In the manner of one in a 12 step program, I’m making the rounds of admitting my past failings and trying to make amends. This week, it’s Riesling, that noble grape so ignobly ignored by this blog over the last few months. If I were clever, it would be a German Riesling, and then I could make peace with a country that I’ve so far neglected, but alas not tonight.
So tonight it’s the Pikes Clare Valley Riesling 2000. We hosted a party this past weekend and while I tried my best to pour non-stop throughout, somehow we ended up with a surplus of three bottles of Riesling, this being the oldest of them. Funnily enough, I took three bottles out of the cellar last week for a special tasting sometime soon, so before dinner this evening I had a half case of Riesling chilling in the fridge, something I don’t think has ever in my life been the case.
This is a good wine for this column, in that it ticks a lot of boxes. First, it’s from Clare, which is an area I like. Also in Australia the Clare Valley and Riesling are like the Hunter Valley and Semillon, or the Barossa Valley and Shiraz. Second, Pikes is a well known and well respected winery, which balances out my penchant for wanting to write about Georgian Saperavi. Finally, this is an older bottle, and Riesling is a grape that can age as well as any white, and typically more than most reds.
So I’ll start with the grape, Riesling. As a wine professional, I have an obligation to claim Riesling is my favourite white when anyone asks (though it’s possible to get away with Grüner Veltliner). However, to be honest, since no one is reading, it’s not my favourite. I much prefer a well made Chardonnay or a Rhone white, but in the industry everyone must profess their love of Riesling, and mention that it’s without a doubt going to replace Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay or Pinot Gris/Grigio (whichever is most popular) next summer.
As long as I’ve been interested in wine (which is not as long as most, I’m sure), Riesling has not been the most fashionable white. It’s certainly noble, and people have been making excellent wine from it forever, but it was in fashion at some point in the recent past before I was in the trade, and it’s not been back since. Fashion is fickle, and it will likely be back at some point, but for now you can observe that the most prized bottle of Australian Riesling, Grosset’s Polish Hill, will set you back approximately $40, while a similarly prized bottle of Shiraz will likely be in excess of ten times that amount. Yes, the cost structures for reds versus whites are very different, but still, it’s silly. However, it does mean that if you aren’t a dedicated follower of fashion, you can get some seriously high quality wine for a good price.
So fashion aside, Riesling is an interesting grape. It’s typically thin skinned, and produces highly acidic, aromatic white wine. It’s international, and not just with a single home in the Old World and some colonization in the New. It’s grown widely in Germany, France, Austria, and Switzerland, as well as throughout the New World. It does best in cooler climates, and has a preference for slate and sandy clay soils. It is thought that the wine made from Riesling grapes has a particular ability to express the soil in which the grapes were grown, and as such is typically made into wine with very little exposure to air or oak that would change its character. Wine made from Riesling grapes can range from bone dry to late harvest, to botrytized, and to even sweeter still ice wine. Sparkling wine is also made from it. For a white, it has an almost unmatched capacity to age, going from a zingy fruity young wine to an older wine with distinct petrol or kerosene aromas.
Clare is a wine region about 120km north of Adelaide, and is best known for Riesling. It is a series of valleys in an elevated pocket of land. Long warm days and cool nights during the growing season are the norm, with cold winters and little rainfall. Soils are varied, with both red topsoil over limestone and slate being found in different parcels. Other areas range from alluvial ground to sandy loams with degraded quartz. Several producers bottle Rieslings under the names of smaller subregions as the nature of the grape and winemaking allows the differences in the soils to show through. While Riesling is the grape for which the region is best known, the cool climate and altitude also produces Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Semillon. A mailing-list-only boutique winery, Wendouree, is best known for their reds, and I’m a particular fan of the Malbec they produce as a varietal a few times a decade it seems.
Pikes is a family winery that has roots in South Australia going back to 1878, which is fairly far back for Australia. The name was first known for brewing beer, and a beer of their name is still made, though I’m not certain that the family has an stake in that business. The current wine company dates to 1984 when it was established in the Clare Valley. It is best know for Riesling, though they have a range of about a dozen or so other wines, both red and white. They produce both this Riesling and a Reserve called “The Merle”.
This wine is a medium gold in colour – nearly 12 years in bottle will do that. The nose has some lovely kerosene notes, along with some bruised apple and lime. The palate is zesty, but not quite zingy, if that makes sense. It has a strongly citrus flavour profile. Lime is the foremost flavour, with some lemon and a bit of orange blossom along for the ride. However, despite the citric flavours, it’s not as acidic as they would lead me to expect. It has a good length and is holding up pretty well, but I don’t think it’s going to improve. A decent Riesling, but not great, which after twelve years would be a bit of a disappointment. For me, however, it is a gift I received and then consumed within 48 hours so I enjoyed it.