On wine: Riesling a racy, floral white worthy of respect
Riesling is the Rodney Dangerfield of white wine. Except for a few notable wines from regions like Germany, Alsace and Australia, riesling doesn‘t get any respect. Yet, riesling is held in higher esteem by many wine experts to be the world’s greatest white wine grape, above even chardonnay, the world’s most popular white wine.
So why does riesling struggle for sales in wine shops and on American dining tables? The reason may be that, for years, American wine drinkers were talking dry but drinking sweet. The answer, though, is more complex.
First a little background. Compared to chardonnay, the world geography of riesling is limited. Germany is the ancestral home of riesling. and today it is the country’s most important wine grape. To the west, across the Rhine River in France, the region of Alsace is also known for riesling. Elsewhere in Europe, riesling is firmly rooted in Austria, Northern Italy, Slovenia and Serbia. In Alsace, Germany, and maybe Italy, chardonnay is not a major white grape.
Riesling is as important in Alsace as it is in Germany, although the styles are distinctly different. Historically, style has been the great decider between German riesling and Alsace riesling. Germany mainly makes off-dry to sweet riesling, while Alsace is known more for a drier style. That generalization, of course, has exceptions with German trocken (dry) rieslings at one end of the range and sweet auslesen wines at the opposite end. And while dry riesling is traditional in Alsace, there are also sweeter Vendange Tardive (late harvest) rieslings.
Another reason is that the world of grape names can get very confusing, with local growers over the years giving names to grapes that made sense to them, but are often not relevant today. In the hilly northern Italian vineyards of Alto Adige and Fruili, the true German riesling is called riesling renano, while in Austria the grape is often called weisser riesling (white riesling) to distinguish it from schwarzriesling (black riesling), the German name for pinot meunier, a French black grape which is not related in any way to riesling.
In the early years of the 20th century, California wineries traded off riesling’s German homeland by using such terms as Johannisberg Riesling and Rhine Riesling. Fortunately, commonsense prevailed in the United States with riesling being labeled simply as riesling, and occasionally in California, white riesling. Riesling plantings in California have been as low as 300 acres in 1960 and over the years, the number has gone up and down, finally settling today at about 10,000 acres statewide.
It took a handful of dedicated U. S. riesling growers and winemakers to discover that the keys to flavor ripeness while retaining the grape’s natural acidity were marine influence and vineyard elevation. In the Napa Valley, reliable riesling continues to come from Stony Hill and Smith-Madrone, both in Napa’s western hills and Trefethen, in the cooler southern end of the valley. loser to the ocean in Mendocino’s Anderson Valley, Greenwood Ridge, Handley and Navarro are known for riesling. Elsewhere in the state, cooler sites in Monterey and Santa Barbara county have established a solid reputation for riesling.
Any mention of riesling in western North America must, of course, include Oregon and especially Washington where interest in riesling has been championed by Chateau Ste. Michelle and its collaboration with Ernest Loosen, the noted riesling winemaker from Germany’s Mosel region.
In the Southern Hemisphere, Australia’s Eden and Clare Valleys, along with smaller plantings in Tasmania and the Great Southern at the cool remote end of Western Australia, boast rieslings with an international reputation. In comparison, plantings of riesling in New Zealand are small, with Marlborough the most notable. Pewsey Vale, in the Eden Valley produces some of Australia’s best riesling, while in the Central Otago region of New Zealand, Felton Road continues to turn out racy riesling with citrus and mineral notes.
A third reason why sales of riesling have struggled in this country is the traditional belief that the grape needs cool climate and soils to thrive and produce proper flavor ripeness. Germany and Alsace, both the northern-most wine regions in Europe, are cool and temperate, while California soils and climate tend to be warmer. Riesling is a winter-hardy variety, a plus for German riesling growers but not really a concern in California where winters are milder.
In recent years, California growers and winemakers alike have challenged the belief that riesling needs a cool climate. Although global climate is changing, Germany, Alsace, parts of Australia, Washington and Oregon and California’s marine-influenced regions remain relatively cool. A dramatic shift in world weather may ultimately force a major change on where riesling (as well as other wine grapes) grows best.
No matter where it is grown, except for warm to hot climates, riesling has a natural racy acidity and an inviting floral aroma, sometimes described as jasmine and citrus blossoms. Riesling can also deliver a spicy aroma and flavor related to sweet spices like cinnamon and cloves. A disadvantage, if it can be called that, is that riesling’s bouquet only develops after a few years in the bottle, a drawback for those consumers who are not into cellaring their wines. But riesling, as a finished wine, does not tend toward higher alcohols and can be delightful and full-flavored at 9 to 10% alcohol, compared to chardonnay, or even some sauvignon blancs, that come in at 13% to 14% alcohol.
Some of my favorite California rieslings, priced from $15 to the low $20s, include Firestone (Santa Ynez Valley), Trefethen, Stony Hill and Smith-Madrone (Napa Valley), Claiborne & Churchill (Central Coast) and Navarro, Handley and Greenwood Ridge, (all from Mendocino’s Anderson Valley.)
German and Alsace Rieslings are mostly in the high $20s, although Alsace producer Trimbach offers a delightful dry riesling for under $20. Slightly sweeter is the Joh. Jos. Prumm German Riesling Kabinett at $27. Pewsey Vale, in Australia’s Eden Valley, has a crisp aromatic riesling for $15 and Felton Road, in the Bannockburn section of New Zealand’s Central Otago, makes one of the best Kiwi Rieslings priced at $27.
Gerald D. Boyd is a Santa Rosa-based wine and spirits writer.