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This week I thought it would be a great time to examine individual grape varietals that we will enjoy with the weather getting warmer that is if it ever does. Le Niña has left the Northwest with much cooler than average temperatures and greater precipitation than normal, in other words winter won’t quitL
Being the eternal optimist that I am let’s get right to it. I’m talking about the Riesling grape varietal. Riesling is a Classic White Grape type that is medium dry by nature. There is sense of resurgence I am feeling in the world of wine when it comes to the Riesling wines and I think there are a number of reasons for this. The Riesling wines are produced both in the Old World(Germany, France, and Austria) and in the New World,(New York State, and Washington State) in a multitude of styles I might add. The Riesling grape is medium dry by nature and is also a versatile grape that has immense character. Riesling can be crafted in styles that vary from dry to sweet. In the past Riesling wines that were readily available here in the states were made on the sweeter end of the spectrum and perhaps not necessarily the best made wines in my opinion. Many white wine drinkers started their wine journey by choosing a sweet Riesling wine as their go to wine of choice. Then something interesting happens, as your wine palate matures you end up rediscovering your love affair with Riesling wines. But they are not the same ones you started with.
So why is there the sudden interest in the Riesling grape varietal you might ask? Riesling is a wine that is misunderstood by many but for those aficionados who love Riesling they will profusely support and defend this wine. In fact many are down right defensive about it, I love it. We learn from the past and apply those experiences looking forward and so goes the winemaking of Riesling. There are many winemakers who are making Rieslings the way and in the style which they were intended to be made, not just the uber sweet style that some of us who are not Riesling experts are familiar with.
So let’s break this down and take a look at it. First of all, what makes a great wine? Balance, character, sense of place, complexity, and if it will illicit an emotional response, this is what a great wine is all about for me, how about you? Riesling is one of the three Classic grape varietals from which 90% of all white wine is produced. The other two are Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Riesling grows best in Alsace, France, Washington State, New York State, and Germany. That is not to say that Riesling doesn’t grow else ware but these are the growing environments where the Riesling grape grows best. The regions I have mentioned are areas that specialize in producing great Riesling wines too as you might well imagine.
The Riesling grape varietal is one exudes terrior better than many other white grape varietals. I really think this is why many become such devotees of this wine. Handled by a great winemaker this grape expresses its sense of place better than most. A pure Riesling will be complex yet delicate. There are many Rieslings that are pretenders produced from inferior Grey Riesling or Sylvaner Riesling grapes, these will not do for a world class Riesling. A great Riesling will present itself with an aroma of beautiful mellow floral, a scent of mild sweetness, a little bit of fruit, and a mild nuance of lychee nut. On the palate a great Riesling delivers a sense of lovely fruit, a mild citrus flavor perhaps that of star fruit. Do not be surprised to discover a slight herbaceous nuance, a hint of spice and minerality. The well made Riesling will also present a feeling in your mouth that is medium dry, clean, and crisp. People who love wine talk about terrior and a wine that has a sense of place, the expression of mineral in a wine is one description that speaks to the term terrior. Remember the direct translation of terrior is “sense of place” and a great Riesling that exhibits minerality is delivering on the terrior, its sense of place from which those grapes were grown.
So how do these Riesling wines from different places vary from one another? Let’s take a look while remembering that soil, weather, slope of land, wind currents, humidity, night moisture in the air, and when and how the sun an rain come all affect what ultimately ends up in the grape. From there it’s all on the winemaker, and the approach to making the wine is different from year to year depending on the hand of cards the winemaker was dealt.
Riesling’s from the Alsace region in France will be fresh, clean, rich, earthy, very approachable and easy to drink. The wines from this area will be very compatible with food because of their structure and balance. The wines from Alsace will very dry because the winemakers ferment all of the sugar in the grapes. The Rieslings from this region will have an 11 to 12 % alcohol level. Schlumberger, Trimbach, Zind-Humbrecht are all well known producers of Riesling that you will enjoy.
German Rieslings will be sweeter than those from France. The German winemakers typically add a small amount of naturally sweet unfermented grape juice back into the wine that make the German Riesling the special wine that it is, if you prefer a wine with a bit of sweetness. The alcohol levels in these wines are only 8 to 9%. When you buy a German wine note that Trocken means dry, Halbtrocken is medium-dry, and Fruity is semi-dry to sweet. Riesling wines from the Rhine are slightly higher in alcohol and have a bit more body than a Riesling from the Mosel. The Mosel wines have nuances of autumn fruits like apples, pears, and quince. While the Rieslings from the Rhine exhibit summer fruits like apricot, peaches, and nectarines.
Austria is also a country that produces magnificent Rieslings, although not as widely produced as the regions I’ve previously mentioned they needed to be included as these can be great wines. These Austrian Rieslings sort of have the best of what France and Germany bring to the table. You will note in these wines the harmony of fruit and acid that you will find in a French Riesling and the acute focus that great German winemakers bring to the table. The Austrian Rieslings tend to taste less alcoholic than French Rieslings and tend to be crisper, and more fruit forward. When compared to a German Riesling they are perceived as a bit more body, more aromatic, with a better balance of fruit and acid making it a bit easier to drink. The wines from this region are made in a style that can be dry to sweet but the great Rieslings from this region are a dry style. The Austrian Rieslings will exhibit wonderful mineral, stone fruit such as peach, apricot, and a vineyard peach which is a grafted cross of the peach and apricot. Yes these Rieslings are unique and amazing and express beautiful terrior in the wine due to unique mineral in the soil, the water and air that produce what is known as dry extract, and the slightly warmer growing conditions that allow the winemaker to vinify the wine without any additives. You will love these wines as they are great food friendly wines.
Riesling is synonymous with the growing regions of Germany, Alsace and Austria, it finds an idyllic home in Washington state. The success of our Rieslings is credited to the quality of fruit from Columbia Valley vineyards. Riesling grapes benefit from the warm days and cool nights during the growing season in the Columbia Valley. Warm, sunny days fully ripen the grapes and bring out the variety’s incredible aromatics, while cool evenings preserve the crisp acids essential to the quality of Riesling fruit. True Rieslings in the United States must be labeled Johannisberg Riesling or White Riesling. Rieslings from Eastern Washington have growing conditions that lend to even ripening of the grapes. These conditions produce fantastic grapes that are aromatic with scents of peaches, pears, apricots, and mild floral notes. These wines from Washington State are clean and crisp, they can be steely, stoney, and have great balance between fruit and acid. Washington State is producing phenomenal Riesling wine that is super food friendly.
New York State’s Finger lake region is producing great Rieslings that are being mentioned in the same breath as Rieslings from Alsace, Austria, and Germany. The Finger Lakes region is home to nearly half of the New York State Riesling producers. A trip around the lakes may remind you a bit of the great Riesling vineyards along the Rhine. There are many small farms with cattle and horses amongst the sloped hills of the lakes. The big difference for me comes down to terrior. I find that Rieslings from the Finger Lakes are much more like those from Germany while Washington State Rieslings are closer to Alsatian Rieslings; it’s a matter of winemaking style that is driven by what the terrior produces in the grapes. Many of the Rieslings from the Finger Lakes region produce wines that are clean and crisp with aromas of honey, apple, and peach. On the palate I find them to be generally a little fuller than Rieslings from the Washington State region. The Finger Lakes area is a hotbed of great Riesling produces.
I would like to encourage everyone to try a Riesling today and experience the varied expression that each great wine growing area offers this great grape. Then it’s up to you to find the style and producer that best suits your palate. I can promise you one thing, you’ll have a lot of fun on this great wine adventure, cheers to you.
Here are a few Riesling wines that I enjoy; 2009 Riesling from Elk Cove Estates, K-Vintners 2010 Kung Fu Girl, 2009 Monchoff “Urzig”, J.J. Prum Riesling Kabinett 2007, and Wittmann Westhofener 2007 Riesling, Eroica from Chateau St. Michelle.