South Africa Spotlights Riesling

Exploring a new-found enthusiasm for this complex white at Cape Town's first Under the Influence of Riesling Festival.

South Africa demonstrated its new-found enthusiasm for Riesling at the first Under the Influence of Riesling Festival, held in Cape Town on February 21st and 22nd.

The main attraction for local Riesling lovers was the presence of some of the great German and Austrian Riesling producers: Hermann Dönnhoff from the Nahe; Egon Müller and Ernst Loosen from the Mosel; Philip Wittmann from the Rheinhessen, and Willi Bründlmayer from Kamptal in Austria. Also generating much interest was Dirk van der Niepoort's Riesling from the Douro, a region better known for Port.

These winemakers participated in a series of dinners and workshops and, together with local Riesling producers, exhibited their wines in a wine and food pairing event, in conjunction with four top local chefs. Two standout combinations included: Dr Loosen's Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Trocken 2007, paired with Asian chicken and plum salad (which fanned the Riesling's spices), and the sweeter version of Niepoort's ginger-toned Riesling with ginger biscuits that were topped with Chantilly crème and a raspberry. The latter was originally created as a petit four to accompany Nieport's Port.

Under the auspices of the local Just Riesling Association, the international contingent also judged, in conjunction with several local wine experts, a competition for South African Rieslings. A total of 26 wines, divided into three categories according to sugar levels, were scrutinized. The overall winner was Paul Cluver's botrytised Noble Late Harvest 2008 (US$24), their dry Riesling also topped the under 10 g/l category (US$12.99). Jardin's 2006 Riesling (US$12 -14) captured the title in the third category.

Though the winners were undisputed, there was little consensus on the overall state of South African Rieslings and the direction winemakers should take. For Dr. Ernst Loosen, the sweetest category (31 grams residual sugar and over) showed the most definition, but in Dirk van der Niepoort's opinion these wines were dull and lacked variety. Both see potential in the drier style (0 to 10 grams residual sugar), though believe the wines need more body. Apart from Egon Müller, the judges generally found the wines between 11 to 30 grams of sugar disappointing.

What the judges did agree on though is that South Africa Rieslings are very different, not only from their German counterparts, but also from those in Australia and New Zealand. As South African producers continue to experiment with this suddeny hot category, it will be interesting to see the course these unique wines ultimately take.

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