It’s time we learn about the six basic grapes!
The first lesson that comes to mind when learning about wine, is that there are three basic white varieties: Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay and three basic red varieties: Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.
So, today I will give you the 101 about the first white grape in the group: Riesling.
What is so special about it? Loved by Sommeliers and Wine Critics, Consumers’ opinions vary about this grape, mostly because of Riesling’s piercing acidity, which is a key component in this wine as well as their floral and fruitful aromatics. But we learn first about Riesling because it produces the lightest of all whites and therefore of all wines in general, but don’t let this fool you, Riesling has a lot personality! and its personality appears when you smell and taste the wines: Riesling is not shy, quite the contrary, it’s intense, fruity and floral... so much, one is tempted to wear it as a perfume behind our ears. Another reason Rieslings are overlooked, is because consumers tend to think that all Rieslings are sweet, and though many of them are (Rieslings can be from off dry to super sweet/ dessert style wines), yet there are many dry samples, actually most Riesling produced is dry. And even when it’s sweet, their crispy acidity will always be present, to balance the wines.
For the vine grower's point of view, Riesling has some wonderful attributes:
1) It likes cool climates, actually is one of the few grapes that thrive in marginal climates (meaning where any other grapes won’t ripen). Besides this, It’s early ripening, which will allow it to have a long & slow season and it has a natural resistance to cold weather and frost.
2) It’s extremely generous, meaning it can provide great quality at high yields, in Germany, where it is said that Riesling originated (in Rheingau) it can produce excellent wines at 70 hl/ha and sometimes higher than that, which is a lot, comparing for example, with yields in Burgundy where the maximum are kept at 35 hl/ht or less.
3) It expresses the soils where it grows more than any other grape, it’s not unusual to find minerality, smoke, wet stone flavors in Riesling wines.
Best samples come from cool to cold climates: in Germany (from the Mosel, Rheingau & Pfalz). Though Riesling is planted all over this country, appellations on the north will produce lighter and higher in acidity wines than those in the South. Alsace in France produces some of the best driest samples from hilliest sites around the Haut Rhin, where most of the Grand Crus are located. In Austria, best samples come from Wachau with its granite, gneiss or mica soils. South Styria and Vienna produce savory samples too. Since most New World locations are just too warm for Riesling, is hard to find good spots...However, some good samples come from Australia’s Clare and Eden Valleys (known to be the cool spots in a country that is super warm), the Finger Lakes in NY, Ontario Canada (known for its superb Eisweins) and the cooler spots in CA: Carneros, Russian River, Monterrey, Santa Barbara, produce wines that tend to be fuller than any other Rieslings.
Because Riesling grows in marginal climates it will demand the best sun orientation and vineyard expositions. In Germany, Austria, and Alsace you will find Riesling planted around rivers and in some of the steepest/hilliest vineyards in the world.
Stylistically, besides having a light body, mostly because of its low alcohol, Riesling has an edgy acidity, precision and purity of flavor. In cool climates, it will show flavors of flowers, peaches, green apple and citrus. In moderate climates it will show apricot, baked apple and pineapple flavors. With age: petrol kerosene, honey. Dried apricots, caramel and quince will also be present in wines affected by noble rot (Botrytis Cinerea).
Because of Riesling’s high extract and aromatics, most winemakers choose to ferment it in neutral containers, meaning, stainless steel or old wooden barrels that won’t impart any oak flavor to the wine. Most producers choose not to blend Riesling with other varieties, it is after all, a grape that can stand on its own. Having said that, in Alsace, sometimes it is blended with Pinot Blanc, Muscat or Gewurztraminer to provide them with acidity.
The high acidity of this wine will allow it to age for many years. (top sweet wines can last 30 + years from vintage but most dry wines can age from 4-8 years.
Rieslings can be dry or sweet, there are different levels of sweetness in Germany and Austria: Spatlese (off dry), Auslese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA) and Eiswein (sweet/ dessert styles). Samples from Germany usually have less alcohol and body than those coming from Australia and Alsace.
Recommended Riesling Producers:
Alsace: Hugel, Trimbach, Zind Humbrecht, Weimbach, Kuentz-Bas, Osterta, Josmeyer.
Germany: JJ Prum, Egon Muller, Dr Loosen, Basserman Jordan, J Leitz, Gunderloch, Selbach Oster, Peter Lauer,Nik Weis St Urbans Hof, Stein.
Austria: Rudi Pichler,Franz Prager, Brundlmayer, Loimer, Rainer Wess, Karl Fritsch, Josef Fischer, Josef Schmid.
Australia:Henschke,Petaluma, Tim Adams.