'Reece-ling' must be the world's most misunderstood, and mispronounced, grape variety. Acknowledged king of German vineyards, this variety happens to share a name with so many other unrelated grapes and wines such as Emerald Riesling, Riesling Italico, Laskirizling, Olaszrizling and Welschriesling. And, it must be said, the Germans themselves have made some pretty awful Rieslings at the bottom end of the market that have done nothing for the reputation of their greatest asset.
Wine made from Riesling is quite unlike any other. It is generally light in alcohol, refreshingly high in fruity natural acidity (quite different from the harshness of added acid), has the ability to transmit the character of a place through its extract and unique aroma and, unlike Chardonnay, is capable of ageing for decades in bottle. Like top quality Chenin Blanc, but unlike Chardonnay, it performs best if fermented cool and bottled early without any malolactic fermentation or wood influence. Riesling is a star and, as you may discern, one of my great wine heroes.
To me Riesling is great not just because it, like Pinot Noir for example, is so exceptionally good at expressing terroir, but also because it makes white wines that are so good at ageing. A fine Riesling almost demands time in bottle. They can be quite austere in youth (which may be why so many wine drinkers are wary of them). The prospect of a 50-year-old Riesling can be an appetising one while the number of white burgundies worth ageing past their 15th birthday is extremely small. I once presented a tasting in Frankfurt where we compared fine Rieslings with classed-growth red bordeaux of the same vintage and each pair of wines was maturing at almost exactly the same rate. Relative to most other internationally known varieties, Riesling ripens quite early, so when planted in a hot climate its juice can be overripe and flabby long before any interesting flavours have developed in the grapes. In a cool climate such as that of the Mosel valley in northern Germany on the other hand, it is regarded as late ripening relative to the host of precocious varieties that were specially bred for these short summers. This means that, whereas Müller-Thurgau will ripen just about anywhere here, Riesling stands a chance of ripening fully only on the most favoured sites, those tilted most firmly towards direct and reflected sunlight, which is where it is planted so that it stays on the vine well into autumn. Riesling from the Mosel and its even cooler tributaries the Saar and Ruwer is one of the wine world's most distinctive, least imitable wine styles: light, crisp, racy, refreshing as a mountain stream and somehow tasting of the slate which, by reradiating warmth overnight, helps ripen so many Riesling vines. This is the wine to drink while writing or reading; it refreshes the palate and sharpens the brain (or at least that's what it feels like).
A third of all Germany's Riesling grows in the Mosel but the Pfalz region also grows a substantial quantity, making much richer but no less entrancing wine which can often taste exotically fruity (and can reach as much as 13% alcohol if fermented out to dryness). Riesling is also the classic grape of the Rheingau where it perhaps best reflects, in a steely, lemony, sometimes mineral-scented way, the differences between even neighbouring vineyards. The best estates belong to the VDP group, dedicated to making great dry Rheingau Riesling – although in warm years the Rheingau can also be the source of many excellent BA and TBA sweet wines. Riesling is an extremely fine candidate for botrytised sweet wines, although this noble rot tends to blur geographical differences and result in thick, almost raisiny deep golden wines usually labelled either Beerenauslese (BA) or Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA). Württemberg is also an important grower of earthy Riesling which rarely escapes the region. Cracking Rieslings are also made in the Nahe. Until recently German Riesling was often so tart that it needed some sweetness in the wine to balance the acidity, but climate change has meant that grapes ripen much more successfully and some seriously fine dry (trocken) German Rieslings are made. Their perfume and raciness can make them particularly food-friendly – often more so than a heavier, oak-aged white.
Riesling is also the noblest variety of Alsace, France's most Germanic region, where the best of its tingly-dry, steely wines such as Trimbach's Clos Ste-Hune can age for a decade or two in bottle. There is a slight talcum powder aroma about the least concentrated examples of Alsace Riesling but these are great wines to drink as aperitifs (as indeed is all but the sweetest Riesling made anywhere). The Wachau in Austria rivals Alsace and the Mosel for the purity of its Rieslings, except that these wonderfully characterful, bone dry, sculpted wines tend to have more in the way of body and alcohol. Much of central Europe, Slovenia and the Czech Republic in particular, has suitable spots for ripening Riesling, whose local name usually incorporates some variant on the word Rhine (in Croatia it is known as Rizling Rajinski, for example). True Riesling (as opposed to Welschriesling) is widely dispersed in Friuli and Alto Adige where it is called Riesling Renano although few startling examples have so far emerged from the region. Riesling is also allegedly grown widely in the Russia, but much of this may in fact be Welschriesling.
Most of southern Europe is too warm for Riesling; if it ripens too fast and early, it fails to build any flavour. This makes it all the more surprising to find an enclave of fine Riesling production in South Australia, not known for its low temperatures. Both the Clare Valley north of Adelaide and Eden Valley to the east have established reputations for great dry Riesling, the sort of punchy, confident wine that goes perfectly with the Pacific rim cuisine of which Australians are now so proud. Both these Rieslings can develop for many a year in bottle (though faster than a German Riesling) and after time can acquire a certain toastiness. Lesser examples – and there are plenty of sweetened-up commercial blends – may take on a more obvious kerosene note (see TDN), a hint of which can be found in many an aged Riesling wherever it was grown.
New Zealand's Rieslings are increasingly admired and come in all degrees of sweetness. California once had a tradition of making rich, fairly fast-maturing late harvest Johannisberg Riesling or White Riesling but has taken up the variety again only because of the sales success of a new wave of Rieslings from Washington state which virtually adopted the variety as a speciality in the early years of the century. Riesling is quite clearly the most successful variety in the Finger Lakes region of New York state where some extremely delicate Rieslings are produced, and Michigan Rieslings can also be very fine. Canada regularly produces stunning ice wines from this variety.
Particularly notable Riesling sites include Egon Müller Scharzhofberg in the Mosel; Robert Weil Kiedricher Gräfenberg in the Rheingau; Emrich Schönleber Halenberg in the Nahe and hundreds more; Trimbach Clos Ste Hune in Alsace; F X Pichler Dürnsteiner Kellerbeg in Austria's Wachau; Jeffrey Grosset Polish Hill in Australia's Clare Valley.