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