The true Riesling, Germany’s magnificent gift to the world’s great white wines, is technically the white riesling and which distinguishes it from its shirttail relatives i.e gray riesling, welschriesling (a.k.a Italian Riesling), Okanagan riesling, Missouri riesling, just to name a few. None of them possesses any true riesling ancestry. Hybrids developed by German breeders, however, owe at least part of their ancestry to this noble grape. They are emerald riesling, kerner, rieslaner, rivaner.
Under ideal conditions, the noble riesling yields wine which can be considered the pinnacle of white wine world. An exquisite flavour caressing soft texture, an opulence of aromatics (apples), and an attractive variance in sweetness and long aftertaste combine to make it a source of immense pleasure to the casual wine consumer and an object of adoration of gustatory complexity to the connoisseur.
Ampelographers believe riesling is indigenous to the banks of the mighty Rhine River. The grape’s recorded history dates from the first extensive plantings on slopes along the Rhine River in the early 12th century, but it wasn’t until 1716 with the codification of German viticultural practices that the vines premium qualities received official recognition.
Riesling is a cool-climate grape, and likes a long moderately hot growing season, with just enough rain to maintain balance and acidity. It yields small bunches of thin-skinned berries that are greenish-yellow in colour. The vine is extremely cold resistant.
This variety likes loose soils for good drainage, and reflects terroir admirably well. Comparing riesling wines from the Mosel, Rheingau, Alsace, Ontario, Australia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Romania, California, Washington State, Russia, and New Zealand is a revelation and proof how it changes.
Conversely, in hot climes riesling wines are bland and of no consequence to the consumer. As outstanding as it is alongside its brethren there has evolved a quality hierarchy within the family of riesling wines. It is explained by the story of the absentminded bishop whose permission was necessary to begin the harvest. In 1775 it seems that he simply forgot to give the harvesting order in the vineyards of Hochheim in Rheingau. Some accounts exonerate him, claiming his messengers were captured by bandits and held hostage for ransom. The local growers experienced great anxiety about their moldy and apparently ruined crop. Eventually wines were made from the sad-looking, shrivelled grapes harvested so late and affected by botrytis cinerea (noble rot, edelfaule, muffa nobile).
The legal classification, which evolved over centuries from this miracle-by-negligence, helped divide German wines into levels of sweetness and intensity. The classification is based on the sugar content of the must.
In 1973 the German wine industry with the help of the government developed a law that codifies the quality hierarchy of German wine.
The quality levels are;
Deutscher Tafelwein (German table wine)
Deutscher Landwein (German country wine)
Qualitatswein bestimmter Anbaugebiete (Q.B.A)
Qualitatswein mit Pradikat divided further in to:
Generally, German wines, are low in alcohol and high in acidity. However, this is now gradually changing due to the climate-warming phenomenon. In good vintages kabinett and above quality wine is worth cellaring for a number of years. They evolve to exquisite wines with age. However, in Germany growing seasons change drastically and vintages must be considered carefully before making buying decisions of expensive German wines.
Of late many German wineries produce spatlese and auslese – trocken (dry) wines in an attempt to achieve high alcohol levels. The results are rarely outstanding as high-alcohol levels change both texture and balance unfavorably.
Johannisberg riesling, is clone selected in the vineyards of Schloss Johannisberg in Rheingau is particularly valued and planted in many German and foreign vineyards. The property is located on the latitude 50 north, which corresponds in Canada approximately to a little south of Winnipeg.
Johannisberg riesling has come to mean particularly and deeply flavoured wines.
In Germany the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer and Rheingau are well noted for their exquisite rieslings. Those from Mosel-Saar-Ruwer contain a little carbon dioxide (spritz) and are particularly refreshing, especially when they originate from low-yield vineyards. (Seven tones per hectare is considered to be a good guideline for flavourful rieslings).
Villages like Bernkastel, Zell, Cochem, Wurzig, Leiwen and Zeltingen are well noted by connoisseurs for their delicate and highly aromatic wines.
In the Rheingau , riesling tends to yields sweeter, elegant and refined wines with a little petroleum flavour the mix.
This excellent grape variety is also used to produce sparkling wine of great delicacy and balance.
Outside of Germany, riesling grows well in Alsace, Friuli, Alto Adige, Austria, Hungary, Ontario, Washington State, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia (Tasmania and Eden Valley in South Australia are particularly well noted).
The best German riesling wines rarely find their way to export markets as they are expensive due to high demand, limited supply in Germany and high labour costs.
Germany has 103,000 hectares under vines, of which approximately 21 percent constitutes riesling. Considering worldwide vineyard acreage, this is miniscule. Unfortunately or fortunately riesling has failed to receive its due fame In North America. This is unfortunate because it deserves better, but on the other hand it is fortunate for connoisseurs who can still afford to buy a few bottles at reasonable cost.
Ontario rieslings are particularly flavourful in good vintages as this variety has never captured the imagination of consumers as chardonnay has.
Recommended wineries in Alsace: Zind-Humbrecht, Hugel, Leon Beyer, Pierre Sparr.
Mosel: J.J. Prum, Osterbach, von Othergraven, Dr. Loosen, von Zilliken, Geschwister Simon.
Rheingau: Schloss Johannisberg, Schloss Eltz, Schloss Reichartshausen, Schloss Schonborn, Kunster.
Ontario: Vineland Estates, Chateau de Charmes, H. Konzelmann, Inniskillin, Cave Spring Cellars
Australia: Wolf Blass, Grosset, Lehmann
New Zealand: Coppers Creek, Villa Maria, de Stadtaeland