30 December 2012
CLARE RIESLING : WHERE'S THE WORTH?
Grosset Springvale Watervale Clare Valley Riesling 2012
$37; 12.5% alcohol; screw cap; 88+ points
Clare is not a valley. It’s really the North Mount Lofty Ranges: more of a mess of upland vales which drain in different directions, out of those ancient nuggety hills onto the surrounding badlands. They display a similar fine mess of varied geologies, which gives the joint some of its fascination, and might begin to justify two vales and a valley finding their way onto this label in spite of the fact of the fruit coming from the one site. Another common confusion is the popular bullshit that like Coonawarra, the Watervale vineyards are in terra rossa topsoil over limestone. Wrong. The white stuff of Watervale is calcrete. The best explanation I can easily lay my hand on comes from western Kansas and you can read it here. But back to Watervale. This wine smells like Watervale. It has that slightly acrid dust-and-stubble whiff that greets you when you drive all the way there in the summer and suddenly open a car window or door. And it smells of the classical lemon and lime pith of Watervale. The wines from these fine slopes are usually less complex and less tropically fruity than the Polish Hill/River/Valley wines, and, while tight, a fair deal more generous of spirit than the highly austere schoolmasterly Rieslings of Eden Valley. This ticks all those boxes, but to me it seems to lack the tight finishing focus I expect of the best of the Watervale calcretes, and like its Polish sister, seems a little floppy and fuzzy. Especially for 2012. A nice drink, but. Rizza for the Chablister Sisters and the lo-oak Chardy Cardies, but wha? At this price? Naw. Not really.
O’Leary-Walker Winemakers Watervale Clare Riesling 2012
$20; 12.5% alcohol; screw cap; 92++ points
The claim to limestone on the back label here is probably the wine’s only real fault. This is classic Watervale Riesling, rich with lime juice, lime pith, and slightly toasted lime skin, as if somebody’s put the spent peel on top of the woodfire stove like my Mum used to do. Sure beat Glen Fucking Twenty. It’s a more generous aroma than the coolest Clares offer, richer than, say, a Chablis, and much richer than Eden Valley, but with a whoof of that summery Clare air, laden with stubble and dust and gorse and a little stringy bark. It’s a real good drink: not as cold and Presbyterian spinstery as some Watervales, but lush and clean and streamlined and cushioned just enough to make me dribble at the thought of scallops on the half-shell roast over real charcoal with aged soy and shredded mandarin peel and a little fresh spring onion garnish added before tabling. But that’s not limestone. It’s calcrete.
O’Leary-Walker Winemakers Polish Hill River Riesling 2012
$22; 12.5% alcohol; screw cap; 93++++
The Doctors’ Vineyard was for many years the source of Grosset’s famous Polish Hill Riesling, a name he guarded jealously, as if he'd settled the district. O'Leary-Walker Winemakers now have a very happy relationship and contract with the same physicians while Grosset takes his fruit from a new vineyard next door. Across Blue Cutting Road you’ll find farm master Martin Smith’s Riesling vineyard. I say master because Smiffy’s something of a doctor in his own way: setting up many of the earliest modern trellised vineyards around the Polish Valley in the ’eighties. In his brutally practical and intelligent manner. Both the Smith and orginal Polish Hill vineyards contribute to this wine. Which seems a touch shy and withdrawing right now, as if it needs a good quarter of a century to get a civil tongue in its head. But let it sit in the glass awhile, and it o-so-gradually begins to drop the surly “So whatteryou lookin at?” routine to more of a sassy “Okay I’ll show you my tits if you promise not to touch ’em.” It’s a tight, seamless thing to sniff, first giving the hooter a summery tickle of the mean old schists, slates, and mudstones that make up the scant soil. Then the flesh starts to pucker and swell, tropical and spicy. Lychee, rambutan, cherimoya, carambola, plantain, feijoa: you’ll find whiffs and twists of the whole damn fruit market in there if you linger. The flavours are intense and authoritative, but perhaps even more ungiving than that bouquet was at first. It has a slurpy, steely viscosity that’s more burnished whipsnake than brittle citric, but it’s still unmistakable Polish Hill River Riesling of the highest order. It’ll take many years to properly settle and bloom - pack some away!
Grosset Polish Hill Clare Valley Riesling 2012
$49; 12.5% alcohol; screw cap; 90++
This wine’s more open in the shirt division than the O’Leary-Walker – it’s more a creamed-and-powdered Liz Taylor teasing Jimmy Dean in Giant than the bossy, lean and mean Kathryn Hepburn/Barbara Stanwyck style O’L-W gets from the original vineyard. (I reckon them gals woulda preferred to wear bracing men’s perfume, with the dimethyl sulphide edge of the ocean, salt, citrus, and plenty of vetiver.) This style gap could simply be a result of the vast difference in the age of the vines: these younger ones, right next door to The Doctors’ vineyard, are maybe just a little more blowsy; but the claimed numbers aside, I suspect this one’s of higher alcohol, too – these aromatics are more of the alcohol-soluble type. The aroma shows more fleshy lychee and rambutan than do the more austere, woodier fruits of the neighbour, and quite some lime cordial after the Bickford’s style. The texture is immediately more viscous and fluffy, and the acids seem softer if a little more obvious and separate. Not nearly the muscly, lean style of the O’L-W, but more of an early drinker, if just a little breathless and dissolute. I can see why some love it: it’s easier to love. More of a pushover. But friggin expensive. Who are these people?
Johnny Ruciak was the last Pole to live in the Polish Valley area, south-east of Clare toward the famous slate-mining town of Mintaro. I took this photograph of him and his dog leaning against the wall of his house in about 1985. He had hard mud floors and no electricity, and was a beautiful peaceful and helpful person who never understood what idle meant. Johnny kept a perfect copperplate diary of the weather and the garden (vineyard) activities every day of his long and happy, but very hard, life. He always enjoyed taking me in there for a cup of tea - after lighting a fire to boil the water - while he explained the details of every change in climate and weather over seventy years, always pulling another precious volume of his fastidious writings from the seaman's trunk his grandparents had brought with them from Silesia. He recorded forensically accurate details of everything, from the way the sky looked to the flavour of the tomatoes and the moisture in the soil, every day of his life. I never heard him complain. Those stones are what gives these Polish Valley wines their special flavours. Johnny was a real good man.
PS: A note about price: Riesling is a tough, acidic white grape. To make wine from it, you typically pick it, press it, remove the juice from the skins, store this in a chilled stainless steel tank, add yeast or let wild yeast ferment it by letting the tank warm a little, cold-settle it for clarification, sulphur it for preservation, filter it and bottle it. This can be done in days. No oak is required, and no sophistry other than cleanliness need be involved in the procedure. In other words, the wine should be inexpensive. So how can one producer charge so much more than another when the vineyards are virtually adjacent? Fame? To this critic, the choice is a no-brainer. But if you find yourself feeling sorry for Jeff Grosset as you buy your bottle of O'Leary-Walker, buy the latter anyway, and send Jeff $20 for each bottle you purchase.