19 Jul 2014
My great white hope
This is a slightly longer version of an article that was also published in the Financial Times.
Usually when I send one of these articles to our editor at FT Weekend, I ask explicitly for its subject to be made very clear. This week, I'm hoping to disguise my topic until I have lured FT readers into at least the second paragraph, because I know what a turn-off it is for many wine consumers, and yet I really, really want them to come to know and love it.
No, the subject is not reduced-alcohol wine. Nor Bordeaux primeurs, which the wine-consuming chattering classes have decided is currently the most boring sort of wine there is. What I want to draw your attention to is the world's greatest white wine grape. Not Chardonnay. This one makes wines that go much, much better with food than the heavier and often oakier Chardonnay. Its wines also express place very much more eloquently than almost any other white wine grape. And they continue to develop interestingly and reliably (none of this premature oxidation nonsense) in bottle, not for years but for decades.
My hero is of course the grape that dares neither speak nor spell its name, Riesling, pronounced Reece-ling and misspelt almost as often as it is mispronounced. Most of the wine trade loves it, for the qualities spelt out above, and most Purple Pagers seem to love it. I can't think of any non-specialist wine website that devotes more attention to Rieslings and German wine than this one. But in my experience many regular wine drinkers actively dislike it. For a while I thought this was because Riesling is so strongly flavoured that its strength of personality puts people off, but the popularity of Sauvignon Blanc, equally powerfully perfumed (and in some cases equally sweet), casts doubt on that theory.
I have come across just one fellow Riesling enthusiast who is not a wine professional. But I have a nasty feeling that what our younger daughter's flatmate likes about it is what most people hate: some sweetness.
The sweetness level of Rieslings is controversial. In the old, chilly, pre climate-change days when they were pushing yields at the expense of ripeness, the Germans often covered up the tartness of their meagre Riesling with sugar. Today, most decent Riesling producers, wherever they are in the world, can ripen it fully and, if they choose, can ferment all the grape sugar out into alcohol, producing a bone-dry wine. The great majority of Riesling now sold in Germany, particularly that produced in more southerly wine regions, is dry (trocken) or just off dry and probably described on the label as feinherb, a name that Germans find more attractive than halbtrocken (half-dry).
In fact since the late 20th century there has been a dramatic change in the taste profile of Riesling sold in Germany so that most of it nowadays is deliberately dry-tasting with just a small proportion very sweet, depending on the vintage conditions and whether they favour the development of botrytis, or noble rot, that concentrates the sugars. This leaves a great gap in between. Traditionalists occasionally lament the withering of categories such as Kabinett and Spätlese that used to be perceptibly fruity without being all that sweet.
Only in the Mosel Valley in the far north, and in particular in the even cooler valleys of its tributaries the Saar and the Ruwer, have the majority of mainstream producers stood by their guns and continued to champion defiantly fruity Rieslings. The likes of Egon Müller and Zilliken are still making featherlight Kabinett and Spätlese with only about 8% alcohol (most Chardonnay is 13%) and lots of unfermented but beautifully balanced sugar. What stops these wines from being sickly is the crystalline acidity retained in the grapes this far north, so that you have a nervy, racy, utterly refreshing style of wine not made anywhere else on the planet. These are the sort of wines which develop such complex aromas over time that the wine's perfume can truly be called a bouquet. They can be sipped virtually at any time of day – though most are too delicate to be served with anything but the lightest food.
Riesling is not naturally very alcoholic but, thanks to that strong personality and often enormous extract, it certainly isn't short of flavour.
In Australia, traditionally and rather unexpectedly the world's second most prolific grower of Riesling grapes after Germany, the climate is quite warm enough to ripen every Riesling grape to the max and the challenge is to retain acidity, so virtually all Australian Riesling is bone dry. There is no need for any softening sweetness. The two Riesling hotspots of South Australia, the Clare and Eden Valleys, offer lime, toast and sometimes flowers, as well as the ability to age for at least 10 years – more now that virtually all Australian Riesling is stoppered by screwcap rather than cork. The south of Western Australia, Great Southern, can also make very fine dry Riesling, in a markedly more herbal style. Australian Rieslings tend to be between 11.5 and 13% alcohol and can make great partners for the sort of fusion, often spicy, food that Australian-trained chefs revel in.
Alsace and Austria also have long histories of producing dry Rieslings, including some of the finest in the world. I have rarely encountered a disappointing dry Riesling from Josmeyer, Trimbach, Domaine Weinbach (Faller) or Zind Humbrecht in Alsace, nor from Bründlmayer, Schloss Gobelsburg, Hirtzberger, Knoll, FX Pichler or Prager in Austria – and there are scores of other reliable producers, some of them up and coming.
But now growers in cooler parts of New Zealand, South Africa, Chile and the US are delivering some increasingly accomplished dry Riesling too. Framingham in Marlborough first caught my attention with its spookily authentic answers to sweeter German Rieslings but I have recently been blown away by the quality of their drier versions modelled on Alsace's best. A little further south in the South Island, Pegasus Bay is another of New Zealand's rare Riesling specialists.
Cono Sur, the most inventive of the producers owned by the Chilean giant Concha y Toro, has been experimenting with Riesling for years in some of its coolest southerly vineyards but the two most impressive Chilean Rieslings to have come my way recently have been from Cousiño Macul's very old vines brought from Germany in the 19th century to their (pretty warm) headquarters outside the capital Santiago and from the new, Pacific-cooled wine region of San Antonio right on the coast.
North American Riesling has tended, like so many North American wines, to be rather sweeter than the wines described above, but the Finger Lakes region in New York state in particular now makes some particularly fine dry Riesling, and one of the two German-American joint ventures that has transformed the fortunes of Riesling in Washington state, and the US market, is also making a good, if much more powerful, example. Dry Riesling is a great wine for the table.
SOME IMPRESSIVE DRY RIESLINGS
See recent detailed tasting notes on almost 100 non-German, mainly dry Rieslings from around the world, as well as More Rieslings from around the world published this week, and see this guide to our coverage of Germany's (latest) 2013 vintage and to the 2012 vintage. The top 2013 dry German wines will be reviewed when they are released in September.
Jim Barry, The Lodge Hill Dry Riesling 2013 Clare Valley
£9.99 Co-op, Majestic, Tesco – excellent value
Jim Barry, The Florita Riesling 2009 Clare Valley
£23 Hennings, Jeroboams
Grosset, Springvale Riesling 2013 Clare Valley
£20 The Wine Society, also Slurp.co.uk, Exel Wines etc
Grosset, Polish Hill Riesling 2013 Clare Valley
£25 The Wine Society, also Nicholls & Perks, Noel Young etc
Henschke, Julius Riesling 2013 Eden Valley
£21.50 Great Western Wines, Exel Wines etc
Pegasus Bay, Bel Canto Dry Riesling 2011 Waipara
£17.46 Bottle Apostle, The Good Wine Shop
Framingham, F-Series Old Vine Riesling 2012 Marlborough
£21.29 Noel Young, also Hedonism, Joseph Barnes – excellent value, a past wine of the week
Casa Marín, Miramar Vineyard Riesling 2011 San Antonio
Cousiño-Macul, Isidora Riesling 2013 Maipo
Long Shadows, Poet's Leap Riesling 2011 Columbia Valley