Until about 20 years ago, Riesling was Australia's go-to white wine. It never made much of an impact here in the United States, where Riesling from anywhere was a tough sell, but in Australia it seemed as if everyone drank it regularly, from punters to pundits. At least until Chardonnay rode its worldwide popularity to replace Riesling in Australian wine drinkers' glasses.
The good news for those of us who appreciate the clarity, ageability and zing of a good Aussie Riesling is that the grape never went away. In fact, it has become a darling of sommeliers and retailers here in America who decry oak and high alcohol in white wines. In the same way as two other personal favorites, Spain's Albariños and Italy's Falanghinas, dry Aussie Rieslings offer piquancy and charm to meld well with seafood, which I eat as often as I can.
Earlier this year Jacob's Creek held a 50th anniversary tasting of the celebrated Riesling named for its Steingarten Vineyard in Eden Valley, a higher-elevation sub-region of Barossa. Although I couldn't get to Barossa for the complete tasting, parent company Orlando's chief winemaker, Bernard Hickin, shared highlight bottles of the most recent decade with me in San Francisco last week. Tasting non-blind, I rated all four wines above 90 points ("outstanding" on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale).
Most congenially, I was impressed at how well these vintages have developed. Those who think wines bottled under twist-offs don't age well should try these. The maturation curve was evident and appealing. I liked the older wines better in this tasting than I did when I tasted them when young. That's a good sign for a wine that sells here for $28 a bottle.
The oldest, 2002, had a richness to it, offering lanolin and wax textures and flavors, while retaining its fresh pear and lemon flavors. It was elegant and powerful, if a bit obvious (90 points, non-blind). My original review (from 2003, 88 points) made note of an early maturity, but if anything the fruit was even more evident this time.
The 2005 showed less intensity, and much lighter color, the texture beautifully satiny, with a more subtle combination of stone fruit, citrus, floral and waxy flavors and combined plushness with beguiling finesse. It wowed me enough to slap a 93-point score on it, non-blind. It seemed simple and direct when I reviewed it in 2006, rating it 88 points. It's a great example of how Aussie Riesling can improve in the bottle.
The 2007 looked much darker than the 2005. Redolent of kerosene, honey and wax (typical descriptors for mature Riesling), the '07 showed vivid passion fruit, pineapple and lemon curd flavors. Hickin noted that the wet vintage was affected by some botrytis, not a common occurrence in the usually dry Eden Valley. It gave the wine a different cast, and a bit less clarity. Still, 91 points, non-blind, for the complexity.
The new bottling, 2012, shone with a sparkly pale gold color, and its fresh, tangy flavors of tangerine and pear picked up floral hints as the finish lingered delicately. I don't remember a young Steingarten with this much finesse and flavor. I'd give it 91-93 points.
"2012 was a cracker year for Riesling," Hickin allowed. "It was warm but there were no heat waves." The Jacob's Creek Riesling Reserve 2012 ($14 and 7,000 cases made, as opposed to Steingarten's 2,000) lacked the silky texture, showing a bit of a raw edge compared with the Steingarten, but it had the hint of pineapple that distinguishes many Eden Valley bottlings for me. There is also an $8 bottling, with the Southeastern Australia geographical indication, usually around 200,000 cases. We didn't try it.
The 5-acre Steingarten vineyard was planted in 1962 on a windy, rocky knoll in Eden Valley. Inspired by a visit to the steep hillside vineyards along the Rhine River in Germany, Colin Gramp, the great-grandson of Jacob's Creek founder Johann Gramp, looked for a similar plot of land just a couple of miles from the winery. There is no river, but the stony soils (mostly schist and shale) required dynamite to make them plantable. Vines are planted 1.2 meters apart and low to the ground, European style.
It would be nice to report that the Steingarten bottling is all from this one vineyard with such a colorful story, but it's extended with a selection of small lots from better vineyards around Barossa. In 2012, at least, it's all Eden Valley, and Hickin says it's going to stay that way.
As a footnote to my visit with Hickin, he pointed out that Australia's dry style of Riesling—virtually all of the highly regarded ones are either bone-dry or well below the usual threshold level of 5 grams per liter of residual sugar—is a relatively recent development. "Before the 1990s, we made mostly Kabinett-, Spätlese- and Auslese-syle Rieslings," he said. "But when Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc took over, we couldn't sell them."
Aussie wine drinkers had taken to smooth, rich (and dry) Chardonnays and developed an ongoing love affair with crisp, tangy, Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs from New Zealand. "We've had people come into our cellar asking if we have any 'Marlborough' for them to taste," Hickin sighed.
The Riesling style has evolved at Jacob's Creek in the wake of rising summer temperatures, but not in the way you might think. At least in Eden Valley, they are picking Riesling two to four weeks earlier than in the past. You might expect the dry wines to be lighter and less flavorful, but Hickin insists that the acid and flavor profile they always have looked for is developing sooner, before the sugar content gets quite so high. Hence, less alcohol, averaging up to 0.2 or 0.3 percent less than before.
If those 2012s are the result, that's good news for those who like sleek, lighter-style white wines that still deliver compelling flavors.