Some count it among their favourites while some simply choose to be distant acquaintances. But treat it as you may, Rieslings remain one of the most impressive wines and yet are regularly pointed out as the one of the most underrated of white varieties. Almost synonyms with Germany and next, Austria, Rieslings remain flourishingly dynamic wherever they choose to make home. So what exactly makes them so tempting?
To tell you more about the grape, Riesling is an aromatic white grape variety which means that wines made from it tend to be highly perfumed. It is believed to be the test-tube baby of intense research in German laboratories. Commonly, it has fruity and floral characteristics. It grows well in cool climate areas as it takes its own time to mature (much like many of us), and is quite the late ripener (again, like many of us). When sourced from such regions, it shows notes of green fruits (green apple, pear, guava, grapes), some floral touches and hints of sharp citrus fruits (lemon, lime). Also, here, the acidity remains sharp and almost biting, yet, if executed well, pleasing. It can be made in many styles – from dry to semi- or off-dry to melt-your-teeth sweet, versions that are otherwise known as Late Harvests, Botrytised, and Eisweins/Icewines. Winemakers tend to leave a hint of residual sugar (aka RS, i.e. sugar present in the grapes, not added on the side) in their wines as it balances the high acidity levels well. This has now transformed into a style that is generally appreciated by Riesling regulars, although many purists maintain that it is only in its drier styles that the pedigree of a great Riesling is truly revealed.
But given the high acidity the less dry styles are more popular. And combined with the fact that even on prolonged hanging on the vines, as sugar levels in the berries rise (because water from the grapes evaporate) Riesling still manages to maintain its crackling levels of acidity. This is very important when making a sweet wine as you need this kick to balance the sugar, or else you try working your way through 100ml of a syrupy liquid which has almost as much as upto 300 gms of sugar per litre!
Unlike chardonnay, the grape is less good pals with oak, even less with new oak. Rieslings are generally enjoyed young, or if at all, are bottle aged. As a result of bottle aging, aided by high levels of acidity, the wines develop notes of honey and oil, and a peculiar smoky note almost identical to petrol or kerosene. Today many people regard any resemblance to 95-Octane as bad winemaking but get an old, old bottle and be ready to smell dry-cleaning fluid. Not the best thought to have such a smell or taste in your wines but it does become more dominant with age.
Best styles of Rieslings are sourced from cool climate regions of Germany, France, Austria, Australia, and Canada. Historic evidences show traces of oldest plantations made in Germany. Mosel-Saar-Ruwer (now simply called Mosel) offers the fruitiest and the lightest-bodied wines. Generally they have low alcohol, some residual sugar, and high acidity. About 80% of the total Riesling plantation falls under the borders of this region. Other famous areas are Rheingau and Pfalz that produce drier and medium-bodied styles. Germans love their Rieslings, and so do we!
Alsace, in France, also produces competitive Rieslings to what Germany offers, may be the fighting spirit never dies after the First World War. They also produce, thanks to their climate and varied soil, various styles of Rieslings. Commonly, they are medium bodied dry wines with notes of citrus, green fruits and stoned fruits. However, they also produce sweet wines from late-harvested and Noble Rot affected grapes (explained in the next blog post on the region and wines of Alsace). Alsatians are age-worthy wines that can be cellared for over a decade.
Austria also makes some appreciable Rieslings. Rieslings grow well here in the regions of Kamptal and Wachau where they are planted on the hill slopes receiving highest sunlight. They are either dry or semi-dry, with medium to full-body, having an attractive mineral structure. Not to be confused with their native varieties like Welschriesling and Laksi Riezling. They just sound similar but aren’t.
In the New-World countries, Eden and Clare Valley produces outstanding Rieslings inAustralia. These are dry wines with medium body and have good blend of citrus, white and green fruits, smoke, honey, toast. These wines grow a petrol-like character rapidly with a little bottle-aging itself. Marlborough and Nelson in the southern island of New Zealand offer good Rieslings too at different levels of sweetness. Canada makes fun Icewines using this grape and has mastered the art now.
As the grape offers such a plethora of styles, it is not easy to comment how it could be best enjoyed. The rich sweeter styles are best served at 4-6C. This also cuts the sticky cloying effect, if any. The semi-sweet and dry styles are enjoyed at 10-12C where the acidity makes its mark too. These wine do very well with hard and semi-hard cheeses, mildly spiced Thai food, few Indian curries, and definitely mildly flavoured seafood. Apart from this, practical experimentation will deliver more than a simple read.
With its stunning quality to offer a variety of styles of wines, affinity to cool climate, mystifying complex tasting notes, approachable fruity characteristic, and sweet yet refreshing feel, the grape is a champion for us. The Wi-Not team will agree to have it rating high on their favourites for sure. While we wait patiently to have some Indian Rieslings on the shelf soon, it will be an even longer wait to see the wine deserve its place in the top wine wonders. Till this happens, we will keep relishing the never ending experience of this under-dog. Lechaim (Cheers in Hebrew)!