Wines of the Month
The last time I wrote about Riesling (see "Seasons' Rieslings," December, 1999 Wines of the Month), I focused on wines made in a dry style. While I love dry Rieslings, it would be remiss of me to cover only that one narrow range of the Riesling spectrum. In my opinion, one of the greatest properties of the Riesling grape is its ability to make appealing wines in a wide variety of styles while retaining a sense of "Riesling-ness", or varietal character. When tasting a bone-dry version from Alsace or Austria next to a super-sweet Trockenbeerenauslese from Germany, your first thought might be that they are almost as different as two white wines can be, but if you look a little closer, you might start to see some similarities. You might notice characteristically high acidity. Or that some of the flavors, such as petrol or mineral notes, might be present in both. And Riesling doesn't just fare well in bone dry or ultrasweet versions; there are plenty of examples of off-dry or semi-sweet Rieslings to leave no doubt about the versatility of the grape.
Riesling is one of the few grapes that produces world-class wines in such a wide variety of styles. Some grapes shine in a narrow range. For example, Pinot Noir makes some of the most sought-after dry red wines in the world, especially in Burgundy, but can you name a great Pinot Noir-based dessert wine? I can't. Other grapes are used for wines in a wide range of styles, but only reach world-class status in one style -- or sometimes not in any style. One example is Scheurebe, which can make some excellent dessert wines, but rarely shines in dry table wines. Another extremely impressive trait of Riesling is that it can achieve these heights by itself, not needing the support of other grapes in a blend. While I can think of several grapes (e.g. Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon) that make both excellent dry and sweet wines, they are usually components of blends in the most famous examples of at least one of the styles (e.g. Sauternes, which is a blend of Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and sometimes a little Muscadelle). Riesling, on the other hand, stands alone in its most impressive wines, whether dry, off-dry or sweet, never needing the support of another variety.
What gives Riesling these special abilities? I don't think anyone knows for sure -- nor do I think that anyone could completely answer a similar question about the virtues of any grape variety. However, the experts seem to agree on a few important factors. One is Riesling's naturally high levels of acidity, particularly tartaric acid. The high acidity acts as a natural foil to sugar, keeping even very sweet wines from becoming cloying. Balance is paramount in winemaking, and the acidity helps to create an appropriate counterpoint to the sugar. However, acidity can also be a problem when making very dry wines; if the fruit isn't sufficient to stand up to the acidity, the wines can be mouth-puckeringly tart, and unpleasant to drink. While the winemakers of Alsace seem to have solved that problem, the inconsistent results I've seen from dry German Rieslings suggests that the answer is not universally known (there are exceptions, such as the Müller-Catoir Spätlese I reviewed in December and May). Again, balance is the key. In dry wines, the fruit must be present in an appropriate proportion to balance the acidity. The high levels of acidity are also thought to be important in the legendary aging ability of Riesling wines. While many people suggest drinking white wines within a year or two of bottling, this advice doesn't hold true for a large number of Rieslings. In fact, none of the wines I'm recommending this month are less than three years old, and most of them could easily handle more time in the bottle. One reason I'm stressing this point is that many people aren't aware of Riesling's aging properties, so you can often find older bottles at discount prices in wine shops. Keep your eyes open, and you may find some great bargains.
Another important factor is Riesling's intense flavor. Monoterpenes compose one of the most important classes of flavor compounds, and Riesling contains high levels of these compounds. The Oxford Companion to Wine (1st Ed.) states that Riesling has levels that are "10 to 50 times" as high as the similarly-named (but unrelated) Welschriesling (aka Riesling Italico, Olasz Rizling, Laski Rizling, and Grasevina). These compounds help to create the intense flavors and aromas which define Riesling's varietal character wherever it appears, allowing it to taste like a Riesling, no matter what style of wine the producer has decided to make.
One other flavor-related characteristic that is particularly important for sweet wines, is Riesling's susceptibility to botrytis cinerea, or "noble rot". When grapes are infected with this fungus at the right time in their development, they shrivel up, concentrating the sugar and flavors, as well as gaining a characteristic honeyed flavor from the botrytis. Noble rot is responsible for some of the world's greatest -- and most expensive -- sweet white wines, including Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese Rieslings from Germany, and Sélection de Grains Nobles Rieslings from Alsace. Yet, even though the intense sweetness and characteristic flavors of botrytis-affected wines can overwhelm the varietal character of some grapes, when you're tasting Riesling, it's usually obvious.
Certainly, there are other important factors, but like many aspects of wine, no one yet knows all of the details. What we do know is that Riesling makes dynamic wines that are both interesting and fun to drink. And with Riesling's wide range of styles, you're sure to find at least one type of Riesling to fit your mood.
Weingut Bründlmayer Riesling Kabinett Zöbinger
Heiligenstein Erste Lage '93 -- From the Kamptal region of
Austria, this 7-year-old wine still seems young. A very expressive
nose emerges in scents of pineapple, apple, grapefruit and lemon with
a hints of honey. Later, some peach and petrol aromas develop.
Initially, the wine seems slightly sweet in the mouth, and I was
wondering if there was actually some residual sugar. However, the
wine becomes much drier on midpalate and finishes quite dry. This
wine has several layers of well-defined flavors. At first, apple and
grapefruit come through, later being joined by some mineral and
petrol notes, and finally a honeyed citrus flavor. The finish is
quite long, with mouth-coating petrol, mineral, grapefruit and
honeyed peach flavors, along with a slightly unusual but unmistakable
hint of strawberry at the very end. With plenty of acidity, I think
this wine will keep for a while, but it's very nice right now.
Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt Riesling Kabinett Piesporter
Goldtropfchen Mosel-Saar-Ruwer '93 --Another 7-year-old wine --
this time from Germany -- and one that is showing extremely well. I
found this in a bargain bin for less than $10 -- making it an
excellent value. Shows lots of apple, petrol, mineral and cola
aromas. The flavors are slightly riper than I would expect for a
Kabinett, with notes of apple, pear and some peach, along with good
does of petrol and mineral flavors. The long, intense finish echoes
the fruit and mineral flavors on the palate, gaining a touch of
honey. This off-dry wine is very appealing to drink now for its
mixture of youthful and aged characteristics, though it will continue
Selbach Riesling Spätlese Zeltinger Himmelreich
Mosel-Saar-Ruwer '95 -- Another German gem that starts off right
with a generous nose of apricot, cola, petrol, honeyed grapefruit and
minerals. The generosity continues on a palate loaded with apricot,
peach, golden delicious apple and mineral flavors, along with a
little grapefruit. On the sweet and rich side for a Spatlese, though
the flavors could be a little more intense. Finishes with a blend of
apricot, lemonade and minerals, along with thirst-quenching acidity.
Will probably be better in a couple of years..
Mount Horrocks Riesling Cordon Cut Clare Valley '97 --
Switching continents, this beauty from South Australia is a nice
example of the dessert side of Riesling's range. With assertive
aromas of apricots, lime, honey, peach and touch of cola, this wine
begins to show a sort of "tropical" character that is quite different
from the German wines tasted above. The trend continues in the mouth,
where the flavors includge honeyed apricot, peach, lime, mango and
tropical fruits, along with a little cola and mineral character. The
wine has a lush mouthfeel, and isn't very acidic when compared to the
German wines. A long, but not cloying, mouthfilling finished, marked
by plentiful apricot and lime flavors, along with some coconut at the
very end. This is probably a wine to drink sooner rather than later,
but will do well with a couple of years of age.
As always, your comments are welcome.
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Copyright 2000 by Marcel Lachenmann.