With his aim to make high-quality wines that are drinkable and enjoyable for everyone, Ben Riggs has carved a niche as one of Australia’s favourite vintners. Meet the founder of Mr. Riggs Wine Company and discover his passion for producing award-winning wine.
Multi-award-winning winemaker Ben Riggs has clocked up almost a half century of vintages, 14 of them at Wirra Wirra in McLaren Vale. In 2001 he launched his own wine company, Mr. Riggs, calling on his extensive experience and local knowledge to pull together the best fruit from Adelaide Hills, Clare Valley and McLaren Vale.
Mr. Riggs’ winemaking philosophy is to make unpretentious wines that express the essence of the vineyard and the region’s terroir in a style that is big, rich and complex, but with finesse, texture and elegance. Last year his 2016 McLaren Vale shiraz, The Bolter, took out the title of Best Value Red Wine in the Vintage Cellars Best Of Awards. That accolade is one of more than 100 trophies and titles awarded to Ben Riggs during his winemaking career so far.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
From the age of 13 my dream was to make wine. The high school I went to had an excellent agricultural science course and that’s where I decided I preferred grapevines to dealing with sheep. Coupled with my interest in the wines my father drank, my passion was born.
You’ve worked many vintages over the years. Do you keep count?
There have been many indeed! Overseas I have worked vintages in Bordeaux and Limoux in France; Abruzzo, Marche and Puglia in Italy; the Peloponnese in Greece; and California. Here in Australia I worked for 14 years at Wirra Wirra and 20 at Mr. Riggs and McLaren Vintners. Add to the mix five other Australian wineries for a grand total of 47 vintages.
After all this time, are you as passionate?
I still love walking through vineyards and trying to understand what they will give us from each distinctly different vintage. I also enjoy the buzz of planning and getting harvest done.
What is your favourite time of year in the vineyard?
Autumn in South Australia is the best: mild but sunny weather, cool evenings, the rumble of hand-pickers in convoy and harvesters all around the district. It’s the best.
Where is your favourite place in the world outside Australia?
There are so many places, people and memories to treasure but if I had to choose one place it would be San Sebastian in Spain: amazingly beautiful; great beaches (even the odd good wave to catch); delicious, complex, incredible food; and super-friendly people.
What would be your ideal weekend escape?
I love pottering around my vineyard and cooking in my beautiful kitchen.
What do you consider the biggest issues facing the wine industry today?
In my nearly 40 years in the industry (clearly, I started work at seven years old!) I think the last few years have been some of the toughest. Thirty years ago, the challenges were similar, but the stakes were much lower because our industry was very domestic-focused. The doubling of the industry in the early 90s and the significant focus on export markets has created a much more complex, far bigger and – in many ways – tougher environment.
Mr. Riggs The Bolter won Best Value Red Wine at the Vintage Cellars Best Of Awards last year. What is it that makes it so good?
I have been making shiraz in McLaren Vale since 1988 so have a fairly good understanding of what vineyards and regions make great wine. This is coupled with many years learning my trade from people like John Glaetzer, Murray Tyrrell, Brian Croser, Tony Jordan and of course my great mate and life mentor Greg Trott.
Who has inspired you most?
Without doubt Richard Gregory ‘Greg’ Trott. I met him 11 months after my father’s passing and on reflection he shaped me both personally and professionally more than any other person in my adult life. He taught me about why we do what we do: we make wine we love to make but, more importantly, we make wine our customers want to drink.
Which Mr. Riggs wine would you take to a party?
A bottle of Mr. Riggs Watervale Riesling to get one’s eye in, then the rich, soft, plush, delicious Mr. Riggs Shiraz (now called JFR after my late father), which is a great food wine but equally delicious as a standalone glass of red.
You’re at the pub and you don’t fancy wine. What do you order?
During the summertime, a gin and tonic – either Never Never or Four Pillars – and in winter, a Coopers Stout. I taste wine for up to six hours a day so it’s important to drink other things, to help recalibrate and refresh my palate.
Mr Riggs The Bolter Shiraz, McLaren Vale
A well-structured, full bodied wine with lush berry, chocolate and meaty aromas and flavours, and a lengthy finish, expressing the essence of the McLaren Vale region.
Mr Riggs The Bolter Cabernet Sauvignon, McLaren Vale
Using grapes sourced from a range of McLaren Vale’s best vineyards, this full-bodied and rich cabernet is elegant, with notes of black cherry and plum, and a lovely length and structure.
Mr Riggs Grenache, McLaren Vale
Fresh and fragrant, with cranberry, raspberry and hints of savoury spice on the nose. The medium-bodied palate is framed by fine tannins that lead to a long, soft and juicy finish.