Great Australian riesling

By Nola James

16 Dec, 2022

Australia is famous for bone-dry rieslings with trademark lemon-lime notes and sky-high acidity. But don’t overlook its richer, more textural styles – especially if you’re after a wine that goes hand-in-hand with food.

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“In Australia, everyone thinks riesling is going to be dry,” says Jane Lopes, California-born, Tennessee-based co-founder of Legend Australian Wine Imports. “And everyone pretty much wants a dry riesling, too. Or at least...they think they do.”

Jane, who spent three years as wine director for acclaimed Melbourne restaurant Attica, says the opposite is true in the US. “It’s still a surprise for most American consumers that a dry riesling exists,” she says. 

The tasting menu at Attica kicks off with 10 snacks, which Jane would pair with two rieslings – usually an Australian or New Zealand next to a European example. She says most people expected to prefer the dry riesling, but it was the wine with a little residual sugar that blew people away. “We had trouble keeping people’s glasses full!” she says.

Riesling is not the only white grape that lends itself to sweetness – chenin blanc and pinot gris come to mind – but it’s one of the best, due to its tendency to ripen late; the extra hang time helps to build sugar without losing natural acidity. The sugar in wine is different to the sugar in soft drink or desserts, though. Residual sugar is grape sugar not converted to alcohol during fermentation. Many dry wines also have residual sugar with no obvious sweetness – brut champagne, for example, can hit 12 grams per litre and still taste dry.

John Hughes John Hughes of Rieslingfreak in South Australia.

One local producer who has truly embraced the dry-to-sweet spectrum of riesling is John Hughes of South Australia’s Rieslingfreak. He makes 11 expressions – and counting. “We make a traditional method sparkling, a fortified, we do dry riesling and we do sweet. There aren’t many grape varieties in the world you can do that with,” he says.

John grew up on the family vineyard in Clare Valley before heading off to university, where a love of riesling earned him the nickname “riesling freak”. The moniker has adorned his labels since 2009 – fitting, as he doesn’t work with any other grapes.

John uses a non-sequential numbering system for his wines. The inaugural No. 1 Riesling wasn’t released until 2017. “I wanted to design a barrel to ferment the wine in, and that takes a lot of time and money,” he says. It’s $100 a bottle, only made in the best years and the fruit is hand-picked and wild fermented. The best-selling No. 3 is most typical of South Australia’s dry riesling style, with typical racy acidity and citrus tang, however John says the No. 5, an off-dry riesling, is hot on its heels in terms of popularity. “It’s only 13 grams [of residual sugar], but people don’t perceive it to be sweet,” John says.

Despite the abstract numbering, the Rieslingfreak wines are easy to figure out. Like a growing number of winemakers, he uses the International Riesling Foundation (IRF) infographic on his back labels. “The IRF scale shows the wines from dry to sweet – we have a little arrow to identify where it sits in terms of style,”