MOST ASKED QUESTIONS AT CARO’S #2
Remember the days when a glass of restaurant white was as simple as deciding sweet or dry? New Zealand has gone through a period of wine history we don’t like to talk about, when many whites were sweet – and, may we be forgiven, many reds too. A hangover from this time is that the Riesling variety seems to have been snagged with a certain misconception. While table Riesling may once have been sweet, it is important to update this notion by beginning on a simple point: Riesling is a grape like any other, and can therefore be made in a dry style or a sweet style – depending entirely on the will of the winemaker. So is Riesling sweet or dry? Both, neither, either, whatever you fancy.
It was Germany that provided the Riesling model of this sweeter style of yore. These days some of the very top German Rieslings are produced bone dry (with crisp citrus and defined mineral character, somewhat akin to great Chardonnay or Chenin Blanc from France). But most German styles are still balanced around various levels of sweetness. And so they should be, for the other misconception is that sweetness in a white is bad. Yes, it is almost always unwanted in a Sauvignon Blanc, for example. But Riesling is one of those varieties – like Pinot Gris or Gewurztraminer – that harmonises beautifully in both dry and well-made, traditional sweeter styles (as in Germany). So for the record, our old-school Rieslings weren’t bad because they were sweet – they were bad because they were… bad.
Just west of Germany, France’s Alsace mostly produces a drier style. Despite its relative lack of sweetness Alsace Riesling usually feels a little ‘plumper’ – richer-textured with slightly higher alcohol – because the wine is usually fermented close to dry (less sweetness = more alcohol) from riper fruit than the cooler-climate German. Minerality plays a big part too, with Alsace’s geology being remarkably diverse – a close-knit patchwork of volcanic, granite, lime-rich clay and sandstone – so on balance the region’s wines are less dominated by one type of minerality, such as the ‘slate’ character of some German Rieslings. To Germany’s south lies another great Riesling country. Austria is lesser known for this Germanic variety – its reputation being dominated, perhaps quite rightly, by a near monopoly on its excellent native Gruner Veltliner. But Austrian Rieslings can be stunning – if you can get them – they can seem like a better version of France and Germany put together! Often dry with a sense of body and presence not unlike a very good Alsace, Austrians are also freighted with a dense array of mineral characters. They are both similar and exotically different to the Germans – sometimes adding a unique saline or salty mineral dimension that can make an Austrian Riesling almost savoury. Fascinating!
So much for the classic Old World Rieslings, what about New World? Thirty years ago, surely all New World Riesling was sweet? Well that’s what’s so strange – New Zealand’s collective denial of the existence of dry Riesling for so many years can, from one point of view, only be put down to a deep and repressed jealousy of our neighbours across the ditch. For more than half a century Australia’s definitive regions around Barossa (Clare Valley and Eden Vale) have produced one white to rule them all – Riesling that is searingly dry, verging on austere, with bitter citrus pith and stony, steely mineral character. Celebrated by critics for its aging potential and general ‘seriousness’, this Aussie style was perhaps the New World’s first ‘classic’ Riesling. And it was happening next door. Did we just not know about it? Maybe not, but…
Anyway, these days New Zealand makes superb Rieslings – having moved past ‘sweet or dry’ into a much more sophisticated take on varietals of every stripe. In fact as a moderate, middle-of-the-road climate, New Zealand really suits its thriving culture of ‘varietal winemaking’. New Zealand’s nice spread of cool to moderately warmish regions means all but the world’s most heat-loving grapes produce beautiful examples here. And that’s not to mention what makes our wine famously fruity and aromatic in the first place – probably a result of this moderate, maritime climate combining with pristine light and stony, alluvial valleys. Riesling laps up this kind of landscape like nothing else. As we’ve seen Riesling is by nature a cooler-climate animal (Germany… say no more) so New Zealand is now exploiting a major advantage over the Aussies when it comes to this most noble grape: it grows beautifully not just in select pockets but in almost all of our major regions.
Central Otago, Waipara, Nelson and Marlborough present obvious choices – many offer mineral-rich soils while all enjoy climates that are sunny but cool and fresh (by world standards) with long slow ripening periods allowing Riesling’s delicate but complex characters to fully develop. Even Rieslings from hotter climates like Hawkes Bay and Auckland are lesser-known but also grown. Perhaps the future for hotter climate Riesling in New Zealand would be to pick early and emulate the Australian style, you might think? But one particularly brilliant producer – James Millton in Gisborne – has shown gorgeous German-styled Riesling can be produced even in that very warm location. From here it’s tempting to say what New Zealand Riesling is actually known for, but… the fact is New Zealand does everything well. We produce a smorgasbord of stunning Riesling – from dry and sweet and everything else – and with a seeming increase of dry-and-mineral styles coming though, it is hard to pinpoint a typical national style. What we can say is that Riesling and New Zealand terroir have two big things in common: aromatics and minerality.
Classed as an ‘aromatic grape, Riesling is one of those varieties that just seems to get you swirling and sniffing. And doing so is consistently rewarding – as fresh lemon and lime notes, backed by citrus zest, seem to be held high in the air by fine nuances of florals and wet stones. Even the smell is refreshing! The palate follows seamlessly, and the whole package has the feeling of, well – perfection and nobility if you like, charm and simplicity if that’s easier to swallow. And in New Zealand – where extra aromatic brightness and fruit expression seems to be a terroir characteristic – what is striking is how few Rieslings fail to delight in this way. It almost seems like it’s hard for winemakers to get a Riesling wrong here. Or maybe there just aren’t enough people trying. (Oops! Edit that out – slightly twisted irony revealing the writer’s underlying frustration that the market doesn’t produce or drink enough Riesling).
Riesling is one of those grapes that really conveys the mineral character of the vineyard. Minerality is not fully understood, but traditional thinking holds that it is carried from the subsoil by the vine roots. Some modern science disputes this, arguing it may be purely to do with the chemical properties in the juice. Acids for example – Riesling is very acidic, and some phenomena of minerality seem to be closely related to the various flavour and textural properties of acidity. Or more simply, you could say that Riesling is mineral because it is a very ‘transparent’ grape. With a fruit profile that is light, clean and consistent it is easy to taste ‘through’ this clear frame and pick up the varying effects of one vineyard over another (in this way it is akin to the terroir varieties of Burgundy, like Chardonnay). In any case, Rieslings are among the most wonderfully mineral wines in the world, and with New Zealand terroir very good at producing minerality the marriage is made in heaven and the results are, well… let’s just say we feel spoiled for choice.
That’s not everything you need to know about Riesling – oh no, we could go on all day. But we are no doubt preaching to the choir these days – with the sharp rise in New Zealand wine sophistication, and the brilliant Summer of Riesling campaigns having raised awareness of this most marvelous of grapes.
But hey. Any old chance to chat about something we love…