The cool truth about Riesling

Is there an R-rated disconnect between winemakers and consumers when it comes to the perfect drink for Spring and Summer?

Written by Tony Love

There’s an elephant in the room when it comes to Riesling.

Without doubt, the variety is a shining star in South Australia’s wine galaxy, coming into focus around now every year as the current vintage’s new releases make their way into the world, all fresh and zesty in their recognisable mouth-tingling mannerisms. All perfect for spring and summer splashing – if ever those seasons arrive!

As usual, the Clare Valley and Eden Valley lead the charge, and rightfully so as Riesling is their great white wine ambassador.

There’s always going to be an annual and ongoing desire to compare the regions, given it’s an Aussie sporting addiction to love two flies climbing up a wall. But really, there’s no need. Each to their own expressions.

And sure, there are generalisations surrounding the softer acidity and floral top notes out of Eden Valley, or whether one district is more limes than lemons in the wider citrus spectrum of flavours. But the counterpoint to all of that hoo-ha is the acceptance that Riesling is about as pure as a wine can be, without too much interference from winemakers, and its nuanced variations come from specific site factors wherever the wider regional sourcing might be – the classic example of terroir expression.

Riesling’s purveyors will tell you all about the altitude of their vineyards, the soil and rock makeup below, the orientation of vine rows, the rainfall – or not – and the sunshine hours and so on. All these are markers of how a wine reflects an individual site.

Then there’s each year’s unique growing and ripening conditions. Importantly, you should note that the 2022 vintage in our main Riesling valleys was universally considered to be a cooler one, the records showing that there were very few days warmer than 35C.

This has a huge impact on the style of Riesling we will be drinking this summer.

As mentioned previously, acidity and citrus flavours are, in many ways, the key factors in defining the joy of Riesling.

In cooler vintages like 2022, in can be a winemaking challenge to get the balance between the two just right to achieve a delicious drink-now-for-summer Riesling. After two recent sessions of tasting new (and some older) season releases from the Eden and Clare valleys, I conclude that your mouth and teeth might be in for a bit of a shock.

For here comes the elephant in the room.

There are many Riesling makers who are acidity hounds, and their wines can often be searing to the palate when young. A lot of 2022s will test your resolve because in cooler years the natural acids in the grapes remain high. Finding the right window to harvest the fruit when there’s a balance of that mouth-puckering acidity and genuine fruit flavours is critical.

Louisa Rose, chief winemaker at Yalumba and associated brands and renowned Riesling champion, has seen this first-hand.

“It was quite a challenge to balance acidity in 2022 – more so than I’ve ever seen before,” Rose says.

She witnessed this in action at the Pewsey Vale Vineyard in Eden Valley where a current release is made as well as a much-admired Contours Museum Release Riesling matured in bottle for five years.

“I can’t remember a year when we had to wait for the acids to drop in Eden Valley. Usually, we have nice acidity that’s naturally there, but if we had picked on the baume (fruit sugar ripeness) or the condition of the grapes, the acidity was quite fierce,” she says.

The Pewsey Vale Vineyard Estate 2022 Riesling is one of the better examples, where all the elements have come together.

“It can be typical of winemakers that Riesling is all about acidity and that’s the defining feature, whereas our philosophy is very different. Riesling is like every wine and it has to be drinkable and in balance,” Rose notes.

“Too many winemakers think the more acidity the better, and for the few of us who are prepared to torture ourselves, we really appreciate that.

“Consumers don’t want that by and large. They want something drinkable, something that suits the occasions where people want to drink it.

“I don’t think searing acidity that makes your eyes water is the answer.”

Marie Clay, senior white and sparkling winemaker at Treasury Wine Estates, is another winemaker who oversees both current release and maturation release Rieslings, in her case under the famed Leo Buring banner.

There’s a range of technical analyses that can measure the different levels of acidity in Rieslings, but getting the flavour and acid combination right is a tricky balancing act, Clay says. Leaving a little amount of residual sugar from the grapes after fermentation can help even out the impact of high acidity.

“Even in the years with strong acidity drive, we do everything we can to protect (and balance) the purity and flavour from the vineyard,” Clay says.

Elegant and refreshing wines with an even flow in the mouth as you drink them are what she seeks to achieve in the Leo Buring Rieslings. Wine folks will talk also about texture and minerality, which may be a result of acidity, or the impact of certain soils or even winemaking techniques.

While Clay considers the best style of this mouthfeel is expressed in a fine chalky texture from the acidity, in the end she just wants the wine to remain as untouched as possible.

“I just want to capture the purity, the finesse and palate line. It’s about letting the vineyard show in the glass.

“I work really hard to not leave my fingerprints on the wine.”

David O’Leary (right) with Nick Walker believes the intense flavours in the 2022 vintage more than compensates for the acid levels. Supplied image

In the Clare Valley, David O’Leary from O’Leary Walker Wines has been crafting brilliant Rieslings for several decades. He and colleagues Nick and Jack Walker work on wines from both the most recognised districts of Watervale and Polish Hill River.

His summation of the 2022 Clare vintage is that the Rieslings have great intensity.

“Maybe the acidity is a little high – I don’t think so, maybe some people think so,” O’Leary says.

“I think the flavour is so intense it more than compensates for that acidity.”

He does agree however that there’s a danger in both the wine style and consumer reaction to the acid bombs that might result from a cooler vintage.

“A lot of winemakers love their acid, but I think a lot are overdoing it,” he says. You have to have flavour, or people aren’t going to come back to the wines.”

One of the flavour charms he loves to see in Riesling is what he describes as a “bath powder” character, something akin to musk stick lolly. Also, he sees a fennel seed aroma/flavour as another pointer to an interesting wine. These flavours are evident in several Polish Hill River Rieslings this year, O’Leary says.

While the acidity can be a short-term challenge, O’Leary points out that it’s critical in the ageing capacity of Riesling. This week a celebration of current and mature Clare Valley Rieslings from 2022, 2012 and 2002 showed magnificently just how these wines can mature into deeply complex, richer coloured and flavoured styles. The citrus notes have evolved into kaffir lime, lime oil, brown lime cordial and toast and lemon butter characters. Often the acidity has softened over time; the wines are a very special treat.

Maturation releases can be the most convenient way to see this unique varietal expression, though it’s clear that current releases will do much the same if you have the capacity to cellar them and the patience to allow them time.

And in a year like 2022, where many Rieslings’ natural acidity might be a bit confronting, take the plunge. Buy or share a dozen and hide them away. The investment will repay you over five, 10 or even up to 20 years.


Leo Buring Dry Riesling 2022

Eden Valley / 11.5% / $20

Considered the “standard” Leo Buring release every year, selected across a range of Eden Valley vineyards, there’s a lovely citrus zest note aromatically, with the fruit flavour spectrum leaning a little towards lemon and yellow grapefruit – in a good way. Plenty of zing in the palate with well-crafted balance. A separate maturation release wine from the same vintage won’t be available for five years. While it is obviously quite minerally with driven acidity at the moment, its bath powder and floral notes suggest it will be a cracker.

Pewsey Vale Vineyard Estate Riesling 2022

Eden Valley / 12.5% / $28

From a wonderful, old vineyard, this wine has established its own identity over the years. (This year marks 175 years since the vineyard was established, and there are exactly 1847 bottles of this wine being released under a special heritage label.) The wine itself reveals a lovely fragrance to begin, floral and a touch herbal, with a sense of just squeezed lemons. To drink, the fruit flavour leans towards grapefruit, which is not uncommon in the region. The acidity is pithy and comfortable, the texture gently minerally and lengthy. This current release wine is known to age really well, though if you want to see that style in all its glory, look out for the Pewsey Vale Contours Museum Release.

O’Leary Walker Watervale Riesling 2022

Clare Valley-Watervale / 11.5% / $25

One of the regular pair of Clare Valley Rieslings from this enduring duo of winemakers, David O’Leary and Nick Walker, now joined by Nicks’s son Jack. The other Riesling is from the Polish Hill River district on slatey ground in the east of the region. This wine is all about purity, with pristine aromas exuding a lovely apple/lemon note then followed by a pleasingly evident flavour ride as you sip. Acidity is present and happily correct in its balance for a pleasing all-round even style. Recent tastings of the 2012 and 2002 vintages of this wine show it has excellent ageing potential.

Paulett Polish Hill River Riesling 2022

Clare Valley-Polish Hill River / 12% / $38

Given its district sourcing, this wine is recognised as a more linear and tighter style of Riesling and the 2022 is absolutely so. It’s all about limes, with aromas followed by enticing apple and lime juice flavours combined with a palate energy that prickles with well-balanced acidity given the overall intensity. Also from a recent tasting of museum vintages, this wine develops towards deeper kaffir lime notes with a spicy richness, its acidity neatly balanced and tangy. Refreshing now and for a decade to come.

This story was originally published by Solstice Media via @indaily and its not-for-profit arts and cultural journalism masthead @inreviewau