Riesling in the Spring

March 2017

Of the three great international white wine grapes – Chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc and Riesling – it is Riesling that is least well known yet most deserving of wider appreciation. Perhaps because Riesling is a bit of a chameleon, producing wines of markedly different style, depending upon where it is grown and how it is treated, it can be difficult to know what you are likely to find inside the bottle.

Historically, this may be because Riesling has not one spiritual home, but two – close together but worlds apart. The river valleys of Germany – especially the Mosel and Rhine – produce classic Riesling in a unique style that balances sweetness with acidity in wines that are at the same time both light in alcohol and rich in texture. Never cloying despite their sweetness; never tart despite their acidity, a good German Riesling can be – as Hugh Johnson described it – tense and thrilling. My personal favourites come from the Mosel, sold in tall, slender green bottles. Their labels can be challenging to interpret, posing another barrier to their wider acceptance. How to read a German wine label could take a book of its own; for our purposes today, look for key words on the label (either front or back) that describe the quality level of the wine: Kabinett for a light, bright wine that exemplifies the style; Spätlese for a more interesting, assertive example, and Auslese for a smooth, rich, unctuous experience that brilliantly accompanies anything from hors d’oeuvres to dessert to being an elegant aperitif on its own. Expect the price to rise significantly as you work across these three archetypes.

Across the river Rhine in Alsace, France, a totally different style of Riesling is made: fully dry, high in alcohol and forceful in character. Although thoroughly French today, this region has deep Germanic roots, reflected in the names of many of the winemakers: Zind Humbrecht, Schlumberger, Pfaff, Willm. Even the tall slender green bottles are reminiscent of their German counterparts. Filled with ripe fruit and dramatic flavour, these wines have an uncanny ability to match a great variety of foods; they are the ultimate wines for patio or picnic outdoor dining, and are unequalled with ham, vegetarian dishes and all types of fish. At home in Alsace they are of course the wine of choice with all their regional specialties: roast goose or pork, sausage and späetzle, and their amazing signature sauerkraut dish – choucroute garnie.

What these two disparate vinous cousins have in common are: a compelling intensity of aromas and flavours, and the potential for great longevity, evolving to incomparable complexity after a decade or more. Sweet fruit flavours give way to buttery notes of hazelnut and toffee, and a whiff of paraffin is characteristic. Both merit space in your wine budget and your cellar, offering surprisingly good value in a world where fashion trends have left Riesling out of fancy over recent years.

New world wine regions grow their own versions of Riesling, but none so far has quite captured the magic. New world winemakers seem to have trouble deciding if it is Germany or Alsace they are trying to imitate. Sometimes the wines are forceful and high in alcohol, but mawkishly sweet. Other times they are lusciously sweet, but flabby and lacking tension. Progress is coming, however, particularly from Australia’s Yarra Valley, the Finger Lakes region of New York State, and here at home in Niagara – try one from Tawse or Strewn to see how well our own are doing, and Cave Spring Late Harvest Riesling could challenge a good German Spätlese.

Follow Paul Inksetter’s wine writing on his blog, www.winewicket.com
© Paul Inksetter 2016

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