WORDS BY HEIDI HELBIG
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JOHN KRÜGER
A minnow of Barossa wine varieties – Riesling – is taking on some major heavyweights in the quest for profile and market share.
Waging the David-and-Goliath battle is a small but determined group of Eden Valley producers who are seeking to reposition Riesling as a wine of choice.
At the helm of ‘Riesling Eden Valley’ are John Hughes, of the now-famous Rieslingfreak label, and Henschke’s Justine Henschke.
“Riesling is known in the industry as a winemaker’s drink, so our challenge is getting out there to consumers,” says John.
“Riesling can be drunk anytime – breakfast, lunch or dinner!”
John is the perfect ambassador for the variety, fresh from a stellar 2017 which included a “Young Gun of Wine” title at the age of 44 and five trophies at the Sydney Wine Show, including Wine of Show.
“Apparently trophies sell wines – who knew?” laughed John.
“For me, there was never any question about Riesling. I’m a big believer in following your passion – your passion and your dreams – and Riesling has been a big part of that for me. I just embrace the variety.”
John is quite literally “obsessed” by Riesling’s remarkable versatility, cultivated in the cool climate and elevation of Eden Valley.
“Eden Valley’s climate and soil – the terroir, as the French would say – is perfect for growing Riesling,” says John.
“The cooler conditions allow us to hang the fruit on the vine for longer, which can only be an advantage for Riesling.
“We do a sparkling, a fortified, heaps of dry Rieslings and various sweetness levels – not many grapes can make that collection of wines!”
However the self-taught winemaker acknowledges the vagaries of Mother Nature can swing a vintage either way.
“With Riesling, it can either be a winemaker’s vintage or a grape grower’s vintage,” he says.
“2017 was a great example of a grape grower’s vintage and Riesling was very much made in the vineyard. Mother Nature was generous to us with a cool spring and summer and ample water.
“But when Mother Nature goes against us with warm and challenging conditions, it’s up to the winemaker.”
Admittedly, Riesling finds itself in a crowded market, where 40 Barossa varieties compete for market share.
Barossa Grape and Wine Association (BGWA) figures show Riesling represents less than four per cent of the Barossa’s total annual crush, making it a comparative lightweight to Barossa’s signature variety, Shiraz.
However BGWA’s Viticultural Development Officer, Nicki Robins, believes Eden Valley Riesling is “one of the great wines of the world”, thanks to its long ripening and aging capacity.
“The versatility of the grape allows for a wider range of styles, from dry to fully sweet – this provides a wide range of choice to meet differing customer preferences for both drinking and dining occasions,” says Nicki.
“Stories are everything nowadays with food and wine, and we want to tell the story behind the label – in this case the label being Eden Valley Riesling.” – John Hughes
Leveraging this broad market appeal is critical for the Riesling Eden Valley committee, which represents the interests of 26 producers in the region.
“We came together about two years ago with the ambition of growing awareness of Eden Valley Riesling to both trade and consumers,” says John.
“We want to showcase the region Eden Valley in terms of food and wine but also want to focus on the qualities of Riesling, the vineyards, the families, the wines and the stories.
“Stories are everything nowadays with food and wine, and we want to tell the story behind the label – in this case the label being Eden Valley Riesling.”
Justine, Henschke’s marketing manager, says it’s a story worth telling.
“Henschke has been making Riesling since the first commercial vintage 150 years ago,” she says.
“South Australians are fairly loyal to the grape varieties grown in their state but we need to go to the rest of the country to lift the profile and seek opportunities to familiarise palates with this regional hero.”
The committee has launched an inspired new campaign that positions October as ‘Month of Riesling’ in the Barossa.
The vision is a series of hosted, tailor-made food and wine events at restaurants, cellar doors and hospitality venues that will eventually be expanded to Adelaide.
This year’s signature event ‘Taste of Spring’ will be hosted at Ferment Asian in Tanunda on October 5, culminating in what John describes as “a true Barossa lunch – one that finishes at five o’clock!”
The former Masterchef contestant, who famously refused to serve sub-standard food to the judges, has high hopes for the ambitious food and wine initiative.
“I’m a big foodie. I love experimenting with food and wine matching, and I just love the food that the Barossa has,” John says.
“Food and wine to me are the same as art – they are an expression of the individual. By serving a dish and a wine, you are serving yourself on a plate and in a glass.
“Like food, every Riesling has to meet my expectations, otherwise it doesn’t make it to the market.”