Bad wine can be made from anything, but few grapes can make such bad wine, and such astoundingly good wine, as Riesling.
For years Britons were exposed to the insipid horrors that were bottled sacrilegiously under its name. Some readers may be familiar with the palate-defiling brutality of the cheaper wines of the 80s – limp, flabby and cringingly sweet things that today would be considered for only the very meanest of punches. But times have changed. The modern British wine drinker now has access to some of the finest examples of Riesling from the most historic parts of Germany, Austria and Alsace, while year after year some newer part of the New World seems to be discovering its own unique and exciting expression of this highly terroir driven variety. Few grapes have seen such a revival, and seldom has it been so warranted.
The ancestral home of Riesling is Germany. Here it constitutes only around 20% of total plantings, yet is the undisputed emperor of German wines. The best vineyards are sited along the banks of the Rhine – often on some of the steepest vineyard plots in the world – where the slate and sandy-clay soils and long, sunny hours of autumnal afternoons produce wines that are amongst the most expressive crafted anywhere. Nothing tastes quite like a fine, Mosel Riesling: fresh green apple; subtle, somehow chalky lemon; ripe, yet restrained peach notes and a beeswax-ey, floral opulence that can evolve over years (decades, often) into a rich, smoky character reminiscent, surprisingly, of kerosene.
Like the other king of terroir, Pinot Noir, Riesling is rarely blended with other grapes, and this purity of character, combined with restrained winemaking practices (extremely rare use of oak, no malolactic fermentation) make German Riesling unique, confident, and highly expressive. It can be found in a whole myriad of styles. With grapes picked at different levels of ripeness, sugar content can either be minimal (steely, focused and refreshing wines known as Kabinett) or indulgently high, producing prized bottles of Beeren or Trockenbeerenauslese – wines as mouth-coatingly glorious are they are a mouthful to say.
Nip across the border into Alsace, and Riesling is once again in charge. The Alsatians have their own Gallic influenced impressions of the grape, made in a richer, perfumed style, with the hot, dry summers and long growing season producing notes of tangerine, spices and blossom. Look out for bottlings from the Grand Cru vineyards that are terrific purveyors of their unique, Alsatian terroir.
And that, for much of world wine history, was it. Riesling is grown to great acclaim in parts of Austria, with a smattering of growths across Eastern Europe that rarely make it this far west. But until recently, Riesling was confined to Europe. They were the wines of connoisseurs and of the nations who made them. With its medieval Germanic labelling, unique and perhaps demanding taste profile and increasingly unfashionable off-dry tendency, Riesling certainly joined, but never dominated the global grape diaspora of much of the 20th century. The punters of the 80s, 90s and noughties wanted Merlot, Cabernet, Shiraz and Chardonnay, and that’s what the New World would well and truly give them.
But in the last 20 years, the rise of the modern ‘boutique’ winery and the global trend towards more intricate, focused, terroir driven wines has led to the emergence of a number of prime Riesling growing regions throughout the world. This has been typified most famously perhaps in South Australia, on the cool, green slopes of the Clare and Eden valleys. Here, higher altitude vineyards and a longer growing season, combined with a patchwork of alluvial clay soils and large diurnal temperature range (the difference between daytime and night time temperatures) produce some of the finest and most distinctive dry Rieslings in the world.
These wines are typically crisp, crunchy and floral, with notes of citrus fruits and orange blossoms, and the best examples will continue to develop in bottle over a period of 20 years or more. In neighbouring New Zealand, Antipodean Riesling evolves yet again. In South Island’s Canterbury and Central Otago (the most southerly wine-growing region in the world), Riesling is crafted with Europe in mind. The finest Kiwi expressions nod in style to those of the Mosel and Rheingau, and many producers are now offering aromatic, off-dry bottlings that are both refreshingly innovative and a joy to pair with food.
American Riesling has also taken off in recent years, with plantings concentrated primarily in the newer, cooler growing regions outside of California. Washington State Riesling has been making waves for a few years now, produced in a crisp, zesty style similar to those of the Aussie valleys, while the Finger Lakes district in upper New York State is increasingly churning out high quality examples that are only likely to improve. But perhaps the most intriguing incarnation of North American Riesling can be found in Canada. The lakeside vineyards of Ontario and Niagara are notably improving in their quest for quality cool climate Chardonnay and Pinot, but above all they’re famous for one of the most hedonistic potations ever bottled: icewine.
And Riesling is once again the king here. As autumn fades and winter begins, the grapes are left to freeze while still on the vine (temperatures must be lower than -8C, by law) concentrating the sugar qualities of the berry. After picking – often during several inches of snow – the grapes are pressed and these denser sugar components are extracted from the lighter frozen water. This syrup-like concoction is then fermented into a lusciously sweet dessert wine – the best examples of which balance a clean, refreshing acidity with rich notes of ripe tropical fruits, honey and caramel.
This great diversity in global Riesling styles illustrates just how elaborately it can be used in the right hands. Like all of the true European wines, Riesling is a sure match with many food dishes, be it a rich Alsatian with a creamy pork dish or a light, crisp Eden Valley with a Thai green curry, or similarly lightly-spiced food. Dessert-wine Rieslings are sublime with some delicate, cow’s milk cheese. But the very best bottles of Riesling should take the centre at any meal. They are an exploration in taste in themselves, and they should certainly be drunk more of.
This article was written for Wineman by Christian Lowe, a student at Plumton Wine College