A FEW years back New World Riesling was hailed by the critics as the most exciting white wine around. Forget unfashionable (if delicious) Riesling from Germany or Alsace - we were all encouraged to get a load of the fabulous flavours produced by the variety as grown in New Zealand, Australia and Chile.
Many of us were duly impressed by these bold, stylish Rieslings. They are riper, more immediately striking than many German or Alsace examples: less delicate or elegant, perhaps, but with the thirst-quenching, tangy flavour of sun-ripened lime and a scent of exotic flowers. With plenty of its wineries giving the grape a go, Australia looked likely to head up the so-called "Riesling revival".
But the rise of New World Riesling has been slower than predicted. The reason is probably that consumers find the concept of Riesling from trendy, New Wave countries difficult to grasp. Riesling is still inextricably (and wrongly) linked to cheap German white in the mind of the general consumer - not the most cool of styles. Meanwhile, the true connoisseur of European Riesling has stayed faithful to Germany and Alsace.
Still, the Australians grow a bountiful 3,300ha of Riesling (a similar amount to its Sémillon and Muscat crops), and now that lighter whites have started to win favour over heavily oaked Chardonnays, the Riesling revival may yet be on the cards. If it is, restaurateurs and sommeliers will be delighted, as this is a truly food-friendly grape. With food pairing firmly in mind, Caterer's wine panel decided to find the best Riesling from Down Under.
The team blind-tasted 33 Australian Rieslings on a bright July morning at the suitably new and summery restaurant, the River Station in Bristol. The wines came from various different regions of the country and from several vintages. Three of them were sweet wines.
Caterer's panellists were: Peter Taylor, proprietor of the River Station; wine educator Sue Crabtree; David Bouchet, sommelier at Harveys restaurant in Bristol; Barny Haughton, chef-proprietor of Rocinantes restaurant, also in Bristol; Arash Alaeinia, food and beverage manager of the Swallow Hotel, Bristol; wine writer Susy Atkins; and Caterer wine editor Fiona Sims.
The sheer number of wines receiving two or three stars is testament to the high quality of this tasting. As Sue Crabtree said: "I arrived with relatively high expectations, and I wasn't disappointed."
Brown Brothers' winery in Victoria, long a favourite on good wine lists, gave an excellent performance. What impressed the panel, however, was that the vast majority of wines were correctly made, perfectly palatable Rieslings, with very few no-star samples. "There were only a couple of poor wines," commented Barny Haughton, "and many were similar to each other with little to distinguish them. Still, a good tasting overall."
The wines that scored badly suffered from heavy sulphur or rasping acidity. And it was interesting to note that the top wine of the day, Brown Brothers' Family Reserve Riesling 1994, was the oldest dry wine present.
By contrast, the youngest wines (from the 1997 vintage) were sometimes marked down for their extreme youth and wayward acidity. Australian Riesling, on the evidence of this tasting, needs a few years' bottle age.
When it came to matching the Rieslings with food, the panel found it vital to pin down the style of each wine. They successfully matched a relatively mature example with a rich, sweetish dish of scallops in cream sauce, while a much racier, younger wine was needed to pair with a tart, mouth-watering dish of smoked halibut in lime juice and preserved lemon.
The botrytis wines responded well to fruit puddings - particularly baked fruit tarts, according to the panel. One thing was clear overall - Australian Riesling makes great summer wine and, moreover, it makes great summer food wine. n