Riesling is a white variety of grape sadly misunderstood in Australia. Many would remember Riesling in cheap casks at kitchen parties, that sweet stuff known as ‘hock’ or what we had to drink before chardonnay and sauvignon blanc came along.
In fact, Riesling is one of the oldest grape varieties around and, unlike the others, it is German. The monks in medieval Germany used to cultivate the grape and were, no doubt, popular with any visitors. Much later, when Joni Mitchell sang about Rhine wine, it was probably Riesling.
Loves cold climates
After Germany, Australia devotes the second biggest area to these versatile grapes. This delicately scented white grape can satisfy the driest of tastes or offer the stickiest of accompaniments to pudding. Some say it’s the quintessential Australian summer wine. Its sharp lemony flavours can be perfect for those hot, balmy nights.
Paradoxically, it grows beautifully in cold climates like Canberra. The grape buds later than usual and its bark is naturally thicker, which protects it from frosts in spring and cold snaps in winter. Riesling grown at altitude, or southern latitudes like Tasmania, loves the cold nights that favour its acidity. Clare and Eden Valleys in South Australia boast the right terroir for Riesling.
Canberra is host to a longstanding wine competition – The Canberra International Riesling Challenge – attracting Riesling lovers from vineyards all over the world.
A German lesson
One advantage of our Australian Rieslings is they are easier to pronounce! If you want to understand German Riesling, its vigorous acidity may help you get your tongue around these:
- Trocken – bone dry
- Kabinett – sweet
- Auslese – very ripe
- Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese – dessert wines.
Special character of Riesling
Riesling is rarely blended with other grapes. Wine lovers say, “let the grapes do the talking”, because, like a beautiful people, they don’t need enhancement. Unlike other whites, they enjoy being aged because of their highly acidic character.
- Look for a soft, translucent colour, or golden when aged
- Taste berries, apricot, nectarine, lime and lemon
- Age 5-15 years for dry, 10-30 or more years for sweet
- Serve fridge cold with spicy Asian or Indian food.
The priciest late harvest dessert wines are lovingly made from Riesling grapes left on the vine well past their usual harvest time. This encourages a delightful fungus called Botrytis cinerea or ‘noble rot’.
Frederic, Prinz von Anhalt, husband of the late Zsa Zsa Gabor, claimed he had 300 bottles of Riesling in his cellar. (He also married and divorced six wives before meeting Zsa Zsa and, according to celebrity press, sold 68 knighthoods for $US50,000 each.)
He was certainly a contentious character, maybe even a noble rotter.
Considering their quality, many Rieslings are still undervalued. One wine you probably won’t buy in a hurry is the Egon Muller-Scharzhof Scharzhofberger Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese. Translated, it means vintner Egon Muller’s sweet medium bodied dessert Riesling from the Scharzhofberger vineyard – and it sells for up to $US20,000.
At Wamboin winery Contentious Character, you can buy our best Riesling for much, much less than it should really cost. Our 2003 Riesling is only $28 at the cellar-door, a bargain for its age. It doesn’t come in a cask but you are welcome to take it to parties.