The Incredible Lightness of Riesling
An ancient and noble white grape edges back into the spotlight
If you seek fresh, distinctive, food-friendly white wines, now is the time to discover what chefs, sommeliers and a few aficionados have enjoyed for years—the pleasure of Riesling.
Riesling is on the rise, with imports up and domestic production increasing. Growers and winemakers around the world are dedicated to pursuing the best quality from vine to wine. And there has been a string of very good to outstanding vintages in the European regions home to Riesling.
I consider Riesling the world's greatest white wine grape. And I am not alone, although it has been some time since Riesling's heyday; at the end of the 19th century, German Riesling enjoyed a reputation and garnered prices on par with those of Bordeaux first-growths and Burgundy grands crus.
Wild grapevines grew in the Rhine Valley, but it was the Romans who first cultivated Vitis vinifera in Germany, where Trier in the Mosel Valley was an important Roman frontier town. Were these grapes Riesling? No one knows. The earliest extant documentation of Riesling dates from 1435, near the Rheingau. Riesling flourished in the Middle Ages under the direction of Benedictine and Carthusian monks and noble families.
Today, the grape exhibits new and exciting styles, thanks to a cadre of conscientious growers around the world. The wines age beautifully and match exceptionally well with food. They also offer excellent value when compared with the top bottlings of the world's other great white wine grape, Chardonnay.
Three major attributes contribute to Riesling's quality and pedigree. First, Riesling shines with pure, primary fruit flavors. It is complex yet delicate, with lime, grapefruit and other citrus fruits and floral tones, shading to apple, peach and pear, even apricot in riper styles, always balanced by vibrant acidity. It's a character that adapts easily to a broad range of styles; with wines ranging from bone-dry to extremely sweet. But this purity and clarity of flavor does not match well with new oak; when Riesling is fermented and aged in oak, large, old casks are almost always what is used (another point of contrast with Chardonnay).
Secondly, Riesling's transparency allows it to transmit terroir. When harvested at low yields and made in a noninterventionist way, Riesling excels in offering a distinctive sense of place, capturing mineral elements from the soils where it is grown.
Finally, Riesling is capable of aging. After its initial youthful flush of primary fruit flavors, it takes on more burnished, honeyed tones, sometimes smoky, with dried fruit, candied citrus and marmalade notes accented by mineral and lanolin or beeswax tones. When fully mature, Riesling often evokes a walk through an antique-furniture shop with its polished wood aromas. It is not uncommon for a top-quality Riesling to age 25 to 50 years. Some dessert-style versions have aged for a century or more.
Riesling makes its home in many countries and regions around the world. It has many names: Johannisberg Riesling or White Riesling (United States), Rhine Riesling (Australia) and Riesling Renano (Italy). It should not, however, be confused with Welchriesling, an unrelated variety from Austria, and Welchriesling synonyms Riesling Italico (Italy) and Laski Rizling (Slovenia).
Germany, with more than 50,000 acres, is the largest producer of Riesling. Australia, Alsace and Austria represent three distinct styles of Riesling, mostly dry. Domestically, Washington state is the most important player, but plantings of Riesling also exist in California and New York state (most notably in the Finger Lakes region). Riesling is also cultivated in Canada, Chile, Italy's Alto Adige region, parts of Eastern Europe, New Zealand and South Africa.
The focus in this story is on dry and off-dry styles. Late-harvested Riesling makes intensely sweet, concentrated dessert wines whose ample residual sugar helps preserve them for decades. Germany, Alsace and Austria specialize in these styles, although other regions also make these luscious whites. Made in limited quantities, they are often priced in excess of $100 for a 375ml bottle (see "Riesling's Sweet Secrets," page 77).
Throughout the 1960s and '70s, while most of the public downed quantities of innocuous German Liebfraumilch, sales of estate-grown and single-vineyard Riesling languished. Alsace and Germany were the major sources; many of the New World vineyards were in their infancy. Even in the 1980s and '90s, top-quality Riesling was an insider's secret.
Since 1988, the northern regions of Europe where Riesling thrives have witnessed a string of high quality vintages, with few difficult years. Germany in particular saw one successful harvest after another, culminating in the superb 2001 vintage (98 points on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale).
Taking advantage of these fine vintages, growers around the world improved quality through more conscientious vineyard management, lower yields, an emphasis on full grape maturity, stricter selection of the most desirable fruit, and attention to detail in the cellars. Many estates now work their vineyards according to organic principles or practice biodynamic viticulture.
The key to Riesling is its balance between ripeness and acidity. It is a late-ripening variety, yet achieves flavor complexity at lower sugar levels than other grape varieties. Thus it can be grown in regions that are too cool for most wine grapes. In the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer region of Germany, for example, the grape is at its limits of cultivation. There, on the steep, winding slopes above the Mosel River, Riesling exhibits a light-weight delicacy, with any sweetness balanced by tangy acidity. In warmer climates, Riesling shows greater breadth and body.
Traditionally, Riesling was fermented in larger, neutral oak barrels. Today, winemakers, especially those crafting wines for early consumption, also ferment Riesling in stainless steel, which retains the crispness and primary fruit aromas and flavors that are the hallmarks of the variety. When fermented in oak, Riesling's fresh fruitiness tends to be replaced with greater aromatic complexity, roundness and depth; these are wines meant for aging.
Chefs and particularly sommeliers have embraced Riesling in the past 10 years. Across the country, top restaurants now offer extensive selections of Riesling. For example, Aureole in Las Vegas, which holds a Wine Spectator Grand Award for its wine list, built its reputation on Riesling and counts some 400 labels among its selections.
At Charlie Trotter's, a Grand Award winner in Chicago, chef Trotter and his chef de cuisine, Matthias Merges, are very pro-Riesling, according to head sommelier Linda Violago. "Riesling is such a food-friendly varietal," she says. "There are many different styles. It brings versatility to the table more than any other wine."
Riesling's purity, fresh fruit, mouthwatering acidity and lack of new oak flavors make it a great match for many cuisines. Seafood, shellfish, salads, light meats and regional specialties like choucroute garni from Alsace and wiener schnitzel from Austria are all enlivened by the right Riesling. The lighter-bodied kabinette and spätlesen from Germany pair well with spicy foods from Asia and the Caribbean.
Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who hails from Alsace, owns three restaurants in New York influenced by Asian cuisine. Vongerichten's corporate beverage director, Bernard Sun, draws on Riesling's versatility when designing their wine lists. "At Restaurant Vong, we dedicated an entire page in the wine list to all the different styles of Rieslings," Sun says, "and it really works very well for us."
Riesling remains a niche market in the United States. Think of it as a grassroots movement that is slowly building a solid support base. Even with an estimated 1 million cases reaching U.S. wine shops and restaurants in 2005, Riesling's presence pales when you consider that Australia's Yellow Tail alone sends some 4.5 million cases of wine to America each year.
Yet its presence is growing. In 2005, Australia exported 106,500 cases of Riesling to the United States, an increase of more than 1,000 percent since 2001. Neither Germany nor Austria tracks exports by varietal, but one major importer, Brent Wiest of Rudi Wiest Selections, estimates his shipments of estate Riesling have increased from 10,000 cases in 1995 to 60,000 cases this year. As a general barometer, Impact Databank figures show sales of leading brands of Riesling in supermarkets increasing from 263,000 cases in the 52 weeks ending in January 2000 to 485,000 cases for the year ending December 2003, an increase of 84 percent.
Just as Riesling produces a wide range of wine styles, so, too, do prices vary widely. At the entry level, you can find very good quality estate-blended Riesling from Germany for $10 to $12. Alsace offers versions in the same price range, from both estate and purchased grapes. New World Rieslings deliver very good value, ranging from $7 at the entry level to $30 for top vineyard-designated bottlings.
Estate-grown versions with higher ripeness levels, such as Smaragd from Austria, single vineyard bottlings from Alsace and German kabinette and spätlesen cost $20 to $60. The top cuvées from the best producers reach $80 to $100. Beyond this come the rare bottlings from extremely late harvests, which can sell for as much as $750 a half-bottle!
The Classic Regions
Germany is the classic home of Riesling and by far the world's largest producer, though the variety accounts for only 20 percent of the country's total vineyard area. The first known record of Riesling in Germany dates from 1435; late-harvest styles are documented as early as 1725.
Today, thanks to technology that allows for temperature control and filtration, Germany's wine styles run the gamut from dry and full-bodied, to light-bodied and off-dry, to rich and sweet.
This broad range of styles is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, it gives growers in cool, marginal areas the flexibility to harvest grapes at various levels of ripeness and make them into dry, off-dry or sweet wines, as appropriate. But too much choice can be confusing, resulting in no clear, distinct profile. Furthermore, as new generations of wine drinkers emerge, one style of Riesling becomes fashionable, while another loses luster.
There is much discussion in Germany about how to best label and market the country's Rieslings. At the heart of it lies the failure of the 1971 German Wine Law, which evaluated quality on ripeness alone, with no regard to vineyard or grape variety. A current movement, begun in the 1980s, to classify vineyards addresses this glaring oversight. Yet there is controversy about which style to focus on—dry (labeled trocken) or off-dry, such as kabinett, spätlese and auslese. Despite a current trend in Germany favoring dry Riesling, these wines have been slow to catch on in the United States and elsewhere.
German vineyards are small, with multiple owners, much as in Burgundy. Also like Burgundy, Germany has thousands of individual vineyard names that may appear on labels. Some are widely recognized as top-quality sites, yet there is no indication of this on the label. The classification movement is a step in the right direction to rectify this situation. To simplify labeling, most estates prefer to make an estate Riesling blended from several sites (without any vineyard name) and to bottle only their top sites as single-vineyard wines. I recommend looking for estates with solid track records, then exploring their roster of wines, from the estate Riesling to the distinctive bottlings from individual vineyards.
Germany's best Rieslings come from five regions that produce wines of differing styles.
The Mosel-Saar-Ruwer region offers the classic off-dry style, with lightweight wines featuring floral, orchard fruit and citrus flavors accented by mineral. The slight sweetness is balanced by vibrant acidity. These are the contemporary models of German Riesling and are easily recognized by their elegant green bottles. Germany's regions along the Rhine typically use brown bottles.
According to Ernst Loosen, a grower who owns estates both in the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer and Pfalz regions and works together with Chateau Ste.-Michelle to make Riesling in Washington state, the grape likes poor, stony soils. This is evidenced in the slate soils of the Mosel, which warm up quickly and retain heat through the night. "The poorer the soil, the better for Riesling," Loosen states. "Soils like slate, basalt and quartzite that you find in the Mosel, Pfalz and Wachau [region of Austria]. There you have the most expression [of Riesling]. On richer farmland, you see less expression of mineral and more flabby wines."
Nahe Rieslings are similar in weight to those from the Mosel, but aromatically different due to the region's complex soils, especially those of volcanic origin.
In the Rheingau, the smallest of Germany's major wine regions, Riesling occupies more than 75 percent of the vineyard area. There, the Rhine flows east to west, giving the vineyards a southern exposure. The soils are deeper close to the river, with more stony, slate soils as the elevation increases away from the river. Rieslings grown in the heavier, riverfront sites possess more body. Rheingau offers the traditional model of German Riesling. Its versions show more austerity and firm structure, particularly the dry styles. In the warmer, eastern end around Hochheim, there is more clay and loam, with a little chalk. The western end, around Rüdesheim, is very steep, with well-drained, stony soils.
Riesling's trait of ripening late is an advantage for Johannes Leitz, who cultivates 64 acres at Weingut Leitz near the Rheingau town of Rüdesheim. Most German growers harvest selectively between mid-October and mid- to late November. "Riesling keeps developing very late and can take advantage of good weather late in the season," Leitz says.
The provenance of the vines is also important. Leitz has some vines 80 years old and some planted in the 1950s that his father and grandfather selected and grafted. Most of his vines are 25 to 30 years old.
"There were some bad clones available in the '80s and '90s because they were high-yielding," says Leitz. Still, he feels vine age is more important than clonal material. The advantages of old vines are their deep root systems, lower yields, and small berries with thick skins.
Riesling has a tendency to be vigorous, so conscientious growers manage their vines to keep yields low. According to Leitz, the German average is about 7 tons per acre. He averages 3 tons per acre, with slightly more from the flatter sites and less from his vineyards on the steep slopes.
The Rheinhessen is Germany's largest wine region, yet only 10 percent of its vineyard area is planted to Riesling. The best area is the steep Rhine Terrace adjacent to the river, where the red slate soils imbue the wines made from Riesling grown there with distinctive pineapple, passion fruit, apricot and mineral notes. Yet there are excellent sites elsewhere, like Westhofen, where Philipp Wittmann's family makes distinctive dry Rieslings.
For the dry wines, Wittmann harvests late and ferments in neutral oak casks. The off-dry, fruity-style Rieslings are harvested earlier, to ensure higher acidity and greater finesse. There is no skin contact for these wines and they are typically fermented in stainless steel and bottled early, three months after the fermentation.
The warmer, drier Pfalz region is the source of Germany's best dry Rieslings, while the off-dry styles are plump, with grapefruit and spice flavors.
Alsace, located in northeastern France, is the only region in that country where Riesling is officially planted. The first documentation dates to 1348, under the name "Russchinge," according to Maurice Barthelmé, co-owner and grower of Domaine Albert Mann. However, as in Germany's Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, vines were cultivated in Alsace as early as the first century by the Romans.
Alsace enjoys a continental climate, dry and warm in the summer. The Vosges Mountains, old and forested, stretch the length of Alsace and are about 40 miles wide. This barrier enhances the continental effect and gives Alsace an average annual rainfall of 15 inches to 20 inches per year, or roughly half that of the Mosel region in Germany.
Autumn in Alsace, where the best vintages enjoy fine weather into November, plays well to Riesling's late-ripening profile. "Riesling particularly likes the thermal range in late autumn," says Barthelmé. "It can develop its aromas and keep the acidity that provides its backbone."
With its ability to transmit terroir, Riesling expresses the complex geology of Alsace better than any of the other eight grape varieties grown in the region. From the granite, gneiss and schist in the Vosges range, to the limestone, marl and clay of the sub-Vosgian hills, to the gravel-strewn alluvial fans, Riesling excels. It's fascinating to contrast a Riesling from the granite Schlossberg grand cru vineyard with its counterpart from the limestone- and clay-based Furstentum grand cru, roughly 500 yards away. The former typically offers precocious, perfumed floral aromas and filigreed peach and mineral flavors; the latter is more severe in its youth, more firmly structured and powerful, with an austere mineral character.
To obtain the mineral character from the subsoil, Riesling must have deep roots. The best growers perform most of their vineyard tasks manually, and an increasing number cultivate their vineyards organically or by biodynamic principles.
Old vines and low yields are important in Alsace. Official yields have been decreased since the inception of the grands crus classification and now are limited to 55 hectoliters per hectare (about 3 tons per acre), with an additional 10 percent allowed in prolific years. The top estates typically harvest half to two-thirds of the maximum from their grands crus sites for dry-style Riesling.
Residual sugar in the "dry-style" Rieslings is a major issue in Alsace today. There has been a trend in Alsace toward lower yields and later harvests, to ensure that the grapes are physiologically mature. Combined with a general climatic shift to warmer weather, this results in high sugar levels in the grapes.
Unlike Germany and Austria, which officially define the amount of residual sugar (R.S.) permitted in dry wines, Alsace does not. Thus, wines that carry identical label designations may vary from bone-dry to noticeably sweet, containing as much as 3 percent (30 grams per liter) residual sugar.
Trimbach is a staunch proponent of the dry style. Its Rieslings typically contain less than 5 grams R.S. per liter. "Too many growers and winemakers in Alsace tell you that their wines are rich and big when they are only sweet," says Jean Trimbach. "They tend to confuse residual sugar with ripeness and dry extract [the total nonvolatile solids in a wine]."
At Domaine Zind-Humbrecht, Olivier Humbrecht is a noninterventionist in the cellar, and the R.S. levels vary from vintage to vintage. In 2000, the Riesling Grand Cru Turckheim Brand had 38 grams R.S. per liter due to Botrytis cinerea (a desirable fungus that concentrates grape sugars). In contrast, the 2001 Riesling Grand Cru Brand had only 6 grams R.S. per liter. Humbrecht, however, indicates to consumers the level of sweetness in his wines with an index of 1 through 5 noted on the label.
The debate about R.S. in Alsace has led to proposed new European Union regulations: Rieslings exceeding 9 grams R.S. per liter and with less than 6.5 grams acidity (measured in tartaric) per liter would state "Doux," "Vin Doux," "Moelleux" or "Vin Moelleux" on the label.
There is no one distinct style of Alsace Riesling. Residual sweetness is one issue. Riesling's ability to transmit the diversity of the complex sites in Alsace is another. Winery "house" styles vary, too. On the dry side of the equation are Trimbach, Léon Beyer and Josmeyer. Domaines Albert Mann, Paul Blanck, Hugel and Weinbach occupy the middle ground, while Marcel Deiss and Zind-Humbrecht tend to make the richest styles.
One theory suggests that Austria's Wachau region is the location of the earliest Riesling vineyard in Europe. And while the grape accounts for only 3 percent of the total acreage under vine in Austria (compared with 37 percent for the indigenous Grüner Veltliner), it makes some of the country's best whites.
Austria's top Rieslings come from the Wachau, Kremstal and Kamptal regions of Lower Austria. Wachau is the smallest; Kamptal the largest and most open in its landscape. All three share a continental climate, hills and forests to the north and the moderating influence of the Danube River. This influence (greatest at the western end of the Wachau, where the river valley is narrowest) creates a high diurnal temperature swing in the autumn. The late-ripening Riesling is genetically designed to take advantage of these climatic conditions.
Among the three, Wachau Rieslings are leaner, more elegant and penetrating and, in my opinion, the best. Kamptal Rieslings are the most opulent, yet still express a mineral character. Those from the Kremstal fall somewhere in between.
The tiny Wachau lies the farthest west, at the limits of cultivation due to its climate (Austria gets cooler moving from its eastern to western boundaries). The Riesling vineyards are situated on some of the oldest rock formations in Austria, a combination of granite, gneiss and slate. Terraced vineyards are painstakingly maintained on the hillsides. The grape thrives there, making wines of precision, with mineral flavors. "Where we have loamy spots on the mountain, we plant Grüner Veltliner, because these spots suit the style of Grüner Veltliner better [than they do Riesling]," says Emmerich Knoll, grower and winemaker at Weingut Knoll in the Wachau.
The Wachau has its own quality designations. In ascending order of richness and ripeness at harvest, they are Steinfeder, Federspiel and Smaragd. Smaragd can be similar in weight and complexity to white Burgundy and is the style most widely available in the United States.
Kremstal is contiguous to the Wachau to the east, and roughly 50 percent larger in vineyard area, with the main vineyard area on terraces flanking the northern bank of the Danube River and behind the city of Krems. The soils on the terraces consist of granite, gneiss, quartz and schist. The Krems River, a tributary of the Danube, has some of the region's best vineyard sites on its adjacent hillsides. There the grapes ripen as many as three weeks later than those facing the Danube.
Farther east, Kamptal extends north and away from the Danube. Its ancient hills are split mainly by the river Kamp, but also by smaller streams. This is the largest and warmest of the three areas.
The top growers harvest from mid-October to mid-November, but it's not unusual for them to pick through November. Austrian winemakers ferment Riesling using a combination of stainless steel and oak. The fresh, fruity wines destined for early consumption typically are fermented in tanks. The richer wines that benefit from age often begin their lives in wood, commonly large, older, neutral casks.
Knoll uses acacia and oak, in 1,000 liter to 4,500 liter volumes. "Our goal is to separate the different qualities and vineyards as much as possible, but it's not dogmatic," he states. "I wouldn't say Federspiel is always in steel and Smaragd always in wood."
Austrian Rieslings are dry unless otherwise noted on the label. They have a strong identity—their mineral component is very distinctive and lends the wines a firmness that offsets their weight. This is not surprising, given that almost all of the Riesling planted in Austria puts down roots in granite, gneiss, quartzite and slate soils.
Riesling made its way to Australia sometime in the mid-1800s, and today makes its principal home on that continent in the Barossa, Clare and Eden Valleys of South Australia.
The Barossa Valley was settled in the 1840s, and Riesling probably arrived there soon after. Jesuits planted Riesling in the Clare Valley in 1853, according to Jeffrey Grosset, proprietor and winemaker of Grosset Wines there. Stephen Henschke of C.A. Henschke & Co. estimates that German and English settlers planted Riesling in the Eden Valley in the 1860s.
What these areas have in common is a continental climate featuring warm days, cool nights and warm, dry summers. Though the Barossa Valley floor is too hot for Riesling, full-bodied, dry Rieslings are made successfully from grapes grown on its higher-elevation slopes.
Both the Clare and Eden Valleys are higher in altitude than Barossa, resulting in cooler microclimates. Grosset's Polish Hill and Watervale vineyards are the highest in their respective subregions, at 1,650 feet of elevation. Henschke's Eden Valley vineyards are at about the same elevation. Henschke credits Eden's higher altitude for the fact that Riesling ripens a week or two later there than it does in Barossa, resulting in more distinctive varietal flavors and higher acidities.
Soils in Grosset's Clare Valley vineyards range from red loam over limestone in Watervale to clay, slate and shale in Polish Hill. Both sites are well-drained. The clay in Watervale gives that bottling more generosity, with lime and citrus flavors. Eden Valley has less vigorous sand and schist soils. Like the Mosel slate, these are stony, heating up quickly in daytime and retaining that heat efficiently during the night.
To maximize freshness and varietal flavors, and to best reflect the character of specific sites, Grosset and Henschke eschew skin contact and use only free-run juice. The wines are fermented in stainless steel, never go through malolactic fermentation and are bottled three months later. Henschke notes that he adds acidity, judiciously, "only in warmer years."
Western Australia is emerging as another important area for Riesling, although its total of 785 acres is less than that of the Barossa, Clare and Eden Valleys individually.
Tom Cullity of Vasse Felix planted Riesling in Margaret River in the 1960s, but much of that has been replaced with Cabernet Sauvignon. Leeuwin Estate obtained Riesling cuttings from Vasse Felix and began planting Riesling in 1974. Today, Leeuwin farms 61 acres of Riesling, according to Tricia Horgan, who owns and manages Leeuwin with her husband, Denis Horgan.
Though Leeuwin has enjoyed success with its Riesling, the grape's future in Margaret River is uncertain. "I think the pure economics of the cost of plantable land in Margaret River now makes people either plant the higher-yielding Sémillon for blends, or varieties such as Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon where the retail prices are higher," says Tricia Horgan.
Australian Rieslings fit into either the lean, mineral style or the powerful, broad category. To my palate, their greater breadth puts them squarely in the New World. I also identify a lime flavor in the Clare Valley bottlings, a flavor Jeffrey Grosset describes in his wines. Australian Riesling sometimes shows a petrol note, which some European Riesling lovers may find undesirable. But like them or not, the Australian Rieslings have a strong identity.
Riesling is grown throughout the United States, with mixed results. With some exceptions, California's climate is too warm for the grape to develop its aromas and flavors in a dry-style wine. Riesling fares better in the cooler, more northerly climates of Washington state and the Finger Lakes region of New York state.
In Washington, most Riesling is planted in the eastern section, where it benefits from a continental climate, extremely dry, with hot days and cool nights. Bob Bertheau, head winemaker for Ste. Michelle, the state's largest producer, describes it as "an excellent climate for growing Riesling. The cooler, shorter lateseason days help preserve the acidity of the variety as well as keep the sugars from getting too high, while developing the slate-mineral characters we look for."
Although evidence suggests that Riesling was planted in Washington as early as 1871 in the Yakima Valley, the first commercially viable Riesling vineyard was the Hahn Hill Vineyard in the Yakima Valley, planted by American Wine Growers in 1965. In 1967, this company became Chateau Ste. Michelle, which planted Riesling in its Cold Creek Vineyard in 1972. With more than 500,000 cases of Riesling made from the 2004 vintage, Chateau Ste. Michelle is the largest Riesling producer in the United States and one of the largest globally.
Most of Washington's Riesling was planted during the mid- to late 1970s, before Chardonnay really took off; little acreage was added between 1985 and 2000. But according to Bertheau, a "Riesling renaissance" in the past three to four years has witnessed new plantings.
Ste. Michelle takes a New World approach to vineyard density and spacing, allowing for mechanization. With the exception of select-cluster harvesting of botrytis-affected grapes, which involves picking by hand, most Riesling is machine harvested at night, when it is cool. Yields here are significantly higher than on the slopes of the Mosel, Alsace or Austria. "We actually feel that these tonnages [5 to 7 tons per acre] are desirable for Riesling, allowing for longer ripening seasons, mineral and lime qualities and lower final sugars," says Bertheau.
Germany's Ernst Loosen, who works together with Bertheau on Ste. Michelle's Eroica project, explained that it's important to extend the hang time of the Riesling in Washington; the slower maturation process preserves acidity and prevents the grape skins from forming too many tannins, which lead to bitter flavors.
Because Bertheau aims for as little tannin as possible in the finished Rieslings, there is whole-cluster pressing and no skin contact. Stainless steel tanks are the choice for fermentation and, as with most Riesling, malolactic fermentation is avoided. "We want the pure Riesling flavors to be the star, and retaining all the natural acidity is critical for proper balance of the wines," he explains.
From a flavor standpoint, the Rieslings of Ste. Michelle and Eroica most reflect the German model. They are light- to medium-bodied, off-dry and fruity, full of peach notes and lively acidity.
New York's Finger Lakes region looks like it has finally settled on Riesling as its signature varietal, after years of struggling with Labrusca and hybrid grapes. The region's cold winters and warm summers are tempered by the deep glacial lakes that give the region its name and that put their stamp on the elegant wines that suggest Alsace when dry, Germany when off-dry.
Riesling vines cover about 500 acres around the Finger Lakes, on soils consisting of limestone and shale. Chardonnay is more widely planted, but based on blind tastings at Wine Spectator, Riesling is more important qualitatively. The top-scoring Finger Lakes wines are Rieslings, there made in dry, off-dry and dessert styles.
Hermann Wiemer arrived in the Finger Lakes from Bernkastel, Germany, in 1968. After working with hybrids at Bully Hill Winery, he planted his first vineyard to Riesling in 1973. Today, Wiemer farms 60 acres, 30 of which are devoted to Riesling. "Riesling made a lot of sense in the Finger Lakes," he explains. "After 1981, with the cold winter, it survived well and I saw it was the correct variety.
"In the beginning, we couldn't sell Riesling. Not until the last five years," Wiemer says. He calls the trend toward more vinifera plantings a "fantastic turnaround" in the region and foresees a bright future for Riesling in the area. "There's a shortage of Riesling right now. We [Wiemer] could sell 15,000 cases and we only make 7,000."
The Liebfraumilch fad notwithstanding, Riesling will never be a mainstream, workhorse grape. Nor is it malleable; Riesling, unlike Chardonnay, is unreceptive to manipulative winemaking techniques. Helmut Dönnhöff, a master of Riesling in the Nahe region of Germany once said, "Riesling is a variety for vineyard people, not cellar people."
Top-quality Riesling is made in the vineyard. It's sensitive to where it grows and lets you know that, turning dull and listless if planted in the wrong place. It requires nurturing, both in its environment, despite its cold-hardiness, and in the cellar. And it thrives on attention and introspection from those who drink it, revealing its nuances and depth in a subtle manner.
All this makes it unlikely that Riesling will regain the prominence it enjoyed in the late 1800s, when bottles of "Hock" rivaled first-growth Bordeaux, great Sauternes and grands crus Burgundies in reputation and price. Although the quality of Riesling from around the world may be better than ever, the world of wine is much more complex today. The classic European regions compete against New World regions for wine lovers' loyalties.
Nonetheless, Riesling deserves its strong reputation and should continue to grow in importance. It will find a new role in today's multifaceted wine world among contemporary consumers who are on the lookout for something delicious and a little different. And the wines will continue to delight their fans by offering a purity and transparency that elevates them beyond simple expressions of varietal character to evoke a strong sense of place.
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