Drinks News

Rieslingfreak is shamelessly unfashionable

For Barossa-based winemaker John Hughes, there is only one grape variety that really matters. And it's utterly, defiantly untrendy.

By Max Allen
019 Rieslingfreak No. 4 (from left), 2011 Rieslingfreak No. 3 and 2017 Rieslingfreak No. 1.
John Hughes is ignoring the GPS on the dashboard. "At the next intersection, turn right," instructs the electronic voice. But Hughes just keeps driving straight. "Turn back," says the GPS. Hughes pays no attention. He's sticking to his own route.
That's John Hughes for you. A winemaker who has spent the past decade going his own way, ignoring trends and pursuing his passion, picking up plenty of loyal customers, multiple trophies and the glowing respect of his peers in the process. A winemaker, too, who hasn't let his mild cerebral palsy – which affects his coordination, mobility and speech – prevent him from building a successful business. And a former MasterChef contestant, who became a social-media sensation in 2011 when he refused to present his dish to the judges, saying he wasn't satisfied with what he'd done.
Hughes's deep, abiding passion is riesling. His Barossa-based wine company is named Rieslingfreak because that's all he makes: sparkling riesling, dry rieslings, sweet rieslings, even a fortified riesling. He cheerfully acknowledges that "riesling is the most underrated grape variety in Australia". But he doesn't care; he bloody loves it. And he's managed to find enough like-minded riesling lovers to buy his now-7500-case annual production. That's a lot of riesling in a market that is much more interested in prosecco and pinot grigio.
If Hughes's choice of grape is unfashionable, his winemaking style is defiantly untrendy. While all the cool wine cats have scampered down the natural path – hand-picking, wild yeast fermentation, no filtration, nothing added except perhaps a little sulphur dioxide – the Rieslingfreak approach is thoroughly conventional. He harvests grapes by machine in the cool of the night. He adds sulphur and cultured yeast, and chills the juice to keep it as fresh and clean as possible. And he fines and filters to ensure crisp, pure flavours. The exception – in characteristically contrary Hughes fashion – is his top wine, a recently released $100-a-bottle "reserve" riesling. But we'll come to that...
Unlike most modern Australian winemakers, Hughes doesn't make a huge fuss over "regionality" or "terroir" or other buzzwords. Yes, he acknowledges the vineyards in the Clare and Eden Valley where he sources his grapes, and names his growers on his back labels. But the front labels are adorned simply with numbers: the dry riesling from Polish Hill River is called No. 2; the Eden Valley dry riesling is No. 4; and so on.
"When I started, other winemakers told me that I should be putting the region on the front label," says Hughes. "But I was resolute: I liked the way Penfolds had developed a following for its wines, how people knew what to expect when they bought a Bin 28 or a Bin 389. And I'm glad I stuck to my guns, because people now ask me for my No. 2, or my No. 3. They know what to expect."
And unlike most modern wines that are designed to be drunk a few months after vintage, the rieslings Hughes makes will live for decades in the cellar. Yes, they are delicious when young, but they are also built for the long haul, as was demonstrated at a recent tasting at the cellar door of every Rieslingfreak wine produced since 2009. Wines such as the 2011 No. 3 dry riesling and the 2013 No. 8 tasted freakishly fresh and youthful, only now just beginning to pick up a hint of golden colour and complex secondary spice.
At the cellar-door tasting, Hughes also poured his new, top riesling, called No. 1. He started this project in 2015, when he visited a cooper in France and commissioned a special 1500-litre barrel called
a foudre specifically to ferment and age riesling. Then the cool, late 2017 vintage came along, which Hughes describes as "the best riesling vintage I've experienced".
That year, Hughes hand-picked grapes from the best four rows of his parents' vineyard in the Clare Valley, chilled the fruit for two days, then whole-bunch-pressed the juice and settled it before putting it into his fancy barrel, where he let it ferment spontaneously. The wine spent 20 months maturing in the barrel before bottling.
It's quite unlike any of his other wines – richer, more textural, more savoury; it will be fascinating to see how this matures in the bottle – and stands apart from almost every other riesling ever made in this country, not least because of the $100 price tag. (Coincidentally, Clare Valley producer Jim Barry is this year launching a special foudre-fermented riesling – for $120 a bottle.) Then again, standing apart from the crowd is just what you'd expect from the driven, single-minded John Hughes.
  • undefined: Max Allen