Ask Marlborough winemaker Jeff Fyfe what turns his tastebuds on about Riesling and he responds: “It’s the whole ‘what the heck is this that makes it such an awesome drink for me. The fact that Riesling can be so many different things is what makes it such a great drink – it can be sparkling, dry, full bodied, light bodied, low alcohol, off dry, medium dry, medium sweet or luscious – which one is it? Well, I don’t mind as I like all the different ways it can taste great.”

This year, Fyfe made a Riesling along the lines of an old school, traditional European wine rather than a new wave New Zealand one – he fermented 100% of the grapes in oak – old oak, that is.

The wine is the first single vineyard Yealands Riesling in four years and was  100% barrel fermented in neutral old French oak from two blocks on one (extremely large) vineyard. The grapes come from two different areas of the same vineyard. One part of the vineyard is close to the sea (grapes with lean, high acidity) while the other is near to the winery (still close to the sea but not perched precipitously on the coast). All grapes for this wine were hand picked, then destemmed and settled for 24 hours being before moved into barrel for 4.5 months where they were stirred on lees (left overs after fermentation) twice a week until blending and bottling (with no fining). These grapes were planted progressively between 8 to 11 years ago and some of the barrels were inoculated with yeast whilst others were left to go through wild yeast fermentation in their own sweet time. Speaking of which, the wine tastes dry (due to its angular, youthfulness and naturally high acidity) but it is technically off dry since it contains 6 grams of residua sugar (RS) and that balancing 9 grams of acid.

“We didn’t want one wine to be way out of step with the others in our Yealands stable, so the style of the wines overall had to fit under our umbrella, which means fruit flavours  are there, but in this wine that’s not the primary focus,” explains Fyfe.

The wine

2016 Yealands Estate Riesling Marlborough $22, 12% ABV

A wine for the cellar – flavours are fresh, thanks to high acidity, which adds a very zesty, very fresh, very youthful aspect to the taste, while the fruit is in the background. It reminded me of a young Clare Valley Riesling such as Grosset Watervale Riesling – one of the great Southern Hemisphere expressions of this German grape variety. In its youth, this wine (the Grosset Watervale Riesling) can be extremely shy in aroma and flavour but after 10 years in the bottle, it’s a beautifully balanced, medium bodied white with notes of warm toast and lime zest.

PS: One of the most remarkable things about Riesling is… its ability to age, sometimes for decades (if storing conditions are favourable; cool, temperature stable, dark and all that jazz) and last week, at the World of Riesling tasting I hosted at Regional Wines & Spirits in Wellington, we saw an outstanding example of this in the 2005 Framingham Dry Riesling (small supplies of which are still available at Regional Wines for  $26).

World of Riesling top wines of the night

2011 Egon Muller Scharzhofberg Riesling $39.90

The wine of the night, which is remarkable, given the fact this is not even on the first rung of the complicated German Pradikat system of ranking quality (but let’s not go there right now). It is the off dry, ripe citrus, honey and peach aromas and the extraordinarily well balanced freshness (acidity, in other words) that give this Riesling the X-factor. It really stood out from the crowd for its lightness and intensity – a delicious paradox.

2015 Taylors St Andrews Single Vineyard Clare Valley Riesling $44.99

Altitude is the name of the game for this wine, which is made from grapes grown at 359 go 382 metres above sea level – relatively high from a vineyard with a prevailing southerly aspect – a good micro climate for the late ripening, cool climate loving Riesling grape. The intensity of flavour, freshness and balance of the acidity made it a stand out.

2008 Misha’s Vineyard Limelight Riesling – cellar stock

Thanks, Misha, for sending up this eight year bottle and sharing your first vintage of Central Otago Riesling, which put its most youthful foot forward; it’s intensely flavoursome with lime zest suggesting its cool climate origins, and it was one of my top wines of the night. It is firmly in the medium sweet category, in terms of flavour and residual sugar levels.

2012 Misha’s Vineyard Limelight Riesling Central Otago $27.35    

A relatively youthful Riesling with at least another 5 to 6 years up its sleeve, for those with the willpower to age this wine.

2014 Weingut Clemens Busch Marienberg Riesling $40   

Mosel Riesling from the steep Pündericher Marienburg, a 25 hectare vineyard that runs along a hillside which faces the village of Pünderich and has a south to south west aspect. The ripe citrus and stone fruit flavours that this wine gains from this vineyard site make it a consistent winner, exceptionally good value at this price for its rich, off dry style.

2015 Giesen Marlborough Riesling $16.99

As always, extraordinarily good value for money and with the potential to age for 4 to 5 years, possibly longer in cooler vintages.

2014 Albert Mann Riesling Alsace AC $33.40

A regional wine rather than one made with grapes from a single vineyard site, nevertheless, this biodynamic producer (Albert Mann) packs a powerful dry punch in this French Riesling, which is medium bodied, dry and has a long lemon-zest flavoursome finish.

2011 Spy Valley Envoy Riesling Marlborough $32.99

A big toasty wine from Marlborough, which benefits from a little time in old fuder barrels, which adds complexity and another string to the multifaceted Spy Valley white wine bow.

The wines above are barely the tip of the world’s (and New Zealand’s) long list of good, very good and outstanding quality Rieslings. And their prices do not suggest the level of quality that they deliver, let alone their proven track records of ageing well (particularly now that many are sealed with screw caps). 

There are many other New Zealand wines that I would like to have highlighted that are, in my view, among New Zealand’s finest white wines – some of these wines include: The Doctor’s Riesling from Marlborough, Mt Edward Drumlin Riesling, The Boneline Hellblock Riesling, The Boneline Dry Riesling, Pegasus Bay Riesling and Main Divide Riesling, The Escarpment Riesling, Ata Rangi Craighall Riesling, Nga Waka Riesling (arguably New Zealand’s best dry expression of this great grape), and many more.