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"Riesling? Really?”... in rescue of a lost gem

Riesling? Really?”

Yes, really.

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 2016 … 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 ~£14.

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 2016 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 2012 Wigan and 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;

 

and

-          the Eroica 2016, a fascinating joint venture between Germany’s Dr (Ernie) Loosen and Washington stalwart, Chateau St Michelle. Don’t miss their (almost) hilarious video

From the eastern seaboard, New York’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.

 

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.

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.

In conclusion,

  • Riesling is brilliant. And brilliantly priced.
  • If quality, elegant whites are your thing and you’d eschewed Riesling for any reason, you could do a lot lot worse than any or all of the above.
  • If you know and love your Riesling(s), but not the above wines, be unaware no longer.
  • A mixed case of Rieslings from around the world is a wonderful thing.
  • The question, honestly, should be “Pinot Grigio? Really?”.
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Wieninger Wiener Riesling 2016 (1x75cl)

Fritz Wieninger is considered a pioneer of the “New Vienna” wine movement, combining a sense of modernity and progress with the traditions of the region and of his family, who have been making wine for over 100 years. “I try to use the numerous facets of my grape material,” Fritz says. “To be able to show the differences in site and vintage and to get the character of the vineyard into the bottle – this is my greatest challenge.”

This wine is a blend of Riesling grown in both Bisamberg and Nussberg. 25% of the grapes are sourced from Bisamberg, where the soil is sandy loess, and the remaining 75% is grown on the limestone chalky soils of Nussberg. Blending fruit from these contrasting sites adds depth and complexity to the final wine.

2016 was a difficult vintage. April experienced extreme frosts and hail storms, which resulted in a large percentage of crop loss. The following summer was wet, which caused high disease incidence. Luckily, weather in early autumn was far more favourable resulting in good quality fruit with balanced acidity and powerful aromatics.

Once at the winery, a period of maceration took place for five hours and the grapes were gently pressed. Temperature controlled, cool fermentation occurred using indigenous yeasts in stainless steel tanks to preserve freshness and purity. The wine aged on fine lees for approximately three months in order to add roundness to the wine. No oak was used in the winemaking process and bottling took place in January.

The wine is fragrant, fresh and shows complexity. The palate is elegant, light and tasty with a vibrant acidic structure. The subtle spice and citrus freshness make this wine an ideal companion for classic Austrian cuisine.

£14.45

Trimbach Riesling Reserve 2016 (1x 75cl)

Earning a listing for one of your wines at a Michelin-starred restaurant is a proud moment – so what must it be like to be featured by every single three Michelin-starred restaurant in France (that’s 27 in total)? It’s an accolade that reflects the historic excellence and purist vision of F. E. Trimbach, unquestionably one of the great names of Alsace and a family business that can trace its origins all the way back to 1626. Thirteen generations later, brothers Bernard and Hubert, plus Bernard’s sons, Pierre and Jean, and granddaughter Anne – remain true to the philosophy handed down to them by their 19th century ancestor, Frédéric Emile (the man who put the “F.E.” into F. E. Trimbach).

The “Réserve” quality is the result of a rigorous selection of fully-ripe grapes from the Ribeauvillé region. It defines a structured, balanced wine, which is both fruity and subtle.

White flowers, lemon notes and minerality touch on the nose. Fresh and vibrant, grapefruit and citrus, white peach, this wine has a long finish which is a sign of a beautiful future for the wine. This elegant Riesling, dry and precise, is a worthy accompaniment to a wide variety of dishes. It pairs well with sauerkraut, fish (fried, grilled, smoked, in a sauce, raw…), and white meats. The best vintages can be kept for ten years.

£18.55

Charles Smith Kung Fu Girl Riesling 2017 (1x75cl)

As the maker puts it: "It takes an unconventional winemaker to make a totally unexpected dry Riesling. One night, Charles was eating Chinese takeout and watching a fight scene in a notorious martial arts film when he had an idea: a killer white wine made to be paired with Asian food. Just like that, Kung Fu Girl was born. And it’s been kicking ass and taking names ever since".

More traditionally put: This wine is made by Charles Smith, a self–taught winemaker who brings his rock and roll spirit to the vineyards of Walla Walla, Washington. As a romantic young man, Charles Smith moved across the world to Denmark to follow his love for his girlfriend at the time. In Scandinavia, he became a recognized manager for rock bands such as The Raveonettes. While travelling on the road with these bands, he developed his passion for wine. In 1999, he moved back to Washington, opened a wine store and became friendly with a French winemaker, later convincing him to move to Walla Walla to make wine together.

Charles Smith Kung Fu Girl Riesling grapes comes from Evergreen Vineyard vines, where they stretch across the steep cliffs overlooking the Colombia River. This makes for ideal Riesling growing conditions that rival those in Germany. This wine is made from 100% Riesling grapes, carefully cultivated and pressed at the winery. The wine is barrel-aged for only 2 months (using the sur lie method, ie leaving the wine on its fine lees). Charles Smith Kung Fu Girl Riesling is crafted to be approachable and ready to drink the day you buy it.

The wine is a party in a glass. Young and fun, bright balance and tropical fruit notes make this an easy introduction to the world of Riesling. White stone fruit, apricot and white peach aromas with honeysuckle undertones make it a stand out. These flavours are balanced with elements of lime zest, citrus blossom and a floral hint of jasmine.

This wine would pair well with any number of foods. It can very easily be enjoyed on its own but Charles Smith Kung Fu Girl Riesling is a match made in heaven with Korean BBQ, spicy curry any kind of Thai food and sushi. Snow crab, lobster, prawns, roasted chicken or grilled salmon would also pair well.

£14.05

Eroica Riesling, Chateau Ste Michelle 2016 (1x75cl)

Eroica is a labour of love for two of the world's great Riesling producers, Germany's Dr Loosen and Washington State's Chateau Ste. Michelle. Named after Beethoven's Third Symphony, Eroica reflects not only its variety and site, but also its heritage: bold and forward from its Washington roots, elegant and refined from German inspiration. This Riesling offers sweet lime and tangerine aromas with subtle mineral notes, and a mouth-watering acidity that is beautifully balanced by the generously fruity Washington grapes.

Click this link for a (characterful) video tasting note with the winemakers...

... and this one for the data sheet/fiche technique on the wine.

£20.15
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