Few white wines can summersault as deliciously between dry and the fruitier styles as Riesling has mastered. Of all white wines, Riesling (pronounced “reece-ling”) is probably the most misunderstood. Many believe it is high on sweetness and low in flavour. The reality is the contrary. In its native Germany, Riesling is an uber-chic cool German varietal that can comfortably deliver the full range of white wine styles from still to sparkling and from chalk-dry to luscious-sweet.
By the end of Queen Victoria’s reign, Germany’s noble Rieslings were the most exclusive white wines in the world, fetching prices higher than Burgundy’s best and Champagne’s chicest brands.
Their fantastic reputation was undermined by two World Wars and Germany’s global success with an alternative cheap and cheerful fruity and sweetish white wine containing precious little if any Riesling, Liebfraumilch (literally means virgin’s milk) to wean us off beer and soft drinks. For many of us in the seventies, it was our first stepping-stone into the river of wine.
What Riesling actually delivers is a wine that is noticeably dry with pure citrus fruit and it is never aged in new oak. Its mouth-watering lemony acidity makes Riesling one of the most versatile food wines with creamy or buttery dishes and particularly good with fragrant Chinese and chili-hot Asian dishes. However, best served fridge cool rather than chilled.
Alcohol levels are usually a moderate 11%-12.5%, attracting growing interest while making Riesling a refreshing dining and party wine.
In the coolest parts of Germany’s northern wine regions, the Mosel produces the most delicate and feminine ballerina style of lean Riesling from the steep slate terraced vineyards.
By contrast, the sheltered and sunny south facing vineyards in the Rheingau region are distinctly minerally, masculine and as sinewy as a gymnast. Rheingau Rieslings are also amongst the slowest German Rieslings to mature and most age worthy. This is the region from where Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert came. Not surprisingly, during Victoria’s reign, German Riesling was the wine of choice served at British embassies throughout the empire which helped promote its popularity globally.
Rheingau’s town of Hockheim, decades later gave the British the abbreviated and generic term for German wines, Hock.
Whereas the Pfalz, near Alsace is one of the most experimental regions with innovative and imaginative approaches to making wine.
As one of France’s most northern wine regions, Alsace is bordered to the east by Germany with the River Rhine and at the west by the highly influential rain-blocking Vosges Mountains, ensuring Alsace enjoys one of the sunniest and driest climates in all of France. Not surprisingly, Alsace wines have been strongly influenced by both cultures. Alsace is the only wine region in France where Riesling is permitted for quality wine status.
The wines outwardly appear Germanic with their elegant flute-shaped bottles and labels with Germanic family names. However, the style of the wine in the bottle is typically French. Flirtatiously food-flattering, the French connection means most Rieslings are made in a dry style. Riesling is the king of all Alsace’s grape varieties – aristocratic and improving greatly with age into a deeper and more intense silky textured character. Its naturally high acidity and light to medium alcohol and body makes it perfect with pork and sausage dishes, onion tart and any rich or creamy buttery dishes.
NEW WORLD RIESLING
South of the Equator, the New World countries’ cooler coastal or high altitude regions have championed the drier style of Riesling, delivering an unadorned purity of fruit, notably green apple and lime. While wines hovering about 10% alcohol enjoy a little natural sweetness to off-set Riesling’s ultra or austere dryness. This is achieved by not fermenting all the grapes’ juice to dryness. The cooler Riesling-friendly regions are South Australia’s Eden Valley and Clare Valley, New Zealand, South Africa’s Elgin and Chile’s Casablanca in particular.
Riesling is more of a marathon runner than a sprinter. It is very slow to ripen on the vine. This longer hang-time allows the vine to extract more minerals and trace elements from the soil to enhance the grapes with more aromatics and flavours. It is Riesling’s remarkable stamina to continuously improve with age, preserved by its naturally high levels of citrus fruit acidity that gives it the immortal element. At its best, that vital acidity can run through the wine like a low voltage electric current, tingling and stimulating the taste buds.
When fully mature, Riesling develops a unique bouquet derived naturally from an impact compound, TDN (Trimethyl Dihydronapthalene) – an intriguing aroma of exotic petrol-like scents and always retaining its citrus fresh and crisp lemon and lime character with occasionally a salty minerality.
Mount Crawford Riesling 2016, Thorn-Clarke
Eden Valley, South Australia – 11% ABV
€16.99 by J&C Kenny at No. 21 Off-licence Group (Listowel, Ballincollig, Blarney, Charleville, Carrick-on-Suir, The Glen Waterford, Middleton, Ballinacurra and Coburg Street, Cork); Cappagh Stores, Knocknacarra, Galway and in Dublin: The Hole in the Wall, Blackhorse Avenue
Invigorating herbal aromas of spearmint. Concentrated palate of glacial purity with pithy citrus fruits with well-balanced acidity and a pithy finish.
Food friend: with fishcakes, lemongrass and coriander.
Les Eléments Riesling 2015, Domaine Bott Geyl
Alsace, France – 13.5% ABV
€21.50 at jnwine.com, Terroirs, Donnybrook and Whelehan’s Wines, Loughlinstown
Complex aromas with mineral, floral and talcum powder notes. Equally complex on the palate with juicy fruit gums and integrated acidity.
Food friend: enjoy with a smoked salmon salad with grapefruit segments in a lemony mayonnaise.
Riesling 2014, Lawson’s Dry Hills
Marlborough, New Zealand – 12.5% ABV
€20.50 at McCambridge’s, Galway; Lilac Wines, Drumcondra and winesonline.ie.
£13.00 in Northern Ireland at McSwiggan’s, Maherafelt and The Wine Company, Omagh Road, Belfast.
Simple scents but intense flavours of pure lemon and just a touch of sweetness to enhance the zestiness.
Food friend: perfect with fiery samosas stuffed with chickpea, lentils and chilies.
Bird Label Riesling 2013, Lingenfelder
Pfalz region, Germany – 11.5% ABV
€12.95 down from €14.95 for the month of May at O’Brien’s stores nationwide and online at wine.ie
Rich bouquet of oil and lanolin. Dry with tangy acidity. Light-bodied and dressed in lemon zest.
Food friend: Try with pork chops braised in dry cider with onions.
Terroir d’Alsace Riesling 2013, Domaine Zind Humbrecht
Alsace, France – 12.5% ABV
€26.95 at jnwine.com and 64 Wine, Glenageary and Sweeney’s, Hart’s Corner, Glasnevin
From an iconic and biodynamic producer. Muted and neutral aromas in stark contrast with a palate drenched in zesty lemons that linger into a long finish.
Food friend: stir-fried prawn and pork with sugar snap peas and chillies.
Riesling 2007, Seifried
Nelson, New Zealand 12.5% ABV
€21 – €22 at select wine shops including La Touche, Greystones; Parting Glass, Enniskerry; Blackrock Cellars, Blackrock and Redmond’s, Ranelagh
A deep lemon colour indicates its decade’s age. Oily and complex bouquet and texture of a mature Riesling. Very well balanced acidity interwoven over time into the structure seamlessly.
Food friend: pan fry skate wings in butter with capers.
Cordon Cut Riesling 2015, Mount Horrocks
Clare Valley, S. Australia – 10.8% ABV (Organic)
€25.99 37.5cl in Dublin at Donnybrook Fair, The Corkscrew, Redmond’s, McHugh’s, Searson’s, Whelehan’s Wines, 64 Wine and Jus De Vine
Attractive oily scents, surprisingly mature in a wine so young. A light-bodied dessert wine with an intense palate and a great depth of sweet honeyed lemon curd richness beautifully counter-balanced by racy acidity.
Food friend: a tangy lemon tart or a crumbly blue cheese.
Liam Campbell is one of Ireland’s most experienced wine writers. His work has been featured in the pages of numerous publications, most recently as the Wine & Drinks Editor for The Irish Independent, as well as in Irish Homes, Easy Food and The Dubliner magazines.
Besides writing, his involvement in the world of wine goes deeper: he’s an approved WSET educator and holder of a WSET Diploma, Diploma in Craft Beer & Cider, and he has worked as judge in international wine competitions and as a wine consultant.LiamDrinksWines