Sydney surgeon Max Lake, boutique winery pioneer, wine scholar and rascally bon vivant, was so keen on what he called “Barossa Rieslings” that he devoted more space to them in his 1966 book Classic Wines of Australia than he did to the region’s “generous reds”.
Then, as now, much of the fruit used to make premium Riesling by the Barossa’s big wine companies was actually sourced from vineyards on the far side of the Barossa’s eastern scarp, in Eden Valley.
The noble German variety was an early and prolific arrival in the colony’s 19th century vineyards, and a good-natured rivalry between Clare and Eden valleys for the title of Australia’s pre-eminent Riesling-growing region goes back to wines such as Quelltaler Hock and Yalumba’s Carte D’Or.
So the wine that took third spot in The Adelaide Review‘s last Hot 100 Wines, McGuigan’s The Shortlist Riesling 2007, is part of a proud tradition.
As a rule, the premier wines of the two regions are made in a tight and steely style, with only a couple of points of residual sugar left to balance the grape’s natural acidity.
Some drinkers – particularly those in the eastern states – find the dominant ‘bone-dry’ style of young South Australian Riesling a little unapproachable, a perception that has given rise in recent years to the appearance in the market of more fruit-forward examples, such as the current releases of Jim Barry and Annie’s Lane, wines that are both instantly drinkable and gob-smackingly underpriced.
There also has been a resurgence of the late-picked style – Auslese in German parlance – that carries a much higher level of residual sugar, making them discernibly and deliberately sweet. For some reason, they are all the rage among Tasmanian winemakers.
But for aficionados of the classic style of dry Riesling (and their enthusiasm is almost cult-like), the emphasis remains on seeking out labels like The Shortlist, a wine that has the fruit and structure to last eight, 10 or even 20 years. Delayed drinking offers the convert a remarkable experience: in the cellar, Riesling undergoes a stealthy metamorphosis. As its pallid colour deepens to a rich yellow, the more austere, citric flavours morph into a rounder and fuller palate (often likened to buttered toast and honey) and achieve a remarkable complexity and richness.
The Shortlist fits right into this slot, and its winemaker James Evers (who is now making wines for Nepenthe) says the company has a 25-year relationship with the Eden Valley grower who supplies the grapes.
“We’ve got a single vineyard program going for that Riesling – it’s been a very, very good wine for us over the years. It’s an old Riesling vineyard and, year-in year-out, it just produces fantastic fruit.”
The block of sandy soil is quite high and exposed, which helps in dodging the frost. The winemaking is kept very simple, Evers says: “My theory is that you just cradle it through and get it in the bottle as soon as you can. It’s all about making sure that you don’t lose any of the fruit through the winemaking process.”
While most of the wine is released in its youth, the company employs a strategy of holding back a third of each year’s production for later release.
“These days people aren’t prepared to age wine for themselves, so we’ve got to do it for them.”
Evers says because of variations in vintage characteristics and maturation, the aged Rieslings are not necessarily released sequentially – they are put out when they are thought to have reached their peak.
No hasty drinking is required though: “The oldest one we still have in stock is the 2003; it’s still drinking beautifully, and probably still has 10 years ahead of it.”
And there are some standout vintages to come – Evers cites the 2011 and the 2008 as vintages to watch for in particular. Two more good reasons to join the Riesling cult.
The Shortlist Riesling 2007