The sunbaked land Down Under may not be the first place you’d look for Riesling, a grape that thrives in cool climates. But its roots have grown deep in Australian soils since the mid-1800s. It thrives in higher elevations or by the coast, where winemakers can utilize cooling influences to craft world-class bottlings of this multifaceted grape.
While there’s a distinctive style of Australian Riesling, mostly bone dry (and occasionally off-dry) with rapier-like acidity, bright fruit and the ability to age for years, each Riesling producing region influences the variety with its own unique personality. Whether from Clare or Eden Valley in South Australia, Great Southern to the west or the plethora of small regions scattered around the country, producers are working magic with this Germanic grape.
The Clare Valley is considered Riesling’s spiritual home in Australia. Located 80 miles north of Adelaide, the region is speckled with stone cottages and thick groves of twisted gum trees that blanket seemingly endless rolling hills.
Clare Valley’s climate is warm and continental, which many would consider unsuitable to retain the variety’s all-important acidity.
But the region’s vast day-night temperature variations, which can plummet more than 70 degrees Fahrenheit overnight during ripening, as well as elevations as high as 1,998 feet, allow Riesling to flourish with gorgeous tension and laser-sharp acidity. The Clare Valley contains a diverse range of soils, and wines typically offer notes of lime, lavender and stony minerals that mellow into golden-hued, honeyed deliciousness over time.
Unsurprisingly, considering the variety’s preternatural ability to express provenance and vintage, Clare Valley Riesling producers are passionate about their terroir. Perhaps none are more invested than Australia’s unofficial Riesling king, Jeffrey Grosset, who’s championed the variety and the Clare Valley since 1981.
His organically farmed, single-vineyard wines, namely Polish Hill and Springvale, remain some of the most terroir-expressive wines in the country. They are capable of aging 20 years or more.
“One is on hard rock [slate],” says Grosset of Polish Hill. “The other, Springvale, is on soft rock [limestone]. I noticed the profound difference due to these two opposing profiles more than three decades ago and have since planted vineyards that exactly mirror in shape the profile below the topsoil, to ensure the expression of these profiles is maximized.”
While Grosset sets the bar in Clare Valley, the region today is blessed with winemakers of all sizes crafting some of the country’s most traditional, but also its most outside-the-box, Riesling.
Clare Valley Riesling producers to try
In the Mount Lofty Ranges, about 75 miles southeast of Clare Valley, sits the Eden Valley. Home to some of the world’s oldest Riesling vines, Eden Valley’s overnight temperatures are often cooler than Clare Valley and significantly brisker than the bordering Barossa Valley.
Elevations range from 719 feet in the northern part of the valley to 2,073 feet in the southern subregion, appropriately named High Eden. This windswept slice of exposed hillsides often contains loamy sand, clay and gravel soils that produce lithe Rieslings with bright fruit and delicate floral notes, paired with a talc-like texture. These morph into more complex, toasted, beautifully waxy bottlings with age.
Louisa Rose is chief winemaker at both Yalumba and Pewsey Vale, both owned by the Hill-Smith family. They purchased and restored the latter property in the 1960s, which made them custodians of the oldest Riesling vineyard in Australia.
“Riesling was first planted at Pewsey Vale in 1847,” says Rose. “It came from cuttings that were taken from the Rheingau in 1837. One hundred and seventy years has given us plenty of time to work out the best way to grow and make it.
“Even though the original vines might have come from Germany, it’s a very different terroir in the Eden Valley. And what works best at Pewsey Vale, in the vineyard or the winery, is not the same as what would work in other areas of Australia, much less other countries.”
Today, much of Eden Valley’s Riesling is cared for by fifth- and sixth-generation winemakers.
Eden Valley Riesling producers to try
On the other side of the country, Great Southern occupies a vast swathe of land at the southwest corner of Western Australia. A comparatively new wine region, its first commercial bottling was released in 1975. It’s also one of the planet’s most remote growing areas, which makes it even more remarkable that world-class wines are produced here, with Riesling the star of the show. Elegant and often austere, the variety expresses itself differently in each of the five subregions that make up Great Southern.
Along the pristine coastline of the Southern Ocean, Riesling from the neighboring maritime subregions of Denmark and Albany tend to be light, crisp and fruity. Further removed from the coast, more body and structure begin to creep into the wines.
A small, ancient mountain range called the Porongurups is home to a subregion that produces intensely flinty, pure, ageworthy bottlings. In the Mount Barker subregion, the variety can be more floral, with fruit weight, precise acidity and a sea spray-like savoriness. Finally, in Great Southern’s most inland region, Frankland River, delicate citrus joins stony minerality in Riesling.
“Frankland River has a preciseness in its wines…allowing the fruitfulness and, when done well, the minerality or gravelly-ness to come through in the wines,” says Hunter Smith, whose family winery, Frankland Estate, make some of Australia’s most celebrated Rieslings.
Unfortunately for U.S. consumers, many of Great Southern’s Rieslings don’t make it beyond Australia’s borders. The few that do, which include Frankland Estate, are well worth seeking out.
Great Southern Riesling producers to try
Elsewhere in Oz
Top-notch Riesling is made throughout Australia, often in small, cool-climate regions that consist of just a handful of modest, but high-quality producers. Mac Forbes, in northern Victoria’s Strathbogie Ranges, crafts several Rieslings from granite soils at 1,968 feet. In the Great Western region of Victoria, the historic Best’s Great Western winery makes a Foudre Ferment Riesling, which is fermented with wild yeast and spends time on skins in large oak foudres.
Even further west, in a little-known and particularly chilly wine region called Henty, Crawford River has championed modern, long-lived Australian Riesling for decades. Elsewhere in Oz, seek out bottles from regions like Canberra, Orange, Gippsland and Tasmania.
Additional Aussie Riesling producers to try