Jun 08 2011

‘Tis the Season for a Bit of Riesling

Alright, guys, I have a confession to make. Do you know what I love? Like, love-love,.. not just say I love and actually more so kind of like? I love me a bit of the Riesling. Bone dry to sweet, I’ll take it any way I can get it.

I like to think that while Riesling grapes develop they not only mature in phenolic and physiological ripeness like other varietals but they also start compounding this, I don’t know,.. ‘je ne sais qua’ that allows for them to become super-clusters. Have you ever seen an episode of Superman where they show him posted up on the tip of the Eiffel Tower over looking Paris, sipping on a celebratory dry Alsatian after saving the town from the wrath of an evil super genius? No, because he knew better. It would of destroyed him on the spot. I don’t know if you knew this but ‘kryptonite’ was originally spelled R-I-E-S-L-I-N-G. Actually, now that I think of it, I may just add another bottle to my selection for tonights ‘research’. If it’s as powerful as I think it is maybe I’ll get lucky and it’ll have some sort of weird, off- label use and if I dab a bit of it on my head before going to bed tonight it’ll re grow the hair I’ve lost since starting to work here. I can’t be the only one whose thought of this, can I? It seems almost too easy..

In all seriousness though, Riesling’s are something we as a staff here push pretty hard.. and for a very good reason. If you’ve dealt with me at the shop before I’m sure that you’ve heard my spiel about how great they are, the insurmountable amount of food parings that are possible, or maybe even what the term ‘Auslese’ entails.

The larger majority of drinkers tend to only associate Riesling with wines that hold a fair amount of residual sugar, or ‘sweetness’ to them. Which is completely normal. If you weren’t aware that Riesling is just as well known for it’s drier renditions as it is for its sweet,.. well, then here’s your excuse to come on by for a taste! If you have had an experience with this style and still aren’t a fan, well, then that’s that– along to the next bottle. But, I [and we] want to make sure that if you say you aren’t a fan, you’ve at least given one of the drier styles a shot before passing judgment.

The conversation usually pops up when one of you say to me that you’re looking for something different; can’t really decide what you’re feeling for the night; or maybe even want to put the decision solely in my, or one of [our] staff members hands. And eight times out of ten, as soon as [we] mention ‘Riesling’, that horrified look of ‘Nope, no sweet wine. No thanks, I’ll be passing on the Riesling for now’ plaster’s across [your] face. Then comes ‘the talk.’ The talk starts with me coaxing you to the white’s enomatic- walking swiftly while feverishly checking all my pockets not once, but twice, all the while simultaneously asking everyone else on staff if they “have my card?”. Right before finding it in the bottom of my apron, I look back for a third time to make sure you’re still following behind me and not making a break for the door. If you’re still there, then we taste.. and usually, probably eight out of ten times, you say “What a great summer wine!” or at least “Wow, this is different..I’m not sure I’m totally sold on it, but I’ve never had a Riesling that tasted like this before.. interesting..”. What about the other two times where the person wants to spit directly back into the glass immediately after the taste? Well, I’ll count that as a win in my book as well because we just learned one more thing about your pallet. Therefore enabling [us] to make a better selection based upon your specific likes and dislikes. If you take away anything from this entry.. always, always, always,..when in doubt, taste. If you don’t like [it] you never have to touch it again. On the contrary, though, with that little ‘taste’ you may of just discovered a newly found lust for a varietal or style which up until today you had no clue existed.

As a varietal, Riesling has the ability to yield such an outlandishly beautiful, complex product. And depending on the climate and growing conditions, one consisting of a varying array of different fruit, body and acidic profiles. From bone-dry to lusciously-sweet, citrus and zesty to rich and melon-y, and short and light to long and lingering. That’s a whole lot of ‘ands’, am I right? Trust me.. they’re worth it..

Germany, California and Canada are all well known [at least to some extent] for creating off dry to sweet styles of Riesling, including those of the late harvest and or botrytis-effected [also known as noble rot, which we’ll get into later]. While regions such as Alsace, Austria and Australia are more-so known for producing those on the drier end of the spectrum. For argument and times sake [as well as because I only picked up four wines today] we’re only going to discuss and match those regions which are held at the forefront of the pack for their distinct deviations of style– contrasting Germany’s off dry and sweet to Alsace, Austria and Australia’s drier styles.

Due to the fact that it’s the only off-dry producing region that we’re talking about here, and also because it’s, well, damn hard to understand.. let’s start with Germany.

Like any other reputable wine producing country, Germany uses several rungs of categories to distinguish between their level[s] of quality wine. Today though we’re only really going to worry about those of the top ‘quality’ level because it’s based off of a scale which holds a direct correlation with what we’re here to talk about: levels of sweetness. This is known as the ‘Qualitatswein mitt Pradikat’, or simply ‘QmP’ designation. The QmP quality designation labels its wines based off the level of ripeness and how much sugar is present within the fruit, also known as ‘must’, and referred to by ‘must weight’ [must is just another word for the juice before it goes through fermentation]. When I first came across this in the second sectional of ISG I was absolutely baffled by how, and more particularly, why, the Germans would choose to do this. Because, theoretically speaking, you could have a batch of juice with a high amount of sugar in it, then ferment it bone dry, and the label would still read ‘Auslese’ [the designation for a wine consisting of either dry or a generally medium level of sweetness].

“Yes, it’s possible..” my instructor huffed out after a solid ten minutes of ‘theory’ based argument “I know exactly where you’re coming from. I understand. Basically, if you haven’t tried the wine and aren’t familiar with the region or producer, you’re just going to have to trust the label.”

“Ok, well how many separate producers are there now?” I asked, trying my hardest not to ask ‘but why, just,.. why would they do this in the first place?’ again “Am I going to have to memorize them all then for the exam?”

“Before the revamping of their lists,.. um, about thirteen thousand. So, I’m guessing no, you probably will not be asked that on the exam.”

It’s not often where this would happen- a producer deviating an extreme length from that which the must weight designates should be put on the label that is. So, I’d say if you’re looking to purchase a bottle, and none of the staff on hand is familiar with the bottle[s] you’re looking to purchase [just throwing that last one out there in case you go somewhere other than Just Grapes] then I would say trust the label, especially since now European countries are realizing that select region, commune, and vineyard based labeling, or even categorized labeling, is much to vague and off-putting for the everyday and even seasoned wine professional. If after scouring the label for related information and you still come up with nothing, check to see what the alcohol sits at. General rule of thumb: 12% is average. Anything under this- especially if it’s sitting around 10.5% and below, you’re probably dealing with a wine containing at least some level of residual sugar, and therefore perceptibility of sweetness.

Here’s a short description of what to expect based upon the QmP designation:

Starting at the bottom we have ‘Kabinett’, which is a wine produced from fully-ripened fruit. These wines may be dry or off-dry. Next up is ‘Spatlese’, where the fruit is of later-harvest then normal. Again, these wines can be dry or off-dry and therefore possibly displaying some amount of residual sugar. Thirdly we have ‘Auslese’, which are wines created from fruit which were of select harvest quality. These are either full-bodied dry wines, or those consisting of anywhere up to medium level of sweetness. ‘Beerenauslese’ or ‘Eiswein’ is a select berry or icewine. An icewine is created when the grapes freeze while still on the vines, leaving the sugars and other undissolved solids in tact, but freezing the water present inside the grapes, thus allowing for a more concentrated juice to be pressed from [them]. Both of these categories hold the same minimum level of sugar for categorization and both are invariably sweet. Lastly we have the big guy- ‘Trockenbeerenauslese, which is, again, a select berry harvest where the fruit has been effected [positively in this case] by botrytis, also known as ‘noble rot’. Botrytis is a fungus that attacks fruit, dissipating the amount of water present and therefore concentrating the berries acidity and sugar contents. If this happens early on in the season, it could destroy a crop. If it happens later on, when the fruit is completely matured, it is a most sought after and prized blessing. These are rare and expensive wines, and are generally very sweet.

Enough with all that noise, right? I just felt like I was writing an essay for school.. I need a drink. Oh, look what we have here:

2008, Rebenhoff, Urziger Wurzgarten, “Von alten Reben”, Riesling: Spatlese, Mosel, Germany


Ripe on the nose; round tree fruits, such as apple and pear, a bit of citrus and chalk, with a pleasing balance of acidity and sweetness. My go-to for this style of wine is spicy Thai food. Actually, now that I think of it, this pairing reminds me of team dynamic which Emily, Adrienne, and myself share: when my spicy attitude gets a bit out of hand, one of them has to put me in my place. If it was their sweetness that settled me down [because that’s what the sweetness in this wine does to the spice of the dish] this would be a perfectly constructed metaphor. Unfortunately though that’s not usually the case.

Now to my favorite part.. Dry Riesling. And this, my friends, is where it’s at. Sometimes it keeps me up at night- just laying there, thinking about all those compact clusters of speckled pale-yellowish-golden berries sitting on the vine, slowly ripening in a cool climate, struggling to attain as much nourishment as possible from a deep, well drained patch of slate or sandy loam.. if I could just..

OK, that’s enough drinking for me right now. Sorry, I’ll just go ahead and put this bottle away until this blog is finished up, we probably don’t want things to get any more awkward then they already have..

Where was I? Oh yeah, Dry Riesling. OK, so if you did’t know, regions such as Alsace, Austria, and Australia are very well known for producing some of the most fantastic renditions of drier styles of Riesling that are available on the market today. Though, this isn’t to say that these regions do not produce those which are off-dry to sweet. For example, Alsace has a category of quality wines which are categorized as ‘stylistic AOC’s’, one which is designated for fruit that has been effected by ‘pourriture noble’, or noble rot [that Botrytis stuff we talked about earlier] known as ‘Alsace Selection de Grains Nobles AOC’. As well as ‘Vendage Tardives’ which are wines made from late harvest-select fruit. The good thing here is that when you see either of these designations on a label, you know right off the bat what you’re dealing with. That wasn’t completely necessary to include here, but I know more than one of you started reading this entry and, rightfully so, wanted to argue right away that grouping these regions as I did, as well as choosing to only associate sweet styles coming from Germany and dry hailing from Alsace, Austria, and Australia, wouldn’t be completely truthful. After all, dry wine can come from anywhere, as can off dry and sweet wine- depending on the producer. But, I think that it would be safe to say that as an overall generalization based off of what regions are more specifically well known for what style is more so important than getting into the nitty gritty and arguing over a generalized statement right now. For myself, I particularly found this to be a good starting point for memorization purposes and getting a grasp on traditional vinification practices according to region.

For these I choose three wines. One from each region, and brought them home to do a bit of in depth tasting ‘research.’ Let’s go in store order from left to right, starting with the Australia.

Fine examples of quality South Australian Riesling can be found at reasonable prices due to several reasons. Two of which are, they don’t typically require costly vinification techniques such as new, expensive oak barrels to age in- which keeps production costs down. As well as the fact that the high production of Chardonnay out of Australia has completely dominated the market, leaving Riesling trailing slowly behind [but becoming increasingly popular over the last several years]. The warmer climate of Australia suggests that aromatic varietals such as Riesling can’t really mature slowly on the vine in a way which leads the varietal to really express its true colors. A warmer climate means faster phenolic and physiological ripening, which when seen in excess, just isn’t something Riesling benefits from. Knowing this, growers have learned to both search out cooler climates, such as higher elevated vineyards like Eden Valley- where warmer days, followed by cooler nights [which help retain acidity within the fruit], helps to produce a more elegant and crisp style, boasting hallmark qualities of citrus, floral and lengthy acidity. As well as producing a style which just screams ‘I’m coming from a warmer area, take me as I am!’ like those from the Barossa Valley, which is located in a warmer, low lying area- producing qualities of richer, more robust fruits such as developed citrus, and tree fruits, with a rounder mouthfeel, as we see in this wine:

2009, Chateau Tanunda, ‘Grand Barossa’, South Australia


Dry. Robust with lots of bright, developed citrus fruits, passion fruit, and some sort of blossoms and/or florals that I just can’t quite put my finger on. As expected, a very nice acidity, and more so of a round mouth feel than one coming from a cooler climate. For this guy I would say french fries. But, not just any fry.. McDonalds french fries.. with extra salt. Seriously, go now.. hurry, before they.. run out?

Next is Alsace. Alsace is located within France- squished in between the Vosges Mountains, which provides a rain shadow from the west, and the Rhine River, which offers greatly appreciated coastal- cooling effects,.. benefiting early budding and late ripening, aromatic varietals [*Cough*, Riesling]. Riesling in Alsace is the most widely planted varietal, and by far the most highly regarded. These renditions are steely, minerally, and boast complex scents of citrus such as lemon and lime, as well as tree fruits like apple and peach. You might be thinking ‘Hey, this description looks familiar, didn’t he say that about the Australian Riesling?’ You’re definitely right, I did. But, remember, we’re still dealing with the same varietal here.. just grown in a different climate and in different types of soil. The anchoring flavor components for varietals are generally going to stay the same [remember: generally] though, their prominence within the structure of the wine will be -in or -de creased depending on where you are.

Is it just me or are my paragraphs slowly diminishing in length. Come on though, can you blame me? These four open bottles have been starring me in the face for over an hour and a half now..

The wine:

2009 Hugel, Alsace, France


Dry. Bright and youthful, showing hints of green apple skins, grapefruits, lemon juice, white peaches, some chalk and maybe even a bit of gun smoke. Vibrant acidity, with a medium minus to medium body. This wine would work great as an aperitif, or with smoked fish, oysters on the half, summer salads with citrus vinaigrettes, and or ceviche.

Alright, here we are: Austria.

First cut around the front, second cut around the back, removes foil, half a screw in, hold to steady, twist down, first rung and lift, second rung and lift, pulls cork out, sniff, pour, sip.

The Wachau, Austria is, according to Robert Park is “Home to some of the finest white wines made.” The terroir that these wines express- most specifically the primeval stone which they grow within- makes these wines… rich, complex, and mouth-filling with a ravishing acidity and crazy-long finish that continued throughout the entire time it took me to write these last two sentences.. alright, I’m done. Sorry, I can’t go on any longer.

The wine:

2008, Knoll Federspiel, Wachau, Austria


Coolest, most complex out of the bunch. Showing not hints, but kicks of round stone fruits, peaches of all different sorts, beautiful minerality, and even a bit of.. is that pumpkin spice? The body is rich in flavors which the nose came about, the acidity is ravishing, and the finish is Loooooooooong. Enjoy this on its own or pair with -any and -every thing from charcuterie and strong cheeses, olive oil poached salmon topped with a dollop of garlic and herb infused butter,.. or how about braised rabbit served over a semi-sweet reduction sauce with a side of crusted polenta.

Mmmmm, Riesling.

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