Wine 101: Riesling Revolution

Dinner is calling for a white wine. Going for something new is in order and the choices are plenty. You’re standing in front of the Riesling section but like many other consumers, you're skeptical. The tall bottles are elegant but the sheer memories of the multiple headaches you had in the old days after too many glasses of Blue Nun or Black Tower are still vivid. These wines were sweet and weren’t they made of Riesling?

The answer is no.  In fact, most did not contain a single drop of Riesling. They were a blend of other local grapes like Müller-Thurgau. German winemakers made these wines for the export market to entice the Coca-Cola generation who were ready to move on to an alcoholic beverage.

While there is nothing wrong with these wines, they did tarnish the reputation of Riesling. Though people came to associate the grape with cheap and sweet white wine, Riesling is one of the most noble grapes. Back in the 1800’s, the top German wines were some of the most highly regarded in the world and they commanded high prices. Bright in acidity with brilliant, zesty and intense citrus flavours, the grape has an incredible ability to express a terroir. The best can age for decades and with time, they exude petrol aromas. Don’t be scared; it's a welcomed characteristic.

Germany is classified as what we call ‘a marginal climate’ for viticulture. Ripening grapes can be a challenge leaving them with a high level of acidity at harvest. A tradition of producing wines with some residual sugar to offset the acidity was a necessity to make the Rieslings enjoyable to drink. Don’t let the sugar frighten you. The best producers craft balanced and delicate wines loaded with mineral notes. It’s worth noting that an increasing amount of dry versions can be found in the German regions of Rheingau, Nahe, Rheinhessen, Pfalz and Baden.

Many parts of the world have a tradition of producing bone dry Rieslings. While today the French region of Alsace produces both sweet and dry styles, traditionally the table wines were dry, austere and packed with mineral notes.They tend to be fuller in than those from Germany. Austria is another region that crafts elegant and fine dry versions. In the New World, Australia’s wine regions of Eden Valley and Clare Valley have made their mark for their dry and juicy Rieslings with pleasing peach, grapefruit and nectarine notes.

Here in Canada, Ontario and British Columbia boast beautiful examples of both styles. If in the old days most were unbalanced and sickly sweet, this has definitely changed. Inspiration from the iconic Old World regions has led winemakers to craft balanced Rieslings that can offer great value. Seek out those from the Niagara Peninsula, the Okanagan Valley and the Similkameen Valley. Both the Tantalus 2013 from BC and the 2012 Tawse ‘Wismer Lakeviewfrom Niagara provide a friendly introduction.

If you’re still skeptic, the best way to fully embrace Riesling is at the table. The intense aromas make it a natural choice with the pungent flavours in Asian food. Those with some residual sugar will go especially well with spicy Indian or Thai food. For a comforting evening by the fire, match the fuller and drying versions with cheese fondue or raclette.

Beware; once you join the Riesling fan club, there is no going back.


Michelle Bouffard is a wine educator and journalist who splits her time between Montréal & Vancouver. She co-owns the Vancouver-based company ‘house wine’ and is the president of the BC Chapter of the Canadian Association of Professional Sommeliers. She Tweets @michellebwine and Instagrams @michellebouffard.

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