The Qualities of Riesling

I recently presented a blind tasting of six different rieslings from around the world. In a similar vein to the Alsatian tasting I presented earlier, one of the aims was to explore the similarities and differences of wines with a common theme. In this case, the grape varietal was the same, yet the regions of origin and the winemaking styles were quite different.

The classic profile of riesling is a light-bodied wine with high acidity and a flavour/aroma profile of apples, blossom and citrus. Riesling can develop honeyed notes and particularly something ‘petrochemical’ on the nose with age. Due to the fact that the variety is particularly late-ripening, while still preserving refreshing acidity, many different styles of riesling can be made. Thus we can get light, low alcohol (about 8% abv) styles with a bit of sweetness – for instance, the classic Mosel riesling – as well as more full-bodied, higher alcohol (11-13.5%abv), dry wines – such as those found in Alsace and Australia.

The Mitchelton Blackwood Riesling, 2009, from Victoria, Australia was fairly typical of an Australian riesling. Dry, with notable alcohol and a relatively full body for a riesling. The aroma profile was fruit-forward with lime, candied apple and some honey. There was a distinct note I can only describe as ‘flyspray’ on the nose. This is not to be derogatory, as this is a well-made wine. It’s just that when you play the blind-tasting game, you take all the markers you can get! Lime and honey came through on the palate, with a moderate but tart finish. I didn’t find this wine terribly complex, however with the robust acidity and alcohol, it would go well with food.

From Alsace, France, we had the Hugel Riesling ‘Tradition’, 2005. In our earlier Alsatian tasting, we had remarked that many Alsatian wines have a note of ‘roses’. I picked this up on the Hugel riesling, along with lemon crème, apples, butterscotch, mushroom and a little ‘kerosene’, indicative of the wine’s age. The palate of the wine was also in keeping with the Alsatian style: dry (although not as engagingly dry as the Mitchelton Blackwood), crisp acidity, balanced but medium-high alcohol, a light body and a fairly lengthy, creamy finish. There was a slight bitterness – like lemon pith – in the flavour profile.

Moving back to the new world, we next encountered the lower-priced Zarcillo Riesling, vintage 2010, from the Bio Bio Valley in Chile. Riesling produced aromatic wines, but this wine was intensely so. I got a sickly petrochemical note, blossom – almost honeysuckle, lime and peach. There was also something ‘green’, reminiscent of shrubbery. The palate had a lot of spritz, was a bit hot in the mouth due to fairly high alcohol (13.5%), had high acidity and just a touch of residual sugar (although you would still describe this wine as ‘dry’). The flavours on the palate were fairly pleasant, with a redeeming orange sherbet note, grapefruit, honey and some florality. What identifies this wine as Chilean for me is the ‘green shrubbery’ character I also picked up on the palate, and that I get on many Chilean wines.

Our next wine was quite a surprise to the seasoned blind tasters attending. A very pale green in appearance; very aromatic with white fruit, lime and a little diesel. The palate brought forward flavours of candied lemon-lime, ripe green apples and sherbet. There was also a subtle metallic minerality. The structure showed spritz, high acid, a light, elegant body, low alcohol, and medium-dry sweetness. The finish was fairly length with refreshing citrus notes. Although arguably a bit too ‘clean’ and lacking the stony, fragrant florality of Mosel, this description rather aptly describes a typical Mosel riesling, and indeed that’s what most of our blind tasters thought it was. It was quite a surprise to unveil the bottle as the Moutere Valley Single Estate Riesling, vintage 2008, from Neudorf in Nelson, New Zealand. A very good wine from an excellent family-run producer. I’d love to try this wine after a few more years’ age on it!

Moving close to the Mosel but a way back in time, our next wine was a 1992 Kabinett from Burg-Layer Rothernburg in the German region of the Nahe. This wine was notably different in colour to the preceding – a medium-deep golden rather than a variation on pale green. It was fairly aromatic with toffee, butterscotch, baked red apples, white raisins, tangerine and an earthy hint of petrol. There was also the mouldy whiff of botrytis there, indicating that the producer had not put enough care into separating the healthy from the botrytis-affected grapes. The body showed medium alcohol; it was off-dry and perhaps a bit ‘flabby’ on the entry. A sharper tangerine note carried the palate through to the finish, penetrating a rather musty toffee flavour.

The final wine of the tasting moved to Austria. I generally find Austrian rieslings the hardest of the lot to identify in blind tastings. It’s not that a riesling from Austria can easily be mistaken for one from another region – the style is rather distinctive. It’s that they don’t necessarily come across as riesling at all! Many tasters commented that had this not been specifically a riesling tasting, they would have put this wine down as a different grape. This particular wine was the 2006 ‘Grillenparz’ from Stadtkrems in the Kremstal district. Fairly deep golden-green in colour, and with aromas that moved quite far from the classic limey citrus notes. Instead, I noted spiced apple, dried peach and ripe melons, along with some petrol. The palate was ripe, dry and slightly ‘fat’. The alcohol and acidity were both moderately high and the wine had a nice lingering finish with apples, and a warm, earthy minerality. Interestingly, I commented that there was something reminiscent of aspirin on the palate, while another taster thought willow bark (yes, blind tasters are a strange bunch!). Willow is of course a source of salicylic acid – the active ingredient in aspirin. All in all a very enjoyable and interesting wine.

We started this tasting looking for the similarities in wines made from riesling. There are many similarities to be found – the crisp acidity, the overall light body, the aromas of citrus and apples (in the main). However, strikingly, there is a huge amount of difference in these wines, making this single grape a producer of wine for almost every occasion. Many of these wines are available through the Wine Society; I encourage you to experiment a little to see all that riesling can do.

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About James

James Flewellen is a biophysicist at the University of Oxford. He has competed for the University in international blind tasting competitions and won several awards. In addition, James is a wine educator and wine writer, most recently co-authoring "The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting". He also writes for the international gastronome site "The Rambling Epicure", and can be contacted for wine consultancy and educational courses through the "Oxford Wine Academy".
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