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Around The World In 80 Wine Varieties: Riesling


In Around The World In 80 Wine Varietals, contributor Chantal Martineau unearths how a particular grape drinks differently around the globe.

Every couple of years, wine geeks get excited: rumor has it riesling is about to be the next big thing. Well, it is and it isn’t. Right now, it’s getting buzz through initiatives like the internationally recognized campaign Summer of Riesling, founded by superstar sommelier and restaurateur Paul Grieco. But outside of oenophilic circles, riesling is still greatly underappreciated. People either associate it with just one of the many styles of the wine that exists, unaware that there could be a riesling for them. Or they simply gravitate to flashier, less subtle wines, like oaky Chards or easy-drinking Pinot Grigio.

It’s one of the most terroir-driven wines out there. Terroir: as in, that elusive French term that refers to soil, climate, topography, sun exposure and human intervention, and how they all come together to affect the flavor and style of a wine. Riesling can be lush and sweet or dry and lean. It can have minerality, razor-sharp acidity and complexity. And thanks to naturally high acidity, it can be aged indefinitely or picked at the latter end of harvest to produce delicious dessert wines.

Most experts believe the grape has been cultivated in the area surrounding the Rhine River, in Germany, since the Middle Ages. It was first cited in a castle’s inventory in the region in 1435. Over the next hundred years, riesling would establish itself as the most noble grape in Germany, which at the time included the now French region of Alsace. By the 19th century, riesling wines commanded the same prices as fine Bordeaux and Burgundies. Soon, the grape was imported to America, where it was confused with other lower-quality grapes also named riesling, which no doubt did little for its reputation. In certain cooler parts of California, and in upstate New York, the grape flourished. But good grape growing doesn’t always translate into good wine. It took some time for quality riesling to be produced in the U.S. Nowadays, good riesling can be found in the Finger Lakes and Washington state, as well as in Italy, Croatia, New Zealand and even Canada.

Young riesling is often described as crisp — and might express notes of apples, apricots, citrus, honey, tropical fruit, spice or rose petals. The above-mentioned minerality might come across as a stony quality, salty even. Aged rieslings can acquire a petroleum aroma. In Germany, riesling is categorized from dry (or trocken) to sweet. The main categories, starting at the dry end are Kabinett, Spätlese and Auslese. Producers around the world have started adopting an easy-to-read taste profile infographic on the label to let consumers know what they’re getting. It uses a precise calculation of sugar, acidity and pH data to determine where the wine falls on the sweet-to-dry scale. Here are five different rieslings to try:

Weingut Knauss Riesling Trocken ‘G’ 2011, Germany

Wüttemberg is the fourth-largest wine region in Germany, mostly known for its Trollinger, a red grape, but also for riesling. This one is dry, mineral, razor sharp and clean. A straightforward, no-nonsense wine, steely yet elegant.

Weingut Johann-Wilhelm Schild Ürziger Würzgarten Riesling Spätlese 2007, Germany

The prized vineyard of Ürziger Würzgarten, which translates as the “Ürzig spice garden,” located on one of the steepest hills in the revered Mosel region, is known rather appropriately for producing deeply aromatic, spicy wines. This one is a perfect example, full of spice, herb and stone fruit.

Trimbach Cuvée Frédéric Émile 2005, France

The French region of Alsace, once a part of Germany, has just as much experience with the grape as its neighbor. The Trimbach family is known for beautifully made wines with great aging potential. This 2005 was only released in 2010. Apricot and citric notes give way to a pleasant musk.

Malat Goettweiger Berg Riesling 2011, Austria

The Kremstal region of Austria stretches from the rocky soils by the Kremstal river to the silty loess soils further out, where this wine was made. Emblematic of the austere Austrian style of riesling, the wine has whispers of soft fruit over a sturdy backbone of lean minerality.

Red Newt Riesling Sawmill Creek Vineyards 2010, USA

This Finger Lakes winery started doing single-vineyard rieslings in 2009, a good year for the grape in New York. With 2010 slightly warmer and wetter than the previous year, the wine came out rich and peachy, dry yet gently honeyed.