Riesling has fascinated me for a while now. In the U.S. at least, Riesling was long considered an overly sweet, uncomplicated wine and by the late ‘80s / early ‘90s or so, as Americans became more serious about wines, Riesling was pretty déclassé.
Then something happened. Wine buyers and educators discovered the whole, deep, complex world that is Riesling wine. Now, if you corner a master sommelier and ask what their ‘indulgence’ wines are, odds are he or she will include an unusual Austrian, German or Alsace Riesling in the mix.
‘It’s absolutely one of my favorite white grape varieties,’ our instructor May Matta-Aliah told us, recognizing that many of us in the class clung to old notions of sugary, flabby wines. ‘It shows the imprint of the terroir it is grown in like a mirror.’
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Riesling is an aromatic white grape with an emphasis on fruit and floral notes. In fact, the wines we sampled in class were quite pronounced on the nose. Those aromatics change significantly depending on where and when the grape is harvested. Because it has both a high potential sugar content and retains a high acid content, it’s a tricky but versatile grape. It’s one reason for the unusual German labelling system (discussed in a separate post) that identifies both when the grape was harvested and, separately, the relative dryness or sweetness of the wine.
Early harvest grapes often give the floral notes, with green apple, lime and white peach. Harvesting late, especially in cool regions like Germany’s Mosel, brings out peach notes, mango and pineapple. The thin-skinned grape is susceptible to botrytis (‘noble rot’) which creates a naturally sweeter wine. Leave it on the vine through the first frosts, and you get Eiswein (ice wine), a popular dessert option. In the much warmer Pfalz region of Germany, the wines tend to be dry and elegant, but Matta-Aliah notes that even in the Mosel, more and more growers are offering a dry interpretation of Riesling.
‘A lot has to do with culture and context,’ she explained. ‘Germans used to drink wine as an aperitif, pairing beer with their food. Now they’re drinking a lot more wine with their food.’ Fortunately, I’ve learned, Riesling is up to the task.
The grape also grows well in Australia of all places. The Clare Valley and Eden Valley are gaining attention for dry, medium-bodied wines with tons of citrus aromatics. They also tend to age well. I think many of the people in class were surprised that there was as much going on with these wines as there are.
‘It’s an absolutely beautiful grape,’ Matta-Aliah told us. ‘I would love to be able to separate in people’s mind that Riesling does not have to equal sweet. The irony is, a lot of people who say they don’t like sweet wines, then taste a great off-dry Riesling, have a sort of revelation. They say, ‘ohhh!’ It also has such beautiful acidity and there’s a kind of tautness with the acidity. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, it’s just gorgeous.’
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