Georg Riedel, glassware king, doesn't do things by halves, writes AMY WISLOCKI. And there's no better example of this than his new cellar
What do you do when your fine wine collection gets too big? Most people would settle for rented storage, or perhaps start cracking open the bottles. But not Georg Riedel, head of the Riedel glassware empire.
‘I found myself with lots of cases of really exceptional wine,’ he explains, ‘and it was in a rented cellar which was just too humid and with no temperature control. I panicked that mustiness would get into the corks and the wine would spoil.’ So what did he do? He built another house, next to his own. ‘We built the cellar,’ he continues, ‘and then a first floor, and the view just got better and better so we carried on building.’ Circular in design, the new building has become quite a landmark in Riedel’s home, Kufstein, a small Austrian village near the German border.
‘It looks quite full when you go inside,’ says Riedel, ‘but there’s still a lot of room which is good, as I must get some Bordeaux 2000 wines en primeur. Not because it’s the year 2000, but because it’s a good vintage.
‘I always buy first growths, as an insurance policy against unforeseen events in later life,’ he says when I ask about his Bordeaux buying habits. ‘I pick these carefully, though. I have all vintages of Mouton since 1990, Lafite 1996 and Margaux 1995. I also get two cases of Haut Brion and La Mission every year.’Riedel only buys en primeur with Bordeaux, and California in exceptional vintages, mainly from Mondavi. ‘Most recently I bought Opus One 1997 and Oakville Cabernet in magnum and double magnum, plus the first vintage of To Kalon. Other oustanding US wines that I’ve bought are Bannockburn Pinot Noir and Kistler Pinot Noir, both from 1997.’ So what does he think of the whole Parker phenomenon? ‘I read Wine Advocate,’ he answers, ‘and I like the style of wine that he favours – I like body, colour, intensity and fruit. That said, I don’t have a huge amount of New World wine in my cellar. I think the wines can age with grace and beauty, but you don’t get the kick that you do from aged Old World wines.’
And what about everyday drinking?
‘We drink a lot of Austrian wines (indeed he has already bought the wine that will be drunk at his funeral – 60 bottles of 1979 trockenbeerenauslese from Freie Weingärtner in the Wachau). And I open a bottle of red wine every day. At the moment I’m in a Piedmont phase and I’m drinking my 1978 and 1979 Gajas – they’re enjoying a second blossom.’Riedel is adamant that fine wines are there to be enjoyed not hoarded and drunk without regret. He is the perfect host and often entertains with his wife Eva. At home he is relaxed, talkative and charming. But talk to him in his work environment at the factory headquarters down the road and it’s strictly business. When I ask him to verify how many glasses are in the top, handmade Sommelier range, he is sharp in his reply, defending himself against criticism that the range is overly big and complicated. ‘This concept is widely misunderstood. Wine writers enjoy picking on how many stems we make, but I never count them. There are different grapes from different regions and we need to offer the right instrument for them all. They’re there because consumers are requesting them, and all of them are justified by the annual sale.’
But isn’t it easy to forget which glass is for which grape?
‘Of course not,’ he replies. ‘It’s like having children, or twins. You know which is which.’ Riedel personally finds that six glasses cover his everyday drinking needs: a Tempranillo glass, a Rhône glass, and a glass for Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet and Champagne. Riedel advises people to buy just one glass, for their favourite wine, to start, so that they can appreciate the effect that it has. ‘Obviously most customers don’t get the chance to try the glasses out at point of sale, and the reality is that most are bought on aesthetics and recommendation.’ As a rule of thumb, you should be prepared to invest in one glass the amount that you would spend on one bottle of wine, he says.The glass most popular with consumers is the Cabernet one. ‘The difference a glass makes is more profound on red wine than white as chilling de-emphasises many of the elements in white wine,’ explains Riedel. ‘Overchilling of whites is such a common fault. If you serve a wine at 4˚C you kill almost all the messages it has to offer.’
So has the changing style of wines, and the shift towards upfront fruit, affected the range?
‘The only glass that has changed is the Chardonnay glass,’ says Riedel. ‘New World Chardonnays now rarely come with less than 14% alcohol, with oak ageing, lees stirring and so on. ‘These wines with more fruit and more concentration have been designed to cater for a new generation of wine drinkers that has been raised on soft drinks and looks for more fruit in a wine. And how do you get more fruit? By higher alcohol.’
The fruitier style…
As for Bordeaux, Riedel believes that the trend towards a fruitier style dates back to 1979. ‘The 1970s wines were more austere, and were made in a more traditional way,’ he says. ‘All the wines are chaptalised by at least one degree these days, plus there’s later harvesting and better vineyard management. This all means that Bordeaux wines are sitting even better in the glass.’ Georg is now starting to prepare son Max to take over at the helm of Riedel someday. ‘My goal is to hand over the company intact to the eleventh generation,’ he says. ‘Max is in the same situation as I was at his age. At first you rebel when you’re asked to join the company, but you really have no choice. Luckily it turned out that I had the right talents and ambition to take on and develop the company. And Max definitely has this in his genes.’
For more information on the Riedel ranges of glassware, visit www.riedelcrystal.com