Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said, ‘To be great is to be misunderstood.’ Although he was talking about non-conformity in men – that great men (and women) are often ahead of their time – it also does a mighty fine job of summing up riesling. If seen through the lens of creative licence.
Riesling is loved by the wine geek, and misunderstood by the average drinker. (Misunderstood or they had a glass of Black Tower, Blue Nun or similar and swore to never touch the variety again.) A labour of love for wineries who struggle to shift it. Those who know the variety are wholly devoted, it even has a book that sets out to prove riesling is The Best White Wine on Earth.
In this fantastic tutored tasting, Stephen Wong of Wine Sentience presented a line-up of 16 rieslings in celebration of the Summer of Riesling – a worldwide movement to encourage people to drink more – you guessed it – riesling. The wines were tasted one at a time moving from very dry to very sweet. There were a series of pairings along the dry-to-sweet scale that worked to illustrate the various regional, climatic and stylistic expressions of the grape. This is a variety that readily shows where and how it was made, it also has the ability to age extensively – young or old, sweet or dry, old world or new – it’s a lot to get your head around. What was great about this line-up is that it brought to life so many of the variety’s possible expressions.
The young wines
According to the Oxford Companion for Wine, when young riesling should be low in alcohol, high in crisp, fruity acidity and are likely to be rather austere. The aromas will depend on the place where the grapes were grown.
Te Whare Ra ‘D’ 2013, Wairau, Marlborough
The plan for the evening was to showcase the 2014, but it was too tight and so was swapped out at the last minute for the 2013 to ensure the producer had a fair chance at performance on the night.
The ‘D’ block was planted between 1979-1983. The phenolics from this block produce better dry Riesling, while the younger block performs better when made in a sweeter style.
2013 was a warmer than average summer with low rainfall. When the rains started late in the season most of the grapes had already been harvested. A very classic bouquet with very fresh white florals and the ripe, rich sweetness of peaches spritzed with a dash of kefir lime.
Completely dry with good, clean acid on a round and elegant palate showing more citrus and white floral flavours. The wine’s presence is feminine and quite voluptuous. All rather sexy.
Felton Road Dry 2014, Bannockburn, Central Otago
A dry, warm autumn to start, with a drop in temperatures from mid-December to January. This was short-lived and it picked up again later in the summer.
The wine is not entirely clean with hints of soft florals, but the delicacy is wrapped up in an organic stink. Not as ripe or fresh, with crab apples, pink florals and the sharpness of apple flesh. The palate is far softer, ethereal, something you can’t quite touch. The relatively high alcohol is jarring in this delicate context. The finish shows a cool, white minerality.
Looking at TDN
TDN is a technical term that can be translated both as 1,1,6-trimethyl-1,2-dihydronaphthalene or as a petrol-like character most commonly found in bottle-aged riesling. A quick overview:
- just below or at its detection threshold TDN adds complexity – in excess it becomes more of a kerosene quality;
- when seen in a young Riesling, it’s more often than not seen as a fault; and
- conditions that increase the appearance of TDN are high sun exposure (sometimes called sun-burned grapes), water stress and oxidation.
- I think there’s a time and a place for TDN. Right combination of location, vintage and winemaking can bring it about, but I wouldn’t expect to see it every time.
Jasper Hill Georgia’s Paddock 2002, Heathcote, Victoria
A great vintage with unusually mild conditions and low rainfall. Jasper Hill is certified organic and use biodynamic practices – they were one of the earliest adopters in Heathcote. As the wine was introduced it was stressed that it had seen no new oak. And as we were tasting the comment was repeated. This is due to the rich, creamy vanilla quality that wraps its way along the full length of the palate.
Fat and waxy, lanolin and red delicious apples. The wine is starting to show a rim of decay lacing the edges of the white floral aromas. Drinking happily now, it has only another five years or so to go. The finish is pure kerosene.
Urlar Dry 2013, Gladstone, Wairarapa
A very good season with warm days and clear, cool nights to help ripen healthy grapes, retaining freshness and acidity. The wine comes off a bit confused, it’s a flirtation of green apple skins, white florals and kerosene. For a long, hot vintage you wouldn’t expect to see un/under-ripe aromas, yet there they seem to be. The wine is big on the kerosene (TDN), big reduction as well as masking fruit. See this not as a criticism, but a perspective. There’s a thickness to the palate. Good weight, creamy, round and soft. The combination of TDN + reduction + dryness all wraps up to give an Alsacian thread. Big hit of lime juice on the finish. If you look long and hard you get more than lime and reduction.
From the old vines
What’s expected? Added complexity. The low vigour and low yields associated with vines that are more than 20 years old produce wines that are generally considered ‘better’. This also means the producer needs to be sure of the quality, otherwise the low production makes an average or poor wine uneconomical.
Ata Rangi Craighall 2009, Martinborough Terraces
A warm January followed by cooler March and April with clear days. A great vintage and from it we’re back to a ripe, rich and fresh vibrancy in the wine. Classic lime and white florals. The high leaf plucking that leads to sunburnt grapes and shows as a TDN character is evident. However, there’s enough fruit that you see the petrol only when you go looking for it.
While the nose is largely fresh with just a hint of smokiness, the flavours taste older than they should be. The wine unravels in the mouth, wrapping and filling the entirety. There’s a textural richness to the wine that makes you regret having swallowed it.
Fromm Dry 2006, Brancott, Marlborough
A dry and mild winter followed by an ordinary warm summer resulted in an earlier than usual season. The nose is perfumed, with a potpourri of white and pink florals. Although the vibrant aromatics pass quickly, leaving a soft delicacy.
The scrutiny of a formal tasting does wonders for this wine. Initially the palate is apple pulp and bush honey, something just a touch dirty, but looking at it again and again you get the beautiful subtlety of fruit that underpins the whole package.
There is an oily character on the wine that sits alongside a spike of alcohol on the mid-palate. The finish has a rich sweetness that is somewhat unexpected. A wine that keeps you guessing.
Weightier dry wines
What’s exciting here is the display of weight from ripeness of fruit on the one hand to the body and alcohol on the other. Seeing the same quality from different perspectives.
Rippon Mature Vines 2012, Wanaka, Central Otago
A cooler than usual growing season but the long dry periods between rains allowed good healthy maturation time. The grapes for this wine come from one of the oldest parcels, planted early in the mid 80s. A huge amount of peaches and nectarines, heaps of white florals and a sprinkling of sweet spice. Rich, weighty and textural in the mouth with soft, round, white vanilla flowers. Vanilla bean on the mid-palate and manuka honey finishes it off nicely.
As a biodynamic producer there is certain language used to describe the vintage, the soils and the wine. Although the schist soils that the grapes were grown on are very outward and floral, the shaded conditions of 2012 made it an internal year, making this a shy, quiet version of a Rippon. That quiet quality may come across in a flight of all Rippon, but you don’t see it in this company.
This is a huge wine that commands attention, full of charm.
Domaine Rene Mure G.C. Vorbourg 2012, Alsace, France
A small crop of concentrated wines best describes the 2012 vintage in Alsace. The wine and the region were introduced using trivia: we were asked to describe the climate of Alsace. Because of its proximity to Champagne it’s often seen as a cool climate, but in fact it’s dry and very continental with hot days. The resulting wine is very fresh, textural and completely bone dry.
Peaches, nectarine and the sweet spices of cinnamon and nutmeg. The ripe fruit and freshness continue with flavours of honey and orange blossom. The rich sweetness would lead you to believe the grapes had been affected by botrytis or at the least, picked late harvest, but in fact it is just classic Alsace.
This wine shows size and body with a richness that comes from the ripeness in the fruit. Shockingly dry with a sourdough and sage character to lend complexity. So very different to the rest of the flight. An education in a glass.
Cliffhanger Feinherb 2013, Mosel, Germany
Difficult vintage in which top wines are rare. Delayed by a long winter, with a decent summer but shortened by a very wet autumn. The resulting wine was rather easy, very light and delicate. Softly floral and a touch of spice. Coming after the previous two wines it was rather simple. Placed in the line-up with the objective to cleanse the palate, the wine is doing its job.
Classic Germanic style
Wine folks often say something and expect you to understand. Like labelling a pairing classic Germanic style – what does that actually imply? Typically: low alcohol, high acidity, a pure delicacy and sweetness.
Pegasus Bay 2008, Waipara, Canterbury
After a warm and dry start to the season, the rains came in February. The humid conditions of autumn favoured the development of botrytis. Such a different colour, so much brighter.
Aromas of apricot, nectarine and tangelo sitting alongside struck match and freshly scrubbed pots and pans qualities. Ripe and rich on a full, round palate. The finish has an orange fruit tang to it. Not the best I’ve seen Pegasus Bay looking. Bad night?
Egon Muller Scharzhof 2008, Mosel, Germany
An extremely variable vintage where you had to pick your producers carefully. A cool spring saved by a warm May followed by a long, cool summer, still cool autumn and very cold winter. A wet September. The vintage was too cold for good botrytis development, but it produced wines with high acidity and made great Eiswein.
This is one of the big names from the Mosel. When the line-up was being set this wine was showing as being overly bright and so was placed accordingly. On the night it was rather closed off again.
There’s a lot of sugar present but the palate has racy acidity that keeps the sweetness in check. An entirely lush, long palate, with all this sweetness there is a definite minerality. In time, the nose starts to eek out and enticing soft, white florals come wafting through. The wine stands out in the line-up as a result of its balance with a great purity and lightness that makes for an entirely seductive wine. These wines are designed to last a long time, 20-50 years is the norm. Unashamedly sweet when young, gaining balance and complexity with age. The current drinking vintage from this producer is 1971.
Pumpkin pie finished with vanilla ice cream. A description from Brendan Nash that I thought was particularly apt.
Classic New Zealand style
When it comes to New Zealand and aromatics, it’s all about freshness of fruit. These are some of the best examples.
Neudorf Moutere 2012, Moutere, Nelson
Small crop of fruit with great concentration and fine acidity, thanks to a late, dry Indian summer.
A very New Zealand style of Riesling with lots of fleshy white stone fruit and touches of spice to it. Too big to be Germanic, too sweet to be Alsacian. This wine is the very definition of bright fruit and opulence. Would like to see a clearer line of acidity cutting through all that bigness.
A lesson in not judging a wine by its technical details. On paper this comes across as German Kabinett with its low alcohol and roughly 40g/L RS – however, this isn’t what is seen in the glass.
Milton Opou Vineyard 2013, Manutuke, Gisbourne
A very good season with warm days and clear, cool nights ripening healthy grapes, retaining freshness and acidity. It produced a large but high-quality crop.
A really exciting aromatic profile – this is New Zealand Riesling at its best. Super bright with the sweet fruitiness of a fresh lime. A fantastic nose, so sweet and fresh with plenty of jasmine flower. Vanilla, cinnamon and orange blossoms on the plush, rich palate.
The wine has a slight, light body that is lush without slipping towards bigness. White florals and lime fill the length of the finish.
Another biodynamic producer, where the day a wine is tasted impacts its presentation. The tasting was held on a flower day and the wine performed so very well. Would want to see this one again on a different day just out of curiosity.
Each of these stand apart from the rest of the wines in the tasting.
Framingham F-series Kabinett 2011, Renwick, Wairau, Marlborough
Weather alternating wet and dry conditions. In 2011, Framingham made 14 Rieslings. This is their Kabinett style. Delicate, with a refined beauty and elegance. Stone fruit and spice. All of this at 58 grams per litre residual sugar is incredible. There’s a tiny bit of TDN character coming through but it is so integrated and balanced that it shows as just a touch of chlorine. A soft, round feel to the wine that’s surprisingly rich.
A linear precision, the whole thing so very clean and Germanic. The high level of sugar so well integrated, it’s staggering.
Mountford Riche Reserve 2009, Waipara, Canterbury
Outstanding vintage, the result of near ideal flowering and ripening conditions with an early harvest.
33% botrytis in the wine. Some of the Pinot Noir suffered as the vintage was too perfect, but it made beautiful Chardonnay and Riesling.
Kerosene opens the wine. Followed quickly by lime, apricot and the syrupy honeycomb and beeswax of botrytis. Add to this red apple skins, a ginger spice and some salted caramel. The wine overall is nicely concentrated with a huge amount of acid – especially for such a hot year – with lowish alcohol at 9%alc/vol.
Our host asked us to give an opinion of the wine – is 70g/L too much? Not at all, it will suit either a particularly hot day or some well-paired food.
Fromm Spatlese 2007, Brancott, Marlborough
A cold November and December affected the flowering, luckily the rest of the season was warm, stable and extended, resulting in ripe, healthy fruit.
Upfront there is a quality of Turkish eggs, the rich creaminess of yoghurt that’s a bit sour. Underlying this is a healthy amount of overly ripe stewed fruit. This unusual aromatic hue likely comes from just the right combination of zingy acidity, the sweet , aromatic spice that comes with bottle age and the creamed honey profile character that comes with development on the sugar profile. (A big thanks to Stephen Wong for helping me to decipher what it was I was seeing in the glass and where it might be coming from.)
The palate is gorgeous – soft, rich and thick. There’s a real freshness to it with plenty of sweet orange blossom flavours. Quite a giving wine