Clare Valley caught in Riesling dichotomy

Riesling may shape the reputation of Clare Valley, but a tension exists between commercial success and critical acclaim.

photo“We get some heavyweight journalists saying you cannot make wines with residual sugar but that’s where the commercial volume is,” outlined Kevin Mitchell, winemaker at Kilikanoon.

A similar report came from Neil Paulett, winemaker at Paulett Wines, who confirmed: “The quickest selling wines are softer with less acid and fruit in the mouth – they go a little riper.”

In reference to the dry style which currently prevails in the region, Paulett acknowledged: “In some respects it’s not what the commercial community is looking for until their palates evolve and see what we’re trying to achieve.”

Despite Clare’s strong reputation for this grape variety, Riesling remains a relatively small proportion of the region’s vineyard plantings. Official statistics indicate that Riesling represents 1,235 hectares out of a 5,735 total vineyard area, making it the third most widely planted variety after Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon.

However, added Mitchell, “Riesling is our third most important variety but probably fifth in terms of revenue.” Meanwhile Paulett suggested: “If it’s 30% of what’s planted that’s probably 15% too much.”

Recalling Riesling’s rise to prominence in the region, he explained: “There was a big burst of plantings when we started with screw cap and the wine media really embraced it. Producers thought it was on a high, but sales didn’t really move that much.”

Although suggesting that the surge in enthusiasm for Riesling meant that “some people planted in the wrong sites,” Paulett noted: “The sense that there’s too much comes from the fact that it’s hard to sell. A little bit of a wine lake has sprung up.”

For a growing number of producers, the solution to finding the balance between sweet and dry is to introduce a range of styles.

“A lot of people in Clare during the last 10 years have brought out a reserve, which is generally picked earlier with higher acidity, great ageing potential and will take more time to come into its own,” reported Mitchell.

However, he also pointed to a move in the opposite direction, remarking: “We’re also seeing an emergence of off-dry styles, which give punters another way into Riesling.”

Among these recent off-dry releases is Alea from leading Polish Hill River producer Jeffrey Grosset. 

Despite the commercial challenge of the current prevailing winemaker and wine critic preference for bone dry Riesling, Mitchell defended this stance, insisting: “You want to connect with the consumer market and that comes down to education.”

3 Responses to “Clare Valley caught in Riesling dichotomy”

  1. Mike says:

    Paulett acknowledged: “In some respects it’s not what the commercial community is looking for until their palates evolve and see what we’re trying to achieve.”

    Therein lies the problem, the winemakers don’t believe anything but dry can be a serious wine.

  2. Craig says:

    Mike,
    Broadly speaking, Paulett is actually acknowledging market preferences and being critcised for it by some the wine media. He’s not bagging the style at all, but a Riesling who’s ferment has been allowed to naturally run dry is always going to taste different from an off dry style that has probably had longer hang time to have the required alc% to give the balance to a palate that is going to be softer for lack of acid, and as for flavour, well they’ll be different too, it’s just a different wine style made from the same grape. The dry style is a hell of a lot simpler to make, but with so many white drinkers guzzling the sugar laden sauvalanche, is it any wonder consumers want sugar in their wine?
    At least Paulett is not sanctimonious about a commercial decision that some wine media dictators are having trouble swallowing or we’d all be drinking what the scribes believe is “correct”.

  3. David Plant says:

    Why can’t Australian Riesling producers get together and come up with a system whereby they can produce three, four or even five different styles of Riesling and market the different styles – the Germans, and here in the West, Bellarmine – do this quite successfully. If producers did this they could educate consumers on the different styles, cover more of the market with -for example -Dry, Medium Dry, Medium Sweet, Sweet, and even dessert Rieslings.
    You may even gain some ground on the Kiwis!

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