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High & mighty

Publish Date: 05 Mar 2016

Authored by: Tyson Stelzer

The Clare and Eden Valleys both produce a wide range of exceptional wines with a true sense of place. But it was their famed rieslings that captivated Tyson Stelzer on a recent trip.

I’ll never see Clare and Eden Valley riesling quite the same way again. The chance to film harvest in Eden Valley last year left me with a profound sense of the impact place has in defining its wines’ styles. It renewed my faith in the future of this noble variety in these two remarkable regions.

It has long been said that riesling reflects its place with greater transparency than any other white varietal. I am not convinced this is necessarily true; the more I travel and taste, the more convinced I am of the profound impact of what the French call ‘terroir’ in every variety. But there is no denying that riesling has less varietal baggage of its own flavour or winemaking influence to distract from the signature of the soil and the sky.

“Give a warm corporate hug to a concept which many in Australia still regard as vaguely suspicious: terroir,” urges UK wine scribe Andrew Jefford. And if there’s a case for terroir in Australia, it’s surely riesling in the lofty altitudes of the Clare and Eden Valleys.

Riesling rejoices in cool nights to sustain its signature vivacity, charging an acid line that infuses fresh vitality in its youth and enduring longevity in the cellar. Both the Eden and Clare Valleys are thrust into the heavens by the Mount Lofty Ranges, and it is altitudes of up to 600m above sea level that explain why zesty rieslings can hail from as far north as the Clare, and from Eden, neighbour of the Barossa Valley.

Complementing personalities

The higher reaches toward the southern end of Eden Valley are home to some of the most fragrantly aromatic rieslings of delicate floral personality and talc-like structure. These attain a crescendo in the aptly named ‘High Eden’, infusing nervy restraint that promises great longevity.

The Clare is just a 45-minute drive north-east of Eden. The days are slightly warmer in the Clare, which is a little more sheltered from the moderating influence of the ocean. This explains Clare riesling’s slightly more extroverted personality of floral aromas and lemon and lime flavours, becoming tropical fruits in warmer seasons.

Getting under the surface

Riesling draws its mineral texture from its geology, be it the chalky mouthfeel derived from the limestone that underscores Clare’s Watervale district or the slate of Polish Hill River. The soils of Eden Valley are likewise shallow, bony and low in nutrients, perfect for riesling of flavour and texture. “We often joke that when the rock degrades sufficiently to be called soil, it just blows or washes down into the Barossa Valley,” says Pewsey Vale winemaker Louisa Rose.

Dry riesling

The dry rieslings of the Clare and Eden Valleys are unusual in the wine world, where riesling typically carries some sweetness. The acid levels of cooler regions like Tasmania, Germany’s Mosel or France’s Alsace have more to benefit from sweetness in tempering their austerity. The other key to the distinctive style of Clare and Eden riesling is perhaps the forgotten ingredient of terroir: humidity. The dry growing season in Clare and Eden rules out the development of noble rot, botrytis, which contributes the characteristic complexity and concentration of many rieslings from other regions. “Dry riesling without botrytis is the Clare’s contribution to the world of riesling,” says the variety’s mastermind Jeffrey Grosset.

Lessons from 2015

As climate change tightens its grip on south-eastern Australia, the advantage of altitude in these regions is becoming ever more pronounced. Last year, the Barossa harvested its earliest vintage in living memory. In the Clare, Jeffrey Grosset harvested his 35th vintage in 2015 and picked his riesling 35 days earlier than usual. Such early harvest dates mean that riesling is ripening in summer rather than autumn, exacerbating the importance of cool, high sites for creating elegant and long-lived wines.

This also heightens the pressure for winemakers. “For growers who didn’t get on to picking in haste, the wines are broad and ripe,” suggests Jeffrey. The 2015 vintage certainly exemplifies the full sweep of diversity of ripeness across the Clare and Eden Valleys, and attention to managing the coarse phenolic mouthfeel of ripe riesling grapes was more pertinent than ever.

“You have to be very careful with managing phenolics in the juice before fermentation or you’ll be stuck with them forever,” says recently appointed Jacob’s Creek chief winemaker Ben Bryant. As always, those estates with the most fanatical attention to detail have produced the most pure, long-lived and delicious wines.

The riesling revolution

Riesling was once the most planted white variety in the country, and its leading brand a decade ago was Jacob’s Creek, selling 3.2 million bottles a year. Now it sells less than 1.9 million. “It’s fair to say that it’s always had a bit of a struggle for identity with mass consumers, compared to some of the other sexy grape varieties that come along, like chardonnay and, more recently, sauvignon blanc, and now pinot grigio,” says former Jacob’s Creek chief winemaker Bernard Hickin.

But even this is turning around and the 2015 Jacob’s Creek Riesling was released early in response to strong demand. The more I speak with riesling makers and retailers, the more encouraged I am about the popularity of this noble white grape, particularly at the premium end of the market. The Clare Valley is Australia’s leader in volume of premium riesling production, with the Eden Valley in a distant second position.

“People laugh about the supposed ’90s riesling revival that never happened,” says Dan Murphy’s wine panel coordinator, Tony Titheridge. “And I disagree with them, and say, ‘Instead of this two-year revival you wanted, it has happened, but it’s happened over 15 years’.” Tony points out the popularity of riesling today is such that many Eden Valley and Clare Valley rieslings that are released in the winter or spring of vintage have sold out before the following year’s wine is available – not the case in the ’90s.

Louisa Rose, custodian of Pewsey Vale, one of the most famous names in Eden Valley riesling, points out the demand for this wine is higher than the vineyard can produce. She qualifies this by suggesting this may be as much about the brand as it is about the variety. “I often wonder how many people really know they’re drinking riesling, they just know they’re drinking Pewsey Vale!”

Beyond riesling

The Clare Valley’s warmer climate explains why cabernet is able to ripen reliably here, and its blends with malbec are a regional specialty. Shiraz claims the crown for the Clare Valley’s most distinctive reds, characteristically full-bodied yet floral wines deep in colour and concentration, with more definition, backbone and natural acidity than South Australia’s warmer regions.

Shiraz thrives in the cooler, southerly heights of the Eden Valley too, but it is the warm days in the slightly lower reaches of the north that builds richer flavours of mulberry and blueberries and even exotic five spice. This is the home of Australia’s most famous shiraz, Henschke’s 160-year-old Hill of Grace.

The Eden Valley is increasingly proving its credentials with varietally accurate and ageworthy cabernet sauvignon and even merlot, particularly in the hands of Australia’s most celebrated champion of the variety, Jim Irvine. The region is also the home of Australia’s most refined and surprisingly ageworthy range of viogniers, under the expert eye of Louisa Rose at Yalumba.

Affordability

In the ever-ascending calibre of Eden and Clare Valley wines, perhaps their most refreshing hallmark of all remains their affordability. Eden and Clare rieslings have long been the unsung bargains of Australian wine. Perhaps this won’t always be the case. I recently witnessed a six-pack of Jacob’s Creek Steingarten Riesling sell for $900 at an auction in the Barossa. “Riesling is coming back!” cheered Bernard. Stock up now.

Next article: check out Tyson's Clare and Eden wine picks

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