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Rieslings Are in Style
Like any other product, wines and grapes twist and turn on the popularity wheel. In this country one need only think back to the 1980’s love affair with Merlot, or the present fascination with Syrah. Today, our featured wine varietal is Riesling (REEEZ-ling), which has seen its fortune go up and down not only in the United States, but throughout the world. And while many texts still opine that Rieslings are on the outside looking in, more up to date articles, and our own personal experiences, belie that point of view.
Recently, in fact, activity surrounding Rieslings has hit a surprising surge. Sommeliers in the world’s top restaurants are recommending them to accompany various courses, friends in the wine industry routinely order them, and Asian houses of note offer a large selection of Rieslings on their wine lists. And if that weren’t enough, recent German vintages have received many ratings in the 90’s, including a near perfect 98 point rating from The Wine Spectator. Good wines (especially Kabinetts and Spatleses) at reasonable prices are still available. If all that sounds like a varietal out of favor, then we are less observant of the wine world than we like to think.
Riesling is believed to be indigenous to Germany. Whether that can be confirmed or not, there is no question that the grape has been planted in that country since the fourteenth century, and is even now one of its leading national varietals. Other regions that are growing Riesling (with at least some degree of success) are Alsace, Australia, Austria, Canada, California, New York, Oregon, and Washington.
Technically, the grape “Riesling” has many names, with White Riesling being its botanical designation. For many years the public preferred the familiar “Johannesburg Riesling,” the namesake of one of the largest wineries in Germany. In more recent times, however, unless a producer is actually referring to a bottle of wine as “Johannesburg Riesling,” you don’t hear the term much. “Riesling” seems to be sufficient. Stylistically, Rieslings can run the gamut from dry to late harvest sweet, with residual sugars of relatively great magnitude. Typically, all Rieslings have a light to medium body, and are fragrant and fruity.
It is relatively easy to understand the labels of New World Rieslings (they are, after all, in English). Also, dry, medium dry, and sweet are used to describe Rieslings on this side of the Atlantic. But if you are going to seriously try Rieslings, you will be drinking some from Germany. And in order to choose what you will drink, you are going to need basic understanding of certain German wine terms and wine law, most of which is based on the amount of sugar in the grapes at harvest -- in German, “Oechsle” (UHX-leh).
Since 1971, German wines, by law, are identified in one of three categories:
-3. Deutchertafelwein (DTW), the lowest category, is the German table wine. “Deutcher” indicates that the wine is made of 100% German juice from one of four broad geographic wine producing areas. Landwein indicates a smaller region within the big four.
-2. Qualitatswein bestimmter Anbangeblet (QbA) is the medium level. All grapes here must come from one of the 13 sub regions and comply with a minimum sugar and alcohol content. Chaptalization (addition of sugar) to reach minimum levels is allowed.
-1. Qualitatswein mit Pradikat QmP roughly means “wines of distinction” and designates the finest German wines. They are divided into six subcategories predicated on certain sugar levels. Chapitalization is not allowed. The higher the sugar, the better ranking of the wine. The sub-categories, from the lowest to the highest, are as follows:
-Kabinett - Typically the lightest and most delicate style an estate will produce.
-Spatlese (SHPAYT-lay-zeh) - Meaning “late-harvested.” Once harvested, the wine can be fermented fruity (lieblich), half-dry (halbtrocken) or dry (trocken).
-Auslese (OWS-lay-zuh) - Meaning “selected.” This describes specially selected, perfectly ripened bunches of grapes that are hand-picked and then pressed separately from other grapes.
-Beerenauslese (BEAR-en-ows-lay-zuh) - Meaning “selected berries.” Describes specially selected, overripe grapes that are hand-picked and then pressed separately from other grapes. . The superior wine made from these grapes is very sweet but has enough acid for proper balance.
-Eiswein (ICE-vine) - Literally, “ice wine.” This refers to a rich, flavorful dessert wine. It is made by picking grapes that are frozen on the vine and then pressing them before they thaw. Because much of the water in the grapes is frozen, the resulting juice is concentrated-rich in flavor and high in sugar and acid.
-Trockenbeerenauslese (TRAW-ken BEAR-en OWS-lay-zeh), also known as TBA” - Germany's greatest and rarest dessert wine. Trocken (dry) here refers to the individually selected berries which have been completely shriveled by botrytis [in German, “Edelfäule” (AYDEL-foy-leh)]. It does not refer to the taste of the wine, which is quite the opposite of trocken.
But even if you think you don’t care for sweet wines, don’t let all this talk of sugar put you off. Many otherwise difficult food and wine pairings are great with the balanced acidity and sweetness of a good Riesling.
There are a few other German terms that you will run into from time to time while selecting Rieslings, and we set out some of the most helpful below.
-Anbaugebiet (ON-bow-ge-beet) - The German word for wine region.
-AP Number (Amtliche Prufungs Nummer) - the German government's proof that certain wine has been tested and approved. The last group of numbers indicates the year in which the barrel (or lot) was submitted for approval, and the next to last group is the lot number. The lot number helps distinguish between wines that otherwise would appear the same.
-Charta - An association of winegrowers in Rheingau (The Rhine region) that has created this designation for their dry wines that comply to higher standards and are specifically meant to accompany food.
-Einzellage (AYN-tsul-law-geh) - German word for “single vineyard.”
So what about these wines in Germany? German grape growers have high regard for the Riesling grape, and about 25% of the total planted acreage in this country is now Riesling. It is the most planted grape (about 80%) in the Rheingau (the popular “Rhine Wine” from the Rhine Valley is a Riesling), and is a source of fine wines in the Mosel River region as well. Wines of the Rheingau are usually fuller bodied than those in the Mosel, reflecting higher red slate content in the soil. All German Rieslings, however, are revered for their freshness and delicacy, as well as their ability to age due to high acidity that balances beautifully with the ripeness of the grapes.
Contrary to the beliefs of many, fine German wines age very well. The acidity and ripeness makes them very long lived. Like top reds, primary fruit dominates in young wines, while terroir and secondary flavors take precedence in older ones.
While the VDP (Acronym for “Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingutter,” a group of German top wine estates whose members adhere to stricter, self-imposed quality standards than the law requires) has controlled standards of German wines to some degree (a logo on the bottle identifies wines produced under this standard), a more recent development is the formation of the “Komitee I. Gewachs (First Growth Committee), which is attempting to impose even stricter rules to insure quality (such as the use of Riesling only, the requirement to hand harvest, the banning of sweeteners, and minimums for yield, aging, etc.).
We have thus covered technical “stuff” that will assist you in reading labels and in choosing German Rieslings. Now we examine primary Riesling production areas in the rest of the world. A rose may be a rose, but a Riesling depends on it geography.
-Austria: Ten years ago you would hardly find an Austrian wine on any U.S. wine list. But at present they are “hot.” Riesling grapes now comprise most of the best Austrian wines, and they can be excellent. Unfortunately, much like the wines grown in nearby Alsace, they can also be quite expensive due to their scarcity.
Austrian Riesling is grown in what seems like unlikely locations, such as the Wachau, a gorge through which flows the mighty Danube River. There one finds poor soil almost as deep as the bedrock, and cliffs planted with about 300 acres. Wachau’s wines, conceded by most to be about Austria’s best, have three levels of richness -- Smaragd (the equivalent of “Spatlese”) being the richest, then Federspiel (“Kabinett”), and then Steinfeder (“Qualitaswein“). The terroir here manifests itself in a sort of creaminess, which is in fact a hallmark of Austrian Rieslings. These wines accompany food quite well, are drinkable and lively when young, and yet full bodied and long lived.
-Alsace: Did you know that French law prohibits the growing of Riesling more than 40 miles from the German frontier? Thus, Alsace is the only part of France where this grape is permitted to be harvested, and it must be treated in the “French way.” No wood is permitted, for example, and the wines do not undergo malolactic fermentation.
This does not mean that Alsatian Rieslings are all the same. With at least 20% of the region now planted with this variety, styles vary greatly due to the many types of soil throughout in the area (vines on lighter, sandy soils yield fast maturing and lighter bodied wines than those planted on limestone soils), as well as a climate that can be cool to relatively warm. Grapes ripen easily throughout the region, so alcohol potential is great. If the weather is too warm, sometimes fermentation stops, producing a not quite dry Riesling. Thus, winemakers in this region have a variety of options as to whether they want dry, semi-dry, or the highly prized sweet Riesling that comes from ultra ripe, or botrytis, grapes (much like a German Auslese or Beerenauslese). The late-harvest Alsatian Rieslings will usually be quite elegant, but some recent vintages have been quite dry.
-California: Traditionally, Californians have called what they plant either White Riesling or Johannesburg Riesling -- Johannesburg referring to a famous German wine estate, Schloss (same as “chateau” in French) Johannesburg. The grape entered California as early as 1859, and in 1861 the region’s first Riesling vines were planted in St. Helena.
Prior to Prohibition, California Riesling enjoyed a stylish reputation. But after the repeal, Chardonnay replaced Rieslings as the varietal of choice in California, and until the past decade or so it was difficult to find a California Riesling of true quality. Even now, the ratio of planted Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc to Riesling in California is staggering.
Still, with undaunting American perseverance, Riesling seems to be making a comeback in many areas of the state, and some is pretty drinkable, primarily the bottles that come from cooler growing regions such as the Alexander Valley and other coastal areas. Dry California Rieslings, not surprisingly, exhibit fresh melon characteristics (as opposed to tartness), high (and desired) acidity, and hints of grapefruit, much like their German cousins. In our opinion, though, California has a long way to go to match the Rieslings of Europe (or the state of Washington for that matter).
-Washington and Oregon: The Pacific Northwest is more than happy to proffer itself as Riesling country, and this varietal is now being grown in quantities greater than those in California. From the most northern vineyard (in British Columbia) to the most southern (in the southwest corner of Oregon near California), the Riesling industry is thriving.
Northwestern winemakers are creating powerful Rieslings that show off ripe citrus, bright fruit, some tartness, an off-dry style that produces a touch of sweetness, and racy acid that lends itself to a satisfying finish. In the minds of many, the Rieslings produced by Chateau Ste. Michelle are the nation’s best, and they sell over 700,000 cases to bolster the point. What is not well known is that this winery makes many different Rieslings at just as many price points. In Oregon, there doesn’t yet seem to be a clear leader of the pack, but many Willamette Valley wineries are making Riesling and selling it all.
-The Finger Lakes Region of New York (and other States): We are not big fans of the Rieslings we have tasted in the East, but winemakers in harsher climates are in fact trying. If we had to select the best of this vast area, though, we think it would be the New York Finger Lakes region, with its steep hillsides and narrow strips of water. This topography, and by mistaken extension the area’s viticultural prowess, has often been compared to Germany’s Rhine valley. However, the different soils and weather (not to mention hundreds of years of tradition) make that a problematic comparison.
It would not be surprising, on the other hand, if the Rieslings in this area ultimately become not just good buys, but show good quality. Try them. They come in three basic flavors: dry, semi-dry and dessert. Dry versions are often, but not always, labeled as such, while semi-dry is the most common and what you can expect in most cases if the label doesn’t indicate otherwise. Ice wines are less uniformly successful because winter temperatures are too mild, and some wineries use an artificial freezing process.
-Australia: About seven years ago the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation finally mandated standards as they regard that country’s Rieslings. Until 2000, these wines had little quality control. Now, 85 % of the juice must be Riesling, and quality is up.
The best area for growing Rieslings in Australia seems to be the Clare Valley north of Adelaide, where the climate boasts long, hot summer days and cool nights. The wines are typically dry, chalky, and minerally (read “austere“), but become softer and richer with age. They possess good acid and are influenced by citrus like taste. However, those living in Eden and Barossa Valleys would not concede superiority to the wines of the Clare. They are also producing good Rieslings exhibiting some grassiness and tropical fruit.
So with all that said, when is it best to drink Riesling, and with what food types? It may be easier to say what foods are not recommended, such as lamb, dishes with tomato sauce, garlic, or olives. The lighter Rieslings are wonderful with sushi, grilled fish, chicken, pork, veal, most vegetable dishes, and young cheeses. The bigger ones are the perfect match for most Asian foods (Chinese, Indian and Thai all work well), for salty snacks (nuts, prosciutto, salamis, stronger cheeses), and for fish and white meats in cream sauces. Almost all are delicious to sip on their own. Riesling is one of the few wines that goes well with chocolate, and can serve as a dessert wine alongside sweet concoctions, or on its own. All in all, this is a versatile, and presently under-appreciated, varietal that is definitely worth a try. We have taken to ordering it in Asian houses at every opportunity.
Wine writers and educators Monty and Sara Preiser divide their time between Palm Beach County, Florida and the Napa Valley in California. They publish the world's most comprehensive guide to Napa Valley wineries and restaurants titled, appropriately, The Preiser Key to Napa Valley.