He started out studying business and loudly proclaiming a love of riesling – the butt of many a joke at university; now John Hughes is one of our top winemakers. Who’s laughing now?
When I first tried Rieslingfreak, I’d never heard of the name before. It certainly caught my attention, but I wasn’t sure what it was meant to convey. I tasted, I admit, with a degree of scepticism, but was immediately taken by its expressive quality. I wondered who was behind it, and how had they managed to get it so right, so soon. It turns out that, there was a lengthy back story.
In 1990, Richard and Anne Hughes bought 40ha of riesling at White Hutt, north of Clare, that they carefully tended over the next couple of decades. They also raised three sons, and their enthusiasm for cultivating and celebrating the grape rubbed off on one boy in particular. As a little tacker, John Hughes observed his parents’ hard work and eagerly assisted them with their viticultural labours.
They sold their fruit under contract to the likes of Wolf Blass and Orlando, but as Hughes grew up, it occurred to him that it would be great to make wine himself – if only to see his parents enjoy “their own grapes in the glass”, rather than the (literal) fruits of their labour being lost in a large-scale blend.
As Hughes grew up, it occurred to him that it would be great to make wine himself – if only to see his parents enjoy ‘their own grapes in the glass’.
As Hughes grew, so did his resolve. He established Rieslingfreak in 2009, initially producing a single aged release. It was popular enough to encourage him to pursue it further. Twelve years have passed and the brand has gone from strength to strength. The Barossa Vintage Festival is in full swing and I am interviewing him over the phone. He has little time to spare throughout a hectic week of celebratory commitments, and he speaks excitedly of the festivities, events he is hosting, and of being a ‘big foodie’.
He’s also keen to tell me that back story. He first studied small business management at school, then wine marketing at Adelaide University, where he was regularly seen around the campus, singing the praises of riesling to anyone who’d listen. In time, he became known as Rieslingfreak. It was a name that stuck.
He worked with Brother John May of Sevenhill Wines, which intensified his knowledge, respect and love for the particularity of Clare Valley rieslings.
From there, he spent a decade at the Australian Wine Research Institute, later joining renowned winemaker Chris Ringland in the Barossa Valley. After seven years under Ringland’s wing, the seminal lesson was “you don’t dictate to the vineyard, you allow it to dictate to you.”
Since establishing Rieslingfreak, Hughes has added numerous strings to its bow having also ventured farther afield to include fruit from Polish Hill River and Eden Valley. Output now includes 12 separate lines (all riesling), simply labelled No.1 to No.12, each of which presents its own distinctive and regional style, including a sparkling sekt, fortified riesling and distinguished aged releases.
While an abundance of choice might seem confusing, it actually simplifies selection: each label has the level of dryness or sweetness on the back, so once you decide what you like, you can make your selection based on the numbers.
Since the business has been burgeoning, John has established a cellar door in Tanunda and his wife, Belinda, has recently joined the operation full-time, after 12 years as white wine maker at Grant Burge.
As a couple, and a team, they are big believers in giving back, and are deeply involved with their community. As well as serving on a number of local committees, they have also established Foundation Barossa, a local charity that mentors and supports disabled teenagers in progressing from their critical last year at high school into university.
These days, Hughes takes 45% of the fruit grown at his parents’ Clare vineyard for Rieslingfreak. Richard and Anne Hughes never thought they’d see the day a semi-trailer of their Clare Valley riesling would leave their vineyard, not destined for the crush pad at Wolf Blass or Orlando, but to the fledgling label started by their son. Now the whole family enjoys their own grapes in the glass, the generous idea of a determined young man.
FACTS AND FIGURES
REGION | Clare Valley, SA
YEARS IN INDUSTRY | 30+
ANNUAL CRUSH | 140-150 tonnes
STAND-OUT WINES | 2017 Rieslingfreak No.3 Riesling
Photography by Dragan Radocaj.