RIESLING The Worldwide White

RIESLING The Worldwide White

Far beyond its German home, this noble grape is winning converts all over the globe.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Richard Dean, master sommelier and beverage director at The Mark on New York’s Upper East Side, is hooked on Riesling. How hooked? Let’s just say it’s verging on obsession. For the fourth straight year, his summer wine list features more than 100 different Rieslings by the bottle, glass or taste. “Few white wines have such a range of personality,” says Dean, “so why not put it on display?” Besides, says Dean (pictured on previous page), “it gives us a chance to do something different.”
Although much of Dean’s summer Riesling festival focuses on German renditions of the variety, more than half of the offerings come from other corners of the globe. A feature in our February issue focused on Germany’s excellent 2001 Rieslings; now, like Dean, we pay homage to the traditional European Riesling strongholds of Alsace and Austria, and to such New World hotbeds as Australia and New Zealand. And don’t forget the United States, where from coast to coast you’ll find Rieslings ranging from bone-dry to dessert-sweet.

Riesling likes to grow in tough places. Stand on the banks of the Danube River as it flows through the gorge known as the Wachau, and look up on the north bank. Steep cliffs, almost sheer in places, are terraced out in seemingly inaccessible rows. They are planted with vines, some Riesling, some Grüner Veltliner.

Of the 3,500 acres of vines in the Wachau, 300 are planted with Riesling. Categorized into the Wachau’s three richness levels (Smaragd, Federspiel and Steinfelder, in descending order of richness), these minute quantities of wine are the greatest Rieslings in Austria.
Christine Saahs of the Nikolaihof estate in Mautern, at the eastern end of the Wachau, credits the climate for her great grapes. “Before our harvest begins at the end of October, the difference in temperature between day and night is enormous. It can be over 80 degrees in the day and down to 40 at night. This allows long ripening, and gives us great fruit.”

Although there is some Riesling in vineyards around Vienna and in the northern region of Weinviertel, most of Austria’s plantings are centered in one surprisingly small area. “There is a saying that the best Riesling grows between Spitz (at the western end of the Wachau) and Strass in the Kamptal,” says Willi Bründlmayer. One of the great names in Austrian wine, he knows Strass well—it’s close to the steep Zobinger Heiligenstein vineyard, where he has some of his oldest vines. “The Riesling loves really poor soil, almost back to the bedrock, and that’s what you find here.”

The minerality of Germany and the creaminess of Alsace are what Austrian Rieslings show best. They are great food Rieslings, racy and fresh when young, yet full bodied and long lived—a deeply satisfying combination.

Recommended wines
93 Willi Bründlmayer 2001 Lyra Zöbinger Heiligenstein Riesling (Kamptal); $48. Bründlmayer, one of Austria’s most famed winemakers, finds that the lyre method of training the vine gives much more concentration. That’s certainly true of this rich, intense wine, with its powering acidity and flavors of almonds, white currants and cranberries.

93 Franz Hirtzberger 2001 Steinterrassen Riesling Federspiel (Wachau); $24. A beautifully elegant, focused wine, full of racy, steely fruit, managing to combine fullness with lightness and an intensely dry aftertaste. Hirtzberger’s 29-acre vineyard is in the western Wachau village of Spitz, where the Rieslings are aged in large acacia wood barrels.

91 Nickolaihof 2000 Im Weingebirge Riesling Smaragd (Wachau); $NA. Nickolaihof produces intense, full-flavored Rieslings that age more quickly than Wachau Rieslings from further west. This is a silky, creamy wine, full of white fruit flavors, seared through with crisp acidity, enormously concentrated, with a bone-dry finish.

89 Mantlerhof 2001 Wieland Riesling (Kremstal); $28. Josef Mantler’s estate produces Rieslings from some of the best local vineyards in eastern Kremstal. This is a rich, soft wine, with exotic flavors of lychees and apricots. The aftertaste is just off-dry, but still has a good steely backbone.

88 Domäne Wachau 2001 Achleiten Riesling Smaragd (Wachau); $30. This bone-dry, poised wine is finely structured with floral aromas and flavors. It opens deliciously in the mouth, long-lasting and rich.

86 Wieninger 2001 Riedencuvée Riesling (Wien); $NA. In a remote northern suburb of Vienna, Fritz Wieninger runs his cellar from a house that also doubles as a heurige (a wine bar that sells young wine). This young, racy Riesling is crisply steely, light and fresh with a delicious tingle of acidity.

—Roger Voss

One of the many curiosities of French wine law is that growing Riesling is banned more than 40 miles from the German frontier. The result is that Alsace is the only part of France that can grow (what is regarded in official eyes) a “foreign” grape variety.

That’s great news from the growers in Alsace, even though it is bad news for the rest of France. So long a point of contention between Germany and France, Alsace is now allowed to use its German grape varieties but must treat them in a very French way. While German Rieslings are light and often sweet, when not sipped with food, Alsace produces Rieslings that are full-bodied wines, fermented almost dry and are great with food, especially Asian cuisine.

Because of the wide range of soil types in Alsace, the styles of Riesling can vary enormously. Some are warm and approachable, some taste of apples and have brisk acidity; still others are steely and elegant. Alsatian winemakers allow nothing to come between the grapes, the soil and the finished wine. There’s no wood and no malolactic fermentation when the wine is being made.

“We are closer to Austria than to Germany,” says Laurence Faller of Domaine Weinbach. “Our climate is drier and warmer than Germany, which means we can get our grapes to ripen easily. We want our Rieslings to be dry, but with the high potential alcohol in some years, the fermentation stops, which is why some Alsace Rieslings are not quite dry.”
And there are some Alsatian Rieslings that are meant to be sweet, including Vendange Tardive wines, and Sélection de Grains Nobles, which may be sweeter and will certainly be drier. They come from superripe and maybe botrytized grapes, which means that they are similar to German Auslese or Beerenauslese, although with higher alcohol. There is nothing equal to the pure aristocratic breeding of one of these late-harvest wines made from Riesling. But they develop slowly; no Alsatian Riesling should be opened before three years of age. Grand crus typically need five years in bottle, and the late harvest wines need even more time.

Though wine enthusiasts can count on certain grand cru vineyards in Alsace (such as Schlossberg, Altenberg de Bergheim, Furstentum, Kirchberg de Ribeauvillé, Rosacker d’Hunawihr and Schoenenbourg) for the area’s best Rieslings, they can be expensive and hard to find. Below are some affordable—and still delicious—choices.

Recommended wines
89 Domaine Weinbach 2001 Riesling Réserve Personelle (Alsace); $18. Even Weinbach’s simplest Rieslings are full of intense flavors. This wine is floral, with flavors of white fruits along with a racy, crisp acidity. It is complex and concentrated, but essentially dry.

88 Domaine Trimbach 2000 Riesling (Alsace); $18. Two Rieslings produced by Trimbach—Clos Sainte-Hune and Cuvée Frédéric-Emile—are among the greatest in Alsace. But this much less expensive, dry wine has some reflected glory in its pure flavors of white fruits, mineral and lemon. It will age well over five years or more.

87 René Muré 2001 Riesling (Alsace); $NA. This wine comes from the négociant side of the Muré business, which buys grapes from the hot, sunny slopes above Rouffach, south of Colmar. The exposure gives this wine a particular richness for the year, with aromas of citrus fruits and apples. It is already ready to drink.

86 Kuentz-Bas 2000 Riesling Collection (Alsace); $NA. This small merchant house is best known for its great Vendanges Tardives. But at the simpler level, this Riesling Collection is dry and fresh, with a great floral character, deceptively light acidity and a subtly spicy aftertaste.

85 Léon Beyer 2001 Riesling (Alsace); $NA. Marc Beyer has succeeded with a crisp, mineral style of wine that can marry well with so many fish and seafood dishes.

85 Hugel et Fils 2000 Riesling (Alsace); $17. This Riesling has refinement, elegance and is ready to drink now and over the next four or five years. —Roger Voss

If there is one word that best describes the state of California Riesling it is this: confusion. Why can’t Californians even agree on what to call the grape? Is it Riesling, White Riesling or Johannisberg Riesling?

Well, it’s all of the above. Traditionally, Californians have called their version of Germany’s great white grape either White Riesling or Johannisberg Riesling. (Grey Riesling is actually another grape: Trousseau Gris.) The Johannisberg moniker is a reference to the famous German wine estate, Schloss Johannisberg, in the Rheingau.

Riesling was brought to California in the 1850s, first by way of San Jose. In 1861, Napa Valley pioneer vintner George Belden Crane planted his home region’s first Riesling grapes in St. Helena, where his efforts were critically acclaimed. Until Prohibition, the varietal was considered to be among the top tier of California’s white wines.

After Prohibition, high-end Riesling became a rarity and, by the 1980s, Chardonnay’s rising popularity led to Riesling’s demise. The value of the grape plummeted, and today little remains in the marketplace (as compared to the amount of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc produced).

Though Riesling is generally better suited to cooler growing regions, such as coastal areas of Monterey and Mendocino, Napa Valley still has a champion of the varietal in Smith-Madrone Vineyards. Located high on Spring Mountain, the winery has grown Riesling for nearly three decades. Their 2001 Riesling is the only one rated here at 90 points on the Wine Enthusiast 100-point scale.

Unfortunately, most of the wines tasted for this article were hardly exceptional. Few exhibited the refined, complex character of the best German Rieslings. Perhaps it’s not a fair comparison, considering Germany’s long tradition with the grape and many producers. Riesling is one arena where the Old World still has a solid upper edge over California.

Recommended wines
90 Smith-Madrone 2001 Riesling (Napa Valley); $17. Crisp and concentrated flavors of apples, lime and minerals are encased in fine acidity and drink steely and sleek. The residual sugar is 0.7%, which is off-dry, but the acids are so good, the wine feels dry in the mouth.

88 Greenwood Ridge 2001 White Riesling (Mendocino Ridge); $12. Almost fleshy textured, the wine is broad on the palate yet offers good acidity for balance. Grapefruit, lemon, melon, pineapple, apple and herb flavors blend nicely in a fine-tuned, elegant style. Fruit driven, but not overly sweet.

87 Handley 2002 Riesling (Mendocino); $12. A totally refreshing blend of citrus, apple, peach and pear flavors, all couched in bright textured acidity. The wine makes a fine apéritif as well as a mealtime beverage. Off dry, but hardly sweet, it’s crisp and fresh to the end.

87 Anapamu 2001 Riesling (Monterey County); $16. Showing moderate body and made in a drier style, the wine offers a hint of earthiness followed by pretty melon, peach, herb and citrus flavors. Crisp and clean on the finish, with a toasty, fruity hint at the end.

87 Maddalena 2002 Riesling (Monterey); $10. Full-bodied and viscous on the palate, the wine is balanced by bright acidity that gives it good focus. Peach, grapefruit, apple and spice notes are followed by a lemony fresh finish. Quite fruity in style and fairly sweet.

86 J. Lohr 2002 Bay Mist Riesling (Monterey); $8. Bright, fresh, fruity and light bodied, with pretty peach, apple and spice flavors that leave a crisp and clean finish. Fairly sweet, but refreshing.

—Jeff Morgan

In the Pacific Northwest, consumers love their Rieslings. Riesling is so popular up here that it attracts interlopers, such as Bonny Doon’s Randall Grahm, who makes “The Heart Has Its Riesling” from Washington grapes.

“Riesling’s coming back in favor again,” says John Bookwalter, whose Yakima Valley winery makes about 2,500 cases annually in a vivid, powerful style. “Five years ago we could hardly give it away; today I have distributors looking for more, particularly in the Washington style.”

The “Washington style”—juicy, vibrant, off-dry and tart with ripe citrus fruits—is perfectly expressed in the nation’s bestselling varietal Riesling, Chateau Ste. Michelle’s Johannisberg Riesling. Though more than 600,000 cases were sold last year, the wine is still allocated. It seems that Washington simply can’t grow enough Riesling to meet demand.

Neither can Oregon. “We are hoping for 50,000 cases from 2003, but truthfully could easily handle upwards of 75,000 cases,” notes Tim Woodhead, marketing director for Bridgeview Vineyards, the largest Riesling producer in the state.

In its hard-to-miss blue bottle, Bridgeview’s Blue Moon Riesling is a proven crowd-pleaser that’s even edgier than the Washington wines. And it’s not alone in Oregon; most Willamette Valley wineries make a few thousand cases of Riesling, and sell every bottle.
The Pacific Northwest is truly Riesling country, from the most northern Okanagan vineyards (in British Columbia) all the way south to Bridgeview, which is just across the California border in the southwest corner of Oregon. Though Washington alone has more acres of Riesling than California—2,291 acres versus 2,049 acres (as of 2000)—toss in Oregon’s 600-plus acres and the Pacific Northwest grows nearly 50 percent more Riesling than California, even without counting Idaho and British Columbia. And its popularity continues to climb, with Riesling the cash-flow wine at tasting rooms throughout the region.

There are subtle stylistic differences among the region’s far-flung Rieslings, but they all seem to tie together in terms of bright fruit, high acids and that touch of sweetness, whether from actual residual sugar or the intense, ripe fruitiness of the grapes. Cooler climates, extra hours of daylight and significant temperature drops overnight help to create the characteristic fresh, floral aromas, the bright flavors of citrus and apricot fruit, and plenty of acid zip through the finish.

Recommended wines
89 Chateau Ste. Michelle 2002 Cold Creek Vineyard Riesling (Columbia Valley); $11. Cold Creek may just be the best Riesling vineyard in Washington; in this new vintage, fresh scents of citrus and citrus rind open into melon and tangerine flavors, set against a bit of lively spritz. The finish is long and concentrated.

89 J. Bookwalter 2002 Johannisberg Riesling (Columbia Valley); $8. Vivid, powerful and fragrant with lush, floral scents. The lip-smacking fruit tastes of ripe orange and citrus. Though it is made in an off-dry style, it retains plenty of acid, which slices through the sweetness and makes it fine for spicy foods.

88 Elk Cove 2001 Riesling (Willamette Valley); $12. Great fruit is the story here. There are lovely scents of honeysuckle and spice, and the fruit sets up a creamy, lush, textured mouthfeel.

88 Willamette Valley Vineyards 2001 Riesling (Oregon); $8. With its 11% alcohol, peachy fruit and finishing crispness, this is an Oregon Rheingau, fleshy and refreshing.

87 Bridgeview 2002 Blue Moon Riesling (Oregon); $8. Bridgeview’s trademark wine, in its standout blue bottle. Quite tart, tangy and lemony, it jams the fruit and acid together in a luscious, food-friendly style.

87 Covey Run 2002 Late Harvest Riesling (Yakima Valley); $9. Despite the “late harvest” label, this wine is not overly sweet. It’s pleasantly juicy, with clean, ripe flavors of apricot and tangerine.

—Paul Gregutt

As the President of the United States might say, “My fellow Americans, the state of the Riesling is good.” Partly because of its reputation for withstanding the harsh climates of Northern Europe, Riesling has been planted across several northern states, most notably New York and Michigan, and flourishes across the border in Ontario. Even North Carolina has gotten aboard the Riesling train.

But just because Riesling is planted doesn’t mean it is making great wine. New York’s Finger Lakes region, with its steep hillsides and narrow strips of water, has often been compared to Germany’s Rhine valley. But with different soils and weather, and a viticultural tradition that’s very recent compared to Germany’s, that comparison is only superficial. Still, it is far and away the country’s leading Riesling region outside the West Coast—with one exception, the wines recommended below all come from upstate New York.

Finger Lakes Rieslings come in three basic flavors: dry, semi-dry and dessert. Dry versions are often, but not always, labeled as such, while semi-dry is the most common and what you can expect in most cases if the label doesn’t indicate otherwise. Ice wines, like those made by the region’s northern neighbors in Ontario, are less uniformly successful, in part because of milder winter temperatures. Outside New York, Riesling’s performance is spotty. But give it another four years. By then, maybe the state of the grape will be “strong.”

Recommended wines
90 Silver Thread 2002 Riesling (Finger Lakes); $13. Although the aromas are sweet, oozing with pear nectar, stone fruit, dried spices and apple blossoms, this wine features only 1.5% residual sugar. It’s fairly big for a Finger Lakes Riesling, with a slightly oily texture, and comes across as being close to dry thanks to firm acids on the finish. The only problem with this wine is its limited availability. Best Buy.

89 Standing Stone 2002 Riesling (Finger Lakes); $12. Atypically ripe, weighty and intense for a Finger Lakes wine, with pear and peach notes buttressed by minerally dry extract. The mouthfeel is thick and viscous and the alcohol level a relatively high 13.1%, but it finishes long and elegantly, with tongue-tingling acids. Best Buy.

88 Bedell 2001 Late Harvest Riesling (North Fork of Long Island); $35/375 ml. It’s picked late, when the grapes are superripe, then winemaker Kip Bedell puts them in a freezer prior to crush to further concentrate the resulting must. The result is a thick, gooey, unctuous dessert wine with flavors of tangerines and honey.

88 Red Newt Cellars 2002 Riesling (Finger Lakes); $13. Comes close to a Germanic style, with tight, lean citrusy aromas and flavors balanced by green apples and pears. It’s light and refreshing, never heavy or ponderous. Finishes long and tart, full of fresh limes, with just a pinch of sugar for balance. Best Buy.

87 Hunt Country 2002 Dry Riesling (Finger Lakes); $10. This wine starts slowly, but a little bit of air really loosens it up, yielding aromas of vegetable oil, apples and spring flowers. In the mouth, it’s light in body yet crisply flavored, with Granny Smiths dominating. Enough floral elements persist on the palate to provide moderate complexity. Best Buy.

87 Logan Ridge 2002 Riesling (Finger Lakes); $9. On the sweet side, but it’s also crisp, with enough zesty acidity to provide balance. Floral, appley and refreshingly light, this is a fine picnic wine. A chalky note gives added depth to the finish. Best Buy.

— Joe Czerwinski

Until 2000, wines labeled “Riesling” could either be made from the grape of the same name, or were generic, blended white wines. And until the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation mandated three years ago that 85 percent of wines labeled “Riesling” had to be, well, Riesling, the word was not always synonymous with quality.

Buying “real” Australian Riesling today feels almost foolproof. The wines are typically dry, with white stone fruit and citrus flavors, and a chalky, minerally mouthfeel. Most retail in the moderate $10 to $20 price range, with good quality overall. Of the 25 wines sampled for this article, none received lower than an 85-point rating.

“My wines have always been the best reflection of the variety and the site,” says Jeffrey Grosset, winemaker and owner of Grosset Wines, whose Polish Hill Riesling (91 points, $30) was the top Australian Riesling reviewed. Grosset’s winery is in Clare Valley, a cool-climate region 70 miles north of Adelaide that is widely regarded as the epicenter of the country’s best Riesling. The valley’s long, hot summer days are countered with chilly nighttime temperatures that, the winemaker explains, “helps retain the acidity in the fruit.”

Clare Valley may reign as the country’s Riesling capital, but Eden Valley, a subsection of the Barossa, and Frankland River, in Western Australia, are also producing quality bottlings. Yalumba’s Rieslings hail from Eden Valley, as do Henschke’s 2002 Julius (89 points, $25) and Penfolds’ 2002 Reserve Bin Riesling (87 points, $19). Frankland River is home to Alkoomi (2002 Riesling, 88 points, $17) and Frankland Estate, whose Cooladerra Vineyard Riesling (89 points, $18) offers clean lime and grass notes.

In 2002, just under 9,800 acres of Riesling were planted in Australia. In 1980, the figure hovered around 10,300 acres. Compared to Chardonnay, with nearly 54,800 acres planted last year (and around 1,400 in 1980), Riesling’s popularity has been sure and steady. But it will always have a home in Australia.

“Riesling [in Australia] is the Barbie doll,” says Jane Ferrari, winemaker at Yalumba. “It’s the toy we’ve always had, and when we tire of the other toys, we go back to the Barbie.”

Recommended wines
91 Grosset 2002 Polish Hill Riesling (Clare Valley); $30. On the nose, it yields a little sweetness, plus some grapefruit and passion fruit; after a few minutes in the glass, the passion fruit aromas are joined by kiwi and other fresh tropical fruit. It’s a dry Riesling, with strong lime and fresh herbal flavors, which makes the mineral foundation seem drier and more racy. Finishes medium-long with grapefruit and putty flavors. Drink now—2011.

90 Jim Barry 2002 The Lodge Hill Riesling (Clare Valley); $15. Though it’s crisp and fresh in the mouth, this wine has some weight to it. Starts off with a burst of sweet fruit, and a limey, grassy streak carries it through to the finish. Nose is fruity, with nectarine and mango highlights. Editors’ Choice.

90 Leasingham 2002 Bin 7 Riesling (Clare Valley); $16. Lively, with brisk acidity, the Bin 7 has lime, grass and mineral notes and just enough viscosity to remind you that it’s Riesling, not Sauvignon Blanc. Finishes long and fresh, with sour apple flavors. Editors’ Choice.

90 Mitchell 2001 Watervale Riesling (Clare Valley); $19. This is a lean, fresh Riesling with white stone fruit at its core. Grass and mineral—even waxy—flavors freshen up the palate, and floral and saffron notes waft from the nose. Lemon rind and viscous sour apple flavors linger on the finish.

90 Wynns 2002 Riesling (Coonawarra); $12. Well balanced and medium bodied, this isn’t a zesty, acidic Riesling. Instead, it’s rather feminine, with pretty sunflower, honey and peach fuzz flavors swathed in chalk. The nose has nice, waxy yellow melon and citrus notes. Delicate, easy to find, and a bargain to boot. Best Buy.

89 Pikes 2002 Riesling (Clare Valley); $18. Tastes and smells fresh and sweet, like freshly mown hay and nectarines. The overall impression here is one of freshness, really, from its crisp, summery flavors to its zippy mouthfeel.

—Daryna McKeand

Published on August 1, 2003