We all know that somms love Riesling the way cats love catnip. So the chance to taste great examples from opposite ends of the world was not to be missed.
For our Masters of Riesling tasting, we had managed to gather Jean-Frédéric Hugel from Hugel in Alsace, and Louisa Rose from Pewsey Vale in the Eden Valley to talk us through some of their key wines. Our members got to taste, compare – and get stuck into some of the hottest issues of the day, in what turned out to be a fascinating deep-dive into a complex variety.
About the wineries
Hugel is one of the oldest wineries in France – and probably one of the oldest continuously-run family businesses anywhere in the world. It started in 1639 and, with Jean-Frédéric at the helm, is currently on its 13th generation.
The company is based in the stunning medieval walled town of Riquewihr, in the heart of Alsace, completely surrounded by vines.
‘It’s a viticultural town,’ says Jean-Frédéric. ‘Alsace is like Burgundy, but even more condensed.’
A long, narrow region with a complex, mixed-up geology, it has, Jean-Frédéric admits, taken the growers 2000 years to work out how the different soils and orientations affect the character of the grapes.Some 13 varieties are permitted, but Riesling remains the king.
‘It’s a terroir sponge,’ he says. ‘It has a unique ability to express terroir, which explains why there are so many more poor ones on the market – there are many more poor terroirs than there are great ones.’
Pewsey’s history might not be as long as that of Hugel, but it’s impressive nonetheless. First planted in 1847 it is one of the oldest vineyards in Australia.
Joseph Gilbert, an English settler, named it after his home town. Riesling was just one of several varieties he planted – he also tried Cabernet, Gouais Blanc and Verdelho – but it quickly became obvious that it was the variety that worked best in this area.
The Eden Valley is to the East of the Barossa, up on a range of hills. While the Barossa is at around 200m of altitude, with deep soils, the Eden Valley is around 500m up with very poor rocky soil full of mica, quartz and schist.
Temperatures rarely get above the low-30s, though during a heat spike they might climb to 35 degrees C. It’s typically two degrees cooler than the Barossa during the day, but 5-10 degrees cooler than the valley at night. Temperatures can get below 10 degrees C once the sun goes down – a diurnal shift of over 20 degrees C.
‘Cold nights are one of the keys to growing great Riesling,’ says Louisa Rose, who has been making the Pewsey Vale wines for 25 years. ‘You protect the acidity and get those beautiful persistent aromatics.’
Famille Hugel Classic Riesling 2019
The idea of this wine is to show ‘an Alsace archetype of wine,’ said Jean-Frédéric. ‘To make the best AOC Riesling in Alsace.’ It comes from a variety of soil types, from sandstone and granite to clay and limestone.
Climate change has altered the character of this wine in the space of two generations. ‘My grandfather’s generation thought that 9 degrees potential alcohol was ripe,’ says Jean-Frédéric. ‘They used to have to chaptalize a lot.’ The local sugar refinery, he said, has just closed down because nobody uses it any more.
This is from a tricky vintage of heatwaves and rain storms, and volumes are low. Though taken overall, the growing season was long and cool. Like all the Hugel wines it’s closed with a DIAM cork, of which more later.
Grossi Laüe Riesling 2012
Grossi Laüe (pronounced Grossi Loy) translates as ‘great vineyard’ in Alsace dialect. This wine is put together from a series of plots on the Schoenenbourg grand cru. One of the most sought-after locations in Alsace, its 35 degree slopes and southerly aspect have made it a great site for Riesling for hundreds of years.
‘Riesling is a late-ripening grape, and these are mostly cool, marly soils,’ explained Jean-Frédéric, so you need the maximum sun exposure.’
Because of the marly soils and southerly exposure, typically, the Schoenenbourg gives wines that are quite rich and velvety compared to, say, a Schlossberg or Mosel Riesling.
Typically, the Grossi Laüe is more ‘forward’ than the Schoelhammer, and perhaps because of this Adrian Fornal saw it as a good partner with ‘grilled lobster with garlic parsley butter.’
Schoelhammer Riesling 2010
The Schoelhammer (pronounced ‘shell hammer’) comes from a single organically-farmed vineyard in the heart of the Schoenenbourg. Always a favourite site of the family, they first decided to make it as a single-vineyard wine in 2007.
‘It’s in the sweet spot for the Schoenenbourg where there’s a bit more clay,’ said Jean-Frédéric. ‘It’s very late ripening, and naturally low yielding. The vines look like they are working.’
Though the Schoelhammer and the Grossi Laüe were not from the same vintage, Jean-Frédéric said that the stylistic variations that our tasters noted between them were more driven by their different terroirs than their ages.
‘The Schoelhammer is a longer-lived wine that evolves at a slower pace,’ he explained. Artyom Celegato agreed, saying it was less expressive on the nose but an ‘absolute winner’ on the palate with a ‘great mouthfeel and a velvety finish.’
Konstantinos Nestoridis kept his food match local, saying he felt it would be great with cod, Alsace bacon and cream.
Pewsey Vale Eden Valley Riesling 2020
If you think vintage variation isn’t important in Australia, then think again. This wine came from a dry winter, windy spring (which affected flowering) and a cooler than average summer. The result was a concentrated, elegant expression of Riesling.
‘Total acidity is only in the low- to mid-6s. But the pH is really quite low – 2.8 or 2.9 is common,’ said Louisa Rose. ‘So you get that lovely soft acidity, but then the minerality coming across the palate.’ She cited flavours of limes, white flowers and dried rosemary.
Pewsey Vale The Contours Riesling 2015, Pewsey Vale The Contours Riesling 2010
The Contours wine comes from a specific site within the Pewsey Vale vineyard. The rows of vines here are planted in undulating waves that follow the contours of the land (hence the name). The soil is no different to any of the rest of the Pewsey Vale vineyard, but its south facing exposure is unique.
‘Most of our vineyards face north, towards the sun,’ says Louisa Rose. ‘But this one faces away from it.’ The result, she says, is a wine that is ‘more refined – lemons rather than limes, and slightly more acidity.’
The plan behind the Contours Rieslings was always to cellar them and release them as aged wines. 2015 is the current release – but the 2010 shows just how wonderfully, and gently, they age. In this they may be helped by their screwcap closure (again, more on this later).
The vineyard is biodynamically farmed and certified.
‘The Contours taste like they are wines of the place,’ said Louisa. ‘The winemaking decision that I make is when to pick the grapes, but before and after that the vineyard really does everything on its own. Even the yeasts come from the vineyard.’
‘Most of the time people say a wine is too young, so I have no issues in selling a mature Riesling,’ said Davide Renna, while Harry Cooper pointed out that, since his venue was moving on to veal next month, aged Riesling could be a good match.
Emanuel Pesqueira went down the seafood route. ‘Ten year old Riesling is perfect with grilled limpets served with lemon butter,’ he said.
Petrol, decanting and screwcaps – Riesling’s big issues answered!
The tasting also generated some discussion on other key Riesling topics, which should help us all better understand the grape’s particuliarities.
The petrol question…
‘Should aged Riesling taste of petrol or is it a winemaking fault,’ asked Davide Renna. ‘And if so is there anything you can do to stop it?
‘We don’t even ask ourselves the question,’ said Jean-Frédéric. ‘Trying to create it or mitigate against it would be using a winemaking trick, so it would not be what we’d consider a terroir wine. Whether it appears or not is up to the vineyard. But it’s going to come at some stage in an older Riesling. If you don’t like it, I’d recommend drinking it young. In a Schoenenbourg, for example, it might appear after five years, but be gone by the time it’s 20.’
Louisa, meanwhile, disliked the term ‘petrol’. We’re all about clean, green viticulture, so to use a term from the petrochemical industry seems wrong!’ she said. ‘We talk about toast and sage-oil, lemon grass… flavours like that.’
She said that there is, however, a character you can see in Riesling that does smell like what you’d put in your car, and that was a winemaking fault. ‘It comes from underripe grapes with very green flavours in the skins that have been damaged – perhaps by sunburn. Those flavours in a wine become quite oily and unattractive.’
Decanting – should you or shouldn’t you..?
‘It’s the same as for any wine,’ said Jean-Frédéric. ‘If it’s already at an advanced age it would destroy it. If it still has some ageing ahead of it decanting is going to magnify it.’
‘I decant just about everything,’ said Louisa. ‘I love the theatre of it, but decanting also gives Riesling an opportunity to wake up and come to life. I haven’t met too many that aren’t immediately better following decanting.’
Screwcap v Cork
‘This will be a fight between the northern and southern hemisphere,’ joked Jean-Frédéric. He could see the reliability advantages of screwcap compared to natural cork, and admitted that they had had problems with the latter in the past. ‘We’d taste ten bottles and they’d be ten different wines!’ he said. As a result, they ‘walked away from a natural cork and towards Diam [reconstituted cork]. We got no bottle variation and no cork taint.’
The Pewsey Vale Rieslings were all screwcapped from the 1970s onwards, which was very unusual at the time. And clearly too unusual for the world’s sommeliers who struggled to accept it! The first Contours wine (1995) was screwcapped, and by the time it was released five years later, other regions – and countries had adopted the closure, making it easier to sell. ‘It’s the perfect seal for Rieslings whether as young wines or aged,’ said Louisa.