I bought some German Riesling for my cellar the other day and it reminded me again of what a great wine — and value — that it is. But it is also one that a lot of people either don’t know about or choose to ignore.
Riesling is actually one of the “noble grapes” — along with the likes of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot — and people have been making wine out of it for centuries. It is most famous in Germany,where it comes in a wide range of styles (from bone dry to cloyingly sweet) and prices (literally dirt cheap to mind-blowingly expensive). And the classic aromas and tastes of minerals, petrol (on the nose) and pure, ripe citrus fruit are completely unencumbered by any oak.
I think there are two reasons a lot of people don’t pay much attention to Riesling. First, if you are looking at German wines, it is hard to get past the names. Zeltinger Himmilreich Riesling Kabinett by Markus Molitor…that is the wine I just bought for my cellar and, as you can see, it’s a mouthful (both literally and figuratively speaking!).
But don’t let the language or classification put you off. There are really just four things you need to know – Kabinett, Spatlese, Auslese and Berenauslese. Those represent the major styles of German Riesling, going from the driest to the sweetest. Stick to that from a style point of view and you should at least know what you are getting.
With one caveat…even the driest of German Rieslings can have a touch of sweetness to them. And that is the other reason fewer people turn to them on a regular basis. This goes back to the original way of making the wines (from hundreds of years ago when tastes were more towards sweet wines) and also the tendency of the grapes to take on botrytis, or noble rot, a fungus that shrivels up the berries and concentrates their sugars. Botrytis is a good thing in most people’s opinion, but it does impart sweetness even to some of the driest Kabinett wines.
But I like that. In most of the Kabinetts, the sweetness is on the nose and the initial taste, but the finish is almost completely dry. This can make them incredibly versatile with food (that touch of sweetness stands up well to Indian food and southern BBQ) and also means the drier versions can be very low in alcohol. The Molitor wine I just bought was only 10%…amazing in these days of 14+ per cent wines! And I have had others as low as 8%!
Rieslings are also one of the few white wines that can age, and get better as they do it. Ten to twenty years is not uncommon for a good Kabinett, and the sweeter versions can last even longer. As they get older, the colour turns golden and the sweetness actually goes away a bit (in the Kabinetts), leaving just a wonderful, full-bodied and unctuous mouthful of wine. And because there is no oak, you never get a mouthful of wood!
Finally, Riesling has made its way around the world, providing lots of opportunities to try it. Some of the best are actually made in B.C., with La Frenz in Naramata making perhaps the best with its Small Lots Riesling. Year in, year out, this is a fabulous Kabinett-style wine, a touch sweet but beautifully balanced. And at $19, it is a steal! Tanatalus Winery out of Kelowna makes another Riesling in the same style and it’s almost as good. And you can now find it in the local liquor stores for $22 (alas, La Frenz’s is available only at the winery!). A final recommendation would be Quail’s Gate Limited Release Riesling, also available in the liquor stores. It is made in a bone dry style, so those who don’t like any sweetness should try it out. At under $17, it is a great bargain.
So next time you are thinking about a white wine — and Xmas dinner is coming up — try a Riesling. I don’t think you, or your guests, will be disappointed!