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Usually when I send one of these articles to my editor at FT Weekend Magazine, I ask for its subject to be made very clear at the beginning. This week, I’m hoping to disguise my topic until I have lured you into at least the second paragraph, because I know what a turn-off it is for many of you, and yet I really, really want you to come to know and love it.
No, the subject is not reduced-alcohol wine. Nor Bordeaux primeurs, which the wine-consuming chattering classes have decided is the most boring sort of wine there is. What I want to draw your attention to is the world’s greatest white wine grape. Not Chardonnay. This grape makes wines that go much better with food than the heavier and often oakier Chardonnay. Its wines also express place more eloquently than almost any other white wine grape. And they continue to develop interestingly and reliably (none of this premature oxidation nonsense) in bottle not just for years but for decades.
My hero is, of course, the grape that dares neither speak nor spell its name – Riesling, pronounced Reece-ling and misspelt almost as often as it is mispronounced. Most of the wine trade loves it for the aforementioned qualities but many wine drinkers dislike it. I used to think this was because Riesling has so much flavour that its strength of personality puts people off. But the popularity of Sauvignon Blanc, equally powerfully perfumed (and, in some cases, equally sweet), casts doubt on that theory.
The sweetness level of Rieslings is controversial. In the old, chilly, pre-climate change days when they were pushing yields at the expense of ripeness, the Germans often covered up the tartness of their meagre Riesling with sugar. Today, most decent Riesling producers, wherever they are in the world, can ripen it fully and, if they choose, can ferment all the grape sugar out into alcohol, producing a bone-dry wine. The majority of Riesling now sold in Germany, particularly that produced in more southerly wine regions, is dry (trocken), or just off-dry and probably described on the label as feinherb, a name that Germans find more attractive than halbtrocken (half-dry).
In fact, since the late 20th century there has been a dramatic change in the taste profile of Riesling sold in Germany, so that most of it now is deliberately dry-tasting with just a few very sweet, depending on vintage conditions and whether they favour the development of botrytis, or noble rot, which concentrates the sugars. This leaves a great gap in between. Traditionalists lament the withering of categories such as Kabinett and Spätlese, which used to be perceptibly fruity without being all that sweet.
Only in the Mosel Valley and, in particular, in its even cooler tributaries the Saar and Ruwer, have most mainstream producers stood by their guns and continued to champion defiantly fruity Rieslings. The likes of Egon Müller and Zilliken are still making featherlight Kabinett and Spätlese with only about 8 per cent alcohol (most Chardonnay is 13 per cent) and lots of unfermented but beautifully balanced sugar. What stops these wines from being sickly is the crystalline acidity retained in the grapes this far north, so that you have a nervy, racy, utterly refreshing style of wine not made anywhere else on the planet. These develop such complex aromas over time that the perfume can truly be called a bouquet. They can be sipped virtually at any time of day – though most are too delicate to be served with anything but the lightest food.
Riesling is not naturally very alcoholic but, thanks to that strong personality, it certainly isn’t short of flavour. In Australia, the world’s second most prolific grower of Riesling grapes after Germany, the climate is quite warm enough to ripen every Riesling grape to the max. The challenge is to retain acidity, so virtually all Australian Riesling is bone dry. There is no need for any softening sweetness. The two Riesling hotspots of South Australia, Clare and Eden Valleys, offer lime, toast and sometimes flowers, as well as the ability to age for at least 10 years – or more, now that virtually all Australian Riesling is stoppered by screw cap rather than cork. In the Great Southern region of Western Australia, very fine dry Riesling, in a markedly more herbal style, can be made. Australian Rieslings tend to be between 11.5 and 13 per cent alcohol and can make great partners for the sort of fusion, often spicy, food that Australian-trained chefs revel in.
Alsace and Austria also have long histories of producing dry Rieslings, including some of the finest in the world. I have rarely encountered a disappointing dry Riesling from Josmeyer, Trimbach or Domaine Weinbach (Faller) in Alsace, nor from Bründlmayer, Hirtzberger, Knoll or Prager in Austria.
But now growers in cooler parts of New Zealand, South Africa, Chile and the US are delivering accomplished dry Rieslings too. Framingham in Marlborough caught my attention with its spookily authentic answers to sweeter German Rieslings but I have recently been blown away by their drier versions modelled on Alsace’s best. A little further south in the South Island, Pegasus Bay is another of New Zealand’s rare Riesling specialists.
Cono Sur, the most inventive of the producers owned by the Chilean giant Concha y Toro, has been experimenting with Riesling for years in its coolest southerly vineyards. But the two most impressive Chilean Rieslings to have come my way recently are from Cousiño-Macul’s very old vines, brought from Germany in the 19th century, and from the new coastal wine region of San Antonio well to the north.
North American Riesling has tended to be rather sweeter than the wines described above but the Finger Lakes in New York state now make some fine dry Riesling and one of the two German-US joint ventures that has transformed the fortunes of Riesling in Washington state, and the US market, is also making a good, if much more powerful, example. Dry Riesling is a great wine for the table.
Some Impressive Dry Whites
● Jim Barry, The Lodge Hill Dry Riesling 2013, Clare Valley, £9.99, Co-op, Majestic, Tesco
● Jim Barry, The Florita Riesling 2009, Clare Valley, £23, Hennings, Jeroboams
● Grosset, Springvale Riesling 2013, Clare Valley, £20, The Wine Society, Slurp.co.uk, Exel Wines
● Grosset, Polish Hill Riesling 2013, Clare Valley, £25, The Wine Society, Nicholls & Perks, Noel Young
● Henschke, Julius Riesling 2013, Eden Valley, £21.50, Great Western Wines, Exel Wines
● Pegasus Bay, Bel Canto Dry Riesling 2011, Waipara, £17.46, Bottle Apostle, The Good Wine Shop
● Framingham, F-Series Old Vine Riesling 2012, Marlborough, £21.29, Noel Young, Hedonism, Joseph Barnes
● Casa Marín, Miramar Vineyard Riesling 2011, San Antonio, £21.90, Hedonism
● Cousiño-Macul, Isidora Riesling 2013, Maipo, US
● Long Shadows, Poet’s Leap Riesling, 2011, Columbia Valley
Illustration by Ingram Pinn