Better with a little age

Chris Shanahan
The current vintages of some of the Canberra district rieslings that aged beautifully: Clonakilla, Centenary, ...
The current vintages of some of the Canberra district rieslings that aged beautifully: Clonakilla, Centenary, Brindabella Hills, Nick O‚ÄôLeary, Helm Premium and Mount Majura. 

On Valentine's Day, Canberra vignerons took the district's white darling, riesling, on a date. Not a romantic, can't-get-enough-of-you fling, but a forensic examination, under the stark spotlights inside Mount Majura's squeaky-clean cellar.

Critics, judges and increasingly drinkers love our rieslings. But they're enjoying mainly youthful, fresh, just-released wines, within months or maybe a year of bottling. But it's often said our rieslings require bottle age to soften their sometimes-austere acids and allow the underlying varietal flavours to emerge. And it's true that if you taste Canberra's 2012 rieslings alongside those from the Clare Valley (a long-established specialist in the variety), our wines tend to be swept aside by Clare's generally fruitier, softer versions.

Certainly, I've rated Clare and some Eden Valley rieslings from this stellar 2012 vintage ahead of their Canberra counterparts - largely for this reason and in full recognition that the best Canberra wines might catch up or pull ahead in the years to come.

To some extent, we can only enjoy what's in the glass now - not what's there in two or 10 years. But we can't ignore riesling's potential to blossom - nor the youthful austerity of ours and the world's greatest.

Germany's great Rhine and Mosel river rieslings age in all their pristine glory for decades. They achieve this on the back of intense fruit flavour and the high acidity that makes them sometimes forbidding in youth.

Likewise, Australia's very finest rieslings tend to be slow out of the box, but finish strongly. For example, one of Australia's largest riesling makers, Jacob's Creek, tends to win show medals in the vintage year for its cheaper classic riesling. But its flagship, J.C. Steingarten Eden Valley Riesling, generally begins hauling in the medals years after vintage. The more established, austere but long-lived rieslings of the Clare and Eden Valleys can get away with austerity. Why? Because they have a proven capacity to age well - the best, for decades.

If Canberra is to match these in the market place, our makers need to demonstrate how well the wines age - especially the driest, most acidic versions. Producers can't expect sales as an act of faith.

Hence, the Valentine's Day gathering looked at older Canberra rieslings - 26 dry, one sweet; the youngest five years old, the oldest 19 years.

The tasting comprised five brackets - four from individual producers, the final mixed. The wines weren't masked and it was a Canberra-only benchmarking. I chaired the tasting. The format was: taste the five or six wines in each bracket in silence; call on the maker for comments about style, viticulture and winemaking; offer my own views; call for questions from all tasters.

One big conclusion: the adoption of screwcap is one of the great quality breakthroughs of modern times. As the adoption began only from 1998 (and more broadly in Canberra from 2002), our tasting took in both cork and screwcap-sealed wines. The tasting suffered only one screwcap casualty (maker Roger Harris called it his only dud bottle in 11 years), but most of the cork-sealed wines suffered, some fatally.

Makers said in some cases they opened several cork-sealed bottles to find one good one - a luxury most drinkers don't have. Any tasting of older cork-sealed riesling, then, becomes a lottery. Indeed, the likelihood of cork damage, through taint or oxidation, essentially prevents reliable assessment of older rieslings. That caveat aside, the cork-sealed Brindabella Hills Riesling 1997 proved one of the most loveable wines of the night - maturing but still lively and fresh after 16 years.

We concluded that Canberra doesn't have a single riesling style. If fact, we could argue winemaker preferences probably outweigh the notion of terroir. That is, we have the right climate for riesling (arguably the biggest single factor in terroir). But winemaker preferences for complete dryness, or including residual grape sweetness, or picking grapes riper, or less ripe strongly influence wine style.

We also observed a trend over 20 years to lower-alcohol riesling - from a realisation that riesling develops ripe flavours at comparatively low sugar levels. Alcohol levels still vary depending on maker and vintage - the 2012 vintage, for example, producing some of Canberra's lowest alcohol wines ever.

A couple of style differences: Brindabella Hills makes soft, easy-drinking styles, a decision by Harris to suit his own palate. Clonakilla makes a richer style but with an assertive acid backbone, ameliorated in high-acid years like 2011 and 2012 by back-blending a small amount of unfermented grape juice. And Ken Helm opts for delicate, bone-dry, low-alcohol styles - his Classic slightly fuller in youth; his Premium minerally and austere as a youngster and probably the strongest contender for an element of terroir.

Within the individual style differences, Canberra's best rieslings age deliciously - offering different characteristics as they age. The tasting didn't include all of our top riesling producers (notable makers not represented include Gallagher, Four Winds, Long Rail Gully and Ravensworth). But the sample was wide enough to say Clare and Eden Valley have a challenger.

I rated many of the wines very highly. In descending order of preference they were: Helm Premium 2005 and 2008, Brindabella Hills 1997, Clonakilla 2006 and 1997, Centenary Riesling 2008, Nick O'Leary 2008, Mount Majura 2008 and 2005, and Helm Premium 2006. None other than the Centenary Riesling are available (but you can buy wines from the great 2012 vintage and watch how they age).

I rated these not just for freshness and drinkability now, but for potential to continue drinking well (with that big cork caveat hanging over the two 1997 wines, the only cork-sealed wines in the line up).

A future masked tasting should include aged rieslings from the very best Clare and Eden Valley producers. This will help form an objective view of where we stand in relation to the acknowledged best.