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Riesling – The Cinderella Grape (November 10, 2008)

Winemaker Rainer Lingenfelder's family has been growing grapes in Germany's Pfalz region for thirteen generations, since 1520. His mantra is that the 21st century is the "Age of Post-Chardonnism." That is, we have to get beyond Chardonnay – the vinous equivalent of vanilla ice cream – and embrace what many wine professionals believe is the best white wine in the world: Riesling.

Henry of Pelham's winemaker in Ontario, Ron Gisselbrecht, refers to Chardonnay as "the chicken of the vineyard," which has to do not with lack of bravery but with the grape's Svengali-style propensity to be changed to make it taste like whatever the winemaker desires. With Riesling, what you get from the vineyard is what you get in the bottle. No amount of new French barriques, skin contact, lees stirring or micro-oxygenation is going to improve the natural flavour of Riesling. A chef in the Vosges Mountains of Alsace once described it to me in these terms: "Riesling is like a naked sword." Naked in the sense that it is unadorned with oak; it's bright and shining and in it's sharp even when it's sweet. And what's more, it is one of the longest lasting of wines.

The 2007 vintage in Ontario – the best in living memory (which means the best in history, since anything beyond living memory from Ontario was not worth drinking) – has produced some spectacular Rieslings. Having sampled many, I can put my hand on my heart and say that Riesling no longer has to play second fiddle to Chardonnay. Some producers to look for: Cave Spring CSV, Chateau des Charmes, Flat Rock, Henry of Pelham, Stratus, Thirty Bench and Vineland Estates.

Riesling in Ontario is a relatively recent phenomenon. It wasn't until the early 1970s that Paul Bosc, as head winemaker for Château-Gai, was one of the first to plant the grape in commercial quantities. By 1977 there were 57 tonnes of Riesling grown in Niagara, second only to Chardonnay in quantity. In 1978 Bosc produced his first Riesling under his own label, Château des Charmes, and has been making it ever since.

It is my contention that Riesling will ultimately be the signature grape for Ontario. This sentiment is shared by Canada's leading vineyardist, Lloyd Schmidt of Grimsby, Ontario. Schmidt imports vines from France and Germany and supplies some 80 per cent of vinifera plantings to growers across the country. "I tell people if you want to get into grapes, grow Riesling. The only problem people are having is that there is not enough of it," says Schmidt.

Riesling vines are probably more forgiving than any other variety as long as their feet don't get wet, which means they have to planted on sites with good drainage. The soils on the Beamsville Bench, with their deep bands of limestone, are ideal for the cultivation of Riesling. This particular soil gives a crisper, flintier style of wine compared to those Rieslings grown on the plain or along the Lakeshore. Prince Edward County, whose temperatures are generally lower than Niagara's, also has limestone in its vineyards. (Norman Hardie makes fine Riesling there.)

In the last twenty years Ontario wineries have gone through the exercise of planting as many different varietals a possible to find out which were best for their soils and microclimate and which could survive a punishing winter. Two varieties emerged head and shoulders above the rest: Cabernet Franc for reds and Riesling for whites. (Much of the Riesling that has gone into the ground in the last couple of years is destined for Icewine.)


Riesling Label Language

Because Riesling can be vinified into such a variety of styles from bone dry to honeyed sweet, it's necessary to take a careful look at the label to understand what you are buying. In Germany, growers measure the sweetness levels of the juice at the time of harvesting and this determines the ultimate designation of the wine on in terms of its sugar content. The driest German Riesling is labelled as QbA, the next level up is Kabinett, and increasing sweetness to Spätlese, then Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese and Eiswein. This is made a little more complicated when the term "trocken" (dry) is add. This means that the residual sugar has been fermented out and the wine will be drier and higher in alcohol.

In Ontario, the styles are set from dry to very sweet in the following categories that mirror the German model: Dry, Off-Dry (or Semi-Dry), Late Harvest, Select Late Harvest, Special Select Late Harvest and Icewine.

Winemakers add complexity to their wines by blending different clones of the same variety on different root stocks. There are basically three clones of Riesling planted in Ontario, each originally developed in the best growing regions of Europe for this variety. Weis 21B is the most widely used, delivering an aromatic, spicy wine. This clone was first propagated in a Mosel nursery by Hermann Weis, who owns Weingut St. Urbanshof on the banks of the Mosel River and, until 1992, owned Vineland Estates in the Niagara Peninsula. Clone GM239 is from the Rheingau, in whose slatey soil the wines have a rich, minerally flavour. Clone 49 was propagated in Alsace, where the style is for a bigger, more alcoholic wine.

What is it about Riesling that makes it such a remarkably versatile wine? Stylistically, it can be bone dry with a nervous tension between fruit and acidity. It can be honeyed sweet and every degree of sweetness in between from tart lemon to honeyed peach. And it makes delicious dry, semi-dry and sweet sparkling wine.

To give you an idea how long Riesling can live, let me recount this story. A couple of years ago I visited Vancouver Island and the curmudgeonly chef at the idyllic Deep Cove Chalet toured me around his basement cellar. After a terrific meal he presented me with a bottle of Deinhard Hans Christoff Liebfraumilch 1961, believing it to be a museum piece – a venerable old bottle not to be opened but to be set aside and admired because for the date on the label. But think 1961 in Bordeaux, probably the greatest post-war vintage. The 1960s were the years when Liebfraumilch was made from Riesling rather than that prole of a grape, Müller-Thurgau. I wanted to experience what would happen to a simple, inexpensive German wine that was 43 years old. Its colour was coppery-bronze; the nose was mature with just a hint of maderisation but not enough to put you off, because behind that oxidative note was a rich candy apple and dried apricot bouquet. The wine was full and concentrated, true to the nose and lingered long on the palate with refreshing acidity.

There has been something of a Riesling Renaissance in the last few years for the grape that long fell into disfavour. Riesling was popular in the 1960s and '70s but the Liebfraumich/Blue Nun/Black Tower era, along with its Canadian wannabes, Hochtaler and Schloss Laderheim, sated the consumer palate with oceans of semi-sweet, undistinguished wines.

Today Riesling is enjoying a new vogue because of its versatility as a wine to match with food. The very driest versions go well with shellfish, seafood and smoked fish. The semi-dry can be matched with spicy Chinese, Japanese and Thai dishes, while the sweet versions (Late Harvest) complement fruit-based desserts. Canada's icon wine Riesling Icewine is delicious with foie gras or blue cheese.

And for the record, the 2007 vintage in Germany – which has nearly two-thirds of the world's Riesling vines in the ground – is probably the best since 1997.




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