The Riesling Riot
Newspapers are feeding us a steady diet of elections, revolutions and war. However, given my exceptionally shallow personality, there’s only one controversy that’s occupying me right now: the great Riesling debate.
Riesling is a grape that holds pride of place for many connoisseurs (including myself) because of its incredible longevity in the cellar and the ease with which it captures the naked taste of the soil in which it’s grown. However, there is a unique aroma that often appears in Riesling, usually described as petrol, although I have also heard the terms kerosene or WD-40. Perhaps because I don’t drive, this aroma has always reminded me less of fossil fuels and more of the aroma of a newly purchased Rubbermaid garbage can. All these may sound like fanciful descriptors, but in fact this smell arises from a hydrocarbon in the wine called “1,1,6-trimethyl-1,2-dihydronaphthalene — a compound similar to one in crude oil.
Whatever you wish to call it, this aroma is at the centre of a fascinating dispute. This great Riesling debate began recently when the influential Rhône winemaker Michel Chapoutier told Decanter magazine, “Riesling should never smell of petrol. That is a result of a mistake during winemaking.” According to Chapoutier, the petrol aroma arises when the veins inside the grape break down, something especially likely to happen in warm years. Proper winemaking techniques, like careful pressing and racking, can eliminate the problem. “Historical defects in wine should be accepted as part of the character of the wine.”
Telling some Riesling lovers that the petrol smell of their favourite wine is nothing but a defect was akin to telling a group of musicians that music should never be played in B-flat minor because that key is a mistake in tuning. Chapoutier’s pronouncement ignited a storm of pique in the message boards of Decanter and Wine Spectator over what makes or breaks a good Riesling.
Chapoutier later expanded on his opinion in a thoughtful interview with the wine consultant Guillaume Jourdan; he explained that he did not object to a petrol-like bouquet in aged bottles. This subtle, chalk-like aroma is a hallmark of great Rieslings. What he couldn’t abide is a dominant note of kerosene in young wines. “The generation of my grandparents were fond of ‘hot’ cheeses and rancid sausages,” he said, implying that just because you’re used to something doesn’t make it desirable.
In this sense, Chapoutier seems to liken petrol flavours to the Brettanomyces microbe. Traces of Brett are found in many wines, especially Old World reds. In small quantities, Brett adds notes of barnyard and earth that make certain wines (like Châteauneuf-du-Pape) distinctive. Too much Brett, however, completely spoils a wine, making it smell like a leprous racoon. Modern advances in winemaking, especially improved hygienic practices, can decimate Brett. Yet the larger issue is not a matter of technology but of taste: should Brett be eliminated because it hints at an old, dirty style of winemaking? Or is it intrinsic to the historic character of certain great wines, like the animalistic Château de Beaucastel?
A few days after this donnybrook erupted, I met three German winemakers to discuss their Riesling. Since Riesling is the German grape par excellence, they had decades of collective experience growing the grape and little time for Chapoutier. “Petrol is actually a sign of good quality of the wine,” said fifth-generation winemaker Fritz Hasselbach, of Weingut Gunderloch. Fritz’s colleague Rainer Lingenfelder of Weingut Lingenfelder added, “Petrol is always a sign for slate vineyards.” This is why petrol is often found in the wines of the Rheinhessen and (especially) the Mosel regions of Germany, where slate abounds.
I got a similar answer when I spoke with John Howard, the principal of Megalomaniac Wine in Vineland, Ontario. Riesling is in a dead heat with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir as the grape best suited for the Niagara region’s cool climate, and Megalomaniac is a good argument for why the smart money is on Riesling. The Megalomaniac 2007 Narcissist Riesling ($17.95) is a silky fibre of apple, tart peach and Bartlett pear. Although the palate is juicy, its bouquet carries a strong hit of petrol, which is precisely why I wanted John’s opinion. I also figured that given the name of his operation, he wouldn’t be meek about it.
“He isn’t a winemaker. He’s an idiot,” said John when I asked him about Chapoutier. “The Mosel. The Saar. The Ruwer. All of the terroir there is slate sub-strata in the hills that line those rivers. You can make the argument that this is the best Riesling in the world. I don’t think you can argue with that.” When I asked him what a winemaker could do if he wanted to shed a petrol flavour, he said, “You can grow Riesling in Afghanistan and you won’t have that problem. Don’t grow it on slate.”
The virtual winemaker Charles Baker was more philosophical. I decided to speak with him because he’s famous for his single-minded dedication to Riesling — he uses only that grape, producing small quantities of superb wine from one specific vineyard in the Vinemount Ridge sub-appellation of Niagara. When I asked him if he though petrol was a flaw, he replied, “No, but I think that they’re on the right track. In young Rieslings, the flavour is mistaken for an aroma that only arises with age… That character comes from warmer years, when there’s stress in the vineyard and unbalanced maturity. It sort of resembles the petrol character of well-aged wines, but it’s not the same. It’s faux-diesel.”
“The beauty of Riesling is that it transforms,” Charles said. “Young Riesling should be fruity and aromatic. But at some point, they cross over to the other side and shed their baby fat. They become petrolly and earthy.” This transformation is apparent in Charles’ own wines. I recently opened his 2006 Charles Baker Riesling and compared it to his latest release, the 2009 Charles Baker Riesling ($35.20). It was an interesting contrast because they were similar vintages, so the primary difference would come from their bottle aging. While both showed startling minerality, it was only in the older wine that this aroma had broadened and deepened into petrol. Yet this petrol was not overwhelming — it was floating in a fragrance of honey, apple skin and musk.
For my own part, I have trouble in seeing petrol as a flaw along the lines of Brett. Brett is caused by bacteria. It arises from unsanitary conditions. The petrol note in Riesling, however, is part of that grape’s character. In fact, wine scholars like Tom Stevenson have pointed out that petrol is most prone to develop in grapes that get “ideal” treatment: warm weather, water stress, low yields and high acidity, not to mention slate terroir. Thus petrol, even in a young wine, is an indicator that the fruit is of the highest quality.
That being said, there is a difference between the subtle bouquet of an old Riesling and the robust fumes of a new one. Indeed, winemakers have tools to shape their product to minimize the petrol note in younger wines. Whether you like old petrol, or new petrol, or both or neither, however, is merely a matter of taste. It’s worth noting that Michel Chapoutier’s own winemaking tends to reject Old World funkiness in favour of a cleaner international style that markets well in the USA. In this sense, his scepticism of traditional winemaking is unsurprising. For my part, I love all petrol notes, although I won’t dwell on the righteousness of my view. Why throw gasoline on the fire?