The only constant is change. The evolution of Great Southern Riesling

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Dry Riesling wines from the Great Southern region of Western Australia are part of the foundation of Howard Park.  The very first wines released by the company from the 1986 vintage were Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling, and we have an unbroken run of 33 consecutive vintages of Riesling produced as we embark on the 2019 grape harvest.  Over that time the region and the variety have proven how perfectly they complement each other, Rieslings from vineyards in the defined subregions of Mount Barker, Porongurup, Frankland, Denmark and Albany have taken their place among Australia’s finest examples.

The variety is revered by wine producers and lovers alike and was the natural choice for our founding winemaker John Wade to realise his stated vision of producing wines of elegance and balance that would be capable not just of longevity in the cellar, but of a true and beneficial evolution to reward the efforts involved with careful storage.  It’s a template that has guided the Burch family and successive winemakers through to Janice McDonald that has contributed to an exemplary consistency of style for Riesling from Howard Park.

Howard Park Vintage Riesling

Riesling is a grape that very often finds its way from vine to bottle with minimal manipulation during the production process.  The free-run juice that escapes from grapes as they are piled into the press is the prized nectar, high in natural acidity and unsullied by the more intense compounds that leach from the skins and seeds under the weight of the first pressing.  When this juice is captured and settles to brilliant pale clarity in a stainless steel tank, the introduction of yeast will spark fermentation which proceeds gradually at cool temperatures until all the grape sugars are consumed.  The wine will mature further for several months post fermentation, often resting on its fine lees, tiny particles that settle out from the liquid over time, before these are left behind with gentle filtration prior to bottling.  Many winemakers feel that the finished wines transmit the essence of their variety and vineyard with brilliant veracity due to this lack of intervention.

The question can fairly be asked with Riesling - when is this transmission most clearly received? The bottling of the wine six months after harvest marks the beginning of a transformative journey that can last for two decades and beyond.  The intense floral perfume so easily perceived and enjoyed in young Riesling is far removed from the complex and almost mysterious aromas of candied fruit and peel, toast, pine needles, mushroom and smoke that can pervade mature examples, while the palate profile develops over time from fresh fruit to cooked and from citrus and apple into the varied nuances of stone and tropical fruits. 

The high acidity inherent in Riesling grapes is the firm cradle that supports this fascinating evolution; noticeable in youth as it stands proud and drives ethereal  flavour across the tongue, and eventually absorbed fully into the body of the wine, bringing texture, weight and savouriness into play.  As the chemical structure breaks down, molecules that defined the character of the young Riesling through their flavour expression are degraded, while others that were previously masked begin to assert their influence.  The infamous “kerosene nose” which can polarise Riesling lovers if it appears after a few years in bottle is a great example.  Deriving from the compound 1,1,6-trimethyl-1,2- dihydronaphthalen, more easily known as TDN, it can accumulate in ripening grapes particularly during warmer vintages yet have its highly perceptible aroma masked by other compounds that promote the primary characters evident in youth.  When or if it does emerge it brings delight to some and distaste to others, a great example of Riesling’s enduring fascination.

Howard Park Wine Cellar

In the context of one’s personal journey of wine appreciation, the exposure to representative mature examples can be a surprise and a revelation.  Riesling has wide disparity of sensory characteristics over time which is clearly evident through the ageing process and it is perfectly acceptable to take a position on the phase that appeals the most, or to bravely embrace all the possibilities available.

 Australian winemakers have long been cognisant of the inferiority of the cork seal to provide Riesling with the best chance to age as prodigiously as possible, and began trials with the newly invented Stelvin cap as far back as the 1970s before almost universal adoption in Australia from the turn of the century.  The “screwcap revolution” which gives us confidence in the consistent quality of our fine wines was driven by these Riesling fanatics and it helps us now to not only enjoy aged Riesling in all its compelling glory, but to understand more clearly how wines grown in different regions differ in their essential character – across states or even in adjacent subregions like Polish Hill and Watervale in the Clare Valley or Mount Barker and Porongurup in the Great Southern.

Howard Park Riesling in Cellar

Howard Park Rieslings have been sealed with screwcap since the 2001 vintage, and with our museum collection stored in ideal conditions at the Margaret River winery we are approaching the opportunity to survey their consistent evolution over a 20 year period.  This period encompasses that natural variation found in different vintages along with the advancement of our understanding of viticulture and optimum growing techniques.  The fruit sourcing has narrowed in that time towards our estate Mount Barrow vineyard in Mount Barker, planted in 2005 with Riesling vines that sit at the highest elevation in Western Australia, as well as the breathtaking Gibraltar Rock vineyard further to the east in Porongurup.  The Mount Barker fruit promotes expressive citrus and pome fruit characters while the Porongurup site emphasises lime skin and mineral flavours, springwater purity and fine linear acidity – their differences in youth are compelling and with age thought-provoking.

If you have the capacity to leave your Riesling alone in the dark at a cool temperature that doesn’t vary, you can create some vinous magic in your own your own home and experience not only the sensory delight and intrigue of young, adolescent and mature specimens but also their suitability with remarkably varied cuisine from simple fresh seafood through to complex Asian dishes, cured meats and rich cheeses.  In 2019 Howard Park wine club members and visitors to our cellar door can enjoy the benefits of our own careful cellaring and in addition to our current release and regular “museum release” program of five year old Riesling, will be able to taste and purchase a range of vintages from this decade and the previous, a unique chance to orient your personal taste or open up new horizons on the landscape of this fascinating noble wine.