AS ONE of the world’s most misunderstood grapes, Riesling always makes an intriguing choice for any blind tasting. With this in mind, the judges for 2018’s Riesling Masters arrived for the latest sampling with excited anticipation, wondering what makes this grape so divisive, where one finds the best expressions, and at what prices.
Following a day spent assessing more than 100 examples from around the world, one thing is for sure: this is a white grape that’s rich in personality. With characters ranging from pungent floral aromatics to notes of burnt rubber, and flavours from intense lime to juicy peach, not only does Riesling vary in nature, but it is always distinctive. Add to this a broad range in textures thanks to different residual sugar levels, and one can understand why consumers can struggle with Riesling. Unless one understands the German wine law, and its terminology, and knows the producer, it is hard to tell what the wine will taste like without trying it.
But let’s not forget this grape’s place as the darling of the wine trade. While it’s common to hear consumers express their dislike for Riesling, never have I heard a professional profess anything other than a deep affection for the grape. This is because, at its best, this single variety can deliver so much: something packed with layers of flavour, but a palate-cleansing freshness that’s unique in wine. It is the pure citrus acidity of Riesling that makes it such a great base for sweet wines. Or, if bone dry, a drink that can be kept for decades, revealing a honeyed richness, even where no sugar is present.
If we look at the results from the competition, there is one country that dominates. Despite the extremely strong association of Riesling and Germany – to the extent that it is virtually assumed that all white wine from this country is made with this single grape – it is Australia that has become the most prevalent source of medal-winning Riesling. But there is one caveat. I’m talking about bone-dry Riesling. If you look at the results for Rieslings in the category of wines with 4g/l or lower, you will see that Australia is pre-eminent. There are medallists from Alsace, New Zealand, Germany – particularly the warmer Baden region – and even one for Turkey (from the first rate Chamlija winery), but all the rest have been awarded to Australia. Not only that, but primarily the Eden Valley, followed by the Clare Valley. Is it safe to say that the best dry Riesling in the world now hails from these two Australian valleys? If your budget is capped at £30, then, I think the answer is ‘yes’ – this part of the world delivers a distinctive, firm, lime-scented vinous refreshment at a price that is unmatched elsewhere. Go beyond £30, and possibly allow for a touch more residual sugar, and parts of Alsace, and in Germany, the Rheingau especially, one can find more complexity to the Rieslings. But, between £10 and £30, if you favour a very dry style, and you are looking for consistent quality, then Clare and Eden should be your go-to sources of Riesling.
It is doubtless thanks to this that Riesling has no image issues in Australia. Visitors to the country will see that Riesling is commonly featured by the glass in bars and restaurants, and there’s no stigma attached to ordering it, whatever your age or sex. This is because the grape was never the cheap sweet option in this market, and today, one can be assured that when you ask for Riesling, you are ordering a fresh, linear style of white, without the texture of Australia’s better-known export, Chardonnay. Standouts among the Australian examples were Bird in Hand, McGuigan, Henschke, Wakefield/Taylors, along with pricier Rieslings from Jim Barry Wines and Pike & Joyce. Notably, the sole Master – our ultimate accolade – in this section went to an older vintage, to McGuigan’s Shortlist Riesling from the 2010 harvest, proof that if you can cellar these dry whites, you will be rewarded with something with a touch more textural depth and complexity, as the wine develops some tertiary aromas, from wax to toast.
Moving beyond the bone-dry samples, there are some other producers that deserve to be namechecked. One of the them is Weingut Prinz Von Hessen, for its delicious, pure, fresh but ripe dry Riesling from the Rheingau – and at a very fair sub-£15 retail price. Also, a lovely layered sample from the excellent Alsace cooperative Cave de Ribeauville, with its sub-£20 Grand Cru Osterberg. Then, over £30, and Weingut August Eser wowed the judges with its Grosses Gewaches dry Riesling from the Rheingau, even in its youthful state.
When it came to the sweeter styles, two places rose to the top. One of these was Canada’s Niagara Peninsula, where Andrew Peller proved adapt at producing pure, sweet and refreshing Rieslings, and an amazingly concentrated, but bright, Icewine from the 2016 vintage. The other was the Mosel, specifically an example from Reverchon’s Filzener Herrenberg vineyard, which delivered all the power and precision lovers of classic German Riesling so prize. Tasting, assessing and scoring wines, then debating the results, is an arduous process, but, after a day of Riesling, the judges were full of smiles, and far from fatigued. Indeed, of all noble grapes, Riesling must be the most uplifting.