All Hail Riesling The Great

POSTED ON 07/02/2013

One of my most enjoyable jobs is teaching wine in schools and the first question I like to ask students is what wines they like to drink. The almost automatic answer is pinot grigio. When you take your first steps in wine, there are fewer easier or blander wines to drink, so the response is hardly surprising. Most of them still add sugar to their tea and coffee. The next step up the ladder is chardonnay. Chardonnay is one of the great crowd-pleasers and its relative neutral aromas and affinity with oak allow it to adapt well to many different dishes. Besides, chardonnay is the source of wines from the most basic and commercial to some of the greatest white wines in the world: white Burgundy.

A taste of riesling may not create such an instant bond of friendship. It has naturally higher acidity, which may at first taste seem sharp or tart. But don’t let that deceive or disappoint you. If chardonnay is the queen of white grapes, riesling is the king. It’s demanding, full of verve, personality and variety. If you give riesling the loyalty it commands and deserves, sooner or later its acquired taste will repay you by opening the gates to the kingdom of white wine. As Jancis Robinson MW says in her new book, Wine Grapes (Allen Lane, £120), co-authored with Julia Harding MW and José Vouillamoz, ‘riesling is one of the world’s great wine grapes, capable of making particularly geographically expressive and long-lived wines at all sweetness levels’. What other grape can make that claim? None.

Riesling is Germany’s greatest gift to the wine world. It’s the only great wine grape in fact to have spread its wings in countless regions around the world that isn’t French in origin. Riesling is not even allowed in France, except for Alsace, which was once German. Riesling is an aromatic variety that bursts with exotic citrus, spicy and floral aromas and comprises myriad fruit flavours from apple to peach to lemon, lime and grapefruit. It is widely planted throughout the classic regions of Germany and is generally considered to reach its apex, although not exclusively so, in the Mosel, the Rheingau, The Pfalz and parts of the Rheinhessen. It clings to steep slopes and loves hardy, poor terrain, rewarding its long-suffering growers with wines of intense aroma and concentration.

Apart from its demanding nature, one of the reasons why riesling has been less popular than it deserves to be, in my view at least, is because of the many prejudices against it. The first prejudice is that it is often linked in the mind with the lesser varieties that sound similar. Olasz riesling, wälschriesling, riesling italico and laski rizling all belong to the same lesser varietal grouping and all have tarred German riesling, quite unjustly, with their own inferior brush. Secondly, riesling has suffered from the image of German wine created by Liebfraumilch, the sugary and dilute German blend in brands such as Black Tower, Blue Nun and cheap supermarket own-label wines. Finally, it has historically been characterised as sweet, especially in the UK, when its true range of styles can vary from bone dry through off-dry and medium sweet all the way to lusciously rich.

Riesling is a late-ripening grape variety and because its vine’s wood is relatively hard, it needs to be planted in sites where it can ripen fully. When it does ripen, it often does so at relatively low alcohol levels, particularly if some residual sugar is left in the wine. The famous featherweight kabinett, spätlese and auslese styles from the Mosel Valley in Germany for instance can be fully ripe, and full-flavoured, at just 7 – 8%, or half the alcoholic content of an Australian shiraz or Californian zinfandel. Not surprisingly these styles are appreciated for their delicacy. Yet thanks to big improvements in the German vineyards and cellar, along with climate change, Germany is now successfully producing the world’s best dry rieslings. From the Mosel, through the Rheingau, the Rheinhessen and Rheinpfalz, dry riesling varies considerably in style from the lean and austere to the rich and exotic, but there’s no doubting the new quality from the likes of Schäfer-Fröhlich, Wittmann, Dönnhof, Ernst Loosen and JJ Prüm, among others.

Compared to Germany’s vineyard plantings of some 25,000 hectares, riesling is not widely planted elsewhere even in wine regions and countries where it’s relatively successful. This is the case with Alsace and Austria, both of which produce some of the world’s great dry riesling. Alsace produces deliciously full-bodied citrusy examples from for instance Trimbach, Zind-Humbrecht, Josmeyer, Domaine Weinbach, Marcel Deiss and Ostertag. From Austria, Nikolaihof, Bründlmayer, Knoll, Loimer , Prager and F.X.Pichler are among the greatest exponents. One of the most successful recent manifestations of dry riesling comes out of Australia, where the Eden Valley and Clare Valley examples, a legacy of the 19th century Silesian refugees, have proved to be highly successful for wonderfully full-bodied and deliciously lime zesty, mineral dry whites from producers such as Jeffrey Grosset, Pike’s, Yalumba, O’Leary Walker, Skillogalee and Kilikanoon.

Dry riesling’s affinity with food of various different kinds fits the current vogue for greater drinkability and refreshment in wine and less or no oak. With shellfish, riesling is a perfect match, the sweetness of the flesh complemented by the dryness of the fruit in the wine and the incisive blade of mouthwatering acidity. The same applies to dry riesling with most fish dishes, sashimi especially, but equally freshly grilled fish and those where a creamy sauce calls for the cut and thrust of the grape’s lemon-squeeze zestiness. But it’s not just seafood that makes riesling such a good food wine. Asian dishes that are sometimes difficult for find a partner for will often chime with riesling. As long as the chilli spice isn’t too hot, riesling can bring mountain-stream cooling to mild Thai and Indian curries. In its versatility with food, in its multi-faceted styles, and above all in its class and quality, riesling wears the crown.

This is the full text of the slightly abridged version that appeared in the Shanghai Daily 7 February 2013

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