A year or so ago John Haeger published a book called Riesling Rediscovered – Bold, Bright and Dry. Although this book is as dry as Clare Valley Riesling it is very informative, it is in depth and is – obviously – focused on the current worldwide trend to produce Riesling with fairly low residual sugar. Nevertheless, this overall good publication has one substantial mistake – it doesn’t include Australia, third biggest Riesling producer in the world. Not only is Australia an important player in production but when talking about dry Rieslings then Aussie Rieslings are drier than English humour or German philosophy. This major omission can be explained by the fact that John Haeger is American (a universal explanation for ignorance) but I would be inclined to a more pragmatic reason – John ran out of time or money (or both) to explore another Riesling Kingdom… sorry, a colony.
Two Giants of Australian Riesling
Two months ago, I was lucky enough to meet two of the most influential Australian Riesling growers in the last two decades – Jeffrey Grosset and Ken Helm. Hello my European friends – ever heard of them? No? Shame on you. Let´s take a brief (I promise!) look at these two MRs (Masters of Riesling).
In Len Evan´s Complete book of Australian Wine (1990 edition) is Murrumbateman/Canberra district briefly mentioned among ´other NSW districts´ with its first pioneers being Clonakilla and Helm´s Wines. Interestingly enough the first one is described mainly as a Riesling producer and the second one´s best achievement is supposed to be Cabernet Sauvignon. Nowadays both are famous for something a bit different and in Helm´s case it´s Riesling.
Although Australian wine consumers are still willing to pay $40 for slightly above average Chardonnay rather than for exceptional Riesling, times are slowly getting better for the best world white variety (Riesling, of course). If there is one person to be ´blamed´ for the rising popularity of Riesling than it should be Ken Helm. This man with cool old school moustache started to focus on this variety in the 80´s – the dark ages of Aussie Riesling.
“I can´t say that wine labelled as Riesling wasn’t popular back then,” recalls Ken. “But wines labelled as Riesling were made from any white grape, sultanas included. Riesling was a style – lighter white wine, drier or sweeter, mostly of a mediocre quality but always with a low-price tag. Unfortunately, some customers remember this labelling creativity that resulted in confusion of style and quality and still have some doubts when buying bottles of Riesling,” says Ken. “Then there was the Chardonnay boom at the end of twentieth century which drove Australian palates towards richer oaked whites. Just another nail into Riesling´s coffin. But as much as I agree with premium Australian Rieslings still being underrated it has to be said that Australian Rieslings have never been better than now and the market starts to reflect it.”
Both Ken Helm and Jeffrey Grosset were the lead of a crusade for transparent Riesling labelling. Ken also established Canberra International Riesling Challenge – one of the worlds biggest Riesling shows. Also thanks to him Riesling in Australia slowly climbs up in grape variety hierarchy to where it should naturally be (on the throne, of course).
Australia has many distinctive Riesling regions. Murrumbateman is significantly cooler and elevated compared to South Australian Riesling regions. Harsh winters but dry summers with cold nights and specific afternoon sea breeze called Bateman´s breath define general climatic conditions. Local Rieslings are generally broader with a more complex flavour profile than South Australian counterparts, on the other hand they usually don´t have such a laser beam acidic drive of Clare Valley Rieslings. Canberra Rieslings also age differently retaining rather honey aromas and flavours than kerosene tones which are largely caused by sunburn. “But sunburn is an issue in Canberra too,” says Ken Helm. “To avoid it, it´s crucial to use every possible way to shade the bunches – having rows in east-west orientation, planting vines close to each other and mainly work out canopy management that keeps bunches out of sun exposure.”
Helm Classic Dry Riesling 2016, RRP $38
Blend from four different vineyards from a hot and dry vintage. Green crunchy apples, apricots, lemon, lime and touch of honey, still very youthful and fresh on the nose. Spectacular drinkability. Similar flavour profile as on the nose – green apples, apricots, lemon peel. Lots of energy and drive in long salty finish. High natural acidity is very well balanced by 5 grams of residual sugar. Great value.
Helm Premium Riesling 2016, RRP $58
Simple old school labels, old school names like classic and premium – all of that might look too ordinary to be special. And here one can easily miss the point. This is superb Riesling that has to go straight to the cellar as it won´t show much in the next couple of years but there are strong promises of a bright future. Bit shy on the nose but complex – apples, apricots, citrus fruit, floral notes and slight hint of honey. Serious, very well built and perfectly balanced wine with finish longer and more determined than a new year´s eve hangover.
Helm Central Ranges Riesling 2017, RRP $30
Fruit from Orange. So different from classic and premium – ripe, broad, rich and spicy. Lots of tropical fruits on the nose especially pineapple and mandarin, fragrant. Ripe yellow apples and again tropical fruits on the palate. It is certainly very approachable and won´t get much better in time. It lacks drive and focus of Helm´s Murrumbateman Rieslings, there is some residual sugar although still made in dry style.
Helm half Dry Riesling 2017, RRP $30
Literal translation from German Halb Trocken suggests noticeable residual sugar – around 15 g/l is my estimation. Very floral on the nose, lots of stone fruits on the palate. This is a perfect pair for spicy Asian cuisine as the residual sugar will mellow edges of all sorts of chilli. Although not dry this wine is quite fresh as its acidity and residual sugar is in perfect balance.