This is a rather personal and potted history of the beginnings of Riesling in New Zealand and brief tasting notes of a tasting of Montana Marlborough Rhine Riesling from 1981 to 1994.
Ever since Riesling has been recognised as one of the great varieties, wine enthusiasts have been engaging the wider drinking public to enjoy the many and varied styles that it is capable of. Riesling has been on the scene for just over three decades in New Zealand, and it still struggles to be recognised, with relative newcomer Pinot Gris racing past in less than a decade to have nearly twice the 1,000 hectares of plantings of Riesling. I believe that the ‘Summer of Riesling’ campaign (click here for more details) may be a marker in increasing the awareness and enjoyment of the variety in this country, as it has done overseas.
Most of the credit must be given to Montana Wines for establishing Riesling as a commercial crop in New Zealand. The 1979 release of the Montana Marlborough Rhine Riesling can be regarded as a milestone and the prototype for modern Riesling in this country. Before then, ‘Riesling’ in New Zealand was the description for the widely planted and successfully popular Muller-Thurgau variety brought in from Germany. Being a Riesling x Sylvaner cross, it was easier to just label and call the wine ‘Riesling’. Of course, the more correct people called it Riesling-Sylvaner, or Sylvaner-Riesling, or both, if there were various bottlings, the latter slightly less highly regarded, putting the coarser Sylvaner first. As the true Riesling, aka White Riesling, Rhine Riesling or Johannisberg Riesling began appearing, the correct Muller-Thurgau title became more prevalent. It was all so confusing then, and with the Aussie Hunter Riesling (Semillon) and Clare Rieslings (Crouchen) floating around, it was a minefield for label interpreters.
Of course there were some wonderful ‘Rieslings’ made from Muller-Thurgau which approximated the character of real Riesling. Nearly everybody had at least one, but I enjoyed wines from Babich, Corbans, Cooks, Delegats, McWilliams, Nobilo and Totara. Arguably the most exciting in the late 1970s was Montana’s ‘Bernkaizler’ Riesling, which had to change its name to ‘Benmorven’ Riesling following suggestions of threats of legal action from Germany. The stop-fermented or suss-reserve added medium-dry to medium versions were better balanced than the drier styles.
The release of a set of Montana Marlborough white varieties from the 1979 vintage was foreshadowed by a couple of Montana Marlborough Riesling-Sylvaner releases first, signalling the onset of fruit coming on-stream from the ground-breaking plantings in the Wairau Valley. The 1979 release consisted of a Sauvignon Blanc, Rhine Riesling and Gewurztraminer. These created a buzz of excitement among the keen wine community. They were labelled elegantly, the wording in beautiful flowing script, the bottles adorned with strong, thick, white plastic capsules and sold for around the $7.00 mark, top-end pricing at the time. Though expensive, they sold quickly, and were consumed quickly; a good thing as in hindsight, the vintage was an average one that aged quickly. The 1980 wines were a step up, and these went on to succeed at wine shows as few other wines had done before, and indeed age very well.
One must remember that Montana was one of the ‘hot’ and innovative wine companies at the time. Owned 40% by Seagrams, it competed with Corbans as the biggest player, and with Villa Maria on the show circuit. And Montana usually triumphed. A special ‘Winemakers’ Selection’ dozen was soon released, and Pinot Noir joined Cabernet Sauvignon in making Montana’s Marlborough wines some of the industry’s most exciting. Then followed a series of Marlborough releases that cemented Montana’s dominance in the commercial and fine wine market both domestically and internationally at that time and for the coming decade plus. Following 1980, the 1981, 1982 and 1983 wines were especially highly rated. The winemaking team led by Peter Hubscher, with John Simes and Andy Frost based at the ‘Riverlands’ winery out of Blenheim as the hands-on men are unsung heroes.
Among our tasting group, a little cynicism or ‘tall poppy syndrome’ operated. Biggest couldn’t be best was one ethos. Many of us could detect the ‘Montana squirt’, a similar character in all the white wines, despite their varietal distinctiveness. ‘House-style’ might be the term today, but in trying to account for the similarity of Sauvignon, Gewurztraminer and Rhine Riesling, there was the theory that Montana had a base wine (the ‘squirt’) to which each varietal juice was added. Another theory was that Montana just kept on adding one variety into a partly filled tank of one of the other varieties! A possible and much more plausible, modern explanation for the cooler, slightly herbaceous nature of the wines was the standard of viticulture at the time. In any circumstance, the Montana Marlborough wines were highly distinctive and recognisable, making them easily identifiable in blind wine tasting sessions.
With success comes imitation, and before long, there were a number of Rhine Rieslings from the progressive producers. The variety was propagated in all regions, with Corbans and the associated negotiant Robard & Butler label prominent. Villa Maria, Selaks, Sutton Baron (Collards), Delegats and Penfolds all had Rhine Rieslings by the mid-1980s. The variety was championed by newly established, serious producers such as Weingut Seifried, St Helena, Ngatarawa and Te Whare Ra. For those with a sense of foresight and classicism, exciting things were happening, and Rhine Riesling became the new darling. As with Syrah today, plantings were pitiful, but the wines were sought-after for their tighter structure and length over Muller-Thurgau, and an undoubted, but unproven ability to keep well. Endorsement came in time, from Serena Sutcliffe MW judging at the 1990 Air New Zealand Wine Awards where I was involved, the 1983 Montana, Corbans and Robard & Butler Rhine Rieslings all receiving gold medals and singled out for praise by the guest judge.
The formula for Montana Rhine Riesling has remained remarkably constant over the three decades of making. The fruit was sourced from the ‘Brancott Estate’ vineyard, picked at 22-23° Brix and cool-fermented to around 12.0% alc. leaving a residual sugar of around 13 g/L. TA was in the region of 7.5 and a pH of around 3.4. The initial releases were at 10.5% alc. and picked probably at the 21-22° Brix mark. Seeking greater ripeness, the picking went to 23.5° Brix, and alcohols went up to 12.5%. The TAs dropped under 7.0 and the pHs edged down to just over 3.0. In recent years, the label included Awatere Valley grapes and an ever increasing portion of Waipara Valley fruit. Today’s descendent, the 2010 Brancott Estate ‘Classic’ Riesling is wholly Waipara Valley fruit fermented to 10.7% alc. and 16.2 g/L rs, with a TA of 7.9 g/L and a pH 3.1.