Riesling, The Great White Hope
Date: Wednesday, March 28 @ 06:21:52 MDT
Discover France through Alsace.
Chardonnay is the buxom blond that catches everyone’s eye. Nipped and tucked and made ever more voluptuous by winemaking tricks of the trade like toasting barrel-heads and oaking the grapes for what seems like forever, Chardonnay is wine’s equivalent of the va-va-voom pin-up girl. Riesling, alas, is that girl next door you don’t seem to give a second look to.
But it shouldn’t be. This light white wine is one of the greatest wines in the world, at its best exhibiting both great fruit and acidity along with a remarkable variety of tastes and smells, from apples, pears, and tangerines to a pleasing whiff of, believe it or not, gasoline. “Riesling is unquestionably better than Chardonnay,” says winemaker Egon Müller of the renowned German house Egon Müller Scharzhof. “It will never be an ‘obvious’ grape like Chardonnay.”
Riesling has captivated Germans in particular since it was first cultivated from wild vines in 1435. Yet many Americans swore off Riesling when it went off to a nunnery, so to speak, and became Blue Nun: super sweet plonk that rivaled Boone’s Farms and Thunderbird for the hearts and minds of naïve wine drinkers. Never mind that Blue Nun and many wines of its ilk weren’t even true Rieslings, but lesser varietals like Liebfraumilich. The damage was done. In fact, if you listen to Müller and colleague Etienne Hugel, of Alsace’s world-class Hugel et Fils winery, the last time Riesling was chic in the U.S., Americans were sashaying up to the bar while disco balls swirled to the boom of K.C. and the Sunshine Band. Or maybe even not then.
“If the fashion swings, Riesling could again become very popular,” speculates Müller in his measured whisper of a voice, “Look at the 1920s, 1930s,” he tells WCI during a Riesling chat one afternoon in Manhattan. “Oh no!” interjects Hugel, “You don’t have to go back that far, look at the 1970s, the 1980s – Riesling was very popular!”
The truth is, Riesling is enjoying a wave of popularity right now, thanks to a superb 2001 vintage that opened the eyes of a generation of wine drinkers (and wine sellers) who never paid the varietal much mind previously. With a run of very good vintages, German wine exports are booming to the U.S. And it’s not just Old World wineries, stamping bottles with cryptic gothic script and umlauts, that are making great wine. Australia, Canada, New York State, New Zealand, Washington State are all making superb versions of Riesling, taking advantage of each area’s unique terroir. We’re a long way from the days of simple, sweet wine so many people associate with the Riesling grape.
“Riesling is one of the most reflective wines on the planet of terroir. There’s a huge diversity,” says Southcorp’s Lane. In Australia, where Riesling first found its way in 1847 along with Bavarian immigrants, the wines tend to be dry and floral. In the Clare Valley, north of Adelaide, wines from the Polish Hill area tend to be austere and highly acidic, while nearby Watervale excites the tastebuds with lime and other citrus flavors. In the Eden Valley, the other great Riesling producing area of Australia, Rieslings are very floral on the nose, with lots of green apple tastes, and even cinnamon. But if you can find one, the best bet might be a Riesling from the island of Tasmania, suggests Müller. Taz Rieslings are fine and aromatic, similar to great Rhine-area wines, with elegance and tremendous structure.
Nearby New Zealand is also just starting to emerge as a producer of fine Rieslings, in Marlborough and Central Otago. Amisfield Wines chief vintner Jeff Sinnott proudly packs visitors into his battered Holden station wagon to drive them up to the knolls and shallow valleys where he has planted his Riesling. “Nearly perfect Riesling soil,” he says excitedly, pointing to what is more correctly described as a bunch of stones. “The vines have to struggle, but they end up with great minerality and flavors of stone fruits and citrus.”
In the U.S., Washington State is the leader in crafting excellent Rieslings. Led by houses like Hogue and Chateau Ste. Michelle, Washington Riesling enjoys a style not quite as dry as the best southern hemisphere Rieslings, but that also doesn’t trend into the cloying sweetness of lesser Alsatian, and especially German, versions.
Even in New York State’s Finger Lakes, Riesling is taking hold, led by a handful of quality producers like Dr. Konstantin Frank Wines. Founded by the eponymous Dr. Frank, it was the first winery to show that classic European grapes could grow on the relatively warm slopes of upstate’s Finger Lakes.
How good are they? Current Dr. Frank head Frederick Frank recently had the senior class from Germany’s renowned Geisenheim School for winemaking over to taste a full run of Dr. Frank’s Rieslings, from the first vintage in 1962 to today. The students from Geisenheim, where Frank and Egon Müller both studied together, raved about the wines. “There’s a perception in Germany that Americans only want sweet wine. It was such a wonderful feeling to get their praise for our wines,” says Frank.
But any Riesling aficionado would be remiss to ignore Alsace and the Mosel Saar Ruhr region of Germany, the cradle of Riesling. The labels are more complicated than the American ones, which typically say, “dry Riesling” or “dry Johannisberg Riesling.”
But even the German labels are not that hard to figure out, says Marnie Old, a wine educator and sommelier in Philadelphia. Germany’s classifications are based on ripeness - the level of sugar in the grapes when they are harvested. The region means less in German classifications than in French wine – after all, you never know where the best ripe fruit will come from next, Old explains. Think of the classification system as a pyramid of lower quality and sweetness going to higher quality and higher sweetness, she suggests.
The mouthful Qualitatswein mit Pradikat (just say QmP for short) is the lowest quality allowed to be called Riesling. Old recommends sticking with the Kabinett and the Spätlese, the next layers of the pyramid and the ones that are the best food wines. Kabinett is from the normal harvest, Spätlese, or late-harvest; is from later in the season. “Spätlese is a ravishing wine, unashamedly sweet, yet with the right structure to age and develop into a genuine beauty in years to come,” adds New Zealand’s Sinnott.
Auslese, or “out-harvest,” Rieslings hang longer on the vine and are hand picked, resulting in a wine of seductive sweetness. Dessert wines fill out the top of the pyramid, with Beerenauslese and Eiswein. The rare Trockenbeerenauslese is at the tip, produced only once or twice a decade from botrytised grapes.
Eiswein, like Canada’s icewine, is made from grapes frozen on the vines and handpicked. These exquisite dessert wines often show aromas of ripe peaches with sometimes a touch of violets, and are generally a bit more complex than dessert wines made from the Vidal grape, a heartier variety often planted in Canada for icewine. On the palate, Riesling ice wines are very honeyed with long, supple finishes, according to Tom Seaver, a winemaker at Jackson-Triggs in Ontario.
Another rule of thumb for non-dessert Rieslings: Alsatian wines are drier, but have less acid. Rieslings from the Mosel, Saar, and Ruhr valleys are sweeter, but have more acid to offset the taste. For the geographically obsessed, Mosel Saar Ruhr wines tend to be more Alsatian in style the further south in the region they come from, adds Müller.
Lastly, Riesling, like a true love, gets more beautiful with age, something red-obsessed wine drinkers sometimes overlook (and, in fairness to Chardonnay, it too can age for decades when made well).
A 10 to 15-year old Riesling will taste toasty, with honey, ripe bananas and brioche with firm acidity in the background. From Alsace and Germany, the best aged Rieslings will show strong scents of petrol, which, believe it or not, is actually quite pleasant when the wine is in good condition. High quality Rieslings can age for 40 years . Egon Müller recently tasted a bottle of 1959 Scharzhofberger Riesling his father bottled. “When it came out, everyone said ‘this is a great wine, but drink it now because it can’t age.’ Even now, every time I open it, people are still saying that.”
Southcorp’s Lane often goes Riesling hunting when he’s at home. “I recently was poking through the bin ends at a local shop and came across five Rieslings from a long-gone McLaren Vale producer. I don’t think they even make Riesling in McLaren Vale any longer, but it was six bottles from the late 1980s for $6 a piece. And they were great – Riesling is such an awesome varietal that way.”