|Botrytised grapes left to rot on the vine|
A common site in the Adelaide Hills
(where this photo was taken) this vintage
A vintage that has been described as 'the worst vintage in 61 years' (that would be outspoken Barossan grower Leo Pech) or as 'the best Riesling vintage in 30 years' (that's Jeffrey Grosset, renowned Clare Valley winemaker). Whatever your take on the vintage, there's no question that 2011 remained a challenging vintage in many parts of the nation (Western Australia and the Hunter excluded to various degrees) whether most people would like to admit it or not.
What made this vintage so challenging was simply a story of unusual weather. Weather that saw (in many parts of the nation) unprecedented summer rain, humidity and a general lack of sunshine through much of the growing season, a set of weather conditions that, when coupled together, made for the ideal environment for the spread of traditional grapevine diseases (such as downy mildew and botrytis).
To further complicate such matters, these conditions were experienced in places that just aren't used to seeing serious disease pressures. Areas like the Barossa Valley or (to a slightly lesser extent) McLaren Vale, areas where some growers had never seen botrytis in their vineyard (and as such were caught completely ill prepared to deal with the effects), with even the old timers reporting that they'd only seen such rain over vintage one other time in the last 50 years (in 1974). Further, if you did manage to avoid 'the rot', a simple lack of heat over the growing season meant that many grapes never achieved full phenological ripeness. Heck there was even a chronic shortage of the very chemicals required to combat grapevine diseases (such as wettable sulphur) so that if growers were ill prepared they couldn't actually control the diseases anyway.
Given such a confluence of perils it is probably of little surprise that stories of misadventure, poor quality grapes and questionable practices abound. Of the rumoured 3 million litres that were pasteurised (call it what you will, but it's essentially cooking the wine) to counter the effects of high laccase enzyme levels (as high laccase levels are immune to sulphur, oxidises phenols and turns red wines brown). Of the large swathes of vineyard that weren't picked (which I can vouch for having driven through the Eden Valley and Adelaide Hills in May and witnessed so many grapes still hanging on the vine), or if picked were promptly rejected by the large producers only to be snaffled up by less scrupulous operators. Of the large amounts of grape concentrate added to many wines in an attempt to increase the (missing) concentration from such a cool vintage.
The good news, however, is that many of the best growers and the best producers will still make great wines. The age old adage 'always follow the best producers in the bad vintages' rings particularly true in 2011, with those grape growers/viticulturists et al. that managed to open up canopies, apply the required sprays and remove any rot immediately ultimately produced solid, even great (if occasionally atypical) wines. Of course the issue now is that the vintage will always carry that 'worst ever' stigma, with producers such as Brian Croser (at Tapanappa) already envisioning not releasing a single estate wine from 2011, due purely to such dogging, negative perceptions.
Again I can't stress enough that this is a perception, a perception that irks many producers whom worked very hard and have ended up with clean grapes and good wines. Producers in regions like Margaret River where they have enjoyed a very good harvest and don't want to be tarred by the 'worst vintage ever' brush. Producers whom sprayed and sprayed and plucked and sprayed and toiled. Producers whom read the reports that suggested that a La Niña weather pattern was entirely possible and got to work early in the season managing the vineyard. Producers whom realise that vineyard and winery sorting should be de rigueur for anyone purporting to make high quality wines.
Of course if there is one variety that may have weathered the storm (pardon the pun) particularly well it is Riesling, a variety that in it's classical home (Germany or Alsace) is often exposed to serious disease pressures, with botrytis simply part of the deal. Riesling too can be picked early and is well suited to carrying extra sugar and high acidity, all of which make it more suitable to wet cool years.
In practice, however, wading through many 2011 Clare/Eden Valley/Henty/Canberra etc Rieslings is something of a challenging exercise and the biggest problem is simply one of ripeness, with so many wines carrying a peculiar hardness associated with unripe grapes. A hardness that is directly linked to the sensation you get biting into a grape/strawberry/apple that was picked unripe and then chemically ripened in a growers cool room. A sensation - more particularly - of unripe acidity (a topic that really deserves much more attention than this throw-away line) a characteristic that ultimately renders many wines to be one glass wonders.
All of which brings us to this bracket of 2011 Clare Rieslings. A bracket that I approached with an open mind, hoping and praying that the five wines within had all been produced from those grapes that had been fortunate/loved enough to get over the ripeness line.
In reality, the tasting evolved into an exercise of 'pick the ripe grapes', a game that is largely unheard of when talking about Australian wines and something that I can't say I enjoyed. On the flipside though the best wines, the physically ripe wines, may well be the longest living Australian Rieslings ever, spurred along by acidity that is so sturdy it can prop up just about anything. The trouble is simply isolating the gooduns....
|Five 2011 Rieslings|
Mylanta chaser out of picture
Knappstein Handpicked Riesling 2011 (Clare Valley, SA) 12% $19.99
Carries a light lemony withdrawn nose that is tight and unyielding, with just a few whispers of talc to escape. The palate though is trill and hard, the acidity green and chalky. Acid no fruit, with a flatness that suggests average quality grapes that look to have been 'processed. This got flatter by the minute to boot. Not a fan, though there remains a question mark about whether this may improve in the bottle. 14/81
Rieslingfreak No. 3 Riesling 2011 (Clare Valley, SA) 11.5% $23
Immediatley a more floral and 'real' wine, with lifted citrus hints and just a hint of hint of sherbet and slate in amongst the acidity that the nose exudes. Palate too is tight if still expressive, with some sweetness on the through the middle that helps fill out the length, though it just can't compete with the trill sour edge of the vintage. Length is a redeemer, though the lemon/lime acidity is warhead like in it's sour intensity. Clearly more expressive and powerful with much to come in years ahead, I still couldn't quite get my head around the acidity. 16/87+
Jim Barry Watervale Riesling 2011 (Clare Valley, SA) 12% $19
There's a flicker of Watervale lime juice here which I was so excited to see. It's reined in pretty quickly though, the bite of lemon juice acidity literally bites hard. Again the extra sweetness helps out here but no escaping the genuinely bitter acidity. Ok length but not quite enough to redeem 15.5/86
Jim Barry Lodge Hill Riesling 2011 12.5%
Easily the standout in this lineup. Like the Rieslingfreak there is more expression on the nose with some welcome florals over a piercing, slatey and firm palate that is very dry but carries the most welcome lime juice generosity. The longest wine in this lineup, with a solemn finish but nothing unripe about the acidity. Drinkable gear. 17.6/91
Clos Clare Watervale Riesling 2011 12.5%
Sweet and sour nose with just a hint of rot. Has some nice orange blossom floral hints though. Tight and quite angular palate is giving up little, very little, but with a deepness to it all that is quite convincing. Acid surprisingly fresh and balanced. though it's so contained. Little to give but I can see the potential. 16.8/89++