January 19, 2008 |
Why I Love Riesling, and You Should Too
There are a truckload of different white wines that come from lots of different grapes, climates, soils, and winemaking techniques. Riesling is the epitome of the most aromatic, least full-bodied, most transparent and brilliant in flavor. The Brightest white wine. It is the opposite of Chardonnay, who stands at the other end of the spectrum epitomizing dense, full-bodied, multi-faceted wines that derive much of their personality and individuality from the way they are made and aged - and above all from the oak of their barrels.
Of all the ‘aromatic’ grapes, Riesling stands out as the classic. The funny thing is how its hold on the hearts and minds of the world’s wine drinkers is shaky at best and is infinitely weaker than it was 100 or even 50 years ago. Riesling is oh so hot right now with the wine trendies, but it has been a tough battle to get here.
One reason why people like Riesling so much is that it achieves intense flavor ripeness at as little as 10% alcohol, making it much more refreshing than a big, oaky chardonnay butterball. The winemaking options are pretty limited: there are only minor differences in the way it is made in Germany, Alsace, Austria, California, or Australia, yet the wines differ from one another considerably. The reason is partly in philosophy, but mostly in climate and terroir.
Here is a quick tour of Riesling from around the world...
Originating in German soil, today Riesling is Germany’s numero uno grape variety, known for its characteristic “transparency” in flavor and presentation of terroir (the idea of being able to ‘taste the place’), and its balance between fruit and mineral flavors. The emphasis is all about freshness on fruit and a balance between sweetness and acidity. The winemaking is very simple and straightforward emphasizing the flavors of the grape, and downplays the role (read as ego) of the winemaker.
The best vineyards are on steep hill sides, the grapes are almost always hand-picked and hurried to the winery for processing with as little damage to the skins as possible: freshness of juice is seen as crucial.
The great German Rieslings have exceptional intensity of fruit flavor deriving directly from the vineyard. Riesling wines from Germany cover a vast array of tastes from sweet to off-dry halbtrocken to dry trocken. Late harvest Rieslings can ripen to become very sweet dessert wines of the beerenauslese (BA) and trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) class - trockenbeerenauslese is expensive to buy and difficult to say. I think the unapproachability of these German words has scared away many an American wine drinker.
Winemakers in Alsace try their damndest to make a Riesling as different from that of Germany as the laws of chemistry and bio-chemistry will allow. Rather than thin, delicate little things, these are much richer and higher in alcohol. Rieslings produced in Alsace tend to be mostly very dry with a cleansing acidity. They are thick bodied wines that coat the palate. These wines age exceptionally well with a quality vintage aging up to 20 years. This is beneficial since the flavors in an Alsace wine will often open up after three years, developing softer and fruitier flavors.
Now these are the wines that have inspired the Bright White Riesling of Municipal Winemakers. I learned how to love and how to make Rieslings in this style during my time in Oz.
Here’s an interesting factoid. Germany has the most Riesling planted, more than 20,000 hectares or 50,000 acres of Riesling vines, more than 60 per cent of the world’s supply. But guess what? Australia is in second place, ahead of Alsace in France and Austria, both of which are famous for their Rieslings.
Perhaps more important than the quantity of Australian Riesling, however, is its quality. With its predominantly dry, full-bodied, very direct and often rather citrus fruited style, and even the best examples are at around $15-$20 a bottle, I would argue it has won more modern wine drinkers over to Riesling than German Riesling. The German equivalent, in similar dry styles, is not widely exported and in fruitier, lighter form seems to be an acquired taste.
On the face of it, one might imagine Australian vineyards were a bit too hot for Riesling (seeing how it comes from Germany). But this is the variety, imported by settlers escaping religious persecution in Silesia in the 19th century, that was the dominant Australian white wine grape until Chardonnay wrested that crown not much more than 15 years ago.
Today, Riesling vines have been systematically replaced by Chardonnay in the country’s hotter, less suitable areas, such as the sweltering inland irrigated vineyards that supply the ocean of wine labeled South Eastern Australia and the sun-baked floor of the Barossa Valley, which tend to ripen Riesling too fast to develop any flavors of real interest. But at the same time Riesling vines have been planted in many of the country’s more recently developed, cool climate wine regions, which apparently constitute a surprising half of all designated wine appellations in Australia.
Jeffery Grosset, perhaps the king of Riesling in Australia has made the move over to stelvin screwcaps. He has virtually single-handedly led first Clare Riesling makers and then more and more Australian winemakers into bottling both whites and reds under screwcap, so we can expect his Rieslings to last even longer to judge from early indications of how wines age under screwcap.
If Clare Rieslings when young are steely, sometimes to the point of austerity, they develop a rather lime-like, very refreshing fruit quality with age and can eventually become quite toasty. Eden Valley Rieslings, can be rather more floral and overtly fruity but still with the dry finish that makes these wines so great with food, especially spicy, Asian-inspired salads and stir fries. Eden Valley are my personal fav Rieslings and can continue to develop in bottle for years.
American Riesling ￼
For winemakers in this country, the riesling renaissance has been under way for 30 years, but wine drinkers have become aware of it only during the last decade. Chardonnay, it seems, is a hard act to follow.
Much of the renewed interest in the riesling grape has centered on German and Alsatian examples, but contrary to most expectations, Americans have begun to turn out fine versions of our own. There is some question as to who started the riesling renaissance, but there is little doubt what happened to the variety that made this comeback necessary. It was us Californians. We took a perfectly good grape and for a century made really bad wine with it. People forget now, but in its earliest days, the Northern California wine country had a Teutonic air to it. Winemakers with names like Dresel and Schram and Gundlach imported German grape varieties in the 1850's and 60's and made what they called riesling from them. Most were failures. The ''rieslings'' that survived were often blends of a touch of riesling and lots of sylvaner, folle blanche and other California-friendly varieties.
By the 1950's, California riesling was little more than jug wine, scorned by anyone who had tasted the real thing. Today, there are some good California rieslings -- by Smith-Madrone in the Napa Valley, by Navarro in Mendocino, and a handful of others. But the grape has never played an important role on the California wine scene.
Riesling is a difficult grape to grow and, for a newcomer to wine, can be equally difficult to appreciate. It can be austere and steely, with breathtaking acidity to match its intense fruit. A good riesling hits you right away. Only in the sweeter versions, where the sugar masks the tartness, can it be considered user-friendly. For occasional drinkers, a great riesling can be a turnoff. For its committed fans, however, it is the finest grape in the world.