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Sunday April 15, 2012

Noble wine

Don’t dismiss Rieslings as they are diverse wines suitable for many occasions.

RIESLING is a common wine – if you take “common” to mean ubiquitous and easily found. Indeed, ask for some Riesling anywhere around the world and you will most likely find a bottle of it. Rieslings come in syrupy sweet, sweet, semi-sweet, off-dry or bone dry versions.

I don’t deny that at one stage in my wine journey, I did turn my back on entry-level Rieslings like Blue Nun “Liebfraumilch” but since then, Riesling has become one of my favourite wines. Not long ago, I tasted two wines that made it to my memorable wine list within seconds of them touching my lips – a 1990 Leon Bayer Cuvée Comtes d’Eguisheim from France and a 1989 Dr Loosen Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Auslese from Germany.

Worthy white: In Alsace in France, the Riesling grape was deemed ‘noble’ and was first planted on church-owned sites.

Both were at their peak, tasting complex and finishing long, and ranking amongst the most expressive wines in the world. Yet they were still fresh with potential for a few more years in the cellar.

These wines are proof that for all the multitude of quaffing Rieslings in the marketplace, there are just as many Rieslings that can claim top honours.

As for those red wine drinkers who dismiss white wines simply because they “don’t age well and cannot be cellared for a newborn’s 21st birthday”, know this: Rieslings show their true character only when they are allowed to mature slowly for decades in the bottle. That’s when this noble wine emerges as luscious elixir.

Rieslings are flexible wines. Its vines thrive in the cold German climate as well as in the warmer regions of the US and Australia.

The Riesling world is far and wide. Riesling is found in Switzerland, Russia, Yugoslavia, China and more.

In Canada, it excels as a syrupy and smooth ice wine; in South Africa and some parts of the US, it is enjoyed as a refreshing off-dry and sometimes sweet Johannisberg Riesling with melon and honeysuckle flavours.

Pick up a Luxembourg Riesling and it is dry and delicate. A north Italian or South American Riesling, on the other hand, is simply delicious and easy drinking.

As a grape, Riesling is adaptable. No other wine can be made into so many styles – from austere and bone-dry to the rich and tart, and the syrupy sweet and alcoholic. Certainly, Rieslings respond to the slightest change in growing conditions and winemaking.

But it appeals to the most finicky and individualistic of vignerons. Those seeking to bring out more of the terroir have even turned to biodynamic farming to subtly tweak the nuances of nature expressed in the wine.

As a result, the aromas of Rieslings are joyously diverse, spanning those of fruit, flowers and soil – from citrus fruit and apricots to pineapples, from the delicately floral to minerals and petroleum (evident in well-matured high-quality Rieslings).

Classic Rieslings

Take a survey of world-class Rieslings and a handful of countries come out on top, with Germany, France and Austria standing out as those with the most complex and long-lived versions. Lately, some New Zealand and Australian Rieslings have also joined the ranks.

I say this confidently not just based on numerous private encounters but also from a blind tasting of 48 wines, hosted by world renowned wine collector and dealer Jan-Erik Paulson – some on my own, others on international panels of wine connoisseurs, critics and masters of wine.

I discovered top class Rieslings come not only from Europe but can be had from as far as New Zealand.

First, let’s consider France and Germany – as everyone in the wine-drinking world considers their Rieslings to be the best. We will look at other Rieslings at another time.

Germany: The long growing season unique to Germany brings us a benchmark style of Riesling – low alcohol but with good balance of sugar and acid. There is also the influence of terroir, especially from soil. Red slate produces Rieslings with apricot-peach flavours, while blue slate contributes to mineral-flavoured Rieslings.

Slate itself lends a smoky overtone to the wine. Thanks to the climate, the best German Rieslings are typically on the side of sweet – from Spätlese right up to eiswein and Trockenbeerenauslese.

My favourite producers: Egon Muller, JJ Prum, Rudolf Furst, Heymann-Lowensgtein, Fritz Haag, Georg Breur, Emrich-Schonleber, Johannes Leitz, Gunderloch, H. Donhoff, Wittmann, Wolf, Christmann, Rebholz, Koehler-Rupprecht, Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt, Dr. Loosen, Markus Molitor, St. Urbans-Hof, Selbach Oster, Georg Breuer, Robert Weil, Schlossgut Diel, Burklin-Wolf, Muller-Catoir and Bercher.

France: Alsace in France sets the other Riesling benchmark. Riesling, considered a noble grape, was planted on the best sites owned by the church. Ironically, Alsace’s roots are German because the region was once under German rule.

Under the French, Rieslings of Alsace have evolved for over 300 years and are of a style decidedly different. Alcohol levels are almost double that of German Rieslings, the grapes are harvested riper, wines are richer and rounder, and having spent time maturing in barrels, they take on honeyed notes and kerosene overtones over time.

Rieslings planted on gravel lead to wines with a refined character; Rieslings made from vines growing on limestone come across broader and richer in style and vines grown on granite with high minerals, result in wines with lots of depth, structure, power and backbone. Late harvest (Vendanges Tardive) is a much acclaimed style for French Riesling, as is Selections de Grains Nobles (SGN).

If wines are afflicted with botrytis (noble rot), they will have honey toast flavours of botrytis layered over the taste of the raisined grapes that they have been made from.

My favourite producers: Trimbach, Paul Blanck, Bott-Geyl, Albert Boxler, Marcel Deiss, Hugel, Josmeyer, Weinbach-Faller, Marc Kreydenweiss, Albert Mann, Ostertag, Rolly-Gassmann, Schlumberger and Zind-Humbrecht.

> Edwin Soon is a qualified oenologist and has run wine shops and worked as a winemaker in various countries. He now writes and teaches about wine around Asia.

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