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Ben Riggs: The wine is ‘pretty bloody good’

A name synonymous with wine in Australia is Ben Riggs. 

The multi-award-winning winemaker has spent most of his life making "unpretentious wines", determined to produce high-quality wines that are drinkable and enjoyable for everyone. 

Riggs is the man behind Queensland Rugby League's stellar Q1908 drops - The Clubhouse, The Cauldron and The Queenslander. 

"I'm a passionate, passionate wine man," Riggs, primarily based in McLaren Vale since the 1980s, said.

“I spend a lot of my time just walking around vineyards and tasting grapes. I have been doing this for a very long time… I'm pretty good at looking at the vineyard, tasting the grapes, and I have a pretty good idea of what's going to come out in the end. It's taken years of tasting grapes, making the wine.

"I have no question there'd be very few people who are going to taste any of these wines and not say they're yum, because I went out of my way to make sure they were better than they should be."

Ben Riggs. Photo: Three Kings Wine Merchants
Ben Riggs. Photo: Three Kings Wine Merchants

And when it comes to wine, Riggs knows his stuff. 

"It began when I was a kid at home because my father was a wine lover and we had wine with meals and it always fascinated me," Riggs said, adding his fascination continued at Westminster School in Adelaide, where there was "an excellent ag-science course". 

"I decided I preferred the vines to the sheep and the goats and read you could study winemaking... when I was about 13 decided that's what I want to do."

The father-of-three travelled far and wide early during his career, initially on a mission to "take over the world".  

"I guess I had a quest to try and garner as much experience and knowledge as possible... I was in a bit of a hurry to take over the world at one stage," Riggs said.

Overseas he worked on vintages in Bordeaux and Limoux in France; Abruzzo, Marche and Puglia in Italy; the Peloponnese in Greece; and in California. 

In Australia, Riggs worked for 14 years at Wirra Wirra and 20 at Mr Riggs and McLaren Vintners. 

"This year is the 20th anniversary of my business, Mr Riggs Wine Company... and 16 years we've had the winery McLaren Vintners,” Riggs said.

"It's an interesting industry. It's one of the only industries that has all three layers. It's farming, it's manufacturing and it's retail and marketing. I have a small vineyard which is not very big. Twelve, 13 acres of vineyard. It's too small to be commercial. There’s nothing I love more than to hop on the tractor and slash it and look after it. So I love the farming. I love the wine-making.

“Most of my working day is spent tasting, blending, putting wines together, which people often say, 'wow, that's a pretty cushy job'. But you know, it's actually quite demanding. Every single smell, every single taste is concentration. Two to six hours a day of doing that is exhausting. I still love that part of it.”

Riggs said the three Q1908 wines would “wow” whoever tried them. They are so good, in fact, all three have rated highly in the Winestate Magazine ratings; The Clubhouse scored a 94, The Cauldron a 90 and The Queenslander a 90.

"They're pretty bloody good," Riggs said. 

“Getting the right vineyard, picking at the right time, is pretty critical. That's not to say, if you pick at the wrong time, it's a bad bottle of wine, it just really affects the style.”

QRL is working with community rugby league clubs across the state to help them fundraise through the sale of the three wines; participating clubs will receive a donation from every bottle sold.

Riggs said The Clubhouse, a sauvignon blanc, was simply divine.

"One of the great vintages… 2020 and 2021 are two of the best vintages I've ever seen for aromatic white wines like sauvignon blanc… they're quite amazing... passionfruit, just delicious,” Riggs said.

"These wines are actually pretty bloody good from a great year... sauvignon blanc is more about the year and the vineyard. The winemaking bit is nurturing what you pick off the vines.

“With a sauvignon blanc, the earlier you pick, the more herby, green vegetable, the fruit characters… the later you pick, the more tropical, melony, riper of fruit characters.

“Some people like the more green and vivacious, some people like the riper. I kind of like somewhere in the middle so they have a bit of that greenness, but still richness and nice riper  fruit flavours as well.

"With red wines, it's still, to a certain extent, what you pick off the vines, but there's a lot more things that we do along the way to evolve those wines. Whereas with sauvignon blanc, if you pick it, you ferment it, you filter it and you put it in the bottle... you pretty much get what you picked."

Riggs said The Queenslander, a shiraz, was "classic what we do from McLaren Vale... soft, juicy". 

"They're very serious wines with tannin and structure and colour, and they're always drinkable," Riggs said.

Ben Riggs tasting. Photo: Three Kings Wine Merchants
Ben Riggs tasting. Photo: Three Kings Wine Merchants

"I just pulled out some bottles of wine made in 1998 that won the Bushing King... the Bushing King is the best wine from McLaren Vale in the year, and you crown the king or the queen of McLaren Vale and in '98, that won it. That was a very big, rich, complicated wine, but soft and easy to drink. And you look at it now, all those years later, and it's still it becomes more interesting and more complex as the fruitiness and the softness disappears, the tannins and the flavour and the structure grows.

"So McLaren Value is a great region to cover all of those bases. And at the end of the day, no matter how big and complex and interesting the wine I want to make, they're all going to be drinkable.

“Some styles of shiraz have incredibly high alcohol, very jam, dried fruit characters… jammy cooked fruit characters. Some people like more herbaceous and green… I like somewhere in the middle, so you so they've got some of that savouriness and fruit flavours, but also some ripe characters.

“The thing with red grapes is the tannin brightness. The greener the grapes, the more bitter the tannin, the riper the grapes, the more soft the tannin."

Riggs said The Cauldron, a sparkling, was "quite a high level, flavoursome sparkling wine" which had spent time on "10-year-old oak to get some development of complexity and flavour  - champagne-type flavours - in it". 

“It's not often people go to a function, drink the wine and go, ‘wow, that's delicious’. But these wines are pretty bloody good. We have gone out of our way to overdeliver the quality. It’s important,” Riggs said.