John Hughes, or Rieslingfreak as he’s better known, is a winemaker who makes my job easy. Not only does he knock out fantastic wines, but when it’s time to write about him, as I’ve done for several years now, there’s always something new and exciting going on. You can’t help but admire John - hardworking, diligent and always wanting to know more, and 2017 has been a year in which his efforts were finally rewarded. This was a year of accolades for John and I doubt there’s anyone more deserving.
John at the Young Gun of Wine Awards and the Sydney Royal Wine Show.
The highlight of the year, without a doubt, was John’s outstanding success at the Sydney Royal Wine Show in July, where his No.3 2017 Clare Valley Riesling won an unprecedented 5 trophies; Best Wine of Show, Best White of Show, Best Riesling of Show, Best Young White of Show & Best State Show Wine. It was astonishing. I caught up with John the night after for a drink and he was so tired I don’t think the magnitude of it had sunk in. Several write-ups ensued and the wine sold out.
The hoopla surrounding that one wine totally overshadowed other significant achievements during the year though. Like the fact that No.2 2017 Clare Valley Riesling was awarded 95 points and a gold medal at the same Sydney Show, the 2nd highest score after the all-conquering No.3. A fantastic result for a fantastic wine.
Or that back in June, John received the highly coveted Young Gun of Wine - Winemaker’s Choice Award, decided by a vote of the 12 finalists. Not only is John a top winemaker, he’s also very well-liked, as Toni Paterson MW observes, “Hughes is quite possibly the nicest person in the Australian wine industry.”
John was then invited to join the Committee of the Barossa Wine Show. He also headed up the committee for Riesling Eden Valley, a group charged with promoting Eden Valley Riesling.
John was written up in several publications during the year, including by James Halliday in The Australian (belatedly reviewing the 2016 wines), as well as Adelaide’s The Advertiser, the Newcastle Herald and Huon Hooke’s Top 20 Rieslings of 2017.
Rieslingfreak then opened a wonderful new tasting room in ‘The Old Barn,’ a magnificent 1860s stone building in the Barossa.
To top it off, in October John married Belinda Sinclair, a talented winemaker in her own right, who also makes a Riesling or two… of course.
Like all overnight success stories, John’s has been many years in the making. Between growing up in the family vineyard, in South Australia’s iconic Clare Valley and his father's cellar stocked with aged Rieslings, John was always going to have a fondness for the variety. But by the time I met him in the early 90s, at Roseworthy in Adelaide, he was a fully-fledged Riesling nut. We did several trips to the Clare, tasting nothing but Riesling. John spent 10 years at the Australian Wine Research Institute being a serious wine geek, after which he travelled through Europe, making a pilgrimage to Alsace, the home of Riesling. He then headed back to the Barossa, where he worked for Peter Lehman and Chris Ringland (of Three Rivers fame) for several years, before striking out on his own - his sole focus (you guessed it) Riesling.
John’s first vintage was 2010 and just 3 years later in 2013, he won the Encouragement Award for Up and Coming Australian Riesling Winemakers at the Canberra International Riesling Challenge, a massive achievement at such a globally respected forum. The following year he was invited to be an associate judge at the same event! In 2015 John participated in an annual collaboration between Riesling associations in Australia, the United States and Germany. The event known as Riesling Downunder was held in Melbourne, and he was involved in several masterclasses, a highlight of which was speaking alongside international Riesling guru Egon Müller. Then in August of 2016 John was asked to join a tasting panel and to show his wines at the Riesling Rendezvous in Seattle. This 3 day Riesling extravaganza featured 70 invited producers, one of which was Rieslingfreak, and was attended by winemakers, trade and media. Rieslingfreak is also a James Halliday 5-star-rated winery.
One of the factors contributing to the success of John’s wines this year is the quality of the 2017 vintage in South Australia, which John says is the best he's seen for decades. Riesling doyen Jeffrey Grosset described 2017 as an “outstanding vintage.”
“From the dozen or so wines I’ve tried, I’m delighted to pronounce that 2017 is a great vintage for South Australian Riesling. Ultra late, cool and sometimes damp, it was a season just made for sprightly Riesling, and the best makers capitalised.” Andrew Graham, Oz Wine Review.
John's family vineyard at White Hut, just north of Clare.
John described the vintage to me as a long cool spring and summer, and very wet as well. The conditions produced big vines, big bunches and big berries. “The bigger the berry, the better the Riesling,” John says. Conditions also meant that the grapes were on the vine 3-5 weeks longer than usual and so had that extra ripening time - the result being more refined wines.
I always bang on about this, but Riesling is just such good value. In September, West Australian wine writer John Jens lead his subtly titled article Under-rated, Underpriced Riesling Fiasco with a picture of John. He basically said Riesling producers are doing themselves no favours by pricing their wines so low. Jens went on to praise John’s wines, noting how ridiculously low priced they are for the quality.
My thoughts exactly.
Rieslingfreak No.2 Polish Hill River Riesling 2017
This wine is all about refinement - typical of wines from the Polish Hill River sub-region of the Clare. The area used to be known simply as Polish Hill but Jeffrey Grosset has trademarked that term. The fruit is sourced from a vineyard known locally as the ‘Hill River Vineyard’, which sits about 5km southeast of the town of Clare. Elevation here is around 460m. Max Schubert, creator of Penfolds Grange, planted the vineyard in 1981 and it stayed with Penfolds until its sale in 2010 to current owners, Rob and Lyn Jaeschke
The fruit for the No.2 was fermented to dryness and is a moderate 11.5% alcohol, which I like. The wine really showcases the Polish Hill River with its minerally profile, crisp acid and underlying fresh citrus characters. Delicate blossom aromas interlaced with flavours of apple, green lemon and grapefruit.
“As I pour this wine into my glass, I am engulfed in bright aromas of green apples, roses, green citrus and kaffir lime leaves. I find myself absorbed by the generosity of aromas, I sit on it for a while before taking my first sip. The first taste takes me to Polish Hill River, where I get the slate and mineral notes, followed by lingering flavours of green apples and a hint of marzipan. I know it will be a wine that will reward with cellaring, but at the same time, drinks so well now.” John Hughes, Winemaker.
2017 Sydney Royal Wine Show
- Gold Medal Riesling Class 2017
- 95 points (2nd highest scored wine after the all-conquering Rieslingfreak No.3)
2017 Canberra International Riesling Challenge
- Silver Medal. A top example of a Polish Hill, Clare Valley Riesling
I can offer it for $35 a bottle. Click here to order.
Rieslingfreak No.4 Eden Valley Riesling 2017
Like the sold out No.3, the No.4 is also a dry style. This year the fruit was sourced from three vineyards (usually it’s two) in another Australian Riesling hotspot, the Eden Valley. Eden generally produces lighter and more delicate floral Rieslings than the Clare.
Clear green-gold, this is a much more subtle affair than No.3. On the nose you’ll find fine blossom, lychee and musk aromatics. In addition to these, on the palate you'll find beautiful citrus, lime and sherbet flavours. The finish is dry with a zing of lemon acidity and a subtle minerality. A different balance of flavours to the No.3 - much finer and more delicate, which is what I love about it.
“The aromas of sweet spice, ripe lemons and limes and rose petals invites you into the glass. Flavours of lime cordial, lychee, sweet spice and apples make you salivate for more. The elegance of this wine makes you appreciate what a good Riesling is about, and the only downside - when the last bottle leaves the cellar.” John Hughes.
2017 Melbourne Wine Show
- Gold Medal
- 96 points
Served by Qantas Business Class in both domestic and international.
The previous vintages of this wine received a swag of medals as well as making it into the AFR’s Top 20 Wine of 2016. It always seems to be the case that by the time many of the critics get around to reviewing a wine, it’s sold out. Avoid disappointment and stock up now.
I can offer it for $22 a bottle. Click here to order.
Rieslingfreak No.5 Clare Valley Off-Dry Riesling 2017
Firstly let’s clarify what’s meant by ‘off-dry’ because many think it’s winemaker speak for sweet. It’s not.
Wines with more than about 45g/l residual sugar are considered sweet. Coke has about 110g/l and Château d’Yquem usually has around 120-150g/l. At the extreme end is the free run juice of the botrytised berries for the rare Tokaji Eszencia (Essencia) in Hungary which is between 500-700g/l, sometimes even higher! Now that we have some context - this wine has 15g/l sugar, so it really is ‘off-dry’ rather than sweet.
Even when there is residual sugar in wine it isn’t obvious if it’s well countered with acid. Getting the sugar/acid balance just right makes Riesling sing and is something John obsesses over.
The fruit for the No. 5 comes from the same vineyard as the No. 3, although from a different block, with lighter soil (grey loam over limestone). It’s picked earlier than No.3 resulting in more acid. Then the ferment is stopped early, leaving residual sugar in the wine. John’s talent for finding the perfect balance is obvious here.
This wine’s a lovely combination of ripe citrus notes, caramelised pineapple and tart apricot, with a whiff of musk and has more weight in the mouth from that bit of extra sugar. But don’t expect overt sweetness – the robust acid counterbalance gives a crisp, clean finish. So easy to enjoy - especially at only 10% alcohol. Yum.
2017 Canberra International Riesling Challenge.
- Silver Medal.
“A wine with aromas of fresh cut grass, honeydew, green lemons and limes. I am seduced by flavours of fresh citrus, orange pith, and the generosity of fruit and sweetness, yet balanced well by the acid. The wine lingers for quite sometime, delaying the need for the second mouthful, but before you know it, the bottle is finished.”John Hughes.
The popularity of this wine took John by surprise last vintage and it sold out much faster than expected. At last it seems astute drinkers are appreciating this style of wine, which pairs well with so many foods. Get in quickly.
I can offer it for $22 a bottle. Click here to order.
Rieslingfreak No.7 Fortified Riesling 2013
This wine is unique - you have to try it! Like the No.3 and No.5, the fruit comes from the family vineyard just north of Clare. The grapes are not fermented to dryness, John leaves some residual sugar at the end of the process. The resulting wine is then fortified using 3-year-old brandy spirit, before being matured for 2-3 years in large 70-year-old oak ex-fortifying puncheons (600L casks) which John sourced from Seppeltsfield.
True to form, John has created a fortified wine with attractive Riesling aromatics - incredible! No one makes a fortified like this. It’s delicious - sweet, rich and luscious, not cloying in the slightest, its clean acidity balancing the sugar. It’s 18.5% alcohol and the quality of the fortifying brandy spirit is evident as there’s just a touch of that classic ‘rancio’ taste, the nutty-ish note you find in sherry. It’s a lingering mouthful of burnt sugar, vanilla, caramel and sweet citrus. And as it’s fortified, you can keep it it in the fridge for a few months once opened (as if that’s going to happen).
“Made in a ‘white port’ style, the No.7 is dark yellow in colour, flavours of sultanas, caramel and butterscotch, orange peel and dried fruits. The wine is a perfect match for a sweet dessert, chocolate or a plate of cheese.” John Hughes, Winemaker.
This wine highlights John’s dedication to Riesling and showcases his tremendous creativity and skill. I can’t believe it’s so reasonably priced.
I can offer it for $25 a bottle. Click here to order.
Rieslingfreak No.8 Polish Hill River Schatzkammer Riesling 2017
John has always wanted to produce Riesling in a similar style to German Kabinett, and here it is. Unable to use the term ‘Kabinett' due to EU labelling laws, John went with Schatzkammer, a German word for treasure trove or a winemaker’s vault of treasured wines - an apt description for wine like this.
The term Kabinett is one of six Prädikats (awarded distinctions) applying to German wine, that are based on ripeness. Kabinett is the lightest followed in order by Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, Eiswein and finally Trockenbeerenauslese. While Kabinett wines are fully ripe, and may be semi-sweet or even dry, they are always light.
The fruit for this wine comes from the Polish Hill region, about 5km southeast of Clare. Wow – what a wine! It’s 7.0% alcohol, with delicate but ripe flavours of citrus, tropical fruit, rose petal and honeysuckle. The secret to this wine lies in John's expert balancing of the higher sugar content (50g/L) with much higher acidity, higher than in the No. 3 and No.4, to balance the sugar. The result is a clean, vibrant finish, that doesn't appear overly sweet.
“Looking at this wine, all I see is Polish Hill River. Granny smith apples, fresh cut grass, passionfruit, and the perfume of roses, similar to that of the rose garden in the front of my house. The sweetness of this wine brings you in, it invites you for the second, third and fourth sip. The low alcohol allows you to enjoy the wine, and entices you to open up the second bottle.” John Hughes.
In the mouth it’s viscous yet light and delicately crisp, highlighting John’s alchemic ability to balance the entire composition. Why aren’t winemakers in Australia making more wine like this?
I can offer it for $35 a bottle. Click here to order.
Rieslingfreak No.10 Zenit Riesling 2017
And lastly, a special one-off wine. As I mentioned above John got married in October of this year and it should come as no surprise to learn that John’s wife, Belinda Sinclair, is a serious winemaker. As Head White Winemaker at Grant Burge it’s safe to say she’s knows her way around Riesling
The couple made this one-off ‘wedding wine’ together, the idea being to serve it on the big day. Zenit is German for Zenith, meaning pinnacle and for John and Belinda “the chemistry of this blend, is the height the 2017 vintage.” It’s a ‘best of’ blend made of of 50% Clare Valley, 40% Eden Valley and 10% Polish Hill River fruit. John sees it as the blend that best represents the vintage.
“Drinking this wine, I find myself always taken to another place. A place of elegance and finesse; a place I want to be. The wine has a rich and intense bouquet that evokes all the regions; stone fruit and citrus from Clare, sweet spice from Eden Valley and green apple from Polish Hill River. The palate is generous yet refined; orange zest, slate, minerals, sweet spice, zesty citrus and salivating acid.”John Hughes.
“There’s an interesting contrast here – hints of riper fruit in amongst more classical grapefruit. Excellent intensity, very linear. Maybe a little too driving in its chugging acidity – it could scare some off with its dryness. But such excellent purity, with plenty of ripe fruit to match. Just delicious wine. Best drinking: 2017 - whenever. 11.5%. Would I buy it? Absolutely.”
18.5/20, 94/100. Andrew Graham, Oz Wine Review, Aug 2017. (Who often wouldn't buy the wine he's reviewing).
I can offer it for $44 a bottle. Click here to order.
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