This is one of my favourite grape varieties and luckily for me, for some strange reason – aside from wine critics who adore it – the general public appear to be rather adverse to its charms and as a result it offers terrific value for money. I say “for some reason” but I know the reason (probably!) and you can blame those popular sweet wines (and I use the term loosely!) of the 1980s: Black Tower, Blue Nun, Liebfraumilsch….need I go on? The thing is, most of these contain very little (if any) Riesling and yet the damage to its street cred appears to have been done.
I’m hoping after reading this I can tempt a few more of you to give this rather lovely grape a bit of a chance.
Riesling (pronounced Reece-ling) is a hugely aromatic, highly versatile white varietal that unlike many other white grapes really is best enjoyed in all its natural glory without any influence of oak…it simply doesn’t need it. For this is a grape which has acidity and fruity freshness in abundance and boy is it versatile – capable of making bone dry, semi-sweet, and sweet wines (Late Harvest, Noble Rot affected or Icewine) as well as pretty decent fizz. It can be drunk young but often needs time to really show well with many of its best iterations ageing beautifully for many years.
What does it taste of? This is very dependent on where it is grown as Riesling expresses its terroir probably more than any other grape.
You will often hear the term ‘petrol’ or ‘kerosene’ associated with Riesling – don’t let that put you off, this is a classic Riesling idiosyncrasy making the grape easy to spot in blind tastings. Invariably what you will always get is zingy acidity, a steely minerality and a natural freshness wherever the grape is grown (to greater or lesser extents): in a cooler climate this is dominated by green apples, lemons and white flowers, in slighter warmer climates peach, pear/quince and even tropical fruits come to the fore. With age many wines develop a toasty smokiness and in the case of late harvest and ‘botrytised’ wines the flavour profile can tend towards apricot, pineapple and honeyed notes.
I’ve already referenced the versatility of this grape which can be a burden as much as a benefit as I believe what hasn’t helped Riesling is the lack of clarity around the sweetness levels which make consumers wary of buying. This is beginning to change with many winemakers opting for clearer labelling such as ‘Dry Riesling’ but here are a couple of helpful pointers to look for:
• If a wine says ‘Late Harvest’ on the bottle then it will have a fair amount of sweetness.
• Similarly if you see the term ‘Noble’ on the label it will be sweet.
• If a German wine says ‘Trocken’ this is dry, ‘Halb-Trocken’ its medium dry.
• Alcohol levels are a good pointer – generally a wine which has a low ABV% (7-9% ABV) will retain some sweetness whereas ABV in the 12-13% range will generally be dry (I won’t get technical but it’s often due to retained sugars not being converted to alcohol). Now I say generally because in certain regions alcohol levels for late harvest wines are in fact very high (more on this later) and they may be sweet!
Germany – (Dry or Sweet styles). The benchmark region for the grape in my opinion. The cool climate and (often) slate/granite soils combine to create wines that are often light in body with tremendous length and really great tension. Best regions in my opinion are the Mosel, Rheingau and Pfalz. Some quality producers to look for Dr Loosen, Joh Jos Prum and Leitz.
What perhaps holds Germany back with the everyday consumer (apart of course from the unfortunate links with Black Tower et al!) is the terminology on the labelling which makes it tricky to determine the aforementioned sweetness levels. The classification structure in Germany is a tad complicated so I won’t go into it now (I will do an ‘In a Nutshell’ blog to try and make this easier to understand for those who may be interested).
France (Often drier style). By which I mean Alsace and only Alsace! Perhaps this is unsurprising given the proximity to the German border but wines from this very Germanic of French Appellations can be truly outstanding. Where these wines tend to differ from those of Germany is body – wines are much fuller bodied with higher alcohol levels in Alsace. Names to look for Kuentz-Bas, Barmes-Buecher, Trimbach, Zind-Humbrecht. Houses such as Hugel are widely available and can be reasonably priced.
Note: if you see the term VT or SGN (“Vendanges Tardives” and “Sélection de Grains Nobles”) then this is where the logic of gauging sweetness levels by the ABV% goes out the window as these late harvest/botrytised wines are high in alcohol (14->16%) but also with sweetness (note: some VT wines can be dry whereas SGN are always sweet just to complicate matters!)
Elsewhere in Europe Austria also offers good quality often dry Riesling (look for the Wachau region), outside of Europe I would look towards:
Australia (Drier style) – perhaps surprisingly given the warmer climate, Riesling thrives here, although it is best in high altitude, slightly cooler sites – think Clare Valley and Eden Valley. Wines from these regions do differ stylistically but as a rule are often dry, have ABV’s around the 12-13% range, slightly less overt acidity and have really intense lime citrus aromas (more floral in the case of Eden Valley) with kerosene and smoky notes developing earlier in wines from these regions than in France or Germany.
I’m a big fan of Aussie Riesling and for great wines that won’t break the bank look for Jim Barry and Tim Adams. These are available in high street supermarkets for less than a tenner.
New Zealand (Dry and Sweet)– of all the New World countries the Kiwis appear best positioned to produce great Riesling given its cool(er) climate and large diurnal temperature range which ensures acidity is retained whilst grapes are able to fully ripen. The result being relatively alcoholic (13%+), high acid, medium bodied wines with lots of ripe peach and quince alongside the citrus and apple. Great aperitif wines these, Marlborough, Nelson and Central Otago are good regions to look for. Producers that offer good value for money include Waimea (their classic dry Riesling is lovely), Astrolabe and Framingham. If you want to push the boat out a bit, then Felton Road and Cloudy Bay are worth trying.
Chile – (Drier styles) the cooler climate regions particularly those around the Bio Bio Valley are beginning to have real success. Wines are able to retain their acidity and exhibit the classic minerality and fruity citrus notes the grape is so known for. On the high street Cono Sur offers good value for money.
The USA – (Dry and Sweet) whilst California is too warm, some lovely dry versions can be found in the cooler climate regions of the Columbia Valley in Washington State or Dundee Hills in Oregon as well as the Finger Lake region near New York. Names worth trying include Ch. St Michelle and Ovum.
Last but by no means least: Canada (Dry and Sweet) – the best known wines from this region are arguably the lusciously sweet Icewines (see previous posts for more details). Riesling is a hardy grape that copes well with the cold (even the very cold!) and its high acidity means the sweetness is balanced without the wine appearing flabby even at high sugar levels. Peller and Inniskillen are good producers to look for.
So the next time you are perusing the wine shelves looking for your next bottle of wine think about these things:
Is it good value for money?
Is the wine great with food?
Does it work without food as an aperitif wine?
Am I looking for something aromatic and characterful?
Yep…Riesling really does tick all the boxes!