View all newsletters
Receive our weekly newsletter - World Of Fine Wine Weekly
  1. News & Features
May 6, 2024

Australian Riesling: An underrated, pristine joy

The first instalment of Ken Gargett's definitive two-part overview of the great white grape variety's past, present, and future in Australia.

By Ken Gargett

While it may still struggle for mainstream acceptance, Riesling has proved itself capable of making exceptional wines in Australia, says Ken Gargett, who, in the first part of his study of the great white grape variety, distills the history and current trends across the country’s growing regions, before profiling his favorite producers and wines in part two tomorrow.

Ask an Aussie winemaker what his favorite wines are, and the chances are high that the answer will include Riesling. He might even add that Riesling is the next big thing, how the Riesling Revival is full swing, and that it cannot be long before the world is beating a path to the doors of local wineries to load up on this star. 

Some of that is true. Australian Riesling is surely underrated and undervalued, but whether we are seeing a revival might be more debatable. Next big thing? If only. Aussie Riesling certainly does have a loyal cadre of fans, but there are also many who simply won’t touch the stuff. History plays a role there, but so do alternative options. The Kiwi Sauvalanche has damaged the promise and potential of numerous wines—Western Australia’s Classic Dry Whites (Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc blends), local Savvys, Hunter Semillon, and Riesling across the land. Growing interest in Pinot Gris is also having an effect. 

As Brian Croser said in his address, “Riesling: The Noblest White,” at the Seventh University House Wine Symposium in May 2011 (a copy of which he kindly sent me), “Despite its market-share demise, Riesling has always retained the admiration of the finer wine influencers and attracts a disproportionate amount of fine-wine press, which just doesn’t convert to mass-market sales.” If further evidence were needed, Jancis Robinson’s view is well known: “Riesling is so clearly one of the world’s great vines, arguably that which produces the finest white wines of all.” So, why is it not in the fridge of every wine lover? Why do most of those who are not in the trade treat it with such disdain? Is it simply another case of what Shakespeare’s Hamlet called “caviar to the general”?

Part of the problem is that while a grape like Chardonnay can make anything from acceptable to great wines in almost every climate and terroir, Riesling is more particular. As Croser said in his address, Riesling lacks “the ubiquitous geographic range of Chardonnay for the production of branded commodity wine.” His comments may be more than a decade old, but they still ring true today. “The real source of Riesling quality and style is the terroir in which it is grown and the quality of the viticultural management.” He acknowledges, however, that there is more to it than that. “Riesling requires delicate handling, low phenol extraction, cool anaerobic fermentation and storage, and it doesn’t respond well to oak treatment. Australian winemakers have led the world in defining the way to get the best out of their Riesling fruit.” Australian Rieslings are of course very different in style from those of Germany, New Zealand, Oregon, or elsewhere. 

Hurdles are nothing new for Australian Riesling. For decades, anything white going into bottle, flagon, or wine cask (the Aussie name for bag-in-a-box) might be labeled Riesling, even if it did not contain a drop of the grape variety. Many simply used “Riesling” to denote white wine. It got to the stage where those makers offering the real thing labeled their wines “Rhine Riesling,” to distinguish them from all the other wines simply labeled “Riesling.” Many of those earlier wines dubbed “Riesling” did contain varying proportions of the real thing, though this was usually lower-quality fruit. Bottles and casks named Moselle, Hock, Chablis, White Burgundy, and so on (sometimes even Riesling) may or may not have included the grape variety. The cheap wines were more likely to be Trebbiano, Crouchen, Sultana, Ondenc, or some form of Muscat. “Riesling” was also adopted with some additional qualification for other grape varieties. Hunter Riesling was Semillon, as was Shepherd’s Riesling. Clare Riesling was Crouchen—a particularly cruel insult, given that if any one region in Australia is home to great Riesling, it is the Clare Valley in South Australia.

There are suggestions that Mitchell in the Clare Valley was the first to label its wine simply as “Riesling” (Huon Hooke, WFW 21, p.103), from 1992, though it seems hard to believe that there were not others even back then. The campaign led by Jeffrey Grosset from 1984 certainly aided the transformation, and by the early 1990s, the parade of imitators was at last on the way out. The agreement with the EU for correct terminology came into effect in 2010, bringing far greater integrity to labeling. 

Content from our partners
Wine Pairings with gooseberry fool
Wine pairings with chicken bhuna 
Wine pairings with coffee and walnut cake 

The early days of Australian Riesling

When did Riesling arrive in Australia? As ever, there are conflicting claims but nothing concrete. Riesling might have arrived with the First Fleet in 1788. By 1791, Phillip Schaffer, a German, had planted one acre (0.4ha) of vines on his land grant of 140 acres (350ha), on the north bank of the Parramatta River. By 1812, Schaffer’s property had been purchased by the renowned Macarthur family. They soon established the more famous property at Camden. The vineyards there are believed to have had Riesling early on—The Nepean Hawksbury Wine & Grape Growers Association recorded the Macarthurs as planting Riesling at Camden by at least 1820—but was it really Riesling, and was Schaffer the original source? Who knows?

Many have accepted that Riesling was one of the many grape varieties brought to Australia by James Busby in 1832/33. Andrew Caillard MW, in his magisterial and meticulously researched new history The Australian Ark (three volumes, 2023), recognizes that a Busby import is “quite possible” but suggests that the “raisin vert” he brought from the Bas Rhin (Alsace) “was probably of the pineau variety rather than riesling.” In the absence of any “actual evidence,” Caillard thinks it more certain that the first Riesling cuttings were brought to Australia at the instigation of William Macarthur, arriving in 1838 with Johann Stein and other German vine-dressers from the Rheingau recruited to supervise the vineyards at Camden (Vol.1, pp.153–56).

What is better established is that by 1843 the Macarthurs were advertising vine cuttings in the Sydney press, and that George Austey of Adelaide purchased a number of Riesling cuttings. Deliveries soon followed to both Victoria and Tasmania. Croser credits journalist Ebenezer Ward, working for the South Australian Advertiser and the Melbourne Age, with detailing the origins and early success of Riesling as a great white grape throughout the colony, in two articles: “Vineyards and Orchards of South Australia, 1862” and “Vineyards of Victoria in 1864.” For these, Ward visited 42 South Australian vineyards, and 11 of them were making Riesling. In Victoria, he visited 71 vineyards in Geelong, Ballarat, and Bendigo, where 21 had planted Riesling. Ward included comments about an 1852 Riesling from Pewsey Vale and an 1857 Riesling from Evandale. The Pewsey Vale Riesling was a decade old when tasted. Ward noted, “Here” (at Pewsey Vale), “as at Evandale, we consider the choicest wine to be the Riesling, thoroughly matured, fragrant, delicate and pure.” In his address, Croser concludes, “Whenever and however it arrived in all viticultural corners of Australia, Riesling was identified consistently and very early in Australian viticulture as the superior performing white grape variety among the hundreds imported.”

Skipping forward to 1895, the depression of the day forced the sale of the Minchinbury winery, on the edge of Sydney. It had been making fine Rieslings under the leadership of Dr Charles McKay but was sold to a railway construction contractor, James Angus. In 1902, he employed a young “champagne”-maker from Great Western, whose name would become legendary in the Australian wine industry, especially for Riesling—Leo Buring. Another Riesling legend is closely associated with Leo Buring and Chateau Leonay—John Vickery (see box later in this article). Many consider Vickery to be Australia’s king of Riesling, with Jeffrey Grosset his worthy successor. Phylloxera destroyed the Minchinbury vineyards in 1898, but they were subsequently replanted on grafted rootstocks. 

In 1912, Minchinbury was sold to Penfolds for £50,000 (between A$6 million and A$7 million today). Before long, they had cellars for 1.25 million bottles and more than 400 acres (160ha) of vineyards. Buring continued with them until 1919, when he consulted to numerous wineries. He became a director of Lindeman’s in 1923, until he set up his own company, Leo Buring Pty Ltd, in 1931. (All of these have fallen under the stewardship of what is now Treasury Wine Estates.) Erosion finally caused the closure of the vineyards in 1978.

Whether one considers John Vickery or Jeffrey Grosset to be the king of Riesling in Australia, another name sits alongside them. Brian Croser—founder of Petaluma and now Tapanappa, among so many other achievements over his long career—helped transform the public’s perception of Riesling when his inaugural 1979 Petaluma Riesling showed what could be achieved with more lifted aromatics. It quickly became everyone’s must-have white. He has called this wine a dry, late-harvest style. Shortly after this revelation, Wolf Blass produced and sold large quantities of his Riesling, a touch sweeter than most, which was extremely popular.

The late 1970s was a time when Australians were consuming four bottles of white for every one of red.

It is easy to forget just how dominant Riesling once was in Australia. Up until the 1970s, Riesling was the most widely planted grape in Coonawarra, eclipsing even Cabernet Sauvignon. Indeed, in the ’70s, plenty of Shiraz and other red grape varieties were removed and vineyards replanted with, or grafted over to, Riesling. Until 1991, Riesling production exceeded that of Chardonnay in South Australia (Chardonnay was very much a latecomer to the Australian varietal scene), with Riesling production at 41,522 tonnes. In comparison, Chardonnay represented 38,767 tonnes. The impending decline of Riesling could be seen in grape prices at the time. In 1989, Riesling was $600/tonne. Chardonnay was bringing $1,590/tonne. No doubt Chardonnay producers dream of those days now: In 2022, the price for Chardonnay was $517/tonne, while Riesling had increased to $1,171/tonne. It is, however, the production figures that really reveal the disparity today. Riesling production in 2022 had almost halved from the 1991 level, at 20,822 tonnes, while Chardonnay had increased almost tenfold, up to 358,007 tonnes.

Heat and acidity

Croser praised the versatility of Riesling in Australia when grown in those terroirs that suit it (something that James Halliday has also touched upon). He identifies “the traditional moderate alcohol (12–13%), dry (<7.5g/l sugar), moderate acid (7g/l), fresh, and flavoursome Rieslings from Mt Barker/Frankland WA, Clare Valley, Eden Valley, Great Western, Heywood/Drumborg and Canberra,” but also the “new generation of Rieslings from cooler climates in the Adelaide Hills, Tasmania, and New Zealand.” He sees these as harvested when fully ripe at lower sugar, offering higher acid and a lower pH than their traditional Australian counterparts. Also, they are more likely to reflect the fruit-enhancing effect of botrytis and therefore can be made to lower alcohol and higher residual-sugar levels. He links these with the Rieslings of Oregon, the Mosel, and the Rhine. As Croser says, these wines are delicious, and they perhaps serve an even greater purpose in modern life thanks to their lower alcohol. He also believes that it would be a mistake to attempt this style from our traditional warmer dry Riesling regions of Australia, such as Clare, Eden Valley, or Canberra.

Many famous names from the early history of the Australian wine regions made great Rieslings—and still do. They have now been joined by numerous newcomers. The result is that Australia is among the top five producers of Riesling in the world, behind Germany in first place. The vast majority of the plantings make clean, fresh, unoaked wines, often bone-dry, many of which have extraordinary aging abilities. It also contributes to sweet wines, but these days, in a much reduced role. It was, for a time, regularly used as a blending component—Traminer/Riesling was a common style—though these are far less common today.

Many may feel that, as a generalization, Australia is too warm for quality Riesling. It has, however, proved to do well in regions where the growing-season heat accumulation is higher than anticipated, though it does not fare quite so well in maritime districts. Croser has provided details, noting that it seems likely that “Riesling responds well in warmer climates only if the diurnal range is high and the cooling effect of night is strong enough to trap acid and retain the delicacy of fruit quality. A graph of well-respected Riesling terroirs around the world demonstrates that cool terroirs do have low to moderate daily ranges and that the only successful warm to hot Riesling terroirs have high daily ranges. The correlation is strong.”

One problem can be perceptions of acidity. There are perhaps too many winemakers for whom the acidity rules, and for whom it seems that the higher the acidity, the better. In New Zealand, this is usually balanced by a degree of sweetness, but in Australia, the wines tend to the bone-dry. It means that, too often, the acidity dominates all—which does not aid the cause. Looking at a vintage like 2022 in regions like the Clare and Eden Valleys, it was brilliant but on the cooler side, so the natural acidity remained high, and it threw some wines out of balance. (Overall, however, it was a stunning vintage, as confirmed at the recent Clare Wine Show by judges Steve Pannell and Stuart Piggott, hailing it the best for 20 years.) While Riesling is one of those grape varieties of which winemakers claim the wine makes itself, the reality is that competent winemakers will be keeping a close eye on acidity levels; balance, elegance, and freshness are so much more important than high levels of acidity. That said, acidity can help the wine age gracefully—a crucial factor in quality Riesling. It is a fine line.

Croser states that “climate may be the primary determinant of a successful Riesling terroir, but geology and soil are also very important. The great Riesling terroirs are largely on the older hard rocks, Cambrian and pre-Cambrian gneisses, schists, slates, and granites, on the Rhine and Mosel in Germany, on the Danube in Austria, and in most Australian successful Riesling terroirs. There are exceptions of Riesling on Jurassic and post limestone-based soils in Germany, Alsace, the Clare Valley, and in Waipara, New Zealand.”

State of the nation

The Clare Valley in South Australia is usually considered the premier Australian Riesling region, closely followed by the Eden Valley. The Great Southern region in Western Australia has also proved its quality. Tasmania offers thrilling wines, but very often in such tiny quantities that they are rarely seen outside the island, let alone on the international stage. The high level of acidity in Tasmanian Rieslings means that we see some considerably sweeter examples from there, much as we have with the small production of Riesling from New Zealand. Henty and Canberra have also produced superb examples, as have many other regions where Riesling usually flies very much under the radar.

South Australia is the state with the dominant Riesling production, currently around 70 percent of the national total. The Clare Valley is the largest region, producing 4,800 tonnes, followed by the Eden Valley and Langhorne Creek, both with around 2,400 tonnes. Padthaway and the Riverland are next, with around 2,100 tonnes each. Australia now has around 7,400 acres (3,000ha) of Riesling in the ground. There are around 150,000 acres (60,000ha) planted worldwide.

Figures for 2022 reveal that 242 Australian producers exported Riesling to 71 different markets, totaling 3.6 million liters, worth A$18.6 million. This has decreased since 2017, when 6.8 million liters, worth A$25 million, were exported. The US, UK, and Canada are the three key export markets, with USA the number-one destination for almost two decades. Exports to Japan have been steadily increasing, while those to South Korea are skyrocketing. (Zero tariffs on Australian wine may be assisting this—just ask those who once exported to China.) Obviously, many of the smallest, cult producers make wines that rarely leave these shores. Many more recognizable names are making cracking Riesling, but it has proved almost impossible to gain extra traction in a market that is dominated by Chardonnay but also sloshing knee-deep in Savvy (New Zealand and local), with sales of competent though rarely thrilling Pinot Gris/Grigio on the march, too. Wineries and pundits have been trumpeting the Riesling Revival for as long as I can recall. Perhaps the time has come to accept that there is a deeply entrenched following for this great white variety but that it will never dominate.

The failure of Riesling to take a larger share of the white-wine market is perhaps even more puzzling when one considers what astonishing value it is. Offshore, especially in Germany, we have seen very high prices for the best and rarest Rieslings—the TBAs and Eisweins from leading producers such as Egon Müller, Dönnhoff, JJ Prüm, Robert Weil, and others. In Australia, excellent drinking is available in the A$20–30 range. We have seen a move for the very best to price themselves accordingly, but it is a struggle. Grosset has moved to $55–80 (cellar-door pricing) for his top Rieslings and $135 for the G110 (though this is so rare that it is almost irrelevant). Pike’s Merle and Jim Barry’s Florita are now in the $50–60 range, as are numerous others. Is there any other wine style—one of exemplary quality and aging potential—in which you can buy the very best examples for this sort of money? Some may insist that the market is never wrong. That doesn’t mean it has to make sense. 

The current era of Australian Riesling

Frankland Estate, Great Southern, a region credited by Brian Croser with “traditional, moderate alcohol, dry, fresh, and flavoursome Rieslings.” Photography by Laura Moseley (Studio Appetite), courtesy of Frankland Estate.

As distinct from Riesling-producing countries such as Germany, the majority of Australian Riesling is dry, often bone-dry. Sweeter styles now occupy a much small sector of the market and are the epitome of niche. Names such as “Spatlese” and “Auslese,” once common parlance, are no longer permitted. “Late harvest” has some appeal but has never really taken off. While the old adage that people “talk dry but drink sweet” might once have applied, they certainly tend to buy dry now. In a bittersweet irony that further limits the appeal of Riesling, many consumers still believe that most of it is not dry—a false impression based on the fact that all too often, in the more distant past, what was in bottles dubbed Riesling was mawkishly sweet.

While there are some fine examples of botrytis Riesling, the middle ground seems to have disappeared. The unofficial cut-off for “dry” Riesling was 7.5g/l RS, but this came from an arbitrary level set for the wine-show system. The vast majority of quality Australian Riesling would be considerably drier than this—4g/l RS or less.

While there is certainly a degree of interest in Rieslings of varying levels of sweetness, the trend in recent years has been much more focused on specific terroirs, regional and subregional styles, and what are seen as reserve bottlings. A reserve bottling might be from a single vineyard or even from a single parcel of vines, or it might be the producer’s premium Riesling, wherever it hails from. Expect these to be destined for long aging. While the prices will certainly exceed those for standard bottlings, they are still astonishingly cheap by comparison with reserve bottlings and top wines from other grape varieties. A few of the best examples are Pike’s The Merle, Tim Adams Reserve, Jim Barry’s Florita, Grosset’s G110, and O’Leary Walker’s Drs’ Cut, but there are many others. Some of these are released as young wines, along with the regular bottlings, while others are given additional time in the cellar. Examples of the latter are Peter Lehmann’s Reserve and Pewsey Vale The Contours.

There is also much more of a focus on single-vineyard or subregional Riesling these days. Examples are the Grosset Springvale and Polish Hill, O’Leary Walker’s Watervale and Polish Hill River, and from Frankland River Estate, the Estate Riesling as well as site-specific examples such as its Isolation Ridge Riesling and Poison Hill Riesling; its Alter Weg Riesling is a niche production effort, fermented in older oak, while its Smith Cullam is its premium release. Nothing is simple these days.

As yet, the world seems woefully unappreciative of great Aussie Rieslings. Sure, we all have friends who insist they are fans, but in reality, most of them drink little and cellar less. The Winesearcher site regularly publishes Best Value, Most Expensive, Most Wanted, and other such lists for each grape variety. I’ve trawled through all these lists over many years, and if there was an Aussie Riesling that made any of them, I must have missed it—with the single exception of the Peter Lehmann Wigan making the Top Value list. I suppose Australians can at least be grateful our Rieslings don’t make the Most Expensive list. Winesearcher’s latest Best Value Australian Wines list does have five Rieslings in the top ten, though the previous year it had seven.

It is important for anyone delving into the joys and intricacies of Aussie Riesling to understand that you will not find Alsace alternatives, German lookalikes, Oregon imitations, Kiwi wannabees, and so on. Australian Riesling, certainly these days, is largely dry or close to it. Certainly, there are plenty of impressive late-harvest and botrytis-infected examples, but in Australia, when we say Riesling, we are thinking of pristine wines: clean, bright, fresh, with vibrant acidity and dry—wines that can often still age for a decade or more, blossoming into something very special. This is even more the case since the welcome advent of screwcap. As has been said, it just might be that no grape variety has benefited more. 

The cork/screwcap debate has been rehearsed so many times over the past couple of decades. In Australia, which drove the move to screwcap, quickly adopted by New Zealand, it was the Clare Valley Riesling producers who led the way around the turn of the century. (John Vickery had actually bottled Rieslings under screwcap in 1998, which gave other producers confidence that this time it would work.) There had been an earlier attempt, around the late 1970s/early ’80s, and while it obviously worked for the quality of the wines, the public didn’t take to it, and the attempt fizzled. (One producer famously attempted a cork under a screwcap in a bizarre, unsuccessful attempt at the best of both worlds.) But from around 2000, the local Riesling producers got together and put out either all or half their Riesling under screwcap. The half-and-half concept fortunately lasted only a year for almost all Clare Riesling producers. Support for Riesling under screwcap was overwhelming. Other varieties and regions followed. If there is an Australian Riesling still being sealed under cork, I cannot think of it (nor think why it would be).

Topics in this article : ,
Select and enter your email address For award-winning content from the world’s most respected and intellectually satisfying wine magazine, sign up to our newsletter here
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
Thank you

Websites in our network