Of the many claims that have persisted over the years in wine lore, one of the most durable is that Riesling is an under-appreciated wine. Mini-trends favoring Riesling have popped up now and then, the latest being a push to get dry or “trocken” Rieslings onto restaurant wine lists. But nothing like the steady growth of interest in Sauvignon Blanc has happened yet for Riesling.
Consequently, it was surprising to see “Riesling Rediscovered,” a new book by John Winthrop Haeger, fall through my mail slot. Even more surprising is that “Riesling” appears to be one of a new breed of hybrid wine books, namely, comprehensive academic texts wrapped and marketed as a consumer wine book. “Riesling” is nearly 400 pages, including references and index, of dense and not very consumer-friendly text, inside an attractive and inviting dust cover. About one-third of the way in to the text, there are 16 color maps of what Haeger considers the top Riesling sites in the Northern Hemisphere; no photos or illustrations to break up the page after page of words. Is this the fault of the author or the publisher, University of California Press, one of few houses turning out wine books in a market already saturated with wine books of all types?
Curiously, parts of Australia, like Eden Valley and Clare that have done remarkably well with Riesling in recent years are not on Haeger’s lists, nor are New Zealand and South Africa, both Southern Hemisphere regions that have had good success with Riesling. In the Introduction, the author expresses his regret for the omission, claiming he was “compelled by considerations of time, distance and expense…to finish the book, but, alas, not to finish the story.”
It is with a mixed feeling about “Riesling” then that I offer this review. Full disclosure: I did not read the book from cover to cover, electing instead to cherry-pick sections that I thought would hold more interest to the Riesling drinker while encouraging lovers of white wine to break the Chardonnay lock step and try Riesling, one of the world’s great white wines that continues to offer more versatility than any white wine I can think of.
“Riesling” is divided into two parts. Part I is broken down into eight chapters addressing the essential things that every wine drinker should know about Riesling before setting off for the wine shop. Chapters 1 through 6 cover history, styles, terroirs, clones and “How Dry Riesling is made.” Scattered through the chapters are “Boxes” that take a closer look at the main focus of each chapter, some helpful some not. The box on Prussian tax maps and vineyard names In Chapter 7 is esoteric, while “How is ‘Dry’ Defined,” in Chapter 1, is complicated and wordy. However, in Chapter 2, Haeger makes a case for Riesling terroir (I wonder if he read Mark Matthews’ new book, “Terroir and Other Myths of Winegrowing”) and provides an interesting discussion of TDN, the “petrol generator” chemical behind the petrol notes found in some Rieslings.
The no-box Chapter 5, “How Dry Riesling is Made,” is a good overview that hits all the winemaking stages (pre-fermentation, fermentation, post-fermentation) plus there are sections on casks and presses. Riesling clones are examined in Chapter 6, and I dare say that few people, even those with an interest in clones, have thought much about the subject, outside of Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon clones. The last two chapters in Part I cover what Haeger refers to as “habitats” or the regions and vineyards in Western Europe and North America that are ideal for growing Riesling. He says that more than 70 percent of the world’s Riesling is grown north of the equator. Seems like a lopsided statistic until you consider that, except for Australia, Southern Hemisphere geography (like much of South America, for example) is not a prime region for growing Riesling.
Good coverage is given by the author to the ambitious Riesling program at Chateau Ste. Michelle, in Washington State. Under the direction of Australian Wendy Stuckey, the program includes collaboration with Germany’s Ernst Loosen, for two Eroica Rieslings, made in a Germanic style from Washington grapes. Stuckey also makes five other Rieslings, including “Waussie,” a tasting-room-only wine made from Washington grapes in an Aussie Riesling style. In terms of the number of wines made, the Ste. Michelle Riesling program is unlike any other in the United States.
Part II, which makes up the bulk of the book, is all about Northern Hemisphere Riesling sites and producers in Germany, Alsace, Austria and Italy. North America is divided into east (mainly New York’s Finger Lakes) and the west, including the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and the “Coastal Valleys of California.”
The author seems to prefer Rieslings from northern Europe, although he profiles more Riesling producers from North America. There are 48 profiles spread across Alsace, Germany, Austria and Italy. Eastern North America has 11 winery profiles, four from western Canada, 12 from Washington, eight from Oregon and 21 from California’s coastal valleys, including such classic Riesling producers as Stony Hill, Greenwood Ridge, Claiborne & Churchill, Ventana, the Ojai Vineyard, Paragon Vineyard and Smith-Madrone Winery,
There is, however, a disturbing disconnect for readers consulting the contents for a specific producer. I cross-checked winery profiles by Haeger for Washington, Oregon and California and found more profiles than are listed in the contents. Of the 12 Washington wineries he profiles, seven are not in the contents. There are eight Oregon wineries profiled, though four are not in the contents. California rates 21 profiles, but 12 are not listed in the contents. This unfortunate error should have been caught before the book was sent to the printer.
Even with its few shortcomings, “Riesling Rediscovered” is a comprehensive and deeply researched book about Northern Hemisphere Rieslings that should be in the library of any Riesling lover. My guess, though, is that unless you are an avid Riesling fan or a grower or winemaker wanting to learn more about Riesling, you are not going to wade through the solid text, with no photos or illustrations to break it up; and then there’s the problem of ignoring the entire Southern Hemisphere.
Riesling Rediscovered, John Winthrop Haeger, University of California Press, hardcover, $39.95, ISBN: 9780520275454
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WRO Columnist Emeritus Gerald Boyd runs book reviews in this space on a regular basis from his so-called "retirement."