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The renaissance of Riesling: five to try

After decades out of fashion, Germany’s best-known wine is back and better — as well as drier — than ever

By Fiona Beckett
photographs by Getty Images
Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:03 BST
Church in the vineyards of Oppenheim, Germany
Church in the vineyards of Oppenheim, Germany
Photograph by Getty Images

Riesling. I’m wondering what image that word conjures up for you. Cheap, sweet German wine — the kind your gran used to drink? If so, you wouldn’t be alone, but you’re missing out on one of the wine world’s great pleasures.

This noble grape hasn’t always been held in such low regard. Back in the early 20th century, German riesling was regarded as a great gastronomic wine, commanding prices comparable to top Bordeaux and appreciated for its unique combination of low alcohol, sweetness and perfectly balanced acidity. But sweetness went out of fashion and, thanks to a fiendishly complicated classification system, these wines are hard to understand. Spätlese, for example, can be either dry or sweet.

Despite that, riesling is having a moment again, particularly on restaurant wine lists where it’s often a well-priced and versatile option with a selection of small plates. Even high-street retailers are increasing their ranges. Majestic reported a ‘bumper summer’ last year, with sales up 18% due to the high-quality riesling it’s been introducing from Germany and elsewhere. 

It strikes me there are a couple of reasons for this — the first being the rise of two cuisines that suit riesling remarkably well — Asian and Scandinavian. With Thai, Indian and Sichuanese food, for example, the apparent sweetness of many rieslings is offset by the heat of the food. And it goes really well with the cured, smoked and pickled elements of modern Scandi cooking, too.

The other reason is that rieslings have become drier — even in Germany. That’s partly a question of climate, but also an awareness among German producers that the market is looking for less sweet styles.

Although rieslings from the Mosel still tend to be off-dry (even a kabinett can have up to 9g of residual sugar) those from warmer German regions such as Rheinhessen and the Rheingau are often bone-dry. One way to tell how dry or sweet a riesling is to look at the alcohol: under 10% and chances are it’s sweet, over 12.5% and it will generally be dry.

Other major European riesling-producing regions, such as Austria and the Alsace in France, also tend to produce drier styles, unless they’re consciously aiming for something sweet. Australia carved out a distinctive lime-streaked style in the Eden and Clare Valleys as well as pioneering the use of screw caps, which have now been widely adopted to preserve the unique quality of the fruit. In the US and Canada, slightly sweeter, more floral styles have always been popular — look out for rieslings from Washington State and the Finger Lakes region of New York.

While riesling can be drunk young, with age it develops a beguiling lime and kerosene character that’s a great deal more appealing than it sounds. People think it’s just red wine
you should cellar, but riesling keeps for years.

Five to try

Alexander Gysler Kammerton, Rheinhessen, Germany
Riesling makes lovely sparkling wine; it’s fruitier and less austere than champagne. This, from a German estate that’s run biodynamically, is a perfect aperitif. £17.50.

Trimbach 2015, Alsace, France
Alsace riesling is drier than most German ones, and this pure, powerful wine would go well with seafood. Or try it with choucroute — an Alsatian platter of cabbage with sausages and other charcuterie. £15.95.

O’Leary Walker 2013/14 Polish Hill River, Clare Valley, Australia
A gorgeous, mature riesling with a mouthwatering hit of lime, from the region of Australia best-known for its variety. Drink with Thai and other Southeast Asian salads. £12.95.

Kung Fu Girl 2016/17, Washington State, US
I love this bottle from former rock band manager Charles Smith, not just for the name and label but for its bright, fruity and refreshing taste, too. It goes really well with Indian food, or — alternatively — sushi. £13.95.

Seifried Estate Sweet Agnes 2016, Nelson, New Zealand
This is a really luscious dessert wine packed with citrus and tropical fruit. It’s ideal when paired with a sweet, such as strawberry or passion fruit pavlova. £16.29 for a half-bottle.

Follow @winematcher

As featured in Issue 4 of National Geographic Traveller Food.

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