In Praise of Riesling (September 5, 2007)
If Dionysus were to suddenly appear in a clap of thunder and decree that he would only permit one grape variety to be grown on earth and the rest must be forfeited, I would try to argue him into allowing two one white and one red. The red would be Pinot Noir and the white, without, a moment's hesitation, would be Riesling.
Much maligned because of its Liebfraumlich legacy, Riesling for my palate is the noblest of grapes. Yes, it can be sweet (and that's what most consumers remember from their imprisonment in the Black Tower), but it can be bone dry and every shade of dryness to honeyed sweetness in between.
Riesling has fallen out of favour because consumers don't know what they're getting. They may appreciate the sweeter style having enjoyed a German Spätlese (Late Harvest) and then purchase an Alsace Riesling only to find it's bone dry and almost twice as alcoholic. That's Riesling.
A chef in the Vosges Mountains of Alsace once described his region's Riesling to me as "a naked sword." It's bright and shining and sharp without any makeup, not like that over-made-up trollop Chardonnay, the Pygmalion of wines, that you can shape to any flavour you want with new oak and battonage (lees stirring). With Riesling, the flavours you get in the vineyard are what you will find in the wine. That's the naked part.
So Riesling is a grower's wine that is aged in stainless steel or, in Alsace, in ancient barrels that are so encrusted with tartrates that there is no transference of air to oxidize the wine.
The natural home for Riesling is in cool climates like Germany, Alsace, Austria, Ontario, New York State and the cooler regions of Australia (the Eden Valley) and New Zealand.
Riesling does not like to get its feet wet, so you need vineyards with good drainage. If you haven't got the steep slopes you find in the Mosel and Rheingau Valleys it may be necessary to lay drainage tiles before planting the vineyard. This means you have to avoid clay soils that hold water and select sandy loam or slate.
Riesling can produce wines, as I mentioned, that are mouth-puckeringly dry (try Mosel Riesling QbA) or honey sweet and every degree in between. So you have to read the label carefully. The Germans were the first to classify the wine by its sweetness level, which they continue to do by measuring the amount of sugar in the berries at the time of harvest. The higher the sugar reading the sweeter the wine potentially, because sugar ferments into alcohol but if you stop the fermentation before all the sugar has been fermented to dryness you will leave residual sugar in the wine.
The driest German Rieslings are the category called Qualitätswein. With a little more sugar in the grapes they are categorized as Kabinett (those wines favoured by the growers because of their additional ripeness, which they traditionally kept for themselves in their wine cabinet). Next up in the sugar scale is Spätlese (Late-picked grapes are left on the vine until they are super-mature). Sweeter still is Auslese (grapes that are selectively picked because they are beginning to be attacked by a "noble rot," which desiccates the berries, concentrating their sugars and acidity). Now you begin to get into dessert wine territory with Beerenauslese (selectively picked berries affected by noble rot; this is the same category for German Eiswein). The richest, sweetest and rarest and most expensive German Riesling is Trockenbeerenauslese (dried berries like raisins are selectively picked). While these wines are honey sweet, they are kept from cloying because of their high acidity.
Ontario has its own designation for sweetness levels based on this model: Riesling Dry on the label corresponds to Germany's Qualitätswein. A good example is Flat Rock Cellars Nadja's Vineyard Riesling or Thirty Bench Riesling. Semi Dry relates to Kabinett. Try Vineland Estates Semi Dry Riesling. Late Harvest is a direct translation of Spätlese. My favourite is Château des Charmes Late Harvest Riesling. Select Late Harvest is Auslese sweetness try Konzelmann Estate Select Late Harvest Riesling Traminer. And Special Select Late Harvest is Beerenauslese style, which is marginally less sweet than Ontario Riesling Icewine. Try Hernder Estate Special Select Late Harvest Riesling.
I'm sure that Riesling is Dionysus's house wine. I can see that jolly fellow sitting on a cloud with a chilled glass of Riesling in his hand admonishing us for not buying more of it. Because, compared to Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio, it's under-priced.