Regular readers of this blog will know that with my focus on blind tasting, I like to get to the bottom of ‘what makes a wine a wine’ and how a particular region is expressed in the wines that come from that region. I recently got back from a tasting trip to the Rheingau in Germany – famous for its Rieslings – and have been thinking about the essence of Rieslings from that region.
The Rhine, in its journey north from Switzerland, makes a westerly detour near the city of Mainz exposing the northern slopes of the valley to the sun and making ideal growing conditions for grapes. This 30km stretch before the river resumes its northerly course makes up the Rheingau region. Indeed, so successful at ripening is the mesoclimate of this region that the alcohol levels in Rieslings can reach over 15% abv – scarcely believable given its situation at 50°N!
Most Rieslings made here are dry – following the fashion over the last two decades for dry wines that has all but extinguished the drive to make off-dry and sweet styles, for which the region was famous for. Fortunately, some producers are still making the exalted sweet Auslese and Beerenauslese wines, and we can only hope that these wines find a new audience in the near future to keep them alive.
Over the course of my few days of tasting Rheingau Rieslings I was struggling to identify particular aroma and flavour notes. In general, the wines seemed to defy the obvious fruit notes that are the first port of call in any tasting note. Yes, every now and then there were hints of fresh green apple, lemon, lime and grapefruit and white peach in a warm vintage. However, most of my notes consisted of descriptors of things you’re unlikely to associate with wine or even put in your mouth! Aggregating the most common words for both aromas and flavours from my 100 or so notes I came up with: brine, sea salt, iodine, quinine, chalk, cream/milk candy, pickle juice, lemon and basil.
Rather than having obvious flavour components, these wines came across as highly textural. They were steely, austere and highly structural. The acidity was always high – drawing a long finish down to the back of the palate. Although in a ‘dry’ style, some residual sugar is needed to balance this searing acidity, which has the by-product of creating extra weight on the palate. Most of the wines I tasted had a good deal of tannic mouth-feel on the inner surfaces of my lips – the result of a good whack of skin contact during the winemaking process. Additionally, it is common practice to mature these wines on the lees for some time. This gives a creamy texture to the wine, as well as the cream/milk candy note I picked up on the palate. (Rheingau Rieslings don’t undergo malolactic conversion in general.)
I loved these wines from an intellectual point of view – trying to identify exactly what was going on in the glass is always a source of pleasure for me. But as a wine to enjoy, I liked the minerally austerity, the savoury – even salty – flavours and the highly textural aspects of the palate. I’ll be adding several of these to my cellar!