The noble Riesling grape variety is probably German in origin. According to Wine grapes, the name has many German synonyms and may be mentioned as far back as 1435. Certainly the variety is suited to Germany’s cold winters, hot summers and long dry early autumns. With its hard wood and late budding, it is equipped to survive the winter and it makes the most of the long ripening season to reach both sugar and phenolic ripeness. In a cool climate it needs shelter and the warmest, best drained sites.
It is no surprise then that with 22,400 hectares Germany has by far the biggest plantings in the world, followed by Australia (4,400), Alsace (3,382) and Austria (1874). After that it is small amounts in eastern Europe, South Africa, Italy, Spain and so on. For the wine lover, what makes it such an exciting variety is its ability to express the individuality of the place in which it is grown and, when treated well, its sheer quality. A fine wine supper was the ideal setting to try a selection of mainly very high quality wines as Riesling is a brilliant food wine – expressive but not overwhelming, the acidity constantly refreshes the palate.
Let’s start with our modest New World selection. Wine of the evening for value for money was undoubtedly, Zarcillo, Riesling 2012, 13.5%, £6.25 from the Wine Society. Grown in Chile’s southerly Bío-Bíó Valley it showed some real intensity on the nose, limes and exotic fruit, and then ripe apples with balancing acidity on the palate. If one is going to be critical the palate lacks the sheer excitement of most of the wines in this tasting, but then it is half the price or less than virtually all of them.
The only disappointment of the evening was Klein Constantia, Riesling, South Africa, 2010, 11%, £9.25. The wines in this tasting were so good, in a range of styles, that ‘OK’ was not really good enough. Green and grassy on the nose this was a cool climate style with ocean winds reducing the heat of the Cape. The fruit is predominantly lime with some length on the palate. By contrast, The Contours, Riesling, Eden Valley, Pewsey Vale, 2006, 13%, £14, showed all the qualities of a top new world Riesling with its fine and bold floral and mineral notes on the nose. While the Eden Valley is cool compared to the rest of Barossa, it is still a reliably warm climate and the wines tend to develop those characteristics ‘diesel’ or ‘petrol’ (choose your own fuel) notes relatively early on in their development. According to the winemaker, 2006 was a perfect year and it really showed in the floral and citrus (lime) palate and weighty palate.
From the New World to Riesling’s home in Germany. Our first choice was the classic Mosel expression of Riesling, producing low alcohol, off dry, high acidity, feather light, fruit-filled wine for which the word ‘terroir’ could have been invented. These wines do only come from the steep, blue-grey slate sun traps of the Mosel river and its tributaries. Wehlener Sonnenuhr Kabinett, Mosel, J J Prüm, 2011, 9%, £18, is of course named after the famous ‘sun dial’ vineyard. It showed ripe apple and blossom aromas followed by textbook minerality, the fruit being yet more evident on the palate, the residual sugar not only offsetting the rapier acidity but conveying the fruit on a long finish. Outstanding. The wine is not cheap but then each vine has to be staked to an individual pole and worked by hand on a steep slope.
German example number two also comes from a famous, named vineyard: Rudesheimer Rosengarten Riesling Rheingau, Kabinett, Leitz, 10%, £13. This is a classic Rheingau site, again on steep slopes this time of slate and quartzite. With an average vine age of between 35 and 40 years, Leitz have worked hard with green inter-row cropping, low yields and very late harvesting to produce something exceptional even at Kabinett level. Here the fruit notes are more forward on the nose and really shine on the palate where the acidity is again noteable for its freshness, but the palate is more rounded despite the still low alcohol level and apparently drier finish. Finally we had a German example with some bottle age: Riesling Kabinett halbtrocken, Abtei St. Hildegard, Rheingau, 11.5%, 2002. Medium minus intensity green-gold in the glass, powerful nose of pleasant petrol/ mineral but then honey and apple on the palate. Over the years this had developed a fully integrated harmoniousness which is difficult to describe. We could go off into a mystical flight with Hildegard (twelfth century saint whose Abbey this comes from) but we will leave it there …
But it is not just Germany that can do great Riesling in Europe, there is Alsace and even Austria too. Our Austrian example was of the highest quality, with a modest nose at the moment but remarkable concentration on the palate, which is only going to get more complex, with mouth-filling volume. From the Wachau region, this was Riesling Smaragd Loibner Steintal, Pichler, 13%, £33, expensive (Austrians are prepared to pay top prices for their best wines) but very impressive.
The Alsatians in our tasting are better established without the same strong domestic market and so are better value – despite all being Grand Cru. Riesling Grand Cru Pfersigberg, Kuentz-Bas, 2008, 13.5%, £23 showed impressive elderflower and ripe apple and melon, plus some rich lees-related flavours. Riesling Grand Cru Schlossberg, Blanck, 2000, 13% was wittily described as a lawnmower wine: petrol fumes, honey, weight in the mouth, and honeysuckle flowers from having run into the flower bed. Finally there was the more prosaically labelled Riesling ‘Hugel’ 2005, which was all honeyed fruit, some fine residual sugar and very good length. Hugel have been a voluble critic of Alsace’s overgenerous distribution of the Grand Cru desigation to less than great vineyards and so they don’ t use the term, even though the fruit here comes from the Schoenenbourg vineyard.
While all these Alsace wines are either dry or off-dry, there are also medium sweet and sweet styles too. The wines above with prices given were bought for this tasting, the ones without prices were brought my fellow tasters including the very generously shared: Hugel, Vendage Tardive 1996, 12%. Harvested on 14th and 17th November seventeen years ago, this comes from tiny yields (22hl/ha) and has nearly 25g of residual sugar – sweet but not overly so. While the classic botrytis notes were not that pronounced, the wine still tastes young with brilliantly sharp fruit. Again, from the Grand Cru Schoenenburg vineyard but not labelled as such.
Our selection was bit old world oriented – no Great Southern from south west Australia, no New Zealand and so on – but nonetheless the potential of this grape variety was there for all to taste.