How very often we hear that refrain. Not perhaps, from our more serious wine-drinking friends and customers, but definitely from the greater wine-drinking public. As Oz Clarke puts it, “I wonder what it feels like to be the wine experts’ favourite grape, yet fail to excite the palates of the vast majority of wine drinkers across the world”.
How very true. Somewhere out there, Riesling lost its way very, very badly in the eyes of the everyman (or everywoman), particularly in the UK. Oz draws out one key reason for this, which is the falling-in-love of the white wine drinker with oakier, fuller-bodied wines (Chardonnay, Chenin, Semillon, Viura), especially in the 1980s, leaving Riesling – quite literally – on the shelf.
We might advance one more obvious contention: that the invasion and domination, at that same time, of Blue Nun, Liebfraumilch and tat-end Piesporter brought an association in the mind of the wine fan between Riesling and sweetish, sickly(ish), insipid wines (albeit mildly refreshing and curiously good with Chinese take-away) that had become ubiquitous and common. The weird truth here is that those wines contained either no or very little Riesling to speak of (all being much built on the (fairly dreadful) Müller-Thurgau grape). But, facts being thrown aside, German whites became seen as very “ordinary”, Riesling was famous as the German white, and so the unfortunate association was made.
Riesling? Into the 1990s, the UK was having Nun of that.
All of which was exacerbated as the world moved towards fully dry whites: after all, Riesling was sweet(ish) and thus not to be drunk. It’s a perception that was wrong again: most of the world’s Rieslings are, and have always been, dry wines…. but the UK only saw the off-dry ones.
Poor old Rieslng. She never deserved all of this. Doubly so, because she is beautiful and quite fantastic. And here’s why…
The world, and especially the UK, have gone potty (quite unaccountably, to some extent) for Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio. Some 60%+ of all white wine sold in the UK is accounted for by just these two grapes.
But what these two grapes do well, Riesling does, frankly, far better. The acidity, bite and refreshment of SB and PG are more than matched by even a passable Riesling and, whilst the fruits of Riesling may be different (more citric, in the main, but do see below), there’s no lack of the fruitiness that draws folk to today’s popular whites. And oak is no issue here: oak doesn’t enter the equation with any of today’s top-selling whites. This is all about buyer perception. I’m really quite sure of that now: blind taste friends and family on a good, dry Riesling (and I do this a lot being the Riesling evangelist that I am) - especially one with a fuller body (the Riesling, not the friend) - and they almost invariably love it.
But Riesling does so much more than this, especially for the serious wine fan.
Firstly, it is the best ageing of any (dry) white wine. Period. In a world of uncertain statements, vagaries, fake news and blatant lies, I’m quite happy about the veracity of this assertion. Good Sémillon, Marsanne, Assyrtiko and the very best white Burgundies (especially Chablis) all have their claims, I accept, but Riesling is the undisputed queen of ageing gracefully. Some of the above will make it to 20 years in a good vintage. But at 20 years, most top Rieslings are only just getting started. What’s more, it’s not just that Riesling merely holds her shape as she ages, it’s that she becomes so much better and more interesting as she does. “Honey, toast and petrol” (for this last one, see also “machine oil”, “kerosene” or “diesel” as you prefer) are the famous development flavours of good Riesling. They’re not for everyone, but many, we know, find these highly addictive. And Riesling need not be drunk in its dotage: year-old Riesling, packed with citric, fruity zesty zing is a great glass in itself.
The other great attraction of Riesling is its diversity. Wine fans are famously keen to experience and talk of the influence of terroir: the local - and very specific - environmental conditions and factors that give rise to the (equally specific) character of a wine. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (most famously in Burgundy) are great vectors of terroir and (almost as famously) produce very different wines across and throughout the New and Old Worlds. And Riesling is their terroir-reflective equal: its aroma and flavours range from their most citric (lemon, grapefruit and lime) in the cool Mosel and USA, through the stone fruit (peaches, apricots) of Alsace and Chile to even something quite tropical from the warmer districts of Austria and New Zealand. And that’s before we talk of the minerality tang of poor soils or altitude-driven notes in South American examples.
Almost finally in this litany of praise comes that sweetness question. You can do almost anything here with Riesling (in a way that you generally can’t, say, with Chardonnay). From the bone-driest of dry wines (at less than 1g/litre of residual sugar) to the sweetest of dessert wines (300+g/litre is not unknown for the biggest Trockenbeerenausleses (TBAs) of Austria and Germany), Riesling makes some truly stunning wines. What makes all of that possible is Riesling’s shimmeringly high acidity that prevents all that sugar from seeming flabby and heavy. Where sweetness is concerned, you chooses your Riesling, you takes your pick.
Finally, comes price. And quality. Or value, if you prefer. Riesling has never become daftly costly (except, perhaps, from the steepest-sided, hardest-to-work valleys of Germany and Austria). If there’s one category of wines that continues to score highly (by which, we mean 93 points and above) in Decanter and does this at affordable prices (by which, we mean £20 or less), then it is Riesling.
And that’s the gist of what follows. After all, we want you not just to know about Riesling, but to try it and buy it, too. We’ve pulled together those Rieslings, from all the top Riesling-producing regions of the globe, that either we or Decanter rate highly, all beneath the £20 barrier (some will be markedly less, and we’ve also pointed you towards a few more where great pricier options occur).
From the Old World...
One simply has to start with Riesling’s homeland of Germany. And here the very best Rieslings can be, we accept, quite pricey. But there are fabulous Rieslings for less. Our favourite of a big bunch comes from one of the great producers of the Nahe valley, famed for its rather riper/warmer variants. Tesch’s Krone Riesling 2016 is very precise (and just a fraction pineapple-y, we have decided), biodynamically produced and hails from a single vineyard (or Einzellage, if you will). At £16 from a famed winemaker, this is a brilliantly priced entry into better German Riesling.
Up the Danube we go to Austria’s Vienna, where we find innovative-yet-tradtional Wieninger and their Wiener Riesling 2017 … our top-value favourite of a good many Austria Rieslings we offer. The warmer climes and lower latitudes of Austria really show here at an excellent ~£15.
Then there’s Alsace, where the dry, cool climate is perfect for some of the world’s best Riesling producers. Here Trimbach stand as one of the greats, and their range of Rieslings is quite wonderful. For brevity and anguish, we’re limiting ourselves to just the one here, and their Riesling Reserve 2017 has a sumptuous, luxurious ripe depth and richness (not to mention colour) to it. This really is one of the best-value Rieslings we can offer.
...to the New World…
Australia seems an odd place for a cool-climate, high-acidity grape. And yet, as fans of Tasmanian, Western Australian, Eden Valley and Clare Valley Rieslings will know all too well, these are some of the world’s very best. Certainly, few Rieslings have the same ageability as those of Clare and Eden. Decanter’s April 2018 review revealed a welter of top-scoring, low-cost Rieslings: for us, the pick of the bunch remain the two Polish Hill River specimens from Pauletts (98 and 96 points) and Peter Lehmann’s Wigan (96 points). The Wigan and older Pauletts both have fantastic age development flavours already aboard (drink now or keep, you choose…) while the 2017 Pauletts is young – very young in Clare Valley terms – but from one of the best vintages for well over a decade: lay this one down with great confidence.
The surprise with New Zealand is not that it produces such great Rieslings, but that it has taken the rest of the world so long to realise. September’s Decanter fully told us as much. It’s only a month or so ago, but we’ll make a lot of noise again about the “vivacious” “full-throttle”, already-complex Te Kairanga Riesling 2016… at just £12.50 a bottle. See also, at a price beyond our remit here, the Prophet’s Rock alternative from Central Otago. Wow!
We tend to think of the USA as California, all too often, where wine is concerned. And, for sure, the term “a Riesling’s chance in Napa” may yet catch on. But that would be to forget the cool Pacific North-West and New York State. Both have a Riesling style of their own.
There’s a richness-but-delicacy about our great offerings from Washington State, being
- the wackily-marketed Kung Fu Girl 2017 from equally (very) wacky Charles Smith (see this video - click on photo below): this is a Riesling that drinks very nicely young, but will do you a good many years yet;
From the eastern seaboard, New York State’s Finger Lakes are becoming much discovered for Rieslings made to be very precise, tight, melony/lemony and (bear with me) “laser-etched” (not my term, blame the wider wine journalist network). We love Fox Run’s offering, as do the customers we’ve directed this way. It proved very popular recently with the Inverness Wine Appreciation Society; full respect to their collective Riesling palates....
And for really top value (which surely can’t last a whole lot longer)? Chile. The Central Valley area – famous for its Cab Sauvs/Carmenères/Merlots is way too warm to be Riesling country. But the dry, cool Elqui and San Antonio Valleys are ideal, producing a delightful, pure, clear style of Riesling (much at one with those of the Finger Lakes, weirdly): we’ve two cracking, super-value examples from Falernia and Vina Leyda, the latter scoring a well-deserved 94 points in the June 2019 Decanter.
Finally, we have to point out a single “sticky”. We’ve a good many sweet Rieslings, but Seifried’s Sweet Agnes 2016 (from Nelson, NZ) is a deserved and brilliant Platinum medal winner/97-pointer at the 2018 Decanter World Wine Awards. We’ve always said. “this is special stuff” and we mean it.