THE big three of noble white wine varieties includes Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling. Chardonnay is the most recognized and admired of the three. It makes some of the world’s greatest single variety whites in Burgundy and elsewhere while also playing a major role in the world’s two best sparkling wines, Champagne and Franciacorta.
Sauvignon Blanc varietal wines include the classic Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume from the Loire Valley in central France as well as the world-beating whites from Marlborough and other regions of New Zealand. The variety also dominates the blends of Bordeaux’s greatest dry white wines.
Riesling, well, let’s face it; unless you’re from Germany or nearby, this variety may well be a mystery to you. What’s not in question is the ability of this grape to make some of the world’s best and most age-worthy white wines.
So what’s the problem with this often misconstrued variety?
Riesling is not a grape that reacts well to large scale cultivation and winemaking, instead the best expressions of this variety are almost without exception hand-picked, low-yield wines made with scrupulous care in small quantities. This is one factor that has limited the popularity of the variety.
Compared with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, good Rieslings are not especially easy to find outside of their areas of production and seldom if ever cheap.
Another factor that has limited the popularity of Riesling in many markets is the unfair association the grape had with many cheap, mass produced insipidly sweet German wines that were especially popular three to four decades ago.
In fact, this is a bum rap for Riesling as the variety was seldom used in these wines with the higher yield, lower quality Muller-Thurgau and Silvaner varieties usually the main components.
It’s fair to call Riesling the most misunderstood noble variety in the world, but to truly know Riesling is to love Riesling. The variety may never be the crowd-pleaser that other varieties have become, but Riesling fans while fewer in number are more loyal to their beloved grape.
Ask about the ancestral home of Riesling and most people in-the-know will cite Germany or more specifically areas surrounding the Rhine and lower Mosel rivers. But scientists are not sure where the grape originated. The first documented mention of the variety is in a 1435 purchase document of a nobleman in a small Rhine River town bordering the modern day wine region of Rheingau.
DNA suggests the parents of modern day Riesling are non-classified wild vines, Traminer and the rather obscure Gouais Blanc that was an important variety in the Middle Ages in France and Germany. The lesser known red-skin version of Riesling may also be an ancestor grape.
Tough to generalize
Many wine connoisseurs consider Riesling the most terroir-expressive variety, in other words the grape that best and most clearly expresses the precise place where it is grown.
The aromas, flavors and textures of Riesling wines vary greatly depending where and how they are made so it’s nearly impossible to list the most typical qualities. Nonetheless, I shall try.
Many dry Rieslings exhibit citrus, apple, pear and mineral aromas and flavors while sweet versions also have expressions of honey. One rather peculiar aroma and flavor good Rieslings often offer, especially when young, is petrol. Sometimes expressed as sensations of kerosene or rubber, these petrol qualities are keenly sought after by many serious Riesling fans.
Nearly every wine region in Germany produces Riesling wines with the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Rheingau and Pfalz regions making many of the best expressions of the grape.
Germany’s largest wine region, the Rheinhessen, also makes good examples. The most famous German Rieslings are sweet wines that are organized into levels of sweetness like Auslese, Eiswein and Trockenbeerenauslese. These are among the greatest sweet wines in the world with their intense sweetness offset by solid acidic backbones.
As great as these sweeties are, I still have a preference for dry wines during the summer. Fortunately, Germany is making an increasingly number of dry Rieslings. I recommend the 2012 Dr Loosen Mosel Riesling and 2011 Friedrich Fendel Riesling Trocken Rheingau, two very fine and budget-worthy wines as well as the more serious and costly 2009 Clemens Busch Pundericher Marienburg Grosses Gewachs.
Across the Rhine River on the border with Germany, the French region of Alsace also makes great Rieslings. Unlike their German counterparts the majority of these wines are dry.
Riesling is one of four varieties, along with Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer and Muscat that are allowed in Grand Cru rated vineyards. Alsatian producers to look for include Hegel et Fils and Domaines Schlumberger.
Riesling also thrives in Austria where it’s the second most-planted variety after the indigenous Gruner Veltliner. Austrian Rieslings tend to be quite substantial wines with higher levels of alcohol than German versions offering attractive pungent fruity aromas and spicy elements. Most Austrian wines are dry but I’ve also tasted some excellent noble rot sweet wines.
My favorite New World Rieslings are from Australia and New Zealand. The best Aussie expressions of this grape come from the cool climate regions of Clare Valley and Eden Valley.
The typical Clare Valley Riesling offers intense citrus flavors with good minerality and high natural acidity making these whites some of the most stylish and clean white wines in Australia. Three producers who make excellent Clare Valley Rieslings include Pikes, Knappstein and Petaluma.
The Rieslings of Eden Valley commonly offer generous lime and mineral aromas and flavors and high natural acidity. Many wines also exhibit an intriguing zesty or spicy nature that tickles the palate.
Unlike most Australian white wines but typical of this variety, Rieslings from the Clare and Eden Valleys age remarkably well and tend to develop more ripe citrus and marmalade flavors as they mature. Eden Valley producers with Rieslings available in Shanghai include Henschke, Grosset and Mesh, a brand also made by Grosset.
The Riesling variety came rather late to New Zealand but thrive in the cool climate regions of Martinborough, Marlborough and Central Otago.
Last week, I had the pleasure of tasting an exceptional bottle of 2012 Misha’s Vineyard Lyric Riesling. This wonderfully expressive wine combines the bracing freshness expected from a well-made dry Riesling and the concentration and intensity typical of Central Otago wines.
It’s certainly on my short-list of best New World Rieslings.
The Pacific Northwest in the US, Chile and South Africa also make Rieslings of note and I’d be remiss not to mention that Riesling is used to make several of Canada’s most acclaimed ice wines.
Riesling at a glance
Light-skinned, late-ripening and low-yield white wine grape