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Fancy an electrifying experience? Chris Losh suggests a date with Riesling, one of the wine world’s most sophisticated grapes. Demanding – yes; thrilling – certainly; it’s also perfect with Asian food
There’s an old gag where someone is asked whether they like Kipling, and replies ‘I don’t know – I’ve never kippled’. Well, how would you reply if I was to ask
you whether you like Riesling? Have you ever‘Riesled’?
If not, you should. Really…
Riesling doesn’t sound as sexy as the lush, pouting Chardonnay or the aromatic, flouncy Sauvignon Blanc. Phonetically, it’s too Germanic and upright for that. It’s refined, not tarty. What it does have is elegance: a magnificent poise and balance that makes it, for most wine lovers, the most beautiful of all white wines.
A century ago the cognoscenti paid more for Rieslings from the top German estates than they did for Bordeaux. Hard to believe nowadays, though the upside of this is that some truly exceptional wines can be had for half-decent prices.
So, if it’s such a great grape why isn’t it better known and more popular? Well, first up, unlike Chardonnay, it’s not an easy grape to get right. Riesling is pickier. It likes sun but doesn’t like really high temperatures, which means cooler sites. But cooler sites often mean rainier sites – and Riesling isn’t good with the wet. It gets sulkily unripe and dilute. And you don’t want unripe Riesling.Why? Because it has a naturally high acidity. In fact, the thrilling acidity is one of its hallmarks. Ally that to good ripeness and you have a wine that will race across your palate like a speed-skater, dropping flavours as it goes.
‘What it does have is elegance: a magnificent poise and balance that makes it, for most wine lovers, the most beautiful of all white wines’
In fact, it’s because of this acidity that so many German Rieslings, in particular, are – if not exactly sweet – then certainly off-dry. This sugar isn’t often added – it occurs naturally in the grapes. But the winemakers stop the fermentation before all the sugar has been converted into alcohol. The result: a wine with a softer, richer palate, balanced by high acidity and a lower alcohol, and yet it probably doesn’t taste any sweeter than a New World Chardonnay.
Great Riesling is all about balance: getting just the right levels of sugar, alcohol and acidity. Light and spritzy, with that fabulous freshness, the wines are great on their own – maybe to drink al fresco in the garden on summer afternoons – or with Asian food.
Flavour-wise, you’re looking at anything from peaches and limes through sherbet and green apples, veering into richer more apricotty characters for the sweeter versions. Mosel wines, in particular, have a marvellous minerality. Oh, and there’s never any oak. With Riesling, you get purity of fruit.
Germany, Alsace and Austria remain Riesling’s heartland. It’s been slower to take off in the New World, but the Aussies, in particular, are making great versions from places like the Clare and Eden Valleys – and they’re becoming easier to find, too.
Australia: Adelaide Hills, Clare Valley, Eden Valley;
Austria: Neusiedlersee, Wachau;
Germany: Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Pfalz, Rheingau
Australia: Grosset, Leasingham, Mount Horrocks, Petaluma, Yalumba;
France: Hugel, Trimbach, Zind-Humbrecht;
Germany: Egon Müller, Ernie Loosen, JJ Prüm, Müller Catoir, Reichsrat von Buhl
Editorial feature from Square Meal Lifestyle Magazine Summer 2009