Riesling - the Marmite wine
A guide to the Riesling grape and its wines
I have been in two minds about adding another Riesling into the Wines With Attitude portfolio - in my experience people either love Riesling or hate it which is why I describe it as the Marmite grape (with apologies and also homage to the manufacturers of Marmite). But I was persuaded to by a new customer who was keen to get hold of some Andreas Bender Dajoar Zenit Riesling that he had had with friends in the Portland restaurant in London. I am so glad I did as it is a beautiful wine. And it is after all unfair to write off Riesling as a whole since it produces so many different types of wine. So in this blogpost I shed some light on the Riesling grape and its wide range of wines.
Where can you find Riesling?
This white grape is also known as Johannisberg, Kleinriesling, Rheinriesling, Riesling Gelb and a host of other names but should not be confused with Riesling Italico or Welschriesling which are synonyms of a somewhat less-known grape.
So versatile and hardy is the Riesling grape that it can be grown in many different regions around the world, producing a wide range of wine styles and flavours as it is also good at expressing its terroir. It grows best in cool climates and tolerates well cold winters. The location of the vines can have a huge impact on the style and flavours of the wines with cooler climate Rieslings producing more delicate green fruit & floral notes, warmer climate Rieslings generally being more peachy and richer in style.
Germany is the homeland of Riesling with c. 45% of the world's Riesling vineyards. It produces, some would argue, the best Riesling wines though there also are some poorer versions produced there as Germany tries, rather unsuccessfully, to convert the overseas wine-drinking public to their pride and joy. Riesling is grown throughout Germany though the Mosel and Pfalz regions produce the most. Mosel famous for its slate soils produces a light floral style of Riesling. The best sites there are considered to be the steepest sites with slate soils near the river where the grapes can benefit from maximum sunshine due to carefully positioned vines and reflections from the water's surface. The reputation that German Riesling still has as a medium dry or even medium-sweet white wine is not really justified as most nowadays is dry or 'trocken'.
The USA, perhaps surprisingly is the second largest producer of Riesling with c.10% of the world's Riesling vineyards and growing interest for Rieslings from California, Oregon and Washington State. Australia is gaining itself quite a good reputation for very dry, lime-flavoured Riesling - look for Clare Valley and Eden Valley Rieslings. In France Riesling is a permitted grape variety only in the Alsace region where the wines often have pronounced minerality. There has been a tendency for Alsace to add sugar to its wines to help boost the alcohol levels (rather than to sweeten them since they are vinified dry). Therefore Alsace Riesling is often more full-bodied than German Riesling.
New Zealand is developing its Riesling vineyards; it is its 6th most produced grape variety. New Zealand is producing both off-dry and dry wines - the Te Whare Ra Riesling D is Dry, the 'D' meaning dry (they also produce an 'M' version for medium-dry). Austria produces mostly dry Riesling but also very sweet, dessert wine. A little known fact is that Luxembourg also grows a small proportion of the world's Riesling but then not so surprising given it lies close to the Mosel region.
Flavour profile of Riesling
It is partly Riesling's ability to express its terroir well that makes it hard to generalise about one single flavour profile for its wines. Riesling wines can have one or more of the following - florals, minerality, fruit and spice. However one thing that all good Riesling has wherever it is produced is bracing acidity - just like Sauvignon Blanc. Even sweeter versions will not be sickeningly sweet as the sweetness should always be balanced by acidity.
Rieslings aromatics can be quite concentrated. Distinct flavours that are usually recognisable include lime, green apples, pears and floral notes like jasmine and lime blossom especially when the wine is young, dry and from cooler regions.
As Riesling develops richer peach and even nectarine flavours dominate and/ or if it is from a warmer site tropical fruit. As they get older Rieslings get richer and a wider range of aromas and flavours come to the fore including honey, beeswax, spice and toast plus sometimes the distinctive petrol or kerosene aromas may develop. The petrol note, loved by some and detested by others, is more likely to be found in better Riesling wines than in more commercial-style wines where grapes from higher-yielding vineyards are used. It is also detectable earlier in warm climate Rieslings. It should however always be subtle in any Riesling.
According to Andreas Bender, producer of several Rieslings including the lovely Dajoar Zenit Riesling from the Mosel, Riesling needs some time in bottle to become rounder and for all the flavours to fully express themselves. I could see this in early 2019 when doing a vertical tasting with him of his 2015 and 2017 Zenit Rieslings; the 2017 needed a little more time to develop to its full potential. Give it another 12 months or so and it will match the 2015.
Better winemakers such as Andreas aim to make the grape's aromatic qualities show and therefore usually ferment the wine in stainless steel tanks. If oak is used it will be large vats and old oak to minimise the impact. Lees contact may also be used to give some Rieslings texture and richness which some may confuse with oak influence.
Riesling's versatility and its advantage of retaining good levels of acidity mean that the grapes can be left on the vine to build up their sugar content. It can therefore produce outstanding dessert wines with concentrated perfumes of peach, apricot, melon and citrus fruit with orange blossom notes.
Why should you try Riesling?
There are several reasons why you should try Riesling:
- There is such a range of different Rieslings that there is bound to be a style for you…
… whether it be dry, off-dry or sweet, still, sparkling or dessert wine. Even when not bone-dry, Riesling still retains its high acidity so the wines shouldn't taste over-sweet - even the dessert wines. So there is bound to be a style for you.
German Riesling's labelling is effectively based upon the sweetness level of the wine (in actual fact it's the density of the juice at harvest that is measured but density increases with sweetness so it's a reasonable guide). And the labelling of German Rieslings can be very confusing - I will cover it in detail in a future blogpost. In brief Germany's wines with Protected Designation of Origin (the equivalent of France's appellations controlees) can be of 2 levels:
- the Qualitatswein level may give no indication of sweetness of the wine in the bottle although they usually do. 'Trocken' is dry and 'halbtrocken' or 'feinherb' off-dry; the terms 'liebliche' and 'süss' cover the sweet wines.
- the higher Prädikatswein level classifies its wines as one of six levels of sweetness from Kabinett which tends to be dry but can be off-dry moving through Spätlese to sweet wines, Auslese, Beerenauslese Trockenbeerenauslese and Eiswein.
There have been attempts by the non-profit organisation, the International Riesling Foundation, to encourage the use of worldwide easier-to-understand labelling based on a wine's levels of sugar, acidity and ph levels and depicted on a scale but some countries sadly would not adopt it.
If you are not sure whether a Riesling is dry or sweet look at the alcohol level; as a very general rule, the lower the alcohol ABV, the sweeter the wine.
- Riesling is generally low in alcohol
Minimum requirements for Quality wines in Germany is only 7% ABV though 11% to 12% is more the norm especially for the off-dry versions.
- Riesling is a light wine
Despite its complexity and sometimes intense flavours, Riesling is light in body and at most medium-bodied. If you like lighter wines - and especially if you are not a fan of bone-dry wines - try a German Riesling from the Mosel which is light in alcohol, full of lime fruit and its slight sweetness is balanced with mouth-watering acidity.
- Riesling ages well
You might expect Riesling as a light wine not to last long but well-made Rieslings can be kept in bottle for many years - and will become richer and more complex as they age.
- Riesling is very food-friendly
Riesling is a sommelier's dream as it goes well with many different foods - and with some quite tricky foods to pair with wines - as you will see below.
Which foods to serve with Riesling
Given its lovely acidity Riesling can be consumed without food; an off-dry version served chilled makes a lovely refreshing aperitif. But it is with food that Riesling comes into its own.
Looking at the different styles of Riesling individually:
Foods that dry Rieslings are well suited to include:
- shellfish, fish generally oily fish
- mild dishes - don't try anything too hot or chilli-flavoured with a dry Riesling as the heat will kill the beautiful fruit flavours of the wine
- smoked fish
- rich creamy dishes and
- asparagus and artichokes which can both be very tricky to pair with wine will be perfect with a dry Riesling
Off-dry Riesling matches well with:
- Asian food in general including Thai and Indian food and combined sweet and sour dishes
- hot, spicy and chilli-flavoured dishes
- fresh fruit or dishes which include fruit like pork and apple sauce, duck and cherry sauce
- fattier meats such as goose
Sweet Rieslings are a great match with
- hard cheeses
- salty blue cheeses
- desserts generally and
- foie gras
I'm not on a mission to convert you all to Riesling even if the blogpost makes it sound like I am. But I think that if you first try an off-dry Riesling with spicy food you will begin to see the attributes of this amazing grape and its wines and you might then want to progess to sipping a good, dry or off-dry Riesling chilled on a summer's evening. Who knows you might even become a Riesling lover!
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