The Summer of Riesling Calls for Aussie Rieslings With a Few Summers Under Their Belt

by Chuck Hayward

It would be foolish to not take the time to look at some Australian riesling during Paul Grieco's The Summer of Riesling promotion. Now in its sixth year, The Summer of Riesling is now celebrated almost all year long given that the folks Down Under have taken to promoting Paul's concept as well. While The Summer of Riesling thrives on drinking, education is an important function of the program as well.

Thanks to the recent Riesling Rendezvous held in Washington, a few winemakers from Australia found themselves traveling through San Francisco. So I took the opportunity to reach out to Neil Pike, owner and winemaker of Pikes Winery, one of the Clare Valley's leading riesling producers. I offered him a proposition: I would gather some friends in the biz, writers, sommeliers and retailers for an informal seminar and Neil would bring along some older vintages of his classic and reserve rieslings.

Aussie rieslings have an amazing capacity to improve with some time in the cellar. Initially shy upon release, the aromas and flavors quickly gain a bit of intensity over the next 12-18 months. As time progresses, Aussie rieslings transform themselves gaining richer textures and even more intensity of flavors, qualities one would not expect to be lurking within the same wine years earlier. The best examples can easily age up to 20 years.

To be honest, the seminar was just a ruse for me to taste some older wines from one of Clare Valley's riesling masters. Finding current Aussie rieslings is hard enough but reaching back into time to find some older wines is much more difficult. So I figured that if I could bring along some other industry professionals, Neil would dig deep into his cellar and bring along some oldies from the cellar for us to try.

Well that was easier said than done as it seemed that Neil's cellar was fairly dry of older vintages. It turns out that the winery's cellar barely had enough wine to open one bottle per year. In fact, they have offered to repurchase older vintages at 4-5 times their release price to rebuild their stocks but as Neil said, “I think the bastards are drinking it…… I understand that you drank your stash Chuck – most people do the same here at our end! Heathens.”

But in the end, Neil scoured his stocks and shipped over a selection of each cuvee spanning over ten years. The tasting would provide everyone the chance to see the stages of development of a Clare Valley riesling. In addition, all the wines to be tasted were bottled under screwcaps providing tasters with the unique opportunity to sample them under pristine conditions but also see how well they aged in this type of closure.

The tasting was the eye opener that I expected. Most tasters had never experienced older rieslings and they clearly won over their palates. Wine writer Blake Gray, just back from the riesling symposium in Seattle, was quite surprised and declared, “These wines shouldn’t be released until they are five years old. That’s where they truly show themselves.”

It was clear to see the transitions that occurred as we went through the flight. As the wines got older, certain vintages fared better than others. When young, it was a bit difficult to see how one year was better than another as the wines were quite subtle and introspective. But once they get 4-5 years in bottle, the best vintages clearly separated themselves from so-called lesser years. Both the classic and reserve bottlings from 2006 stood out as the top wines from each flight showing the most complexity in the developed flavors.

At the same time, the 2006s clearly had a ways to go thanks to the benefits of screwcaps. While the younger wines were to slow to reveal the effects of short-term aging, none were affected by cork-related faults. In fact, 1-3 year old rieslings bottled with corks usually show more developed characters than screwcapped wines but after about 4-6 years, they begin to show their age more quickly. It's at that point that screwcaps show their advantage. As shown in previous vertical tastings of pinots in this type of closure (click here for more about this), screwcaps not only reduce the chance of cork taint but also act to preserve the youthful fruit flavors over a longer period of time.

While the older rieslings clearly showed well, the real problem is finding them. Unless you are fortunate to know an Aussie wine collector or find yourself in a Melbourne restaurant, you’ll have to age them yourself. But the country’s top riesling producers have been listening and are now cellaring a portion of each vintage to be released later to select retailers and restaurants. You can be sure JJ Buckley will be among the first to get some. As a matter of fact, there's some 2003 Pewsey Vale "Contours Museum Release" on its way to us soon!

For more insight into the Pikes riesling tasting, check out these blogposts from Hawk Wakawaka and Blake Gray.

The latest vintage of Pikes "Traditionalle" has just arrived and you can find out more about this wine here.