer acid, easy-drinking style, with honey and toastiness and a palate length which “goes on and on.”
Asked if the wines ever go into a ‘leave it alone’ (dumb) phase, Grosset replied in the negative – “we haven’t seen that with use of screwcap and we’re very careful about how we prepare before bottling.”
Grosset commented, “young wines are fresh and lively, but when you see an older wine, it adds another dimension – that honey character – which helps you appreciate the young bright thing a little more…you get to identify those subtle characters.” Australians, he added, cellar Polish Hill just as much as Chardonnay.
Mount Horrocks Watervale Riesling 2020 (Watervale, Clare Valley)
The vineyard: Toole has 4,000 20-year-old vines located at 460m on Watervale’s classic ‘soft rock’ red loam over limestone soils.
Winemaking: The fruit is handpicked, de-stemmed, crushed and pressed; only the free-run juice is fermented in stainless steel, spending one month on lees. It is cold settled and clarified,but not fined.
Tasting note: A complex, highly nuanced nose and palate, with blossom, hints of angelica, fennel bulb and honey to its pithy lime and chalky, mineral palate – that sense of dry extract and lovely mouthfeel through the mid-palate, before gathering impetus, with mouth-wateringly firm lemon and lime acidity to the long, mineral-cleaved finish. 12.6% ABV, 7.3TA, 2.94pH RRP £22.99 at Noel Young Wines, Ely Wine Store, Hic Wine Merchants, The Vineyard
A favourite food match: Asian-inspired dishes or recent hits include ham, leek and gruyere tart and rolled shoulder of pork roasted with fennel, with granny smith sauce and cider gravy
A favourite Riesling producer: Frankland Estate (Great Southern), especially Isolation Ridge.
Mitchell Watervale Riesling 2020 (Watervale, Clare Valley)
The vineyard: a blend from dry grown 60+ year old Riesling at Mitchell’s east-facing, slightly contoured Alcatraz Vineyard (shallow loam, flintier wines) at 430m and Grower vineyard (deeper loam, more generous wines) at 360m, both in Watervale on red loam over limestone.
Winemaking: Only the highest quality free-run juice is used. The wine undergoes a long, gentle fermentation with indigenous vineyard yeasts and rests on the yeast lees for eight months, resulting in a textural, approachable wine.
Tasting note: as you would expect given the winemaking, this has a broader nose and palate than Mount Horrocks. Plenty of mouthfeel, texture, complexity and layer here, with powder puff and talc lift, orange and lime blossom, dusty lime, lychee and breakfast and pink grapefruit to the palate. Fresh acidity keeps the fruit company. Dry and long, with pronounced fennel notes to the finish. 12.9% ABV, 7.8TA, 3.01pH RRP £13, The Merchant Vintners Company
A favourite food match: Indian Korma – something with spice; the acidity and freshness cuts through the creaminess and balances out the flavours. Summer carpaccio with salmon or zucchini
A favourite Riesling producer: J.J. Prüm
Grosset Wines Polish Hill Riesling 2020 (Polish Hill River, Clare Valley)
The vineyard: located in Polish Hill River at 460m on ‘hard rock’ silt and shale overlaying gravel and blue slate, the vines (clones GM 110, GM 198, 156W) are 25-years-old; certified biodynamic.
Winemaking: De-stemmed then crushed to pneumatic press; free run only used. Cool fermentation for 2-3 weeks, then spends two months on lees, prior to racking and filtering (no fining). Each clone and vineyard parcel (8 compnents) is individually vinified, then blended following assemblage over up to two weeks of tasting.
Tasting note: an incisive nose, fresh and mineral; tightly wound, it’s not so much about fruit. Uber-concentrated in the mouth, with some softness/weight to the slate-smacked grapefruit and dusty lime palate. Casting long, fabulous whiplash tension and minerality pulls you back into the fruit. Retro-nasal minerality makes for an immensely long, fine, laser-beam-focused finish. Terrific. 12.8% ABV, 7.3TA, 3.0-3.1pH. RRP £39.99 at Philglas & Swiggot, Bottle Apostle, Butler’s Wine Cellar
Grosset Wines Polish Hill Riesling 2012 (Polish Hill River, Clare Valley)
I could not resist pulling out a bottle of a favourite vintage from my own cellar to drink after this tasting. It is a little softer or slinkier, as if the fruit and minerals have melded, but goodness it remains a bright young thing. It reveals floral lift and Roses/Bicks lime cordial hints to nose and palate. Long, long, long, ever so gently honeyed – barely (part of the slinkier mature profile) with grapefruit oil aromatics – a little spicy in the pithy sense and dry mineral extract with a quinine accent. Ever so long with a smidgeon of nectarine skin and stony lime. In fact – in suspension – the flavours barely land, making for an ephemeral quality. Click here and here for two of my earlier reviews
A favourite food match: Coffin Bay oysters, sashimi, King George Whiting
A favourite Riesling producer: Helm (Canberra District)
Pauletts Polish Hill River Aged Riesling 2018 (Polish Hill River, Clare Valley)
The vineyard: from Pauletts Polish Hill River vineyard at 545m on light to medium clay over slate. The vines are 20-years-old and comprise clones D2V2 and GM 198.
Winemaking: Destemmed, with whole berries to the press. The free run and pressings are separated. Cool fermented with cultured yeast.
Tasting note: Lifted lime blossom, with lime and orange oil nuances to the nose and palate. In the mouth, it has a firm acid backbone, with fresh apple sauce and quinine mineral notes. Really mouth-watering and juicy – has the chops to age well and a delicious, savoury, mineral slate tang to the finish. 12.5% ABV, 8.5-9.0TA, 3.2pH RRP £16.95, Ellis of Richmond
A favourite food match: seafood, such as King George Whiting, scallops and tuna, live unshucked oysters, injected with Reisling (then shucked). For older wines, beef striploin with heirloom carrots, soubise and sea vegetables (the natural acidity cuts through the fat and rich sauce)
A favourite Riesling producer: although Paulett said he always drinks Clare Valley Riesling, otherwise he would go to Frankland River’s Alkoomi.
Wakefield St Andrews Riesling 2015 (Auburn, Clare Valley)
The vineyard: The St Andrews A81 block is located on the Taylor family estate in Clare Valley’s Auburn sub-region at 350-370m on a gentle slope with old red clay over limestone/slate soils, with good depth (30-40cm). The vines are 25-years-old; the clones are Geisenheim 239 & 198
Winemaking: juice extraction using gentle whole-berry pressing to protect the delicate fruit flavours and prevent extraction of course phenolic character. The juice is chilled, cold settled, and racked off gross lees. It is cool fermented with a neutral yeast strain to preserve varietal characteristics. Bottled with minimal fining and filtration.
Tasting note: Although dry, with its sweetness and tartness, this put me most in mind of a German Riesling with its honeyed peach, nectarine (and more Australian) creamy lemon curd notes to nose and palate and powder puff lift. A firm backbone of lime acidity emerges going through, carrying the long, well focused finish, with its attractive pucker and play of nectarine skin. Generosity with bite and, I suspect, plenty in the tank yet. Going back, the lime flavour became more pronounced, pushing out an exceptionally long finish with enticing white pepper and orange and pink grapefruit pith nuances. Expressive! 12.9% ABV, 9.15 TA, residual sugar 0.3g/litre RRP £22.95 Louis Latour Agencies
A favourite food match: looking to showcase aged Clare Valley Riesling’s sweetness and tartness (like preserved lemons), light stews such as chicken tagine or bouillabaisse
A favourite Riesling producer: I omitted to take a note.