Vino Gusto wine expert Jake Bennett-Day details the one grape variety he loves – and it’s not one you’d expect.
Please, it’s Reece-ling, not Rye-sling. It doesn’t really matter, of course. Except, to someone entangled in a tricky-to-explain oeno-affair with this noble grape variety, to whom it really matters. I will defend Riesling until I’m blue in the face. It has fallen in and out of fashion several times over the years and it perennially seems as though there is a Riesling renaissance on the cards, somewhere in the wine world. Though with the constant simmering of enthusiasm, the variety has never taken off as an international trend. But Riesling is almost always popular amongst wine professionals, from critics to sommeliers citing it as their go-to grape for a myriad of occasions. And why not? It can be still, sparkling, bone-dry, lusciously sweet, excellent value, ludicrously expensive, age-worthy, quaffable in its youth, versatile with a broad scope of food pairings and even offers excellent, flavour rich juice to those looking for low-alcohol options.
But alas, outside of its native Germany, Riesling remains to be seen amongst most wine drinkers, as a minor player. I have been campaigning for a Riesling revival for years, but am slowly coming to terms with the fact that I’ll end up taking most of these opinions with me when I go. I will continue my crusade of converting the masses to the virtues of Riesling, but I fear that there is one, overriding contributing factor to its misunderstood beauty - sugar. Or to be less accurate but more truthful, its powerful personality is simply too strong to gain global traction, if you compare its stylistic characters with say, internationally loved neutral Pinot Grigio or Chardonnay, for example. Lots of drinkers have been put off Riesling because of its association with residual sugar, or its sometimes present, somewhat unnerving whiff of petrol.
Riesling’s reputation as sickly, luscious, syrupy sweet juice has been a difficult one to shake. It is important to know that Riesling in its spiritual home, the Mosel Valley, Germany, was originally made in the late 1800s as a dry style of table wine to be consumed young and fresh. But fast forward 50 years or so to the end of the second world war, there was a distinct move towards consumption of sweet wines that tasted luxurious and heavenly to the previously strictly rationed palates of key German export markets: the UK and USA.
So successful was this new sweet style that it prompted an incredible number of low-quality, rancid and sugary imitations as the 1900s went on. These wines rarely, if ever, contained any Riesling, but were often marketed as such by using the classic, distinctive tall bottle shape and confusing German labelling. This cheapening image of Riesling formed an unfortunate brand out of the variety, which most people still associate with the hundreds of different styles of Riesling available on the shelves today.
So, what exactly is available today? What is the authentic style of Riesling? Sweet? Dry? German? New World? It all depends on perspective, of course. Personally, I enjoy the variety in all styles, but it is important to note that I’m not talking about “Blue Nun” or the like when I say sweet.
A natural quality of Riesling is its high acidity. Acidity is something that most wine drinkers won’t think about an awful lot whilst enjoying a glass, but for wine weirdos like me, acidity is an incredibly important structural component in any wine. This acidity in Riesling is a marriage made in heaven for the residual sugar in sweet (or off-dry) wines – making them feel balanced, fresh, drinkable (especially at lower alcohol levels!) and tremendously age-worthy. As I type I glance towards my wine fridge, noting that the majority of bottles I have stashed away to grow old with grace are indeed zingy off-dry Rieslings that need just a few years to soften. I may also need the time to find enough Riesling-respecting odd-balls to drink them with…
The best Mosel wines made in a dry style still have this crisp, bright acidity and bags full of saline, mineral character and citrus fruits. Powerful, lip-smacking and thought provoking, these are some of the best-value fine wines you will find anywhere in the world, and in my book are as food-friendly as classic Chardonnay from Burgundy, possibly more so.
Of course, there are other examples of Riesling-rich areas in Germany – try the Rheingau to find Rieslings with more backbone and structure with firmer minerality, greater richness and fuller body.
Riesling is grown very successfully around the world in a variety of different styles. Notable mentions are Alsace in France (once occupied by Germany), where the wines are typically steely, rich and aromatic. Often a bit tough in their youth, but soften and round out after a few years in bottle. Austria is Riesling’s second home in Europe. Often fuller bodied and dry 99% of the time. Great examples can be found in the Wachau and Kamptal.
The new world produces quite a bit of Riesling, too. In New Zealand, the cooler climate of Marlborough on the south island lends itself well to Riesling production. Known by the average imbiber for its ability to produce aromatic, fresh and fruity Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling is not the star here, but vines were planted long before the Sauvignon Blanc came along. Unfortunately, most Riesling vines have been torn up and replaced by Sauvignon Blanc, with producers trying to keep up the demand for the more commercial taste of their greedy export markets.
We can’t talk about new-world Riesling however without mentioning Australia. Specifically, Clare Valley. The best wines from this region are so taut, so zingy, and so mineral. Packed full of citrus fruits (classically lime) and with common descriptors of slate, white blossom, jasmine. The wines are generally bone dry and the acidity is just electric. Much in the style of crisp, dry German wines, but with riper, warmer, softer new world fruits to enjoy in the glass.
Will Riesling ever catch on? I do hope so. But then again, if it doesn’t, the prices may remain semi-affordable for unfashionable folk like me. So in the meantime, I’ll happily keep this affair under wraps, discreetly enjoying the inimitable pleasures of Riesling, all to myself.
Jake Bennett-Day is co-owner and director of Vino Gusto wine shop, 27 Hatter Street, Bury St Edmunds IP33 1NE (01284 771831 / vinogusto.co.uk )