Wine Talk: Emerald, but not really Riesling

A cross between two grapes, Emerald Riesling is the leading semi-dry white wine sold in Israel.

Winery 521 (photo credit: Aaron Hecht)
Winery 521
(photo credit: Aaron Hecht)
The Emerald Riesling grape first appeared in 1948, a very important year, which coincided with the birth of the State of Israel. It was therefore perhaps a foregone conclusion that it would go on to feature in a significant way in Israel.
Emerald Riesling was a cross of a fairly ordinary, boring grape variety with a great one. Prof. H.P. Olmo of the University of California at Davis produced the cleverly named Emerald Riesling from the Muscadelle and Riesling grapes. The idea was to replicate some of the characteristics of the cool-climate Riesling in a new variety that would give better yields and be more suitable in a warmer climate.
It was originally planted in California with its partner red, a vine called Ruby Cabernet, which also saw the light of day in 1948. This was a cross between Carignan and Cabernet Sauvignon. The Carignan was very productive, and the Cabernet Sauvignon more full of character. The combination of the two was an attempt to upgrade the Carignan, which was then considered a workhorse grape for inexpensive, high-volume blends.
In California, it was the Ruby Cabernet that proved more popular than Emerald Riesling, though neither could be described as successful.
In the 1970s they made aliya together, brought here by the Israeli Wine Institute. The Ruby Cabernet is still planted here but scarcely made any impression.
On the other hand, Emerald Riesling became a big hit, becoming Israel’s most popular wine.
In Israel of the 1960s, most of the wine drunk was sweetish. The two largest selling table wines were Carmel Hock, a medium-dry to medium-sweet white wine, and Adom Atik, an off-dry red wine. In the 1970s these wines were superseded by the delicately colored Grenache Rosé. During those years, Israelis started a move towards preferring to drink white wines. By the mid 1980s, 75 percent of the wine sales were whites, and the largest-selling wine by a long shot was the Selected Emerald Riesling. Until the late 1990s, Emerald Riesling was king of the Israeli wine scene.
In the 2000s, red wines asserted themselves, and there has been an absolute turnaround. Some 70% of the sales are now red wines. “Selected” is still the most popular-selling brand, but the largest-selling wines are Yarden Mount Hermon Red, Selected Merlot and Selected Cabernet Sauvignon. All are red wines. Emerald Riesling is a declining force.
Most of the Emerald Riesling vineyards are planted in the southern Mount Carmel region or in the Central Coastal Plain. The resulting Emerald Riesling is a semi-dry wine, very aromatic, though less so than a Muscat or Gewurztraminer. It has a blowzy, flowery character and a slightly spicy finish. It is the perfect wine to go with Chinese food and is a great aperitif. In its heyday, it was most popular as a wine for all those who found dry wines too acidic. Many new wine drinkers arrived in the world of wine via Emerald Riesling. It performed the same job in Israel that Lambrusco and Liebfraumilch did in the US and the UK, respectively.
The humble Emerald Riesling should not be confused with the noble Riesling variety, which produces world-famous wines in Germany, Austria and Alsace. The quality Riesling may be known as White Riesling in America, Rhine Riesling in Australia, Johannisberg Riesling in Israel or as just plain Riesling in Europe. The real Riesling is one of the greatest white wines grapes, which produces wines that are more delicate and more sophisticated than Emerald.
However, Emerald Riesling is still available and remains popular. It is true that Gewurztraminer has become the new “in” semi-dry wine for those wanting a quality upgrade, but Emerald Riesling is still the leading semi-dry white wine sold in Israel. Israel does not have its own indigenous varieties and Emerald Riesling, though brought here from California, may be said to have succeeded in only one country and that is Israel!
Choice Wines:
ENTRY LEVEL – under NIS 25.
Selected Emerald Riesling 2010
The “original.”Semi-dry, very aromatic with a flowery aroma. Full flavored and slightly spicy.
Tishbi French Riesling 2010
A fragrant, fruity blend of Emerald Riesling with French Colombard. Refreshing.
Classic Emerald Riesling 2010
Notes of citrus, pineapple, a pleasant sweetness and refreshing finish.
BEST VALUE – under NIS 50.
Carmel Private Collection Emerald Riesling 2010
A modern style. Aromatic and off dry. Delicate sweetness but with very good balancing acidity.
Barkan Reserve Emerald Riesling 2010
Attractive fruity aroma with a clean, refreshing finish. Perfect accompaniment for Asian cuisine.
Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about Israeli wine for Israeli and international publications. [email protected]