Five decades of Watervale Riesling

In a rare tasting with wines dating back to 1977, Nina Caplan discovers why Australian Rieslings are as much loved as their German counterparts

Words by Nina Caplan

The persistent ache of homesickness, and the power of wine to assuage it, can have long-lasting effects. In the 19th-century, religious refugees from Silesia arriving in Australia’s Clare Valley looked at those gentle sun-warmed hills and thought it a good idea to plant Riesling. As it turned out, the ocean and the height (400-500m above sea level) provided the requisite cool night air, and the hardscrabble slate and limestone soils made the vines work for their nourishment. The result is that two centuries later these heady, long-lived Rieslings are as much loved as their German counterparts – despite, or in some cases because of, the difference in style.

Jim Barry was one of the first in the modern swathe of Clare winemakers to champion Riesling. In 1964, he planted eight acres in Watervale, just after Leo Buring and John Vickery did the same on their 30-hectare Florita vineyard: those Buring Rieslings would become legendary. (The vineyard had been planted to Palomino and Pedro Ximenez for the fortified wines that were previously Australia’s main output: hence the name – florita refers to the flor that grows on sherry as it ages).

The Florita Vineyard and house in Clare Valley
The Florita Vineyard and house in Clare Valley

In 1986, at a time when Chardonnay was on the rise and Riesling firmly out of fashion, Barry bet his shirt, almost literally, on buying Florita. “Grandma said, on no account buy that vineyard”, his grandson Sam Barry relates, but Sam’s grandfather and then 26-year-old father Peter (pictured above) ignored her advice, believing that in time, people would come back to Riesling. They weren’t able to buy back rights to the name until 2004 and as Sam recalls, “2005 was the first year they didn’t have to sell any grapes!”

Still, the Barrys were right. This tasting goes back through the Florita wines – made from individual rows on a thin covering of terra rossa and loam above limestone, hand-picked at night and destemmed without crushing – to Lodge Hill further north, which has the same vertically cracked slate as Polish Hill, and the Watervale Rieslings that Jim made on clay soils in the early days.

If any proof were needed that top Clare Valley Riesling repays time in bottle, here it is: acidity that softens from imperious to refreshing, flavours that unfurl like flowers in sunlight. These are wines that could reconcile an immigrant to exile: too bad those long-ago Silesians never got to try them.