Delaying gratification can yield long-term rewards
Australians love their wine; indeed, we are the tenth largest wine consuming country in the world with 98% of bottled wine consumed within 24 hours of purchase. Obviously, the lure of ‘instant gratification’ overrides the hidden pleasure of laying down a bottle of wine to savour the alchemy of maturity at a later date.
Is it that we are simply not patient or that we don’t have the appropriate storage space? Whatever the reason, for most Australians, drinking aged wines is reserved for special occasions at fancy restaurants.
For those Aussie wine consumers who can defer their pleasure and are blessed with a cellar (or wine fridge here in sunny Queensland!), space is generally reserved for aging red wines; usually Shiraz, Cabernet and occasionally, Merlot or a Bordeaux blend. Is it that we assume that those varietals will have a longer shelf life and provide greater reward for self-restraint, or do we simply not understand or appreciate the potential beauty of well-aged white wines?
Amongst the white varietals, Chardonnay and Semillon will normally mature well over a decade or so. However, if you really want to experience the pleasure of a well-developed white wine, it’s hard to go past a quality Riesling laid down for much longer
For centuries now, the winemakers of Germany and Austria have made Rieslings that have comfortably stood the test of time and shown their best sides decades after the wine was bottled. Some of the most expensive aged Rieslings in the world are the very sweet styles that benefit from the high residual sugar – which helps the wine to retain flavours and stops it from drying out and losing personality as it ages. Yet you don’t require a sweet wine for it to have aging potential as dry-style Rieslings will also age well if they have low pH and high acidity – especially if there’s also a degree of minerality to provide a basis for future development.
In Australia, our key Riesling producers tend to focus on the mineralic dry styles that express the local terroir and offer some early zippiness. They are, however generally made without high residual sugar levels to round the palate and add grace and poise to the aging process. As a result, as they mature, our domestic Rieslings tend to mature showing whiffs of lanolin on the nose and hints of butterscotch, along with preserved lemon and wooded spice through the middle once the fruit characters fall away. They’re delightful drops but won’t satisfy the eager Sauvvie hound who is constantly looking for the fruit bomb up front and some tropical fruit through the finish.
Last week I was fortunate to have the opportunity to sample some museum-release Rieslings from one of the Margaret River’s leading producers, Howard Park. Their Mount Barker Riesling has long been hailed as one of the region’s most reliable examples of the style and boasts an enviable reputation for quality. Up for grabs were the 2013, 2014 and 2019 vintages courtesy of a “vibrant un-cellaring” by the Director of Winemaking, Janice McDonald.
The 2013 edition is low in alcohol (at 10%) and came from a hot and dry season which created ripe fruit, good sugar content and the inevitable acclaim. Although it’s a somewhat pale yellow in the glass, there is more vibrancy evident than I would have anticipated for an 8-year-old wine. Give it a swirl and a swish and the bouquet reminds me of Nanna’s home-made lemon marmalade. The first sip confirms what the optics were telling you; that there’s still abundant citric fruit flavours although surprisingly laced with oatmeal and apple pie characters on the finish. The steely acidity has held the wine together admirably and I suspect that it will only continue to develop over the next five years or so.
On the other hand, the 2014 edition (which didn’t start off with all the hype of the previous vintage) is still a racy little number with up-front zest and some flintiness, with the faintest edge or kerosene on the nose. Flavours of lemon, lime and granny smith peel are still quite dominant across the palate yet there’s great balance and depth to a wine that will probably need more time tucked away in the back corner of the cellar.
It’s very hard to compare a relative newbie to a sibling that has been laying on its side since 2014. The 2019 Howard Park Mount Barker Riesling I sampled came from a challenging season, yet as a young wine, it is still all about the primary fruit and characters of green apple and apricot with a chorus of grapefruit, lemon, and finger lime. Its ample acids suck in the cheeks and purse the lips as the mineralic melody chimes in as it crosses the mid-palate leading to a clean and linear outro. It would be an ideal partner for delicate seafoods or just as an afternoon aperitif, whilst giving the impression of longevity.
Riesling, like many varietals can have a bit of a “flat spot” between youthfulness and maturity. If it’s a bit dull five years from bottling, that doesn’t mean that it’s done and dusted – on the contrary, it may just be having that awkward moment before it evolves into an elegant and textural masterpiece.
Patience, they say, is a virtue and Riesling is a white varietal that will repay in spades those disciplined enough to allow it time on its side.
Picture: Oysters and Riesling courtesy of Howard Park wines Facebook page.