Although Mark St Clair has a fascination for Burgundy and its wines, and has his own Pinot Noir vineyard in Martinborough (click here to see my report on visiting him), having released his first wine (click here for my review), he has a passion for all good wine, particularly Riesling. He loves to spread the word about fine wine and takes any opportunity of putting on an educational tasting for his friends and work colleagues. Mark does business with David McMahon, another wine lover, who also likes to mix wine talk with work talk and it often spills over when interacting with his clients. It was for clientele common to both Mark and David that I was asked to conduct a tasting of Riesling wines from around the world for. It was a great chance for me to brush up on the variety and its place in New Zealand and the world.
A Noble but Unfashionable Variety
Riesling is arguably the most noble of the white grape varieties. The diversity of styles it can produce is unmatched. The wines can range from dry, pristine, pure and delicate, right through to decadently rich, unctuous and sweet with the beneficial symbiosis with botrytis fungus. The levels of complexities attained are at the highest level, these being able to retain a drinker’s attention indefinitely. Its longevity is incredible, and Rieslings are the undisputed champions of aging with style and grace. And it is the most transparent of the white varieties, reflecting the vintage, climate, region and site clearer than any other. Sure, other varieties can equal Riesling on some of these counts, but not all.
It is unbelievable that Riesling remains unfashionable. However, it has been the case forever; wine lovers, winegrowers and winemakers, and of course the wine trade and gatekeepers continuously espousing the grape’s virtues. It’s ironic that in recent years, the relatively innocuous Pinot Gris has taken centre stage and is the world’s darling, and that there’s a host of other white varieties, many of which are obscure and invariably indigenous to regions and countries that are being recognised for their ‘uniqueness’ rather than classic status, that are challenging Riesling’s place in the hearts and minds of the drinker. Riesling remains a true enthusiasts’ or geeks’ variety and wine. Promotional events such as ‘Summer of Riesling’ will help in its prominence, and hopefully grow awareness and appreciation.
The grape and vine has requirements to meet for the making of quality wine; ripeness is key to avoid herbaceous characters and unbalanced acidity. Contradictory to this is the observation that the desirable aromatic characters are best achieved in cooler growing climates which afford slow and long ripening. Thus, it is seen as a late ripener. Against all wisdom, it can deliver attractive varietal character and good quality at relatively high yields. Vine age does help in the weight and depth of the resultant wine, and the thick skins are more resistant to disease, with the wine retaining Riesling essence when affected by noble rot, more so than other varieties.
The wines fundamentally rely on the interaction and balance of fruitiness, residual sugar, acidity and pH. The skill of the grower and winemaker is to get the fruit and the wine into a state where the balance of these constituents works harmonious, giving an attractive and balanced wine to drink! This balance can range, as mentioned earlier, from the dry, pristine and delicate style based on florals and fine citrus fruit, through to the rich, opulent, unctuous and decadently sweeter styles verging on honey and caramel, often with the complexing contribution of botrytis. In between, there are the more textural, weighty, flinty and often funkier styles, involving distinct inputs from wild yeast, skin contact, and lees. Generally, the wines are very sensitive to and often incongruous with oak contact.
Riesling in New Zealand and the World
As an unfashionable variety, Riesling isn’t strong in plantings around the world in terms of area, though it has found homes in a vast range of climates and soils. The cooler growing regions sees greater popularity among vignerons. Germany is the heartland with around 22,000 ha, far ahead of any other country. It makes up nearly a quarter of that country’s plantings and is the main variety planted, with double the area of Muller-Thurgau and Spatbugunder following. There’s 5,600 ha in the Pfalz and 4,000 ha in the Rheinhessen, but it reigns supreme in the Mosel with 5,300 ha and in the Rheingau with 2,500 ha where it is the leading grape.
Australia has a high 4,400 ha of Riesling, mostly in South Australia and dominates in the Clare Valley where practically every producer has one in its portfolio. The wines have a great history, as do those from the Eden Valley, the cooler sub-region of the Barossa, the Eden with around 30% of the area planted to it compared with the Clare. The cooler areas of the Adelaide Hills and McLaren Vale are notable. Riesling has been a significant variety in Tasmania for 40 years now, and the Great Southern region of Western Australia is also deemed an ideal vignoble.
The Alsace region of France has 3,500 ha, this being just over 20% of the plantings in the region. The variety is just holding ground, unlike Pinot Gris which is relatively booming. But Riesling is seen as the most noble of the noble varieties there. Austria has a creditable 1,800 ha, and though second to Gruner Veltliner, the variety is also seen as truly noble. There’s around 1,600 ha of Riesling in California, and the perception of it by the consumer is not as kind as it is for Chardonnay. To be fair, the generally warmer climate has enabled other varieties to show with greater success.
According to the New Zealand Winegrowers statistics, we have nearly 800 ha of Riesling, which constitutes 2.2% of the total 35,750 ha of grapes we have planted. It sits at sixth position behind Sauvignon Blanc (20,500 ha), Pinot Noir (5,500 ha), Chardonnay (3,250 ha), Pinot Gris (2,500 ha) and Merlot (1,250 ha). Expected, the most plantings are in Marlborough with 310 ha, then the Canterbury/Waipara region (280 ha), Central Otago (77 ha), Nelson (37 ha) and the Wairarapa with 25 ha. The North Island figures very low with 8 ha in Hawke’s Bay and 2 ha in Gisborne.
With these thoughts and points in mind, we tasted through 7 wines, 4 from New Zealand, and one each from Australia, Alsace and Germany. Most of the wines were purchased from wine shops, one of the New Zealand wines donated. I wanted an Austrian example, but at the time, none were readily available for purchase in Wellington. The general theme was regionality, with most of the wines being dry to taste, with the exception of the Waipara and German wines. It was noted that a much greater diversity of styles could have been presented. Maybe next time… Here are my impressions of the wines.
Dry River ‘Craighall’ Martinborough Riesling 2012
Pale coloured. This is very tightly bound with pristine aromas of limes, white florals and minerals. Very dry and mouthwatering on palate, this is tight at the core with crisp, refined acidity. Lovely liveliness. This has superb elegance and finesse of texture and wonderful stylishness. A Riesling of great beauty, This will age 7-8+ years easily. Fruit from the ‘Craighall’ vineyard from vines around 20 y.o., WBP and cool-fermented to 11.5% alc. and 5.0 g/L rs, with TA c.9 g/L, and pH 2.97. 19.5/20 RRP $53.99
Spy Valley ‘Envoy’ ‘Johnson Vineyard’ Waihopi Valley Marlborough Dry Riesling 2013
Straw-yellow colour. The nose exudes richness from its firm core. Lime and an array of citrus fruits with suggestions of honey and yellow florals. Dry to taste, full bodied presence and with weight as well as intensity. Complex in its citrus, floral and stonefruit flavours, leading to honied and toast elements. 6-7+ years. Fruit from the original plantings from the ‘Johnson Vineyard D Block’, hand-picked in 2 passes, WBP and fermented in oak to 14.0% alc. and 4.2 g/L RS, with TA 7.4 g/L and pH 3.1, the wine aged 8 months on light lees. 19.0/20 RRP $25.25
3rd Man ‘Lough Vineyard’ Waipara Valley Riesling 2012
Pale straw-yellow colour. Honied aromas of fruit infused with botrytis, some toastiness and also some sulphur still to blow off. Medium-sweet and medium-light bodied, this is soft, broad and mouthfilling with yellow stonefruits, minerals, honey. The acidity is low and the wine flows smoothly with a degree of unctuousness. The sulphur casts it shadow at present. 5-6+ years Fruit from the ‘Lough’ vineyard with 10% botrytis, fermented to 9.5% alc. and 38 g/L RS. 17.0+/20 RRP $29.90
Felton Road Central Otago Dry Riesling 2013
Bright straw yellow colour. An exuberant nose, steely and lively with depth, truly pristine and minerally, quite thirst quenching, and with good substance. Dry to taste, pure, refreshingly cutting and steely. A lively mouthfeel, quite vigorous. Some dissolved CO2. Plenty of fruit extract, acidity and energy, with excellent linearity and length. 7-8 years. Hand-picked fruit from the ‘Calvert’ and ‘The Elms’ vineyards, WBP and indigenous yeast cool-fermented to 12.0% alc. and 4.0 g/L RS, the wine aged on lees. 18.5+/20 RRP $34.99
Mesh Eden Valley Riesling 2013
Bright, pale straw-yellow. This is tightly bound on nose, with lovely elegance of style. Plenty of pure lime fruit aromas and hints of minerals and stonefruits. Very dry, balancing phenolic richness and fruit depth with taut austerity. The fruit wines over minerals. The textures carry the wine with its dense core. Finishing mouthwateringly dry, and with a suggestion of toast. 6-8+ years. Fruit from two ‘Grossman’ and ‘Miles’ vineyards, Eden Valley, vines 20-60 y.o., the parcels selected and blended by Jeffrey Grosset and Robert Hill Smith. 12.0% alc. and 0.8 g/L RS, TA 6.9 g/L and pH 2.97. 18.5+/20 RRP $31.99
Gruss Alsace Riesling Grand Cru ‘Eichberg’ 2011
Bright straw-yellow colour. The bouquet is rich and intense with lime and white stonefruits, and a richness of honeysuckle nuance and toasty secondary development being hinted. Dry and with a firm core, moderated by fruit lusciousness. Softer acidity and with a fine-textured, dry palate. Restrained in its quenchability, and the softness to the core, this has vinous depth and length. 6-8+ years. Fruit from 0.54 ha of the ‘Eichberg’ grand cru site, from vines planted in 1978, hand-picked and WBP, fermented to 14.2% alc. and 5.2 g/L rs, the wine undergoing batonnage. 290 dozen made. 18.5+/20 RRP $57.99
Kerpen Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Auslese * 2010
Bright, light straw-yellow colour with a hint of gold. Elegant and intensely penetrating with limes, yellow florals and honey. Complexing amalgam with a marmalade and toasty, caramel note. Very sweet on palate, luscious, but with fine acid cut and balance. Concentrated with creamy mouthfeel, unfolding honey, caramel and kero. This will keep 10+ years. Fruit from 3 ha of the 60 ha ‘Sonnenuhr’ site, fermented in fuder to 7.5% alc. and 139 g/L RS. 19.0/20 RRP $68.00