Riesling. Are you thinking German, perfume on the nose, sweet palate, tall brown bottle, busy label? Then it is time to wake up to a whole new world of Riesling – within its traditional German home and much further afield!
Riesling was an important part of my Prowein agenda this year and what a revelation! According to a recent Drinks Business article, Riesling might be the drink of the wine trade rather than the wine public: “Riesling may simply have too much personality and an overload of cold precision. Perhaps. But it can’t be a lack of quality that’s putting people off.”
Tasting Rieslings across a wide spectrum, I concluded that Riesling’s popularity is hampered by a need to categorise and define. A lesson that is clear from the history of this versatile variety and its most contentious characteristic – its sweetness. The road from sweet to dry to modulating between the extremes is very well explained in Zachary Sussman’s article What is “Classic” German Riesling?, “… the growing divide between sweet and dry has resulted in a push toward extremes on either side, dissuading growers from exploring what had historically represented a far more nuanced range.”
I came as close as one can to tasting a traditional German Riesling, when Sommelier Marcus Del Monego presented us with a 1966 vintage Bensheimer Kalkgasse Riesling Spätlese – still quite fresh! Two favourites of my trip were a Weingut Robert Weil 2016 Rheingau Riesling that shares the depth and character of its renowned Rheingau address as well as a complex and mineral Staatsweingut Weinsberg Burg Wildeck Riesling.
Exceptional quality Rieslings are available in a wide variety of styles. Some semi-sweet, some dry. These Riesling wines made by enthusiastic young winemakers, presented in exciting non-traditional packaging were available from various individual wine stands and forums at Prowein. Tasting and talking to them, I realised that when winemakers embrace their terroir and focus on making the best wine rather than a prescribed style, the wine simply tastes better. But then the story can be more complicated and the wine might not fit into the defined categories. And perhaps this is why Riesling is a favourite for those in the wine trade and a challenge to the wine-drinking public. While the history and story are interesting and entertaining, it is not always easy to understand and it is not always clear what to expect when making a purchasing choice from the Riesling selection.
And it is a selection that is widely available. Grape varieties like to travel. Not only can one find Pinotage in France, but Riesling is in no way exclusive to Germany and the Alsace. Other than South Africa’s brilliant 2017 Paul Cluver Estate Riesling, America and Australia also produces a number of wonderful Riesling wines.
One such new world Riesling is Eroica from a cooperation between the famous Mosel-based Dr Loosen and Chateau Ste. Michelle’s in Washington state. Bottling nine different wines to share the versatility and regional styles within Washington’s Columbia Valley, this enterprise is responsible for the biggest Riesling production in America.
I also tasted Jim Barry’s selection of terroir-based Rieslings from the Clare Valley in South Australia: The Lodge is refined with a definite minerality, The Watervale is fresh and more fruit-driven and The Florita Cellar Release is more traditional taste-wise with a nutty character and typical marmalade flavours. A true celebration of the terroir diversity of the Clare Valley.
With such versatility and excellent potential to express terroir, perhaps we should be more lenient when it comes to categorising Riesling. You might want to know what you get when you have to impress or need a specific food match, but the ride that is Riesling is steeped in history, exciting in its prospects and makes for a magnificent glassful. Perhaps embracing all of that should be enough?