|Double-Digit Riesling Gets an ‘A’
I like Riesling as much as the next wine writer—which is to say, more than the general public, apparently. Scarcely a month goes by without someone, somewhere, trumpeting the Riesling as the Great White Hope. True, it is on the upswing, but Chardonnay continues to hold the championship belt, and Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio are fighting it out for second place. When it comes to sales, what keeps Riesling out of the ring?
What’s true for boxing is also true for wine: most of us are only interested in the heavyweights. We all know Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali, but who cares about featherweight champ Naseem Hamed except the aficionados? In wine this translates into alcohol; it takes a percentage in the double digits—preferably between 12.5% and 14%—to get us to tune in.
Germany’s famous Rieslings, owing to a cool climate, generally weigh in at seven to nine percent. They could probably squeak out another point or two, but they like to hold onto that last bit of sugar to balance their high acidity (another effect of a growing season than rarely calls for shorts). Many wine drinkers say it’s the sweetness they don’t like, but I think it’s really the low alcohol. After all, there are plenty of mass-market full-bodied (i.e. high alcohol) wines with a subtle, rounding touch of sweetness that do quite well on the American market.
When it comes to wine, we want our alcohol with a capital “A.” We can have it, too: look at the Rieslings of Alsace, Australia, and Austria. (Of New York’s Rieslings, which definitely deserve their acclaim but span a range of styles, I will forbear to speak today.) I’ll never give up on German and German-inspired Riesling; the best of which have incredible finesse and complexity, and no matter how sweet they seem, they still finish cleanly owing to that laserbeam acidity. But elsewhere, winemakers are showing off Riesling’s more muscular side.
For big Riesling, Alsace, where German grapes meet French winemaking, is the heartland. Typically clocking in at about 13% alcohol, the wines are big but balanced, very aromatic and richly flavored, with a flinty, mineral core surrounded by fruit and spice. Even basic bottlings are reliably good, and while the Grand Cru system is more confused here than elsewhere in France, wines from great vineyards such as Brand, Furstentum, Rangen, or Vorbourg are eminently worth tracking down and can age very well to boot. Of late, some winemakers are leaving a touch of sweetness on these still full-bodied wines—but call them off-dry, not sweet. As in some of California’s Zinfandels, that hint of sweetness often lends the wine a richer mouthfeel more than anything else, but is really a case of gilding the lily.
Riesling makes up less than 4% of Austria’s vineyards, but the little that is made is outstanding: dry, dense, steely, and intense. The Wachau region dominates, and their wine labels can be helpful: look for “Smaragd” on the label for truly full-bodied wines (Federspiel and Steinfeder wines are lighter, but still bone-dry). Even when they reach the same alcohol levels as their voluptuous cousins in Alsace, Austrian Riesling stays athletic and lean.
Australia strikes many as an unlikely home for Riesling, but the grapes have shown a great affinity for some of the continent’s cooler areas. The Clare and Eden Valleys lead the way; whereas German Riesling tends toward stone fruit flavors, Aussie Rieslings often show a strong citrus character. Strange (and perhaps unappealing) as it sounds, good Riesling takes on an intriguing petroleum aroma as it ages; in this respect Australia’s wines are often precocious, and it’s not unusual to find this minerality in an Aussie wine that has just been released.
Nine out of ten times when someone says “full-bodied white,” they mean Chardonnay. Alsatian, Austrian, and Australian Rieslings are the dark-horse alternatives—big, but without the “steroids” of new oak. (Incidentally this makes them very versatile with food, and they go especially well with Asian-influenced cuisine where oak, or, in the case of red wines, tannins, would clash.) In the world of heavyweight white wine, Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc rarely go more than a few rounds, but these Rieslings can go the distance and match Chardonnay blow-for-blow.