Love That Riesling
It is so simple. Grow, pick, crush, ferment, bottle it — and the very best part of all, drink it. No other grape variety can match the pure perfection of Riesling. It is a natural beauty that needs no extra glam, no trinkets or baubles, and certainly no masking agents to fully express itself. It’s easy to grow, and doesn’t need a whole lot of coddling in the vineyard or the winemaking process. And, well, it’s awesomely delicious right out of the bottle, or left to age gracefully as it sheds the tautness of youth.
All Riesling needs to be the perfect dinner companion, or that foil for a hot summer’s day, is a nice place to grow. The soil is everything for this noblest of grapes. It likes to let its roots search down deep for nourishment in hard clay and limestone, and mineral rich soils, and will reward with nuances reminiscent of a babbling brook: that wet stone mineral taste that can also display notes of slate, flint and even petrol, as the wine ages.
And, oh my, the flavours — from juicy citrus to peaches and tropical fruit, all delivered in a highly refreshing style due to the electrifying natural acidity that defines this variety. It is what makes it such a versatile and food-loving wine.
Riesling is everything all the other grapes want to be. But it hasn’t always enjoyed the popularity it does today, despite a history that dates back to 1435 in Germany.
It has been on a roller coaster ride since then, but Riesling’s most traumatic setback came during the “Liebfraumilch” period in the 1970s, during which Germany created a lucrative market in North America for cheap, sweet white wines. Those overly, unnaturally sweet and unbalanced whites were sold as Rieslings, even when they often weren’t Rieslings (today, that is not the case with gorgeous, balanced wines emerging from Germany). Consumers grew to despise anything that was white and sold in a tall, skinny bottle. Riesling went into a dark period where it was shunned and relegated to the cheap seats of the wine world. It would take a generation, and the foresight of a few good pioneers, to restore Riesling to its rightful perch at the top of the wine world pecking order.
One such visionary was Hermann Weis, of the famous German estate Weingut St. Urbans-hof from the Mosel. He saw the potential for Riesling in Canada, and decided to start a nursery in Niagara in the mid-1970s. He sold vines, now called the Weis 21 clone, to wineries from coast to coast, but was unhappy with the results because winemakers were blending his Riesling with the native grapes and hybrids of the time to make inferior wines. He resolved to plant his own vineyards on the Twenty Mile Bench, started his own winery called Vineland Estates (run now by brothers Allan and Brian Schmidt as president and winemaker respectively), and the foundation for Riesling’s revival in Canada was born.
Today, most wine regions in the world make Riesling. But it truly performs best in the cooler climates of Germany, pockets of Australia such as the Clare Valley, Austria, Alsace, the Finger Lakes in New York State, and, of course, Canada, particularly in Niagara and with some success in the Okanagan Valley and Prince Edward County.
Niagara hosted the 2011 Riesling Experience this summer, billed as an international celebration of style, structure and purity. Riesling producers from New York, Michigan, Ohio, New York, Ontario and Alsace came to Niagara share and compare their styles of Riesling. It was winemaker Pierre Trimbach, of the historic Alsatian family that has been making wine in northeastern France since 1626, who engaged the audience with his knowledge of Riesling.
Domaine F.E. Trimbach is a family-run winery based in Ribeauville, Alsace, that has been making wine for 12 generations. About half of the production at the winery, 568,000 bottles annually, is Riesling. The family knows a thing or two about this grape, how to grow it and how to coax the coveted minerality out of each bottle.
The secret to great Riesling, Trimbach said, can best be summed up this way: “First is balance. Second is balance. Third is balance. And the rest is blah, blah, blah. The key is not too much of this, and not too much of that.”
On the topic of petrol, which is a descriptor many use for the aroma of Riesling as it ages, Trimbach said he doesn’t like the term now because it’s taken on negative connotations. “We don’t talk about petrol (in young wines), we talk about reduction,” he said. The lovely petrol-like aromas that emerge in older Rieslings, he added, after a minimum of five years in bottle, are actually minerality that evolves in the bottle.
While Riesling plantings in Canada are widespread, from the Okanagan Valley in BC to Prince Edward County and Lake Erie North Shore, it is in Niagara where they perform best. The Okanagan Valley has some notable Riesling producers, such as the Gehringer Brothers, who craft region-defining wines on the Golden Mile near the town of Oliver, and Sperling Vineyards, a relatively new producer from a pioneering grape-growing family, and rising star Tantalus Vineyards in Kelowna. But it would be hard to portray the Okanagan as a great Riesling producer. There just isn’t enough of it planted in the right places at this point in time.
In Niagara, it’s a different story.
Nearly 19 per cent of all vineyard acreage in Niagara is planted to Riesling, second only to Chardonnay for most-planted grape. The interesting thing about Riesling in Niagara, and why it’s so popular, is its ease of growing it in nearly every appellation. You can find interesting Rieslings for as little as $10 a bottle, and it’s widely produced. It doesn’t suffer from a “poor” vintage like other varieties.
But, there is no question that the finest examples of Riesling in Niagara come from the wave of “single-vineyard” wines being produced from the Niagara Escarpment Bench vineyards, and, to a lesser extent, in pockets of Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Brian Schmidt, winemaker at Vineland Estates, has played a large role in defining “Bench” Riesling and establishing what is now common practice in Niagara — the production of distinctive single-vineyard Rieslings. Vineland, along with Cave Springs and Henry of Pelham, realized in the mid-1990s that they had something special with Bench Riesling, and set out to market the wines with that in mind.
“We all believed that Riesling could be a signature for us,” said Schmidt. “We wanted to showcase what was happening on our property.” For Vineland Estates, it started with the St. Urban Vineyard, a 45-acre parcel of Riesling goodness that sits on hardpan clay on top of mineral-rich limestone. “It has so much to do with soil,” said Schmidt. “Once we’re in the cellar it’s just unbelievably simple. All I am is a conduit to the vineyard.”
At a recent tasting of 31 single-vineyard Rieslings at Henry of Pelham Winery, mostly from Niagara but also Alsace, Prince Edward County and Australia, it was thrilling to taste the differences in the wines from appellation to appellation, and even vineyard to vineyard. The best of the bottles showed that wonderful minerality and natural acid balance that makes Niagara Riesling so interesting and delicious.
The wines held up well to Trimbach’s best examples from Alsace and the famous Grosset from the Clare Valley in Australia.
The style of Riesling in Niagara runs the gamut from dry to sweet, but the best display a playful tug between sweet and tart citrus fruits with racy acidity for balance and underlying wet-stone minerality. Oh yes, Riesling is here to stay in Niagara and in Canada. It just may be the greatest grape variety Canada has to offer to the world.
But, of course, that’s up for debate.
Riesling reviews (note: the Niagara notes below were the best of the best from a recent tasting of single-vineyard Rieslings):
94 Thirty Bench Small Lot Steel Post Riesling 2010, Niagara ($30)
An abundance of lime, peach and minerals on the nose. The palate reveals a sensational package of citrus, stone and tropical fruits that come at you in waves, with wonderful added wet stone minerality in a balanced approach. Will age 10 years or more.
93 Hidden Bench Roman’s Block Riesling 2009, Niagara ($35)
From a classic and historic vineyard, the Roman’s Block Riesling shows a unique, riverbed minerality on the nose to go with lime, grapefruit and some tropical fruits. It’s layered in the mouth with gorgeous citrus, minerals and tangy-ripe tension through the finish. Cellar for 5 years or more.
92 Charles Baker Picone Vineyard Riesling 2009, Niagara ($35)
A truly remarkable and unique expression of the Vinemount Ridge sub-appellation. A juicy core of highly extracted fruit on the nose, with an underlying bead of minerality. It’s fleshy yet vibrant on the palate, with layers of sweet citrus fruits, quince and wet stone minerality. Buy and hold for 5 years.
92 Henry of Pelham Speck Family Reserve Riesling 2008, Niagara ($30)
This is a thrilling wine that will develop with 10 years or more in the bottle. Already it shows wonderful minerals, concentrated fruits and structure. While still tight on the nose, the palate shows structure, juicy citrus fruits, a firm core of acidity and tension. And through it all, a wonderful, fresh mineral note adds complexity and personality.
92 Flat Rock Cellars Nadja’s Vineyard Riesling 2010, Niagara ($20)
This is one of Niagara’s defining Rieslings. It’s already showing classic aromas on the nose — grapefruit, lime, citrus and melon fruits with a gorgeous mineral note through the core. It’s more opulent than previous vintages, but maintains firm acidity in the mouth and juicy citrus flavours.
92 Cave Spring CSV Riesling 2008, Niagara ($30)
This wine is still tightly wound, but shows exotic tropical fruit aromas to go with profound talc and mineral notes. In the mouth it displays white peach, grapefruit, tropical and apple fruits that are playfully sweet and tart in the mouth.
91 Vineland Estates St. Urban Vineyard Riesling 2010, Niagara ($20)
This Riesling from the iconic St. Urban vineyard is highly aromatic with tropical fruits, peach and minerality. It’s so lovely on the palate, with fresh sweet-tart fruit notes and rich, layered flavours on a bed of minerality. Buy, drink and tuck some away in the cellar.
91 Hillebrand Showcase Ghost Creek Riesling 2010, Niagara ($25)
Lovely aromatics of grapefruit, wild honey, citrus, orchard fruits and a distinctive core of wet stone minerality. It’s finished at a light 8% alcohol in an off-dry style, but shows its fruit brilliantly on the palate with just enough zest to make the mouth water for more.
88 Karlo Estate Riesling 2010, Prince Edward County ($22)
A nose of flint, pear, citrus and marmalade with just a hint of honey. Juicy and fleshy on the palate, with ripe citrus-lime fruits and lovely minerality.
91 Sperling Vineyards Old Vines Riesling 2009, Okanagan ($29)
The nose is replete in lime, peach, flinty minerality and a hint of petrol. It’s made with 10.5% alcohol and explodes with flavour on the palate. Mineral, tart citrus, quince, grapefruit and bracing acidity that suggests a youthful wine that will evolve for years to come.
93 Tantalus Old Vines Riesling 2008, Okanagan ($30)
A fine example of Okanagan Riesling with a nose of lemon-lime, peach, lanolin and stony minerality. It’s tart and fresh on the palate, made in a dry austere style, with defining minerals to go with a core of citrus fruit. Will age beautifully, or drink now.
91 Trimbach Riesling Reserve 2009, Alsace ($28)
A very young Alsatian wine (these Rieslings can age for 15 years or more) with a nose of green apple, quince, citrus and a hint of minerality. It shows steely firmness on the palate with wet stone, smoky apple-lime flavours and a crisp, clean finish.
91 Schloss Schonborn Riesling Kabinett, Germany ($19)
What a nose on this lovely Kabinett from the Rheingau. Smells just like a peach orchard in summer, with added white flowers, citrus and minerals. In the mouth, the flavours explode with juicy white peach, apple and racy acidity to balance it all out.
90 Schloss Reinhartshausen Hattenheimer Wisselbrunnen Riesling Kabinett 2009, Germany ($18)
Another Rheingau Kabinett that shows more mineral on the nose with wet stone, green apples, white peach and some tropical fruit notes. Displays a full range of juicy fruits on the palate, from melon to quince and apple, with balancing acidity and minerals that will be more pronounced with time.