I’ve long regarded Riesling as the world's greatest white wine variety, and after three days of intensive tastings last week at a global Riesling forum in Seattle, I’m renewed in my willingness to make a case for it against anybody who would deny Riesling a place at the pinnacle of the pyramid.
My disagreement will be respectful with regard to advocates of Chardonnay, a truly great grape that was hit with silly slanders at the Seattle conference by some (who seem to have forgotten Chablis and Champagne and the wonders of Burgundy’s Côte de Beaune and Mâcon, or have failed to notice a worldwide winemaker retreat from excessive overlays of oak and butter). I’d still give the edge to Riesling over Chardonnay in the last analysis, but this is a close call, and dismissing Chardonnay is little more than a good way to be dismissed oneself.
Besides, Riesling has enough problems getting its greatness recognized, and won’t benefit if we swell the ranks of its enemies with Chardonnay lovers. For starters, Riesling suffers from confusion regarding its proper pronunciation (go with REE-sling, not RYE-sling), and the real commercial problem here is not that the word is that mispronounced, but rather that many consumers simply aren’t sure--and opt instead for a wine they know they can order without embarrassment. This is a higher hurdle than you might guess, as was discovered years ago by Fetzer, a big California producer that spent a gazillion dollars trying to popularize Gewurztraminer before discovering that it was doomed to eternally marginal stature by its name.
Then there’s the prejudice that Riesling is sweet by nature, along with the attendant prejudices that sweet wines are un-cool, unfit for the table, and unworthy of consumption by anyone aside from old ladies. The notion that Riesling must be sweet is simply false, and the fact is that any grape can be fermented to total dryness or used to make sweet wine. Nevertheless, history shows that certain presumptions are impervious to facts, and this is definitely one of them.
The truth is that many Rieslings are indeed sweet, but largely because many are made in cool climates where the grapes retain very high acidity even when fully ripened. Making a balanced, delicious wine from such grapes often requires that the fermentation be stopped before yeasts convert all of the sugar to alcohol, so that the resulting wine won’t seem too tart. When winemakers get this balance right, as they routinely do in many places (but especially in Germany, which still produces 60% of the world’s Riesling), the result is like a perfect peach: Sweet but not syrupy, zesty but not sour, and very flavorful--but in a way that’s fruity and natural rather than confected or contrived.
More than 95% of people who taste an excellent, sweet-but-balanced Riesling with an open mind will find that they love it, and I say this from direct experience, having exposed more than a thousand tasters to such wines during 20 years of teaching wine classes and presiding over public tastings. Nevertheless, the prejudice persists, partly because not all sweet Rieslings are excellent, and most novice tasters start--sensibly enough--with cheap wines. Another big problem is that not everybody can achieve open-mindedness in just any setting. Those who pay to attend a wine class or a tasting run by a purported expert will tend to expect to like the wines they’re given. But in a different setting, I suspect that many who’ve loved Rieslings they’ve tasted with me would never have tried them if offered several choices at a block party or a reunion.
In my more pessimistic moments, I wonder whether Riesling isn’t fated to a limited popularity simply because it is so fine rather than obvious, and so varied rather than monolithic. Jazz, which I also love, will always suffer from this fate, and so too will certain forms of art and writing that I admire. Maybe Riesling must always be a second-stringer in commercial terms, but here are two important reasons for keeping the faith:
First, excellence with Riesling is spreading impressively around the world and within the United States. Austria and Australia continue to shine, New Zealand gets stronger every year, Canada is coming on strong, and Slovakia and Italy are both getting into the game at a high level. Alsace remains mired in confusion regarding residual sugar levels, but I’m convinced that producers there will ultimately decide in favor of minerality, and that France will return to the top ranks. Domestically, Washington state excels in both quality and quantity; Oregon has very rapidly risen from promise to proven performance in less than a decade; Michigan now has an established capacity for excellence, as does Idaho; Riesling from New York’s Finger Lakes is absolutely world-class at the top level, and unlikely suspects such as Pennsylvania and Ohio can now squeeze out some very good juice. Even California, which had almost totally cut bait on Riesling a decade ago, is showing renewed interest.
Second, excellence with drier styles of Riesling is also spreading impressively, even in the Germanic heartland of sweet Riesling. This is partly a function of climate change, which isn’t a blessing in its own right, but has nevertheless blessed us with harmonious, highly versatile dry Rieslings even from the Mosel, Saar, Nahe and Rheingau, which are home to Germany’s best vineyards and strongest winemaking talent. Beyond Germany, more and more truly coherent and convincing dry Rieslings are being made each year in Austria, Alsace, New Zealand and Canada, and residual sugar is also being turned down in Washington, Oregon and new York.
To be clear, I’m definitely not opposed to Rieslings with balanced sweetness, but I am convinced that Riesling’s greatness won’t be appreciated until its peerless spectral breadth is understood, and dry renditions are what we need for that to happen.
The other thing we need for Riesling’s greatness to be appreciated is for its devotees to continue making the case, and I’m certainly happy to do my part in that regard. Here, below, are the four prime reasons why I regard Riesling as the world’s premier white variety. While other grapes can measure up to Riesling in one or another of the following respects, no other grape can come close to matching the following list of virtues:
Excellent Young or Old:
Almost all renditions of Riesling are terrific within six months of being vinified, and yet there is probably no other white variety that ages so well. By that last point I mean not only that Riesling can hang on and still be passable after years in the bottle, but that it actually gets better, developing all sorts of complexities and actually passing through a whole range of phases, each of which can be quite wonderful in its own right.
This capacity can be found in sweeter Rieslings from Germany or Alsace, but likewise in bone dry ones from Western Australia or the Clare or Eden Valleys in South Australia. Two of the greatest experiences of my life as a wine taster have been sipping Leo Buring Rieslings from the 1970s in Australia and several bottlings of Riesling Auslese from the 1971 vintage in Germany. No grape can match Riesling in its capacity to become something utterly different than what it was at the outset--but equally compelling at both points.
Excellent Dry, Sweet or Anywhere In-Between:
Riesling can be marvelous with virtually no residual sugar, and wines such as Trimbach's Clos St. Hune from Alsace or Grosset's Polish Hill bottling from Clare Valley in Australia make this utterly indisputable. In all of the tastings at this month’s “Riesling Rendezvous” in Seattle, another totally dry Aussie rendition, the Jim Barry “The Florita” 2005 Riesling from the Watervale District in the Clare Valley, was perhaps the single most aromatically complex and alluring wine of the entire event. However, at the other end of the sweetness scale, a Riesling-based Trockenbeerenauslese or Eiswein from Germany would surely be my single favorite dessert wine, besting even the best renditions of Sauternes or Tokaji.
Equally remarkable is the fact that Riesling can excel at every point between the ends of the dry-to-sweet continuum. Ask a true Riesling lover whether he or she prefers German wines at the ripeness level of Kabinett or Spätlese or Auslese--and watch what happens. There's a good chance that the person will just sputter incoherently, paralyzed by ambivalence, because Riesling rocks at every level of sweetness. No other grape can hit every note on the scale like Riesling can.
Complete and Compelling Without Oak or Blending:
Winemakers love to fiddle with their wines. They can't help themselves, it seems sometimes. Twiddling the dials and tweaking their wines with a little of this or a little of that is a compulsive commonplace. They love to blend in 5% of some other grape, or to perform some transformative technique on a particular little batch of wine and then see how that works as a blending agent to enhance the rest of the juice.
But, tellingly, winemakers almost never fiddle with Riesling. When was the last time you saw a Riesling that had some other grape blended into it? Even the Aussies--who will blend anything with anything--won't touch Riesling. It has a coherence of its own that is unlike any other white grape. Any blending agent would diminish it or muddy the finished wine.
On the red side, Pinot Noir offers an analogous case in point (when did you last see a blend of Pinot with anything else?). But winemakers love to play with different barrels when crafting their Pinots, whereas almost nobody would mess around with oak when crafting Riesling, which is simply the least "crafted" of all wines. Winemakers never tire these days of telling wine writers how they “make their wine in the vineyard” rather than the cellar, and this has become the mandatory pronouncement of an entire generation of winemakers. Often it turns out to be mere lip service, and if you have a sufficiently long conversation with many winemakers, it will turn out that what they actually do belies what they say they do. But virtually nobody messes with Riesling.
Supreme Individuation and "Transparency":
Of all white wine varieties, Riesling produces the most individuated wine. For true wine lovers, this is an unalloyed virtue. For those with a merely commercial interest in wine, it is a vice, since the road to mass sales in any consumable product runs the way of uniformity. Every bottle of Riesling tastes different from every other bottle of Riesling. This has hampered its appeal to the consumer mainstream, and though Riesling will never garner the level of sales enjoyed by the vastly more uniform "international" style of vaguely sweet, oaky Chardonnay, Riesling's superiority in critical terms is undiminished by this.
Of course, one of the reasons why Rieslings are so individuated is that they aren't subjected to the standardizing effects of fermentation and ageing in oak. But there is more to it than that, as you'll discover if you compare a broad selection of Rieslings to a group of un-oaked wines like Sauvignon Blancs from France's Loire Valley or Marlborough in New Zealand. I love the wines from both regions, but they are nowhere near as nuanced or variegated as Rieslings from Alsace, Austria or Germany.
This is largely a function of Riesling's peerless "transparency," a term that is sometimes used to refer to the grape's ability to convey aromas and flavors originating in the peculiarities of the site in which it is grown. I would refuse to live in a world without Sauvignon Blanc, but the fact remains that most of the aroma and flavor you'll find in Sauvignon is intrinsic to the grape and not imparted by the vineyard. Differences in soil and climate will show you different facets of Sauvignon, but it is predominantly Sauvignon that you are 'seeing' when tasting from one bottle to the next.
With fine Riesling, however, you can seemingly "see" right through the grape to savor the sun, soil, and slant of the land that impart the character of a particular place. Moreover, the delicacy that lets Riesling exhibit nuances tied to a place also lets it show shadings from differing treatment by winemakers, and consequently you'll find another layer of personality differences even when tasting wines drawn from a single vineyard, whether a Grand Cru site in Alsace or one like the Wehlener Sonnenuhr in Germany's Mosel Valley.
There's more that I could say to make the case for Riesling's supremacy. For example, I haven't even addressed its greatness as a partner for food, which is even more impressive when you consider the fact that Riesling is also among the world's best aperitif wines. But since I notice that each of my points is longer than the one preceding it, I should call it quits before this turns into a full-fledged rant.
If you are a skeptic where Riesling is concerned, I hope that these points will at least soften you sufficiently to get you started tasting for yourself. That is, of course, the only way to really establish anything for oneself where wine is concerned. And regarding Riesling, at least, tasting is believing. Toward that end, I’ll be publishing reviews of outstanding Rieslings on the WRO “Reviews” page each week for the next month.