Not being especially confident that the wines would immediately find an audience in a crowded marketplace, I was determined to make wines that had the capacity to live long lives; that would appeal to the lovers of tension and mineral freshness in their youth, as well as those that enjoyed the incremental accumulation of wine-wisdom and complexity that maturity might bestow. I didn’t wish to make wines that bloomed in their first year before being derailed by early development.
When John Hughes, another special friend tasted those first two wines and heard that they were named after two of the three Norns in Wagner’s ‘Der Ring des Nibelungen’ he enthusiastically asked if he could become part of the project and craft a wine representing the third of the Norns. I had been an admirer and supporter of John’s Rieslingfreak wines since day one; I was both flattered and excited by his request.
I was mindful that the Rieslingfreak portfolio represented and celebrated the regions most often associated with South Australian Riesling. Several of his wines are made from the fruit lovingly grown by his family in White Hut in the northern part of the Clare Valley. The grapes for his other wines are sourced from nearby Polish Hill and the Barossa’s High Eden. Rather than cannibalise his own range, I requested that he find fruit from a different region, suggesting the Adelaide Hills as I have always enjoyed (among others) the Rieslings made by Stephen George at Ashton Hills, with their apple skin scent and bright acid freshness. John spent some months seeking a potential source of excellent fruit in the Hills for the 2019 vintage, without success.
The relationships established over time in the wine game weave together a far-flung network of like-minded protagonists and serendipitous possibilities. In December 2018 I was contacted by another old friend, Natalie Fryar, former Jansz winemaker, now ensconced in northern Tasmania where she creates a range of crystalline sparkling wines under the Bellebonne label as well as the boutique Abel Gins, fragrant with native botanicals foraged from within her region. Natalie was keen for me to taste her most recent cuvees of Bellebonne. Accompanying her was Hugh McCulloch, her partner in business and life and winemaker for his own small label Wellington and Wolfe, dedicated to the production of crisp, pure and expressive Rieslings made from fruit sourced from the Tamar Valley and Pipers River regions of Tasmania.
I had to ask. Not only did Natalie suggest that some quality Tamar Valley Riesling fruit might be available, she and Hugh were thrilled at the exposure a John Hughes-made wine would bring to their region. Natalie confirmed that if I was after ten tonnes of fruit that she would be unable to help, but if I was after one or two tonnes, she could definitely make it happen.
In March 2019 Natalie indicated that the Riesling was approaching early ripeness. I flew down to Tasmania and together with Nat and Hugh, tasted the grapes in the Goaty Hill Riesling vineyard. It was a cool autumn day; a tarpaulin of grey cloud pulled down tight over the landscape.
I was immediately struck by the difference of flavours apparent in the grapes in this cooler, more marginal climate. Instead of the lime and grapefruit that I associate with Eden Valley and Clare, these grapes suggested the flavours of rose petals. There were hedonistic floral flavours that reminded me more of Gewurztraminer than of Riesling as I understood it, but with Riesling’s finer line of electric acidity.
Being familiar with John’s preference for earlier harvested fruit, we resolved to pick as soon as possible. Whilst traipsing through that vineyard, Natalie was already on the phone making the necessary arrangements to pick over the next weekend, before a deluge that was forecast for the following Monday.
The grapes were duly picked and immediately gently crushed in Tasmania, the juice sent pronto in a bladder to the Rolf Binder’s winery here in the Barossa. If you follow winemaking ‘numbers’, these were textbook: 11.2 Baume; 9.8TA; PH of 3.0. John Hughes and I immediately organised a tasting. In John’s words:
“As the first Tassie Riesling I have made, I was super excited, when receiving the chilled juice from Tasmania. Tasting the elegance and purity of the juice, I knew we were going to end up with something special in the bottle. The tight acid structure on the juice, screamed Off Dry to me, in terms of wine style. We monitored the ferment daily, tasting and waiting for that moment of balance. Coming in at 9.8% alcohol and 35 g/L Sugar, we found balance and contentment in the glass”.
Over the next ten days, John and I met each morning at 8.30am and tasted the juice, observing the gradual ebbing of sugar, the slow transformation of juice into wine. My initial instinct was to let it go dry, but John was persuasive: he easily convinced me that when the wine had two Baume left, the balance was both perfect and perfectly exciting and that the 35g of residual sugar were ‘hidden’ beneath the vibrant line of acidity.
On 23rd May I met John to taste the finished wine. The wine was beyond my wildest dreams. A lively intensely varietal bouquet preceded a pristine palate, so perfectly balanced that the sweetness is almost invisible. The wine has real ‘tuning fork’ purity, dimension, with unctuous mouthfeel and a long resonating finish.
I asked John to suggest a cellaring suggestion. Emphatically, he immediately declared thirty years, as one might expect from a Kabinett from Joh. Jos. Prum or Keller, held in a cool dark cellar. The wine certainly has the fine acid structure to build and bloom over many years, but now, a full twelve months after the grapes were picked, the wine has already begun to fill out, its edges have softened and it’s a joy to behold.
I imagine drinking Verthandi with fresh oysters dressed with fresh lime juice, shredded Thai basil and kaffir lime leaves; with a hot Tom Yum or a big bowl of mussels in an aromatic broth. But it’s also a perfect Sunday afternoon wine. I imagine enjoying a bottle with friends on a balcony overlooking the Murray or indeed Murray Street in Tanunda. The residual sugar in the wine remains ‘hidden’ within the wine, contributing mouthfeel more than anything at this stage.
2019 Verthandi Riesling is available via the online shop Click Here to purchase.