Riesling reflecting its roots

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It's a conundrum why riesling, with its complex and classy character, is failing to find favour with mainstream wine drinkers.

Jacob's Creek Steingarten Riesling 2012 $36.99. Photo / Supplied
Jacob's Creek Steingarten Riesling 2012 $36.99. Photo / Supplied

Standing at the top of a steep rocky slope of an exposed and isolated hill in Australia's Eden Valley, it's clear that where Colin Gramp opted to plant his Steingarten vineyard was not the easiest place to establish vines. It was an attempt to emulate the vineyards of his German ancestors and I'm here to celebrate the golden anniversary of this venerable riesling vineyard and muse not only on the challenges faced by the vines growing on this in inhospitable terrain but that of the variety itself, which despite making such great wines is losing ground in our unreceptive wine markets.

Today the Steingarten Riesling is one of Australia's classic rieslings, released in recent years as a flagship wine under the Jacob's Creek label. It was shaped by signature of the stony land from which it originated - Steingarten literally means stone garden - and from the innovation of Gramp, who revolutionalised Australian white winemaking by introducing the steel pressure tanks and refrigeration which allowed a variety like riesling to retain its essential freshness and aromatics.

Though only a proportion of the Steingarten Riesling now comes from this incredibly low-yielding site, the blend is sourced from vineyards across the Eden Valley with similarly flinty soils, which you can almost taste in this wonderfully transparent wine. This ability for riesling to so well reflect the place from where it came is one of the variety's joys.

Another exciting element is its ability to age. While retaining the freshness that characterises the variety, the steely limey character of dry styles that predominate in Australia fill out and mellow with age and our examples - that tend to have a touch of sweetness - see their youthful fruit and florals transformed into something rich and toasty. This was something illustrated by a vertical tasting of Steingarten vintages spanning several decades hosted by Jacob's Creek chief winemaker, Bernard Hickin, which included vintages such as the stand-out 2005, which Hickin noted, seems "to get younger every year rather than older".

It was an impressive line-up, something on which most of the international media in attendance were agreed. So it might come as some surprise that that debate chaired by Jacob's Creek that followed this celebration of varietal excellence was entitled, "What's wrong with Riesling?", a subject that provoked more varied opinion.

Recent stats for Australia revealed that after being the white in pole position in the 70s, riesling sales were down, with a significant chunk of its market share gobbled up (largely Kiwi) sauvignon blanc. It's a story echoed on our own soils, where riesling has fallen well behind the likes of sauvignon blanc and pinot gris in popularity.

Some suggested that the variety's high acidity might be the issue, but as sauvignon blanc shares its crispness, I'm not convinced this is to blame. In New Zealand it's more the confusion over the sheer diversity of our styles - which range from bone dry to unctuously sweet. However, look beyond the local specifics and it's clear that the main problem with riesling is its perception not the product.

As myself and the legion of winemakers, wine writers and wine buffs who love the variety will testify, the quality of riesling coming out of the likes of Germany, France, Austria, Australia and New Zealand has never been better. It's simply fallen out of favour in the mainstream.

In my experience, when people actually get a riesling in their glass, they're often converted: something supported by the findings of a small consumer study run by Jacob's Creek, which showed more of the participants actually preferred riesling to sauvignon blanc in a blind tasting.

Overcoming current perceptions of riesling may prove more testing than growing the variety on stony ground. However, I hope riesling producers will persevere with engaging the mainstream as well as catering for the variety's lofty heights, so when Steingarten celebrates its centenary, riesling may have regained the mainstream appreciation that it rightly deserves.

RECOMMENDED

Jacob's Creek Classic Riesling 2011 $15.99
Jacob's Creek should be commended for sticking with riesling and making such an attractive entry level example like this, it's dry and bright with zesty notes of lemon sherbet, peach blossom and honeysuckle. (From leading liquor retailers.)

Jacob's Creek Reserve Barossa Riesling 2010 $21.99
A step up in weight, the reserve is dry and taut with notes of lemon and lime juice, mandarin and a classy mineral character rare in a wine at this price. (From leading liquor retailers.)

Jacob's Creek Steingarten Riesling 2012 $36.99
This is a sneak preview of the stunning 2012 vintage of Steingarten, due for release next year. It's pure, powerful, bone dry and highly perfumed with notes of jasmine and bergamot wrapped around a tight citrus mineral core. (From selected fine wine retailers from March 2013.)

- NZ Herald

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