Tuesday, December 27, 2011


Riesling has a bad rap with many wine drinkers, who often think of it strictly as a sweet wine. While several are made that way, there are many not-so-sweet versions out there. Products of Riesling include dry, medium and sweet wines. Some are even capable of aging due to the grape’s higher acid level. You may even see some on oak.
The grape itself is an aromatic one with higher sugar levels, which does not help its reputation. While not as intense as some others we will get to later, you will often detect floral notes when whiffing this varietal. It is a very hardy grape that ripens late. Like Pinot Noir, Riesling is also very expressive of the soil type in which it grows. It does its best in moderate or cool climates.
Wines of different climates are going to be somewhat different in aroma and flavor. In Rieslings, for example, green apple and fig will be detected in cooler climates, peach or grapefruit is typical of moderate climates and tropical fruit is a common clue of a hot climate wine of any type. This is easy to remember if you think of what fruits fare mostly from the subject climate. Although this variety does not do well in hot climates, you will find some winemakers giving it a shot anyway. While honey notes may show in Rieslings of any climate, it will really show in the warm climate wines.
Germany, where the grape originates from, is famous for its Riesling. When buying quality German wines, there are two important classification terms to become familiar with. “QbA,” or Qualitatswein bestimmter Angaugebiete is a basic sample of quality wine that must come from one of 13 qualifying regions, or angaugebietes. The next level up is “Pradikatswein,” or Pradikat wine. Pradikat is a wine of distinction from a qualifying region. Within the quality classifications is another system of classification with whom you should also become acquainted. This classification is based on the must weights (the amount of sugar in the juice) of the grapes at time of harvest and serves as a general guide of the order of sweetness. You should be very careful, however, as a wine from any of the first three categories can be dry.
Since fermentation turns sugar into alcohol, a slightly more reliable guide is to look at the alcohol level on the label. The higher the alcohol, the lower the sugar; but, again, this is only a guide. They will start around 7%. If you are looking for a drier wine, do not go any lower than 10% abv. At the beginning of this classification is Kabinett. These grapes were picked at a normal harvest. They can be dry or sweet but should be delicate, light bodied aperitif wines. Spatlese is a late harvest wine. They can be dry or sweet but should be more concentrated and have more body. Auslese are from extra ripe bunches of individually chosen grapes. While they, again, can be dry or sweet, you are going to get riper fruit characteristics. Since I am one who does not like my Rieslings cloyingly sweet, I am able to remember the order using "KSA" or "Keep Sugar Away."
From this point forward, you can count on the wines being quite sweet. Beerenauslese (BA) are made with select berries that will often have noble rot on them. Do not be frightened by the term “noble rot.” Botrytis, as it is otherwise called, is a perfectly acceptable mold that develops on the grapes, which dries them out and makes for some wonderfully concentrated sweet wines. Sandwiched in the middle is Eiswein, or Ice Wine, wherein the grapes are not harvested until they have frozen on the vines. Hanging around this long leads to some serious ripening and, thus, higher concentration and sugar levels. Because there is no rot involved, the wines will show their pure fruit characteristics. Finally we have Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA). These wines are only made during select vintages, are quite sweet, and will always be affected by noble rot. Due to their rarity, they have a high pricepoint.
Regions of Germany to look for are Mosel, Rheingau, Rheinhessen and Pfalz. Mosel will have the lightest in body, where Rheinhessen will show fullest. Rheingau will give you the best chance of finding a dry example; Pfalz for sweet. If dry is your thing, look also outside Germany. Great Old World Rieslings can be found in Alsace, France and Austria. In the New World, look to Clare Valley or Eden Valley in Australia, the South Island of New Zealand (Marlborough) or the Finger Lakes region of New York.
Tasting Exercise For this comparison, choose one wine from a cool climate (Germany, Alsace, New York or New Zealand) and one wine from a moderate climate (Australia or Washington). You will not only be looking for differences in aroma and flavor, but also for differences in color and, possibly, sweetness. See if you detect any petrol, which can develop in Rieslings from warmer regions. Although I would recommend you choose both wines with the same approximate sweetness level (and I would pick either dry or off-dry), it may be fun to try some sweeter examples. Consider a comparison among the different must weight categories.
On The Label Riesling, White Riesling
In The Bottle Green fruit, stone fruit, citrus fruit, floral, mineral, petrol
At The Table Pork, fowl, shellfish, Thai, Indian, spice, salt, soft cheese, salads, dessert

Photo Credits: Riesling Scale - www.klat.com German Wines - http://www.germanwineestates.com/113d044e0.jpg

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