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. So it’s a pity that I can’t be at the tasting this week. But those attending are in exceptionally good hands with Ralph Northwood.

Riesling 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 about  half of Riesling is neither dry (trocken) nor off-dry (halbtrocken or, increasingly, Feinherbe [see post of September 17th 2015 – worth reading again if I say so myself]).

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 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 that aged Old World Rieslings achieve, but only exceptional New World 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, and in New Zealand which can offer – as with an increasing number of grapes – a cooler climate style.

In Germany now, though, much more wine is produced for the table in a much dryer style. However, trocken wine permits roughly twice  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 sweetness with high acidity is the challenge of making wine from this grape in cooler places.

In my view the success of these more modern German styles depends rather on the nature of the area. Mosel (which includes the Saar and the Ruwer now), for example, is at the same latitude as the South Coast of England, and the acidity is so strong and limey that dry versions can 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 Rhein-Pfalz, 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.

The central feature of Riesling is its racy, supple acidity, which supports the sugar when the wines are not dry and underpins an amazing array of scents and flavours:  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…

Acidity also preserves the fruit flavours and complexity while aging all styles of Riesling for 10, 15, 20 plus years. 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 Ralph will look at Riesling from 3 different countries: Austria; New Zealand and Germany. Hopefully you will see which wines best pull off the balancing act of acid and richness, pungency and delicacy…

It would be great to be there but I cannot – if anyone tasting wants to e-mail me their notes I’ll publish a report in a around a week.

Happy imbibing!

À bientôt