There was a fascinating discussion at the Riesling Masterclass held in association with the 2023 Orange Wine Show. It revolved around how narrowly conceived quality riesling has been in the Australian wine show system. A leading wine show judge commented that for a gold medal an Australian riesling had to be in ‘a little box’ – cool fermented in stainless steel, water-white in colour, bone dry and free of any tannin or yeast-derived complexity. If a wine showed any colour, residual sugar or texture, it was out of the box and marked down – no medal for you!
The weird aspect to this is that if any of the great rieslings of Europe – some of the finest white wines in the world – were entered into any Australian wine show they would be very lucky to scrape a bronze medal. Classic European rieslings are typically ‘brought up’ in large old oak casks, resting on their yeast lees for a year or so. Consequently, the wines are a little deeper in colour. And residual sugar is often present to balance the high acidity that is so much part of riesling grown in the cool climates of Germany, Austria and Alsace.
Writing in the 2023 Halliday Trends report, Tessa Brown highlighted the same issue:
For many of us who studied in the 1990s and ’00s, I think our tertiary institutions did us a bit dirty on riesling. They taught us production methods that were quite limited, how it historically would have worked for the commercially successful, very dry SA examples, but I think the mindset has probably limited the style in Australia until the last five or 10 years.
Working harvest overseas have shown us just how versatile riesling is and how many choices you actually have: multiple picks, some skin contact, lees work (or not), oak or stainless, natural yeast or inoculated.
Plus, we’re growing riesling in sites far better suited to retention of acidity (high-altitude mainland sites and in Tasmania) and this leads to a very different range of expression in the variety coming through in the wines, particularly with respect to supporting natural acidity, which makes residual sugar more of an option.
Hallelujah! At last, it appears that the straight jacket constraining riesling in Australia is being loosened and the evolution of a variety of interesting styles is being encouraged. But will these innovative wines be rewarded or rejected by our wine show system?
According to a senior wine show judge at the Masterclass, a new paradigm for judging riesling was essential, with the key criterion being a three-way balance between sugar, acid and tannin. Now there’s a challenge!