“On went my hat of pretension as I cleaned my palate with water, alas no bread or crackers to ensure I started fresh with neutral flavours,” writes wine columnist RICHARD CALVER
IT was a friend’s birthday. She puts up with my lame jokes. The joke of the night was told amidst the usual groan.
“Hey, did I tell you my friend was just fired from a clock-making factory after all the extra hours he put in?!”
We were at Akiba in Civic. I ordered the salt and pepper squid. I tried it with an Asahi beer but the beer went quickly and half the dish remained. So, feeling lazy, I asked the husky-voiced waitress what she would recommend (other than that I pay the bill, which drew another groan from my friend). She said that the Helm Half Dry Riesling 2016 at $12 a glass was perfectly compatible with the food. It came. She poured. I agreed.
Not usually a fan of riesling with a sweet edge, the taste here was of the sweet apple at the front of mouth. Yet it finished unusually well, with no clag or syrupy after taste. It was a perfect match for the feisty food.
I telephoned Ken Helm, the King of Canberra Riesling, and he agreed that the wine was made as a complement to spicy food.
“Half dry is a style of riesling popular in Germany known as halbtrocken translated as half dry or sometimes off-dry but why you would put the word ‘off’ on a wine label, goodness knows,” said Helm.
“I learned to make it in Germany.”
“When was that?” I asked.
“In 1999 was the first time,” he said.
What is it that makes it such a good food wine?
“Well, this style is a perfect accompaniment to spicy dishes as the slight sweetness in the wine balances the spices and heat. The way it’s made you get a balance between flavour, acid and residual sugar,” he said.
“Part of the secret, although consumers won’t care, is the oxidising of the juice and then allowing some components to fall out so adding texture.
“The Chinese restaurant in Sydney, Chin Chin, offers it by the glass and they sell a lot, three or four cases a week, so it obviously works well with Chinese food.”
Helm, in his forty-second year of winemaking, has been producing the half dry for 10 years. I asked him whether it had won any awards.
“No, we don’t enter into shows these days. We tend more to provide a few wines to the professionals and rely on their ratings as a way of getting the message out, the Hallidays etcetera of this world,” he said.
And did he have good ratings?
“Well, this is one that consumers seem to like, something you picked up on, but Halliday tends to place it in the 90s,” he said.
Halliday does indeed give Ken Helm his due saying in a web review: “Over the years he has achieved many things, through dogged persistence on the one hand, vision on the other.
“Riesling has been an all-consuming interest for him, ultimately rewarded with rieslings of consistently high quality.
“He has also given much to the broader wine community, extending from the narrow focus of the Canberra District to the broad canvas of the international world of riesling: in ’00 he established the Canberra International Riesling Challenge, retiring as Chairman in ’16, but keeping an active eye on the Challenge.”
And, in the final words of our conversation, Helm – channelling Louis Pasteur – sums up exactly what I was thinking as I finished the wine that so complemented the piquant food: “A meal without wine is like a day without sunshine”.