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Old wine in new bottles

How Australia is reinventing Germany's much-maligned Riesling. By Anthony Rose
The revival of the Riesling grape has been rumoured for so long that you could be almos be forgiven for losing interest. If you had, though, you might have missed something, for, according to Kim Tidy at Thresher, it actually happened last year, with Australian and New Zealand Riesling at the forefront. Now, Tidy thinks Europe could follow - "But there's a lot of work to do first." Sales of Riesling, most of it Australasian, rose by 30 per cent at Thresher last year and now account for 8 per cent of all its white varietal sales - still a poor relation of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, but growing richer.

If there is an element of wishful thinking on Tidy's part, Riesling has at least made progress. Much of this has to do with the success of the Big Three - Penfolds, BRL-Hardy and Orlando - in retargeting the wine to overcome its image problem. "People associate Riesling with something sulphurous, foul, Germanic and above all sweet," says Tidy. For this reason, the Big Three have worked hard on changing the look of their Rieslings.

According to Kate Blazey of Hardy's, research indicated that the drier, Aussie-style Riesling would sell better in a Bordeaux bottle in paler green, as the more traditional bottle-green flute suggested a sweeter Germanic style.

Thus, to differentiate it from German Riesling, and, worse still, from Liebfraumilch, BRL-Hardy and Jacob's Creek have utilised Bordeaux bottles, while Penfolds has put its Rawson's Retreat Bin 202 into a Burgundy bottle.

The repackaging proved a success. When Jacob's Creek Riesling was launched in 1991 in a Germanic flute, sales were sluggish. However, following the introduction of the Bordeaux bottle in 1994, they trebled overnight, and have since climbed to 120,000 cases. According to Peter Carr of Caxton Tower, the importer of Jacob's Creek: "Riesling is still only 10 per cent of the Jacob's Creek brand [the Semillon/ Chardonnay is the best-seller], but we're a fair way to cracking it."

But how do the Big Three stack up? The 1997 Penfolds Bin 202 Riesling, South Australia, pounds 3.99, widely available, tastes the driest and zingiest. Its attractively fragrant fruitiness, which comes from high-grade grapes, mainly from the Clare and Eden Valleys, is balanced by a crisp, limey acidity that makes it the best partner for the Thai-style cuisine which suits Riesling so well. The 1997 Jacob's Creek Dry Riesling, pounds 4.59, widely available, has Riesling's hallmark fragrance, but is softer and fruitier than the Penfolds, making it a reliable aperitif or party white, while the 1997 Hardy's Nottage Hill Dry Australian Riesling, pounds 4.99, Victoria Wine, is noticeably more opulent. Yet, for sheer verve, concentration and zest at under a fiver, Wynn's 1996 Coonawarra Riesling, pounds 4.99 (Sainsbury's Wine Cellar, Berkeley Wines, Majestic, Oddbins), outdoes all three.

But if you're prepared to venture over pounds 5, you're more likely to come across a Riesling whose personality says something about its regional origins and climatic variations. At a recent tasting of Rieslings from Australia, almost all the 60-odd wines shown came from cooler regions, a fact which belies the the Australian stereotype of infinite surf and sunshine. According to Peter Carr, Orlando is busy persuading growers who could make more from other varieties, not to pull out their Riesling and by so doing uproot a valuable heritage - Riesling production fell by 15 per cent last year because of the Chardonnay and red wine boom.

Many of the more elegant Aussie Rieslings hail from South Australia's Clare Valley, where the variety's ability to develop with age has made it a speciality. In particular, the Watervale district throws up some beauties - such as the 1997 Jim Barry Watervale Riesling, pounds 7.99, Oddbins. Allied to its exotic fragrance, this has a crisp citrus fruitiness which captures the quintessence of cool-climate Clare Riesling. For sheer value, the 1997 Yalumba Watervale Riesling, pounds 5.99, Oddbins, conveys the essence of Watervale Riesling. Both are due in soon.

The 1993 Clare Valley Riesling from Tim Knappstein shows how this wine can evolve into a drier and toastier style. Five years is nothing, though, compared with a 1973 Pewsey Vale Rhine Riesling from Eden Valley, shown (unfortunately for interest only) by Thresher at its spring tasting. Thresher's range of Aussie Rieslings is impressive, with Samuel's Bay Riesling, pounds 6.99 (Thresher Wine Rack, Bottoms Up), full of aromatic power, fruit richness and lively, zesty acidity.

Stylish, dry Riesling is also one of Western Australia's fortes, with wines such as the 1996 Leeuwin Estate Art Series Riesling, pounds 9.79, Noel Young Wines, Cambridge (01223 844744). This is a classic style with full- flavoured exotic citrus fruitiness, but stylishly restrained. Within Victoria, a number of small cool-climate districts vie for the best Riesling, notably Yarra Valley, Central Victoria, King Valley and Great Western. The 1996 Mount Langhi Ghiran Riesling, pounds 8.79-pounds 8.99, Noel Young, Grog Blossom, London NW6 (0171-794 7808), is one of the most elegant, combining restrained fruitiness with a fine lemon-zesty tang. And from Central Victoria, the 1996 Delatite Hell's Window Riesling, pounds 8.08, John Armit Wines, London W11 (0171-727 6846), is delicately spicy, complex and appetisingly dry. If styles such as these help to restore the good name of Riesling, Europe could have much to be grateful for

White of the week

1997 Matra Mountain Sauvignon Blanc, Btaszek Region, pounds 3.69, Safeway. From one of an impressive array of new vintage whites from the Hungarian co-operative Neszmely at Safeway's May Wine Fair, running until next Saturday, this is perky, spritz-fresh, young Sauvignon Blanc, with the grape variety's refreshingly aromatic hallmark of elderflower and a sharply edged, grassy, green-pepper finish.

Red of the week

1997 Merlot delle Venezie, pounds 2.29, Somerfield. Just time to nip down to Somerfield, where, among a number of reds on promotion until Tuesday, this youthfully cherryish Italian glugger has been cut by buyer Angela Mount from its pounds 3.49 list price. Fresh, soft and juicy like a young claret without the tannins, a good party or house red.