Riverina Revealed

The Australian wine region of Riverina might be unfamliar, and certainly lacks the cachet of other famous names of New South Wales, like the Hunter Valley or Mudgee. And yet Riverina produces around 25% of Australia’s entire grape harvest, and seven of the country’s biggest wine exporters are based there.

This tasting with winemakers from three of the region’s producers was arranged by riverinawinemakers.com.au to highlight the premium wines and specific styles that Riverina produces. These sit alongside the vast amount of good quality, but ‘everyday drinking’ wine coming from its irrigated vineyards. In particular it would highlight Durif, a variety that’s something of a speciality of Riverina (known as Petite Sirah elsewhere), and sweet Botrytis-affected Semillon, another of the region’s star styles, as exemplified by the famous ‘Noble One’ from de Bortoli. It’s also a region where Italianate varieties, such as the Montepulciano tasted here, are growing in popularity.

Riverina traces its winegrowing roots back to 1913 and the first plantings by the McWilliams family. It is a fertile ‘grape factory’ on one hand, but its warm Mediterranean climate and red-brown soils with significant limestone content are obviously capable of great things; when yields are controlled and winemakers’ are given their head. Winemaker for Berton Vineyards, James Ceccato, explained that there have been many changes in the region, largely in response to drought and the fact that these vineyards are heavily reliant on irrigation. Flood irrigation, used by many, has been replaced with much less water-hungry drip irrigation systems, and mechanisation of harvesting and other vineyard work has eased the pressure of labour shortages and high costs.

The Wines

(2022) Winemaker Emma Norbiato explains that this late-ripening variety is still green in the heat of summer, so its acidity holds on well towards harvest. On the other hand, she finds many Italian examples of Montepulciano have a more dry tannin structure. Vibrant crimson in colour, this has a plum and cherry pie creaminess and red fruit character, then sweet, ripe, juicy and mouthfilling berries on the palate, spices and again, a hint of toast and creaminess helped by six months in older oak for 40% of the blend. Vines are 15 years old, on loamy sand over limestone. No UK retail stockists listed at time of review.
(2022) From 30- to 40-year-old vineyards on sandy loam, winemaker Julie Mortlock emphasised how much attention is paid to picking date for the Durif, to maximise rich flavours and ripe tannins. 85% of the blend is aged for a year in older American and French oak barrels. Much meatier, spicier and earthier than the Montepulciano, but masses of black fruit too, a hint of mint too. The palate has a bit of rustic chewiness, but it is not without freshness and agility. Acid is nicely integrated and fresh, some tobacco and spice in the finish.
(2022) From a 10-year-old vineyard on sandy loam, spending four months in contact with French oak staves in tank. Winemaker James Ceccato spoke of his relief that widespread wild fires in 2020 caused smoke to drift over the vineyards, but did not taint the harvest. A little more dense and plummy than the de Bortoli aromatically, nice tobacco spices, but not the minty-ripe lift. Ripe and mouthfilling in the mouth, that feeling of density continues, with chunky, dry tannins and acid adding a refreshing rasp to the finish.
(2022) "Unashamedly big," according to winemaker Emma Norbiato, this has 14.5% alcohol and goes into 100% American oak, including some barriques. The vineyards are 25 years old, planted in two vineyards, one on clay and one on limestone. Laden with ripe dark fruit and vanilla and spicy rum and raisin fudge on the nose, the palate has coffee and chocolate underpinning more plush, super-ripe and succulent fruit. Tannins and brisk acidity do freshen the finish, where that spicy mocha oak persists too. You have to like the full-on hedonistic style, but really well done. No UK retail stockists listed at time of review. UK importer is Nectar Imports Ltd.
(2022) Winemaker James Ceccato explained that, perhaps due to climate change, Botrytis has been less reliable than usual over the past few years as the need to leave the grapes on the vine late into the season is at risk from rain events. This wine comes from 45-year-old vineyards planted on clay, and spends 12 months in French oak before bottling with 162g/l of residual sugar. Honey and lemon curd notes on the nose are also quite delicate, with floral aspects. The palate has richness, but it's not the full-on viscous and oily style, plenty of sweetness offset by some dry extract and good acidity, for a slightly lighter but delicious style. Price and stockist quoted at time of review is for a previous vintage. Price is for a half bottle.
(2022) First released in 1982, Noble One has become one of the world's most famous Botrytis Semillons wines, certainly outside of Sauternes, the inspiration for its creation. Again Winemaker Julie Mortlock talks of unusual climate/ripening in recent years, with the harvest much earlier than usual. Vines range from 20- to 60-years old, grown on sandy loam. After 12 months in barrel the wine is bottled with 250g/l of residual sugar. Full on, barley sugar and marmalade Botrytis onslaught here, with that dry mushroomy undertone. The oiliness and weight of the palate is in contrast to the Berton's lighter style. So much flavour and texture, the luscious tropical richness shot through with juicy orange, plenty of acidity and the oak adding a custardy creaminess. Terrific stuff as usual from this cuvée. Price for a half bottle, and for a previous vintage at time of review.

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