To follow up on my blogs about Pinot Noir and Merlot, here’s another International Wine Day – this time the spotlight is on Riesling.
March 13th is International Riesling Day so let’s look at a brief profile of the birthday grape.
You say to-mar-to, I say to-may-to ….
First of all, let’s get the pronunciation right. Riesling is pronounced Ree-sling, not Rye-sling! I know some would argue that it doesn’t matter how it’s pronounced as long as people know what you’re talking about, but when it comes to Riesling, I’m a bit of a pedant.
Why the 13th March?
Why indeed. You may think the dates for these International Wine Days are just plucked out of thin air – some probably are if truth be told – but with Riesling, there’s a very good explanation.
The first written evidence of the Riesling grape is dated 13th March 1435. A document found in a cellar in the city of Rüsselsheim in Germany invoices Count John IV of Katzenelnbogen for six vines of Riesslingen planted in the vineyard of a local winery. (‘Riesslingen’ was a common spelling of Riesling at the time.)
Who am I?
Recent DNA testing shows that one of Riesling’s parents is Gouais Blanc, which is also parent of Chardonnay, Gamay Noir, Colombard, Firmint, and Blaufränkisch?
Riesling – a.k.a….
The name Riesling is pretty much recognised worldwide – but there are more than 150 aliases: for example, head to Switzerland and you will find it called Johannisberg; in Czechia, Starovetski or Lipka; in Slovenia, Renski Rizling; in Alsace, Raisin du Rhin – to name just a few.
And some grapes which include the name Riesling, aren’t Riesling at all. The most notable is Welschriesling.
Cold or hot?
Riesling is suited to cooler climates for a couple of reasons: first, it has thicker bark than many other varieties so it can withstand damage in the winter; second, it buds late, avoiding spring frosts.
You’ll find it in Germany, (its homeland), France, Austria, much of Eastern Europe, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the USA, and Canada, and a few more besides.
Despite it finding a home all around the world, the total global acreage is relatively modest – about 120,000 acres in all: compare that to the most widely planted white grape variety, Chardonnay, which is much more widespread with about 518,900 acres worldwide.
Riesling is sweet, right?
Right – and wrong.
Riesling can indeed be made into sweet wine, but it can also be some of the driest. It can be made into wines that can undergo long ageing, whilst other wines can be drunk immediately. As well as table wine, Riesling can also be made into sparkling wine. In other words, Riesling has a huge repertoire and is very versatile.
The sweetness or dryness, and flavour of Riesling can vary depending on where it’s grown. The location of the vineyard, its soil and nutrients, as well as the climate can have an effect. So, too, do the timing of harvesting and production methods.
Can I really smell petrol?!
Yes, you can! Older and high-quality Rieslings do have an aroma of petrol, which can be a bit off-putting. But hang on in there – taste it before you dismiss it.
You’re more likely to get a hit of fruit and flowers. The type of fruity flavours you find will very much depend on the level of ripeness of the grapes when they were harvested. Just-ripe berries will result in green fruit flavours, like apple and pear, along with touches of citrus. Riper grapes produce more mellow fruit flavours – peach and apricot, with hints of mango and pineapple. You may also find flowery aromas, like rose blossom.
One thing is certain, Riesling is a very aromatic grape – a quality that winemakers want to safeguard. Riesling is usually fermented in inert containers, such as stainless-steel vats, to preserve all the aromas and flavours. You will rarely find Riesling undergoing malolactic fermentation (where the tart malic acid in the grapes is converted into creamy lactic acid) or ageing in oak, like Chardonnay, for example.
Due to its high natural acidity, the finest Rieslings age very well in the bottle – this is when those petrol aromas develop alongside complex flavours of honey and dried fruit.
Because of Riesling’s high natural acidity, it is extremely well-suited to pair with a range of food.
Here’s a very quick run-down of suggestions of what type of Riesling to serve with what type of dish.
Dry Riesling – try it with fish, shellfish, onion tart (the traditional accompaniment to Riesling from Alsace) and other vegetable dishes. It’s also brilliant with chicken and duck.
Off-dry Riesling – this and spicy Chinese and Thai dishes is a ‘match made in heaven’. Also try an off-dry Riesling with salty food, or, in contrast, with dishes that have sweet accompaniments like turkey with cranberry sauce. And if you’ve ever struggled with finding a wine to go with pork or ham, look no further – an off-dry Riesling is the answer.
Sweet Riesling – just about anything sweet! Fruit-based desserts are a winner but avoid chocolatey desserts: the inherent richness of the chocolate jars with the sweetness of the wine.
Riesling seems to elicit one of two reactions – you either love it or hate it, a bit like Marmite. I love it in all its guises. One of the best I have tasted recently is the rare ‘The Ahrens Family Bendewijn Riesling’ from South Africa – superb. You can try it too – it’s available from The Wine Shed (https://www.thewine-shed.com/product/the-ahrens-family-bendewijn-riesling-2016/)
I’m going to finish with a quotation from Jancis Robinson, the doyenne of wine: ‘I think Riesling is indisputably the greatest white wine grape in the world but many people think I am mad.’
I’m inclined to agree with her – but then those who know me, know I’m a little bit crazy anyway!