We’ve all heard of fruit-driven wines — the Burge Family Winemakers’ Eden Valley Riesling, however, is dog-driven.
While out and about in Tanunda in 2015, veteran Barossa Valley winemaker and dog-lover Rick Burge spotted a Jack Russell terrier riding on a forklift, and later chased up the driver for a chat on the phone. The dog’s owner was Wayne Ahrens, who grows grapes on the upper slopes of Eden Valley. When Ahrens mentioned he had a few tonnes of nearly-ripe Riesling still unsold on his vines, an initially reluctant Burge said he’d come for a look and, after seeing and tasting the sun-flecked grapes, the deal was done.
Buying fruit from outside the Barossa Valley proper was a dramatic departure for Burge, whose reputation rests on the lush, estate-grown reds produced at his winery near Lyndoch. But he, too, was ripe for the deal: black frosts had denuded his semillon, while the estate’s own Riesling vines had been turned over to red wine production for commercial reasons back in 2002.
Of course, getting in Riesling from the other side of Barossa’s eastern range hardly constitutes a break with tradition. Many Barossa wineries have been assiduously exploiting the qualities of Eden Valley’s cooler climate white grapes for more than a century. Penfolds even had their own winery in Eden Valley in the early part of the 20th century. In terms of individual wines, think Pewsey Vale or Penfolds Bin 51.
Or in Burge’s case, think Orlando, where he went to work for Colin Gramp in his first wine-related job in the mid-1970s. Orlando, with its use of German technology to control fermentation temperatures, had been behind the transformation of white winemaking in Australia, and Burge got to sample the results. He would eventually taste every vintage of Orlando’s Riesling going back to the 1953. He also begged a couple of bottles of the legendary Steingarten Riesling from the company warehouse each year.
Later in life, Burge made a pilgrimage to the home of the grape, spending a fortnight in the Rhinegau in Germany.
“I’m a bit of a Riesling tragic,” he admits. “To put in your mouth a beautiful Eden Valley Riesling from a great year and a dozen or more of the freshest South Aussie oysters with a couple of wedges of lemon makes Rick a very happy boy.”
Alternatively, he says, he likes to linger over the weekend newspapers with a bottle-aged Riesling and a soft cheese. Burge sees himself as a champion of the classic, austere Australian style pioneered by Orlando and Leo Buring. He and Christa Deans, who handles the Burge Family whites, followed that template with the 2015 Burge Family Eden Valley Riesling, a wine that elicited high praise the judges of the Hot 100 Wines.
“We made it into a drier and more traditional style, with a relatively neutral yeast and relying more on bottle age to bring it up to its full potential rather than an aromatic yeast and/or residual sweetness,” Burge says.
Indeed, Burge sees the 1970s and 80s trend of adding muscat to increase early drinkability as an aberration, and believes the variety is only just recovering from the spurious reputation it acquired as a sweet wine: “We shot ourselves in the foot and did Riesling in”.
He is also perplexed by more recent experiments which are embracing wild yeasts and techniques such as extended fermentation on skins.
“Once we’ve established a world-class style with pristine, minerally, mouth-puckering, succulent, lime-juice and lime marmalade-type flavours, why would you want to turn to skin contact and browning? I liken it to getting the most beautiful well-hung piece of fillet steak, then mincing it up, putting onion in it and making it into hamburger patties.”
Burge says what initially looked like an ideal growing season in 2016/17 had evolved into something trickier, but he is already confident that the vineyards of Eden Valley have produced another vintage of high quality Riesling.
“It’s beautiful Riesling country,” Burge says. “It was a very easy decision to make when I saw the fruit.”
Burge Family Winemakers
2015 Eden Valley Riesling