Riesling in Australia by Ken Helm and Trish Burgess

The history, the regions, the legends and the producers

By Robyn Lewis
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Riesling in Australia by Ken Helm and Trish Burgess

Riesling in Australia by Ken Helm and Trish Burgess [©Winetitles]


In 1788 the First Fleet carried not only convicts but grapevines to Australia, which laid the foundation of the Australian wine industry. Now, 222 years later, the first book dedicated to only one variety of grape and wine in Australia has been published.

Many people might nominate that variety as cabernet sauvignon or shiraz, the two Aussie big reds. However, it’s not a red that has made wine publishing history, but that aromatic, elegant white which originated in the Rhine region of Germany: Riesling, one of the top three white varieties of the world, along with chardonnay and sauvignon blanc.

The variety and its name have a long history. It was first recorded as Rießlingen in 1435, and the ‘modern’ spelling Riesling was first mentioned in 1552, written in German fashion with the capital R, which remains. The grape is suited to cooler climates and according to Wikipedia is still the most widely grown variety in Germany and the Alsace region of eastern France.

There are also significant plantings of Riesling in Austria, Luxembourg, northern Italy, New Zealand, United States, Canada, South Africa, China and the Ukraine – and of course, in Australia.

Australian Riesling has had a chequered career in recent times, in part because its name was taken in vain by a number of imposters, especially during the 1970s. Especially with the advent of flagons and later casks, whites of many lesser-known varieties were marketed as ‘Riesling’. These included Hunter semillons, crouchen blanc from the Clare Valley, various whites from the McLaren Vale, sylvaner and no doubt more.

All this ceased on New Year’s Day 2001 ­– a date which could well be nominated as Australian Riesling’s birthday – when the Federal Government stepped in to outlaw such confusing naming. From that day onwards, true Riesling has been able to regain its rightful place in Australian consumers’ minds and glasses.

It’s certainly been in mine – I am a huge lover of Riesling, which can range from dry to sweet, perfumed to fruity. It’s high in aroma and also acidity – the almost perfect food wine, matching many dishes from seafood through to desserts and cheeses. Add its normally low alcohol level and it’s a winner for lunch.

Riesling also has an ability to age and develop amazing characters over time. Look at the pale ash blonde of a young Riesling and you will hardly suspect what a golden beauty may await you as the wine matures in the cellar, for ten or even twenty years…. especially if not bottled under cork.

The screwcap has been another recent friend of Riesling. I was privileged to attend the tasting of a 1979 Pewsey Vale ‘Rhine’ Riesling put on by James Halliday at a recent Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. The bottle boasts a gold and silver medal from the Brisbane Wine Show. On the back label it says ‘This wine has been sealed with the unique “Stel-vin” closure instead of the traditional cork…. used for the first time in Australia following successful development in France’. Thirty plus years later, the wine was still fresh and delicious. At the time, this Riesling was considered a good wine, but it took a long time for consumers to accept the superiority of stelvin over cork for this and other delicate varieties. That the cap needed to carry the instructions ‘To Open Screw Off’ says it all.

Riesling in Australia delves deep into the history, the regions, the legends and the producers of this variety in Australia. It was the idea of famed Riesling grower and maker, Ken Helm AM of Helm Wines (near Murrumbateman), who like a number of Riesling growers is of part German ancestry. 

Helm approached Trish Burgess with the idea. Both are pioneers of winegrowing in the Canberra district, with years of contact with Australia’s Riesling makers through their respective roles in the 10 year history of the Canberra International Riesling Challenge. They have researched and written Riesling in Australia over the last three years.

The book provides an in-depth history of the variety in all Australian wine regions. Somewhat astonishingly, all 60 ‘approved’ Australian wine regions have Riesling growing within their boundaries, indicative of the variety’s wide climatic tolerance, although many argue that it truly shines in the cooler regions, and within them, in more elevated and cooler sub-regions and sites. (Brian Croser also opines that it makes better wine away from the sea, needing a diurnal temperature variation that he believes maritime climates do not provide; Tasmania – which can get frost to sea level - excepted, perhaps.)

There are chapters on Riesling viticulture by Louisa Rose, Chief Winemaker of Yalumba, Riesling flavour by Dr Leigh Francis of the Australian Wine Research Institute, and consumer perceptions and expectations.

There are also Riesling events around the world, which are mainly industry-focussed, but are also embracing the enthusiasm of Riesling fans, such as the Howard Park Annual International Riesling Tasting and Lunch, and Clare Valley’s Riesling Trail, which informs and educates the consumer, who walks or cycles between tastings.

Twenty ‘Legend Riesling Makers’ give their personal insights into their careers, wine making, growing the variety and their favourite wines. These include Brian Barry OAM, the late Jim and his son Peter Barry, Brian Croser AO, WA’s Tony Devitt, Jeffrey Grosset, Peter Lehmann AM, Tim Knappstein (many have given their names to their wine labels), Andrew Hood and Andrew Pirie AM of Tasmania, Wendy Stuckey and more, including Ken Helm AM and Wolf Blass AM BVK, the latter who also provides an enthusiastic foreword.

550 plus current Riesling producers in Australia are listed for easy reference (there are 806 to be found on VisitVineyards.com, although the balance are largely smaller producers), together with regional maps and an explanation of the Geographical Regions. The book includes interesting portraits such as that of Australia’s oldest living female vigneron, Margaret Pooley of Pooley Wines in Tasmania’s Coal River Valley, who at 95 is still tending Riesling vines at her Cooinda Vale property.

Riesling in Australia is well illustrated with photos of such industry characters, memorabilia including amusing old advertisements and dated labels from the 1970s, historical buildings, vineyards and more – even a Cargo Road Riesling in the snow at Orange, NSW – interspersed with quotes from industry luminaries such as James Halliday AM variously describing Riesling as the most versatile, cellar-worthy, toughest, rewarding, unforgiving….  or in Ken Helm’s words ‘the Queen of grapes’.

The book was launched in Canberra on June 28 by ACT Chief Minister Jon Stanhope MLA. Wolf Blass flew from Adelaide to participate.

Yes, it’s a book for people in the wine industry and Riesling nuts, but should also take a place on the library shelves of any Australian wine lover with more than a passing interest in how our wine industry has developed and where it is going.

One thing is for sure, Riesling is on the way up. I read elsewhere recently that there is reportedly a growing global shortage of Riesling and land suited to growing the Riesling grape. This on the one hand is creating opportunities for countries such as Chile to step into the market with substitute white varieties, but also creates opportunities for Australia, which has many suitable Riesling sites as yet unplanted, and even waiting to be discovered.

It may also mean that this variety – which to my mind has been underpriced and undervalued for so long – might soon see a price increase, with some of that hopefully going to reward the growers for their persistence and efforts.

When international wine writer Jancis Robinson made her 2010 New Year’s resolution thus, Riesling growers, makers and lovers know they’re onto a good thing: “ Meanwhile, my personal wish for 2010 is to drink more and more Riesling. It is relatively low in alcohol, high in flavour, develops beautifully in bottle, expresses terroir and goes very happily with so many of the foods we eat now.” Q.E.D.


Riesling in Australia by Ken Helm and Trish Burgess is published by Winetitles Pty Ltd (SA, 2010; sc 152 pp). RRP is A$49.50. The book can be purchased direct from Winetitles here (postage extra, A$8.80 in Australia, overseas postage rates up to A$11.50) 

Subscribers of VisitVineyards.com and Winepros Archive can also purchase Riesling in Australia at a small discount off RRP from our book partners Seekbooks here (postage extra).


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July 29th, 2010
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