Usually discussion of the wine theme of the month and the notes on the subsequent tasting are separated by 4 or 5 days. This month, however, events have overtaken me somewhat so I’m posting them together. Apologies for such a long read. I hope it’s worth it!

As you may know, Riesling is my favourite white grape, by quite a long way, and a leading candidate for favourite grape of any colour. It can make sparkling wine, wines from light to rich, from dazzlingly steely dryness to dessert wines and every gradation in between. It can show oily, limey fragrance – delicate floral notes – pungent diesel – honey, elderflower and acacia… in many combinations. It can be herby, slatey, fruity – peaches, melon, gooseberry… mineral, chalky, citrusy – from lime to lemon to mandarin, honeyed, with orange peel, cinnamon, spices…

It is the German grape! Although planted throughout the world, there is only about half as much as (say) Sauvignon Blanc, and less than a third as much as Chardonnay. About half of the World’s Riesling is in Germany, with USA, Australia and France (entirely in Alsace) having up to 10%. Ukraine contributes 5%, Austria 4%, then Moldova, Croatia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Czech Republic and NZ are all at around 2%.

In Germany, of course, the majority of Riesling is neither dry (trocken) nor off dry (halbtrocken). The great Riesling areas around the Mosel and Rhine are cool for wine production and Riesling is a highly acidic grape variety. The wonderful searing acidity has traditionally been balanced with some natural sweetness, not all the grape sugar being converted to alcohol. That is why a traditional German Riesling will have around 2% or 3% (occasionally even more) of its potential alcohol left as residual sugar. This makes a fabulous wine for drinking without, or before, food.

In Germany now, though, perhaps as much as 40% of Rieslings are trocken or halbtrocken, wines produced more for the table. However, these categories permit roughly twice or four times – respectively – as much sugar as a typical dry wine elsewhere. Against this it must be said that Riesling will usually have twice as much acid as a normal dry wine. Balancing high sweetness and high acidity is the challenge of making wine from this grape.

In my view the success of these more modern styles depends rather on the nature of the area. Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, for example, is at the same latitude as the South Coast of England, and the acidity is so strong and limey that dry versions seem unbalanced. Losing the sweetness seems to actually reduce the fruit and mineral qualities too. The Nähe and Rheingau have some famous Halbtrocken but in most cases the traditional styles still seem more reliable to me.

However the Pfalz is by far the warmest area with softer acids, and is geographically similar to Alsace where wines are usually fully or nearly dry. So here the Trocken and Halbtrocken styles can be very successful.

Alsace and Austria make great dry Rieslings, which can age wonderfully to show a dazzling number of notes overlaying each other. Better examples often show a mineral note that underpins the wine and allows it to develop its diesel and honey character without any heaviness as the wine matures.

In the Old World plantings are concentrated in cooler – long season – sites where it flourishes, particularly with a “heat advantage” of steep south facing slopes, or soil with high mineral content. In the New World the opposite is true – cooler, oceanic or altitude, sites are better: giving grapes cooler nights during which their acidity develops.

New World wines often show an oily pre-cursor of the honey and diesel but only exceptional versions really mature. In general they have a deeper flavour and the citrus acidity is often more reminiscent of lime cordial than fresh limes. Good examples tend to be concentrated in cooler areas: Eden Valley in Australia, Oregon or Washington rather than California in the USA. New Zealand – as with an increasing number of grapes – offers a cooler climate style, and Chile, especially in the South, is starting to make Rieslings.

These places don’t tend to bother with the medium styles but concentrate on more or less dry – or dessert – examples. While the heat of many New World countries helps, rather than hinders, rich dessert wines the key to both styles is acidity.

The central feature of Riesling is its racy, supple acidity, which supports the sugar when the wines are not dry. It also preserves the fruit flavours and complexity while aging all styles of Riesling. When the acidity becomes unbalanced the result can produce (occasionally) steely unyielding examples but, more usually, heavy, ponderous examples – the very antithesis of what good Riesling is about.

So in this month’s tasting we’ll look at Riesling from 6 different countries, and to be fair to each country the wines will all be dry (ish?), and of similar price. What we are trying to see is which wine best pulls off the balancing act of acid and richness, pungency and delicacy…
I plan to serve all the wines blind to aid an objective appraisal, and hope to find out which wines show best, without price and national characteristics interfering.

The notes from the tasting are below.

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The ICC group tasted the 6 Rieslings shown above, blind. All were in the £12 – £16 price range and so value is determined entirely by quality. Below are my notes and my scores, made at the time of the blind tasting. I also show the average score for the whole (24 people strong) group. As there were 7 people absent I vacuumed another sample of each wine and tasted that 24 hours later with a (rather challenging) Chorizo pizza! The later (sighted) notes and subsequent thoughts and information are added in italics.

STE MICHELLE 2011 (Washington, USA) 12%
Diesel and peach nose. Slightly prickly palate, dashing acidity which recedes leaving a mineral note. Against this the sweetness mounts and increases focus with time, but the palate is slightly short by the highest standards
Ratings: Mine: 14/20 Group Ave.: 14.00
Later: the aromatics hold up and the sweetness is apparent and a soft balance therefore (this, sandy soil, example in fact has nearly 3 times as much sugar [22g/l] as any of the others). With the spicy food the sweetness turns from a critical disadvantage to a definite positive. One of the wines that seemed to improve.

WACHENHEIMER TROCKEN 2011 (Burklin-Wolf)  (Pfalz, Germany) 13%
Slightly deeper colour but a quieter nose. Grapefruit acidity and some length. Hints of peach emerge as the wine warms, and even a more tropical (banana?) notes. Longer and more mouth watering than the first wine.
Ratings: Mine: 15/20 Group Ave.: 14.1
Later: Better integrated than before. The acidity seems warmer, more lime than grapefruit, and peachy fruit more to the fore. Another “improver”!

GRAND CRU KAEFFERKOPF 2008 (Schaetzel) (Alsace, France) 13%
More golden colour. Diesel / polish nose, with honey, citrus and a hint of stone fruit on the nose. Palate is dry with a sour stone fruit character. Very long and mouth watering. The fruit grows slowly through the tasting. Lovely!
Ratings: Mine: 18/20 Group Ave.: 16.1
Later: More diesel, supple and complex, still just as good!

SPIOENKOP 2010 (Elgin, S. Africa) 13%
Quite restrained nose – the merest hint of dried flowers and green fruit. Round palate with pithy citric acidity, dryish with a sour stoney apricot fruit element. All fades in a diminishing profile. Not entirely typical or satisfying.
Ratings: Mine: 14/20 Group Ave.: 12.8
Later: Little change. Acidity seems even more bitter and harsh. Rather underwhelming and my score seems high.

DOMAIN ROAD “WATER RACE” 2011 (Central Otago, New Zealand) 12½%
Quite a quiet nose with “Pre-diesel” notes – citrus then a slightly stoney stone fruit tone! Warm palate, with gingery notes, limey acidity and over-ripe peach. Again not quite typical and a touch young? Good though.
Ratings: Mine: 16/20 Group Ave.: 16.0
Later: shows little development, in fact the lovely acidity seems clearer than the fruit notes, making the overall wine seem a little thinner and less impressive. So the “young” verdict isn’t likely to be redeemed with time. Still good, but a little less impressive… I think I prefer the “Earth’s End” Central Otago Riesling we tasted last week – though it’s interesting both show a warm, gingery note….

O’LEARY WALKER POLISH HILL RIVER 2012 (Clare Valley, Australia) 12½%
Very text book diesel and peach nose with perfume hints. Palate has softer acidity – oranges rather than lime but with a bitter twist and some balancing fruit. A little short.
Ratings: Mine: 15/20 Group Ave.: 14.8
Later: the nose is lost but the acidity is still (or even more?) tightly wound as if the wine was even younger!? Perhaps the acidity has some character of green picking, presumably done to give high acidity. Another wine that hasn’t held up or progressed. This has the highest acidity and lowest sugar, so perhaps constructed to be drunk immediately or cellared for a while?

Overall, an interesting tasting with quite close family resemblance – as you would expect – with all the wines. The scoring pattern was much closer than the last tasting like this in January (for Syrah). The scoring range for all but one wine was a mere 6 points. The exception was the South African – for which the range was twice as wide… very unusual.

I like this wine – there’s no two ways about it. I find it interesting that the Alsace showed well at the tasting and 24 hours later – a consequence of its maturity I think. The “improvers” were the relative cool wines from Washington USA and Germany. The Southern Hemisphere wines did not improve.

An interesting and enjoyable end to the ICC season.

Until next time.

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