Do Australian Rieslings need more age?

The Contours vineyard at Pewsey Vale, Eden Valley.

The Seppelt Drumborg Riesling 2010 has the fresh lime aromas of a young Aussie Riesling. But on the palate, the dry wine is tightly wound, wrapped in a crunchy, almost impenetrable shell of acidity. By contrast, the 2003 vintage of the same wine is much more accessible, with toasty almost honeyed notes, and a much rounder texture.

The Australians like their Rieslings young, fresh and dry. Wednesday, at a trade tasting in New York City, I tried six Aussie Rieslings from the 2010 vintage–yes, 2010, as in that year that just finished 28 days ago. But these weren’t first-release sort of wines as they included big guns such as the complex Grosset, “Polish Hill” bottling, widely acclaimed as the standard-bearer for the category. The wines had a gum-tingling acidity that that sometimes was crackling, electric fun (for me, the Frankland Estate Riesling) and sometimes too austere with subdued aromatics.

The question arose of whether Australian Rieslings need more bottle age. When asked his opinion, Paul Grieco, Riesling guru and partner of the Terroir wine bars, told the packed room that he probably would buy the Frankland Estate Riesling but found it “undrinkable” now and encouraged the producer to set aside production for five years and release it then.

It’s no secret that Riesling turns a corner at some point during bottle aging process. Just when that happens remains the subject of collector and producer debate. But Michael Hill Smith, a producer (though not of Riesling), suggested at the tasting that Aussie Riesling closes down after about a year and a half and then reopens after about five years–a process that’s slower under screw cap than it is under cork, he said.

But who will pay for that bottle age, producers or consumers? Only two producers in Australia currently pick up the tab, releasing wines with bottle age, Peter Lehmann “Wigan” and Pewsey Vale “The Countours.” I really liked the 2005 Contours and apparently the “Wigan” was such a medal hog on the wine competition circuit Down Under that it was all but disinvited. So you might think that producers would get the message: hold back some wines and do a separate bottling. The wine business is just that, a business, as one producer present pointed out, and cellaring the bottles would tie up capital and increase costs to the producers. But if the Semillon producers of Hunter Valley can do it, why can’t producers in Clare and Eden Valleys also do it?

A happy medium may be coming: off-dry Riesling. Even though leaving some residual sugar in the wine (by not converting the natural grape sugar to alcohol) can balance the high acidity of young Riesling, Australian producers have been reluctant to embrace the style. However, that may be changing as some younger producers are doing some halbtrocken style, as Hill Smith put it, “what’s old is new again.”

This fledgling group received validation when Jeffrey Grosset releasing his first off-dry Riesling in 2010. Because he wasn’t in NYC this week–and neither was the wine–I sent him an email to ask him why he had launched the new wine. Here’s a snippet from his reply:

It seems that consumers and trade (both in retail and restaurants) are looking for alternatives to the classic dry style. This could be a result of the subtle cultural shift with our move to greater Asian influence in our food, or in a more dynamic or less structured approach to wine or perhaps just a case of looking for something new or different, but there is certainly a lot of interest in high quality off-dry Riesling coming from those involved in the food and wine scene. This is potentially quite exciting because we have a younger generation that is not prejudiced by the old adage of sweet being cheap. The challenge as producers is to excite not disappoint, by creating balanced flavoursome wines irrespective of sweetness level. And, of equal importance to communicate clearly to the consumer what they should expect; how the combination of sweetness and acidity will taste. This need for clear concise labelling is a major challenge at the moment, and needs attention.

Australian Riesling as a category seems to be turning a corner, becoming more layered. Like a good bottle, it will be fun to check back on it in five years and see how it has changed.

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15 Responses to “Do Australian Rieslings need more age?”

  1. It has been years since I had a German Riesling. Do they also do better with bottle aging? Thanks.

  2. I recently participated in a tasting about the aging potential of Riesling, at the 1. International Riesling Symposium and wrote about it on schiller-wine:

  3. I can’t say enough how much I agree with Jeffrey on the need for clear labelling in Riesling. The versatility of Riesling is what makes it both fantastic and very tough to shop for. I absolutely love Riesling, but refuse to buy bottles unless I have tasted them or talk to someone I trust who has. And it’s not that I necessarily enjoy one style over another, but to often, you can open a bottle and be suprised what you find, which is fun occasionally, but not if you’ve built your evening around one style and you get something completely different. All this makes Riesling a tough nut to crack for wine consumers, even the most adventurous ones. A grape that can do and be so much really needs to give buyers a hint as to what they’re buying.

  4. It’s long been a sad thing to me that Australian Riesling is sold as a ‘drink now’ wine, when almost invariably they are better with 3-10 years bottle age.

    Most consumers will never taste the complex wonder that is a 10yo Clare Valley Riesling.

  5. Funny I was just bottling my dry Riesling today when I read this post. I am a Washington State winery by the way.

    For me, how much sugar I leave in my Riesling is trade off between my own personal taste and what is acceptable to my consumers. Every year is different with this grape. 2010 was a very cool year, marked with mildew pressure that made me pick early with a little more acid than I normally like. With that said, I took the wine as dry as I could before the other half of my brain said, that’s it, I want people to enjoy this and not use it as battery acid. In a warmer year true dry is my policy.

    For the winery fiscal prospective, its true, white wines are cash flow. I could never in 1000 years talk my owner into holding back white wine for aging. I think its up to the media and me to communicate this message of aging true Riesling. We do it for reds why not whites? I have been told by Thomas Henick-Kling I should hold back some for consumers.

  6. Can’t convince the owner to age Riesling?

    Point them at the Paulett Polish Hill Riesling 2005 aged release which won the trophy for ‘Best Riesling in the World’ at the 2010 Canberra International Riesling Challenge which had near 500 entries from 10 countries. It now sells for $52 whereas the current release is $18.

    Add to that the previous year’s winner, the 2003 Cardinham Estate which sells for $40 compared to their 2009 at $19.

    Seems to me on a fiscal perspective that aging Rieslings has value. Any it doesn’t mean you need to age the entire stock.

  7. I cant say enough how much I like this post. Out of all the wines I produce including reds, I have the most passion and excitement for my Riesling, perhaps to a fault.

    To us wine nerds, we get it about the grape. In the market place its still a hard sell. I love the fact that here in WA state, St. Michelle, Pacific Rim, Poets Leap and others are taking the risk and getting the word out that dry style Riesling is serious wine.

    If someone offered me $20 today or $50 dollars five years from now, I think the answer is obvious on what my decision would be. Until we ( WA state and my winery) have a reputation…for anything, I don’t see anyone in there right mind holding back wine, red or white. Aged WA state dry Riesling is not the first thing I think about when conjuring a list of cult wines. I will take my money now, thank you very much. That’s not to say I wont tell my savvy wine nerds to hold on to it. I would rather pass the risk and reward on to you. With that said, I truly believe WA state Rieslings are legitimate, in the right hands they can be as good and age worthy as any Riesling producing region. You could pour my 2010 over my grave!

  8. Oh, Dr Vino!

    Tyler, Aged Australian Riesling has been a well kept secret for a long time. Now look what you have done!

  9. Ha, Warren, I did let this nugget slip out in a posting from 2009:

    Glad others found the post useful!

  10. Great recap from the tasting, Tyler. In a perfect world, all of these tightly wound wines would be held back 5+ years before release. But, like was said, it’s not a business plan that most wineries can afford to practice. What I’d like to see at the very least are more wineries holding back a handful of wines for a Library release. While I’d agree that the Frankland Estate, and the entire 2010 lineup for that matter, had searing, almost unbearable acidity at this stage of the game, it’s still fun to watch the evolution over time.

  11. Yes they need aging and some should be late-release.. but people can also age them just like they do for other wines at home. Some wineries in AU also make dry Rieslings that are not so tight as to need aging.. Polis hill does.. but not say The regular Pewsey Vale.. although it is better at 5 yrs.

  12. All top Riesling needs age, the question of how long is a matter of personal preference. I think it falls more on the consumer than the winery to cellar the wines, but 90% of wine is consumed within 24 hours of purchase, the other 10% is traded sold and resold, traded again, the possibly drunk at a tasting where everyone wonders why it is tired. Part of the problem is that many people drink white wines very young because almost all of the other white grapes don’t age very well and most collectors only cellar expensive wine, Riesling is just too cheap for its own good.

  13. Thanks for the post, Dr. V, it makes a lot of sense. I usually ignore Australian Rieslings due to their stark acidity – however, I tried them only very young. Now I will need to put a few bottles aside and see what will happen in 5-7 years (or of course find some which are already aged).
    I have similar experience with wine called Cour Cheverny from Loire (100% Romorantin grape). Young wine doesn’t taste anything but acidic. However, last year I had an opportunity to try 14-year old version (1996), and it was amazing. And yes, there is a big difference in price – 2009 will cost you about $13, and 1996 last year was about $45…

  14. I agree with Aaron. Rieslings are so variable that it’s such a daunting task to find one I like . As a result, unfortunately, I tend to stay away from them. However, the aged Rieslings described here are pretty intriguing. I think I might be daring and go for one tonight 🙂

  15. There are dozens of Australian whites designed to drunk after a few years. Even less expensive Rieslings like the Tim Adams Clare Valey late release have years of growth in them. As for Hunter Semillons!


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