Wine Talk: Racy Riesling

After being neglected for years, the noble grape is making its way back to its much-deserved status among wine connoisseurs.

Riesling grapes are harvested in a vineyard in Rhoendorf nea (photo credit: (Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters ))
Riesling grapes are harvested in a vineyard in Rhoendorf nea
(photo credit: (Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters ))
Riesling is back in! Tel Avivians may have noticed “The Summer of Riesling” promotion in leading restaurants last August and seen signs and T-shirts with “I Love Riesling” plastered everywhere. It is certainly a welcome focus on one of the world’s greatest grape varieties.
It is hard to believe, but in the 19th century Rieslings had the same status and price as red Bordeaux. The rich drinking classes shipped their hock, as it was called, from Germany, and their claret from Bordeaux.
Yet whereas Bordeaux managed to maintain its excellence and its image until today, Riesling rather fell away for a number of reasons.
Firstly, at exactly the same time that New World wines were being marketed and labeled innovatively, with the idea of being more consumer-friendly, German labels were seen as hard to read and difficult to understand. Also the German wine laws were considered too complicated.
Then, in search of volume, producers chose to satisfy the needs of the mass market at the bottom end of the quality spectrum, supplying a wine called Liebfraumilch.
The most successful of these was the imaginatively named Blue Nun, developed by a family with German Jewish roots called Sichel. It became the largest-selling wine.
(The Sichel family has a much respected status in today’s wine trade.) These wines sold a bundle, but they were simple medium to medium dry wines with a sugary sweetness, and some of them had very little Riesling in them. The success of these wines may have catapulted the sales of German wines into the stratosphere, but by association the perceived quality of the German and Riesling brand was damaged for a generation or more.
It did not help that there was a host of different Rieslings on the supermarket shelves that proudly boasted the Riesling name but had absolutely nothing to do with the great German Riesling. Laski Riesling, Lutomer Riesling, Olasz Riesling, Welsch Riesling, Cape Riesling, Gray Riesling and Riesling Italico were all reasonably well known. Yet they produced relatively simple wines, and none approached the sheer class and finesse of a true Riesling. No wonder the consumer learned to undervalue Rieslings. Who would not be confused? In Israel we had our own Riesling imposter.
Emerald Riesling was developed by the University of California at Davis from a cross between Riesling and Muscadelle.
It was designed to succeed in warmer climates. Ironically, it first appeared in 1948, the year of the founding of the State of Israel, and was first planted in Israel in the 1970s.
Funnily enough, it did not succeed anywhere else but Israel, where it performed exactly the same job as Liebfraumilch. It succeeded in attracting a host of new wine drinkers and became the largest-selling Israeli wine in the 1980s and ’90s. The wines were semi-dry, blowsy, very aromatic and slightly spicy. Good drinking wines definitely, but even the finest Emerald Riesling could never be mistaken for the genuine article.
When you find “Riesling” written on its own on the label, as is often the case in Europe, it is usually the German Riesling. If you see either White Riesling (in America), Rhine Riesling (in Australia), Johannisberg Riesling (in Israel), Weisser Riesling and Rheinriesling (both in Austria) or Riesling Renano (Friuli-Venezia Giulia in Italy), rest assured. They are all synonyms for the real McCoy.
The finest Rieslings in the world are made in Germany, Alsace and Austria. It is a very versatile grape, producing the whole gamut of wine styles from still to sparkling and from bone dry to luscious sweet. The wines are truly authentic and reflect a real sense of place.
The lightest and most refreshing style of Riesling may come from the Mosel Valley.
Here, the vineyards are planted on sheer south-facing slopes, on slate soils, which fall away towards the Mosel River. They can be difficult enough to walk in, let alone harvest, but they are some of the most beautiful vineyards in the world.
These racy Rieslings traditionally come in a green fluted bottle, with an elegant long neck. They will have a delicate floral perfume reminiscent of wild flowers with a whiff of honeysuckle, often a touch of sweetness and an underlying crispness of green apple and lime. With age, they develop the petrol, kerosene notes associated with the variety. Sounds pretty dire, but many Riesling aficionados look for this in older Rieslings.
The Rieslings from the Rheingau and Pfalz regions, traditionally in brown fluted bottles, have a little more body. The wines from the Nahe region are closer to Mosel.
The sweetness will depend on the ripeness classification from Kabinett, Spatlese, Auslese through to the dessert wines. Variations on a theme, but the aroma and acidity stand out whatever the style.
In Alsace, the Rieslings are different but no less prized. Their wines tend to be higher alcohol, fuller bodied, more aromatic and almost spicy, yet bone dry. In Austria, the Rieslings seem to be richer, maybe with an oilier texture. Though different, they are all superb expressions of this unique variety.
In Australia, the immigrants from Germany bought Riesling to the Barossa Valley, where it succeeds particularly well in Clare and Eden Valleys. Their Rieslings are fruitier. The state of Washington in the US and Ontario in Canada are also making good Rieslings.
Of course, the most sublime Riesling wines are the luscious dessert wines. These are made either from frozen grapes (the German Eiswein or Canadian Icewine) or from rotten grapes, where the grapes are affected by botrytis or noble rot (Beerenauslese or Trockenbeerenauslese). The wonderful honeyed Riesling aroma is concentrated, and the grape’s high acidity ensures these very sweet wines do not become too cloying.
These are some of the most delicious wines on the planet.
The key to Riesling’s success in matching with food is the high acidity, the lower alcohol and absence of perceptible oak aging.
Perfect with mezze, fish, light poultry dishes and Asian food. The touch of sweetness in some expressions can offset heat and spice in Mexican and Cajun cooking. It will even work well to tone down a spicy Moroccan fish dish.
There are many good imported Rieslings.
I suggest you try the wines for both your wine education and enjoyment. They are ideal for our climate and our cuisine and represent great value.
Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine in Israeli and international publications. [email protected]
Local Riesling
In Israel, German Riesling is rare but it does exist; some quality Rieslings are shown below
BEST QPR – between NIS 45 and NIS 60
Gamla White Riesling 2012
A light-bodied, semi-dry wine that is fragrant and refreshing, produced in the high-altitude Golan Heights. It has a dancing fragrant nose of tropical fruit balanced by citrus: melon and peach undercut by lime. Great example of an Israeli Riesling. Good value.
Teperberg Silver Late Harvest White Riesling 2012
A sweet dessert wine from a vineyard in the Judean foothills. The wine has tropical aromas, a hint of peach and pear with a backdrop of vanilla from oak aging.
Should be served very cold.
Carmel Single Vineyard Riesling, Kayoumi 2012
From the celebrated Kayoumi vineyard in the shadow of Mount Meron. Mediumbodied with green yellow tints, the wine has an aroma of white flowers, green apple and lime. Will continue to age well and develop complexity. Arguably Israel’s finest Riesling.
Vitkin Johannisberg Riesling 2012 (Not kosher) This is a crisp, acidic dry wine with aromas of forest flowers and lemony citrus fruit. There is also a good minerality. The wine is produced from Judean Hills vineyards by Vitkin Winery.
Excellent example of a quality Israeli Riesling.