The most undervalued white grape?
by Julian Hitner
Placed in the hands of even the most lacklustre of attorneys, a compelling court case could be made for convincing wine jurists that riesling is the greatest, most versatile white grape in Europe. The fact that other types of wine fetch higher prices at the premium end is neither here nor there. Granted, the best dry white Burgundy and Bordeaux may cost a great deal more, but one could easily argue this is more a result of rarity and present consumer trends than a reflection of comparative worth. Not that the quality of top Burgundy or Bordeaux has been exaggerated, more that prices for top riesling in many parts of the Old World are at present comparatively low, almost to the point of unreasonableness. As a result, there are more bargains for exemplary riesling than virtually any other type of white wine.
In the twenty-first century, few would deny that Alsace, Austria, and the most acclaimed winegrowing regions of Germany represent a sort of vinous triumvirate of unique places where riesling is able to thrive. At the premium level, the types produced in each area are at their greatest distinctiveness.
In Alsace, the greatest rieslings usually hail from single-vineyard Grand Cru sites on steep hillsides, oftentimes (though not exclusively) consisting of sand and clay. Site variation in this part of the winegrowing world is extreme, with increasing numbers of producers vinifying and bottling specific parcels within their vineyards as separate wines. Relative dryness and higher alcohol (usually 12.5 per cent or more) remain essential hallmarks, though many top wines will often possess considerable richness, extra body, and some residual sugar. While flavour profiles are hard to generalize, the finest Alsatian rieslings tend to possess a resounding concentration of citrus-infused orchard fruits (such as peaches and pears), taking on more honeyed and kerosene-like tendencies as they age. The greatest bottlings may be easily kept for up to two decades or more. Current prices in VINTAGES for the best bottlings tend to range from $55-85, though many extremely good wines may be found for less than thirty bucks.
In Austria, the emerging style in the most famous regions for riesling (such as Wachau, Kremstal, and Kamptal) is one of astonishing minerality and heightened gradations of dryness. In most cases, the greatest wines derive from single vineyards, oftentimes bottled as single-parcel cuvées, grown on incredibly steep slopes facing the Danube.
Unlike Alsace or Germany, these vineyards are not officially ranked, though the best sites, usually based on granite, gneiss, and mica-schist, have long enjoyed widespread recognition over their less exalted counterparts. Alcohol levels are even higher than in Alsace (and much higher than in Germany), sometimes reaching up to 15 per cent. Compared to Alsace or Germany, the flavour of fine Austrian riesling is often much more low-keyed in youth, usually consisting of steely green fruits intermixed with lemon citrus, herbs, and an abundance of minerals. With age, more honeyed, kerosene, and nut-driven impressions seem to take over. Cellaring capability for the finest wines easily match those of Alsatian or Germanic extraction. Current availability of Austrian riesling in VINTAGES is profoundly lacking, with prices ranging from around $15-35.
For many, Germany is where riesling finds its greatest expression. As with Alsace and Austria, the best wines are those of single-vineyard persuasion, from the slate-dominant sites of the Mosel to the more clay-based areas of the Mittelhaart of the Pflaz. Styles are traditionally measured according to sweetness via the QmP (Qualitätswein mit Prädikat) system. From driest to sweetest: Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese, and Trockenbeerenauslese. The best wines of the Mosel and its tributaries the Saar and Ruwer tend to reflect this system more concisely than most, while producers throughout the Rheingau, Nahe, Rheinhessen, and Pfalz are increasingly crafting their best single-vineyard wines in drier styles. Such wines are often labelled as ‘Grosses Gewächs,’ and invariably contain higher levels of alcohol at the expense of residual sugar. This said, the QmP system is just as useful for understanding different styles throughout most riesling-dominant regions. On the label, a stated vineyard is usually preceded by the village with which it is affiliated.
To this day, consumers continue to have difficulty comprehending the meaning behind different types of German wine labels. But this should not prove a barrier to obtaining some of the most underappreciated, undervalued types of riesling in Europe. Currently in VINTAGES, extremely fine, ageworthy examples logging in as low as 8 per cent alcohol (depending on the region) may be found for as little as $20, with top bottlings fetching up to $70. The sweetest versions such as Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese, not to mention Eiswein, are prodigiously more expensive, and are not exactly meant for everyday drinking.
Of more off-dry examples such as Kabinett and (to a lesser extent) Spätlese, flavours often include an addictive cornucopia of white peaches, green fruits, lemon citrus, and traces of kerosene, the latter becoming more pronounced and honeyed as time wears on. As white wines go, the capacity of German riesling to age is incredible, though Kabinett versions are at their best around the vicinity of ten years. Great Auslese, on the other hand, whose special nature places it more in the medium-sweet camp, may keep for decades and decades in the right conditions. Tragically, these types of wines are not nearly as popular as they once were. This may largely be attributed to both lax and unintelligible German wine laws, along with the plain fact that many enthusiasts continue to believe that all German wine, regardless of what is stated on the label, tastes excessively sweet.
A Comeback is Coming
In some respects, this would suggest that German riesling is long overdue for a comeback, particularly as examples in Alsace and Austria continue to enjoy an increasing number of successes. The quality is there, the ageability substantial, the prices even for moderately premium versions beyond modest. What’s more, with legions of ‘wine civilians’ being dutifully summoned every day as serious enthusiasts, it is only a matter of time before this collective jury of palates renders a verdict in riesling’s favour. Impatient as some wine commentators might be, it is only a matter of time.
My top choices:
Trimbach 2010 Réserve Riesling has been recommended more than once this past year, for there are still a reasonable number of bottles remaining in LCBO outlets. From one of the greatest white wine producers in Alsace, this is exactly what great Old World Riesling is all about. Drink now or hold for five years or more.
Léon Beyer 2005 Cuvée des Comtes de d’Eguisheim Riesling is the top label (in dry format) from this particular Alsace-based establishment. Though nearing ten years of age, it is still endowed with an abundant sense of liveliness, intensity, and harmony. Only just over two dozen bottles remain in LCBO outlets. Drink now or hold for up to nine years or more.
Zilliken 2011 Saarburg Rausch Riesling Kabinett logs in at a miniscule 8% alcohol, at the same time possessing outstanding roundness, harmony, and weight. Somewhat off-dry, few wines of the Saar (a tributary of the Mosel in Germany) manage to combine such gracefulness with such ferocity of character. Drink now or hold for up to twelve years.
Schloss 2008 Schönborn Macrobrunn Riesling Kabinett is a premium type of German (Rheingau) Riesling at a remarkably reasonable price. Crafted in an off-dry style, wines like this were all the rage throughout much of the twentieth century and preceding eras. There is no reason why they should not be again. Drink now or hold for up to eight years.
Domäne Wachau 2011 Achleiten Riesling Smaragd hails from the Wachau, easily the most prestigious winegrowing region (at least for whites) in Austria. Retaining remarkable vibrancy and balance, this invigorating example is precisely why premium Austrian Riesling, alongside Grüner Veltliner, is becoming so popular. Drink now or hold for seven years or more.
Readers may want to take note that there are many other exemplary wines currently available in VINTAGES and the SAQ that have not been listed as recommendations. This is because I either do not have evaluations for them, or because they are wines from alternate vintages that are no longer available in stores. All price ranges have been researched so as to reflect current availability.
P.S. Stay tuned next month for my exciting summary of top riesling vineyards of the Wachau, Austria’s most prestigious white winegrowing region.
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