You’ve probably heard the saying that if you don’t like Chardonnay, it’s because you haven’t found the right one. Tongue and cheek sentiment aside, it bears witness to the great variety of different wines that all masquerade under the single title of Chardonnay, some so disparate as to hardly be recognizable as coming from the same grape.
Much of this is no doubt due to the staggering popularity of the wine – the more popular a variety is, the greater number of vintners the world over will produce it, each with their own personal twist or addition.
This phenomenon however is hardly limited to Chardonnay, or French wines at all for that matter. Even wines with identities that are traditionally more strongly defined may vary widely from region to region.
Riesling is one such versatile wine whose complexity, variety, and cellar longevity make it more than a worthy competitor for the title of most popular white wine.
Most people probably think of a Riesling as a fruity, crisp, light wine ? maybe a touch on the dry side ? and it wouldn’t be a bad generalization to make. However, this remarkable grape is by no means limited to such.
Rieslings run the gamut from an almost dusty dryness with piercing tartness to full-bodied and nectarous. How, then, does one single name manage to include such a variety of wines? To answer the question, we must first take a quick look at the grape itself.
In contrast to the many grapes of French origin, Riesling, as the name might suggest, traces its beginnings to the somewhat cooler hills and valleys of Germany. Rieslings are surprisingly tolerant to colder climes, thanks in part to their tough, woody vines.
The grapes are relatively small, and are susceptible under certain conditions to a non-poisonous mold called Botrytis cinerea. The mold causes grapes to shrivel prematurely ? the end result being the characteristically sweet, tart wine which is so removed from the dry, non-Botrytis wines.
For further explanation, we return again to the factor of popularity coupled with regional difference. A Riesling grown in Alsace, France for instance is likely to be a little sweeter and with more fruit overtones than the original German variety grown along the Mosel River, unique in its lower alcohol content and intense aroma.
Other producing regions are New Zealand, whose combination of a cool, maritime climate with long sunshine hours has made it possible to produce high quality fresh-tasting Rieslings and California, whose traditional Riesling style is dry and oaky (though recently Californian vintners have increasingly been returning to the original German style).
It is interesting to note that many impostor wines masquerade under the title of Rieslings which are not, in the truest sense, made from Riesling grapes. Gray Riesling, Emerald Riesling, and Welschriesling (Italian Riesling) are all related varieties of somewhat lower quality which are often passed off as Riesling.
Additionally, regional wine-dialect identifies several unrelated white grapes as various forms of “Rieslings” in different wine growing communities. True varieties are sometimes referred to as German-style or Rhine Rieslings.
Finally, Rieslings are renowned as excellent aging wines. The secret is the grape’s potential to retain acidity and still achieve high sugar levels. As a result, the naturally fresh flavors of a Riesling can be preserved and even improved with age as opposed to the flattening effect that can take place in wines with low acidity and high sugar.
All in all, Riesling is an exceptional grape that yields equally exceptional wines. If you’ve never tried one, you’re missing out, and if you have, Riesling’s great variety will ensure that you never need run out of pleasing new wine experiences.