Before I visited Western Australia, I accepted the common wisdom that this region produces good Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. By the time I left, I realized that Western Australia's greatest vinous strength is its Rieslings. Not that I didn't find some fine Chardonnays, a few good Cabernet Sauvignons, a surprising number of excellent Shirazes, and other good wines, of course. But the most exciting experience for me was becoming a convert of WA (that's Western Australia, not Washington) Riesling.
I must admit that I am a fairly recent convert to Riesling, period. Like so many wine lovers, I drank mainly red wines for quite some time. When the occasion or the dinner called for white wine, I would invariably choose a Côte d'Or White Burgundy, a Chablis, or a Sancerre, or occasionally a white Bordeaux. When my diet took a turn mainly to seafood and fish, I started trying other whites--from the Loire Valley, Northeast Italy, and finally Riesling. The wine that was my Riesling epiphany was from Alsace: Trimbach's glorious single-vineyard Clos Ste. Hune, considered by some critics to be the world's greatest Riesling; a few have even called it the world's greatest white wine. Now my eyes have been opened to Riesling in general.
Aside from Cabernet Sauvignon, most of the world's noble grape varieties grow best in just a few limited regions. Riesling is no exception. Its prime regions include the Rheingau and Mosel-Saar-Ruwer regions of Germany (Riesling's birthplace), of course; Alsace; a small part of Austria; the emerging Riesling vineyards of Central Otago in New Zealand; South Australia's Clare and Eden Valleys and the island of Tasmania; and the Great Southern region in West Australia. That's about it. Some might include the Finger Lakes in New York State, as well. What these regions have in common is that they are relatively cool. Riesling is the classic cool-climate variety. Its hard wood stock makes it extremely resistant to frost, and it needs a long growing season to ripen fully.
What is there about Riesling, at its best, that makes it so special? It has wonderful piercing aromas, mainly citrus (grapefruit, lime, lemon, orange peel), apple, sometimes peach, but also floral and honeyed notes; it is high in extract; it is usually low in alcohol, it is invariably unoaked, as it does not take kindly to oak aging, and it has a firm backbone of acidity. Except for Germany, where Rieslings do range from very dry to very sweet, most fine Riesling regions, such as Great Southern, produce primarily dry Rieslings. Riesling is versatile at the dinner table, but is especially complementary of anything coming out of the sea. While in Western Australia, I particularly enjoyed Riesling with Marron, a fresh water crayfish of the region.
A highlight of my recent visit was a Riesling Conference sponsored by Howard Park Winery, which also produces wines under the Mad Fish label, and is a pioneer of WA Riesling. The winery organized a blind tasting of 21 Rieslings from the major fine Riesling regions of the world for its invited guests. Four Rieslings were from Germany, one from Alsace, one from Austria, one from Central Otago, four from Great Southern (WA), and ten from the rest of Australia, including five from Clare Valley, two from Eden Valley, and one from Tasmania. While I might quibble that Alsace was under-represented and the rest of Australia over-represented, I also believe that Howard Park was a bit too modest about its own region--only four wines were featured as opposed to ten from the rest of Australia. I say this because the tasting proved that WA is at least as good, if not better, than the rest of Australia when it comes to Riesling.
In general, the Great Southern style of Rieslings is the type that I love; they are lean, racy, lively, fairly light in body, low in alcohol, with lots of extract, with aromas and flavors predominantly of lime, sometimes lemon.
My reviews highlight the Great Southern Rieslings that I particularly enjoyed at the conference and during a week of tasting. In some cases, these wines carry the appellation of Western Australia rather than of Great Southern or of the neighboring Pemberton region, because they are sourced from multiple regions within the state. Even wineries located in Margaret River, a somewhat warmer region, source their Riesling fruit from the Great Southern or other southern areas.
I also include some of the outstanding Rieslings I tasted from other regions.
Frankland Estate, Frankland (Great Southern, Western Australia), Isolation Ridge Riesling 2005 ($20, Frederick Wildman): Rich, dry, lean-style Riesling. The Frankland Estate, from one of the best sub-regions of the Great Southern, has lots of slatey extract, balanced with firm acidity. Outstanding wine, and a real value. 93
Howard Park, Great Southern (Western Australia), Riesling 2006 ($25, Opici Wine Company): Howard Park's main winery is in Margaret River, but it produces its Rieslings at its Great Southern winery. I was treated to a vertical selection of its Rieslings going back to 1988, most of which were super and aging very well. The 2006, its current vintage, is dry, spicy, with high acidity (coolest vintage in 50 years), lots of grapefruit skin aromas, and good length. A light, elegant Riesling. 91
Leeuwin Estate, Margaret River (Western Australia), Riesling 2006 ($18, Old Bridge Cellars; Winebow Brands International): Leeuwin Estate is esteemed for its Chardonnay, and rightly so, but I was surprised by the quality of its Riesling--made on its Margaret River Estate, by the way. Its 2005 is the current vintage. Leeuwin Estate's 2006 is richly flavored, with intense, piercing aromas of orange as well as lemon, excellent acidity, and more mid-palate weight than Great Southern Rieslings. According to proprietor Dennis Horgan, the grapes are picked early to insure freshness. 92
Mad Fish, Great Southern (Western Australia) Riesling 2006 ($14, Opici Wine Company): Howard Park produces lighter, more accessible Rieslings under its Mad Fish label. They have the advantage of wide distribution and attractive pricing as well. The 2006 has intense aromas of ripe, lemony fruit, with good concentration. It is at a nice drinking stage right now. 89
Plantagenet, Great Southern (Western Australia), Riesling 2006 ($15, Robert Whale Selections): The Plantagenet Winery is in the heart of the Mt. Barker sub-region, perhaps the best area in the Great Southern for Riesling. The 2006 has intense aromas and flavors of lime, high acidity, and low alcohol. It is fairly light-bodied, as are most of the 2006 wines in WA. A lovely Riesling. 92
Petaluma, Clare Valley (South Australia), Riesling Hanlin Hill 2005 ($20, Beam Wine Estates Selection): Most of the Clare Valley Rieslings showed very well; Petaluma's Hanlin Hills has excellent distribution in the U.S. The 2005 Hanlin Hill is light and elegant, with lovely citrus aromas and flavors. It is drinking perfectly now. 93
Grosset, Clare Valley (South Australia) Riesling, Watervale 2005 ($30, Frederick Wildman): Grosset, the acknowledged leader of Clare Valley Riesling producers, makes several fine Rieslings from different plots each year. His 2005 Watervale has smoky, flinty aromas along with ripe apple, and is quite ripe in flavor. It is rather huge in structure compared to the lighter Rieslings from Western Australia. Still very young. 92
F.X. Pichler, Wachau (Austria) Durnsteiner Hollerin Riesling Smaragd 2005 ($45, Weygandt-Metzler): Pichler is generally regarded as Austria's top Riesling producer. Smaragd is the highest category of Austrian vineyards, reserved for the sunniest slopes. The 2005 Durnsteiner Hollerin is very rich and full-bodied for a Riesling, with ripe peach and apricot aromas, combined with excellent acidity. A much broader Riesling than the Great Southerns. The whole package. 95
Robert Weil, Rheingau (Germany) Riesling Kabinett Trocken 2005 ($30, Rudy Wiest Selections, Cellars International): Wilhem Weil, a Riesling fanatic, is clearly one of the most important producers in the Rheingau. His estate, one of the largest in the region, is planted with 98% Riesling. His 2005 Kabinett Trocken is quite ripe and rich for this category and has lots more character and concentrated flavors than most 'trocken' wines. A well-structured, fine thoroughbred of a wine with excellent acidity to balance the ripeness. 93