All Hail Riesling, Queen of White Wines!
By: Eugene G Fitzgerald III, CS, CSW, WSET ADVANCED
In the world of wines few would debate that Cabernet Sauvignon is the undisputed king of grapes. It is grown in nearly every major hub that produces wine and can thrive in almost every climate. Despite being extremely recognizable, both on the nose and the palate, no two wines produced by this grape are exactly the same. Cabernet is the majority grape in a significant number of Bordeaux’s finest/most expensive bottles and if you mention Napa, California, the mind immediately goes to this variety. So if Cab reigns supreme as sovereign over reds, who shares the mantle in whites? While the number one selling variety for several years now has been the white grape Chardonnay, I insist that the superior counterpart to sit on the throne is none other than Riesling!
Nowadays, for many, the mere mention of Riesling conjures thoughts of wine which are inexpensive and extremely sweet. This simply could not be further from the truth. It surprises many to know that years ago great Riesling was as coveted, and as expensive, as top-shelf Bordeaux. Unfortunately times change and the introduction of mass produced goods such as Black Tower and Blue Nun had many German and other producers creating similar goods to fill increasing demand. These over-sugared products coming to market hit its peak in the late 90’s, much of which was not Riesling at all. Many were a mix of other well known German varieties such as Müller-Thurgau, Grauburgunder Pinot Gris and Weissburgunder Pinot amongst a plethora of others.
Today however critics, writers, and the general public are beginning to give Riesling the credit it deserves. The style variations are nearly endless. There are versions from the Mosel region in Germany with alcohol contents as low as 7% but with an elevated acidity and strong, extremely clean minerality bringing everything into a beautiful synergy. On the other end of the spectrum there are quite a few types from Alsace, France that can run high in alcohol (12.5-15%) and are bone dry. This creates a rich texture that balances nicely with it’s high acid and crisp citrus flavors. Even Australia is producing extraordinary Riesling proving that the grape certainly has a knack for conveying the character of its varying terroirs. Lime is definitely present, and sometimes tropical flavors, especially with Clare Valley Rieslings, which can also have a white flower quality. Some can have a well balanced minerality with an aroma of wet-stone, and the best are almost Pinot Gris-like in texture. Even Washington state is producing some high quality Riesling. A perfect example and personal favorite of mine, Kung Fu Girl Riesling is off dry and has a body that might be described as almost Chardonnay-like. She has a beautiful tangy acidity level that brings everything right into sync. It has been a Wine Spectator top 100 Wine of the Year for the past 4 years and always scores at least a 90 from well recognized critics.
It is an important fact that when in comes to German wine classifications, the highest tier are known as Pradikatswein. In ascending order of ripeness (not residual sugar) are the first three pradikate. Kabinett, typically off-dry in style and made from fruit picked early in the season. Spatlese is slightly sweet in style and Auslese medium-sweet in style. It is important to know that these first three Pradikatswein, via German law, can be made into dry versions as well.
The other three Pradikatswein are wonderfully crazy versions made in dessert wine fashion that to this day can fetch large sums. Eiswein, Beerenauslese, and Trockenbeerenauslese are three of these variations that are magnificent. Eiswein is picked and pressed while the grapes are frozen, concentrating and isolating all the sugar. Beerenauslese, pronounced BEAR-en OWS-lay-zuh, is an intense, ultra-concentrated wine made from hand-selected grapes that have been shriveled about halfway to raisins by the fungus botrytis. It has the same minimum must weight as Eiswein, so they have about the same sweetness. Trockenbeerenauslese, pronounced TRAW-ken Bear-en OWS-lay-zuh, is German for “dried berry selection.” It is one of the most labor intensive, concentrated wines that are made. It is created by individually selecting only the fully shriveled, botrytis infected grapes and pressing them slowly to yield a tiny bit of incredibly dense, sweet wine. Yet, despite all this sugar the elevated acidity leaves all these wines crisp and refreshing at the same time which is no easy feat.
A cool fact about Riesling elevating it above Chardonnay is the potential for ageability. Aside from some of the very upper echelon of Burgundy most Chardonnay has little potential to improve with time. I have personally drank dozens of different Rieslings older than 20 years from Germany. Some still had the young green tint of chlorophyll, demonstrating it still had life and time to go. Nearly all still possessed great fruit, earthy minerality, aromatic floral notes as well as the highly talked about beautiful tertiary petrol note. That much discussed profile seems to present itself in all aged Rieslings regardless of place of origin. Arguments among experts over exactly how to describe it are quite funny with descriptions ranging from kerosene to garden hose and wet rubber pool toys. Furthermore, unlike Chardonnay, Riesling is always fermented cool, and bottled early without any malolactic fermentation or wood use. In this case you are allowing the grape to simply display what nature intended.
Riesling truly has a range that almost no other grape can match. It has high acidity making it food friendly, especially with spicy dishes where, as the aficionados say, “heat needs sweet”. Now that we are in the throws of the dog days of summer nothing beats a beautifully made summertime quaffer like an off-dry Riesling from Australia or New Zealand, or perhaps a late harvest, almost candy-like version from Washington state. You may want to treat yourself to an elegant, refined example from Rheingau where Riesling is produced almost exclusively. Any would be perfect with crabs, sushi, scallops or even a spicy Thai dish. With or without food they possess all the necessary attributes to always be refreshing and palate cleansing. It would certainly be the perfect companion for a warm summer night. With such endless possibilities from one single grape variety how can anyone argue that Riesling doesn’t reign supreme?